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The Ledger: How HYBE Is Moving Beyond BTS to Become Music’s Next Major Player

todayFebruary 10, 2023

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On Feb. 1, days before the Grammy Awards, Billboard honored HYBE chairman Bang Si-hyuk with the Clive Davis Visionary Award at the annual Power 100 event for creating a company that, as Bang put it in his acceptance speech, “challenges the traditional boundaries of music and entertainment.” Fittingly, just one week later, Bang put the global music industry on notice with two major deals that further solidified HYBE’s status as more than the home of BTS and a budding empire and force in pop culture.

First, HYBE America, the U.S. division led by CEO Scooter Braun, acquired QC Media Holdings, the parent company of Atlanta-based hip-hop label Quality Control Music, home to Migos, Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, City Girls and others. Quality Control gives HYBE a hip-hop presence to complement its core K-pop acts (BTS, TOMORROW X TOGETHER) and HYBE America’s pop- and country-leaning rosters from SB Projects (Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande) and Big Machine Label Group (Tim McGraw, Thomas Rhett), respectively. The deal also further diversifies HYBE beyond K-pop and helps alleviate the loss of BTS while its members pursue solo projects and enter government-mandated military service.

Now the No. 1 K-pop music company by market capitalization ($6.5 billion), HYBE on Thursday (Feb. 9) announced it spent $334 million for a 14.8% stake in K-pop rival SM Entertainment, the company behind NCT 127 and SuperM. In buying the majority of founder Lee Soo-man‘s shares, HYBE became the top shareholder in the third-largest Korean music company. With a market capitalization of $1.85 billion, as of its closing price on Friday (Feb. 10), SM Entertainment ranks only slightly behind JYP Entertainment’s $1.9 billion and is more than double YG Entertainment’s $780 million.

Becoming SM Entertainment’s top shareholder can further HYBE’s leading position in South Korea, an increasingly important music market worth $6 billion in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. A 15% stake doesn’t give HYBE control over SM Entertainment, but it creates opportunities to work for mutually beneficial outcomes. One could see SM Entertainment artists taking advantage of HYBE’s Weverse social media platform, for example.

The Quality Control deal was worth $300 million in cash and stock, according to HYBE’s regulatory filing. Valuing the company at a multiple of 12 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization — the midpoint of the 10 to 14 times enterprise value-to-EBITDA multiple typically seen in deals for similar music companies — implies Quality Control has annual EBITDA of roughly $25 million. That should provide a nice boost to HYBE’s bottom line. In 2021, HYBE had adjusted EBITDA of $232 million. Through the first nine months of 2022, HYBE’s adjusted EBITDA was $220 million. That implies Quality Control could provide HYBE with a 7.5% to 10% boost in adjusted EBITDA if it finishes 2022 by merely matching its adjusted EBITDA from the fourth quarter of 2021 — and that’s without considering any cost savings resulting from the merger.

HYBE’s annual EBITDA puts it in a middle ground between the three majors and large independent companies. Universal Music Group’s calendar 2021 EBITDA was $2 billion (1.68 billion euros). Warner Music Group’s EBITDA for the year ended Sept. 30, 2022, was $1.2 billion. Sony Music Entertainment does not report EBITDA but paces well ahead of HYBE. After the majors, however, there’s a large gap. BMG’s 2021 EBITDA was $170 million. Hipgnosis Songs Fund posted EBITDA of $130 million in its year ended March 31, 2022. Reservoir Media’s EBITDA in the year ended March 31, 2022, was $41 million. If HYBE matches its EBITDA from the fourth quarter of 2021, it would exceed $300 million in calendar 2022. Had HYBE owned Quality Control during 2022, its EBITDA would have been in the area of $325 million (assuming $92 million in fourth-quarter 2022 EBITDA).

HYBE’s two moves this week are proof the music industry is more competitive and dynamic than some market share numbers might suggest. While the three major labels dominate the record business, independent companies — some distributed by the majors — are flourishing. HYBE certainly has its connections to the majors: Its music is distributed in the United States and other regions by UMG, it has a joint venture with UMG’s Geffen Records and many of its management clients are signed to major labels. But HYBE is ultimately independent of the majors. Based in South Korea, not London or New York, it’s a nimble outsider with a unique approach to melding music and technology.

Perhaps most important to HYBE’s continued growth — and what sets it apart from much of its competition — is how it’s going about doing it. Whereas catalog (music older than 18 months) has taken a larger share of consumption and the industry’s biggest deals and investments have involved established catalogs from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Sting and others prized as safe investments — billions of dollars are flowing into the music industry to acquire intellectual property that’s often many decades old — HYBE is paving its way through entrepreneurism of a different sort.

Like 300 Entertainment (purchased by Warner Music Group in 2021), Alamo Entertainment (purchased by Sony Music Entertainment in 2022) and LVRN (recently valued at more than $100 million), HYBE builds new artists from scratch, sets trends and influences pop culture — beyond TikTok, at that. Now, as it rapidly builds its empire, Bang, Braun and the rest of the company are starting to show what that looks like at scale.

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