Inside KCON LA 2023, an extravagant microcosm of K
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Inside KCON LA 2023, an extravagant microcosm of K

Sep 01, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- Hours before doors would open, thousands of K-pop fans lined up in downtown Los Angeles, stretching long city blocks in the warm August sun. In pleated skirts and platform shoes, toting the clear bags that have become arena staples, they danced and traded homemade stickers, banners, bracelets and photocards. Inside was their paradise: an IRL space to commune over their URL passions.

If anything, the 2023 LA KCON was a microcosm of K-pop’s macro influence on the music industry as a whole.

Held from Friday to Sunday at the Los Angeles Convention Center and adjacent Arena, an estimated 140,000 fans from all over the world celebrated their favorite K-pop idols across three days of panels, premium meet-and-greets, interviews, dance breaks, concerts, and more.

Inside the convention center, fans carried lightsticks of their favorite groups, showed off DIY shirts with simple, direct slogans like “I HEART MINGI”, collected sticker books and K-beauty products, and lined up for tteokbokki.

KCON started 11 years ago in Irvine, California, drawing 10,000 people to its inaugural celebration of Korean culture, says Steve Chung, chief global officer of organizers CJ ENM. Now it's a global event, taking place in multiple countries: So far in 2023, KCON has hit Thailand, Japan and the U.S.

“We've welcomed something like half a million people in those (11) years all throughout the world,” he says.

In Los Angeles, panels were held on K-pop songwriting and cup sleeve creations (K-pop fan events are held at cafes on an idol's birthday, anniversary, or some other special date). Up-and-coming groups like NMIXX led dance classes on one stage, while another stage allowed rookie groups to introduce themselves to a wider audience.

Over the course of the weekend, The Associated Press spoke to an incredible diversity of fans who, among them, drove 12 hours straight from Utah, flew in from the U.K. and South America and represented a range of ages, genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“The culture of inclusiveness is huge,” said 40-year-old Annya Holston from Florida who got into K-pop through her daughter. “We’ve made so many friends, being here.”

At $500 a day, premium tickets allowed attendees to access a “Red Carpet” area, where acts posed for portraits and answered two or three questions in a 30-minute window — along with entry to the convention and concert. For an additional $100, fans could pay for “Hi-Touch” — a quick meet-and-greet where fans and performers high-five — with one group of their choice. With renewed concerns about the spread of COVID-19, “Hi-Touch” became “Hi-Wave” (exactly what it sounds like, to the chagrin of a few fans hoping for that physical connection; others were happy with the sheer proximity).

Those experiences served as a welcome reminder of a facet of the music industry that K-pop knows remarkably well, and far better than most: fandom is this business' most lucrative and enduring resource.

As Peyton Tran, a 17-year-old L.A. native and dancer told AP at KCON, “It's just cool to see how much people can support these businesses out here.”

In 2023, the music industry faces unique challenges, including what Mark Mulligan, a MIDiA Research music industry analyst, has referred to as the “fragmentation of fandom.” New artists suffer a kind of competition unheard of before the streaming age, a direct effect of algorithmic listening. Think of it this way: It is rare for a new act to reach the level of monolithic pop star — the ranks of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Harry Styles, all who started performing pre-streaming — because listenership is hyper-specific.

In K-pop, where companies are typically fully integrated institutions — a record label and a talent agency all in one — and hyper-consumerism is welcomed, business focuses on building a community of superfans and inspiring those loyal listeners to advocate for their group, fueling a sense of participation beyond their purchasing power. It doesn't hurt that K-pop audiences have a tendency to coordinate global fan actions on their own and create rituals and events, communicating on bespoke fandom platforms like WeVerse and Vlive.

Niche doesn't mean small; it means specialized. KCON is proof.

At the concerts, held all three nights for the first time, fans witnessed K-pop groups and soloists from across “generations”: Taemin from the second-generation boy band SHINee,Rain — the first K-pop idol to take off internationally, and now a manager himself — fourth-generation boy bands ATEEZ and Stray Kids, and rookie groups like XG and ZEROBASEONE.

XG performed songs like the Kesha -channeling “TGIF,” with production pulling heavily from the current liquid drum-and-bass/U.K. garage trend in global pop music, a welcomed retro-futuristic sound from a group and convention with eyes set on the future.

Notably, these concerts placed a lot of emphasis on K-pop girl groups, reflecting a recent trend in listenership. Historically, boy bands were thought to be more lucrative — but girl groups like IVE, ITZY, NMIXX, Kep1er, (G)I-DLE, and EVERGLOW proved that's vintage thinking in their explosive KCON sets.

A particularly unique and effective moment during the concert was called the “Dream Stage,” where a few dozen fans who auditioned to perform a dance with a K-pop group earlier in the day were brought out to do exactly that.

On the second day of the convention, iHeartRadio's KIIS-FM set up a new, open-to-the-public “K-pop Village,” where the K-pop-curious could experience free performances from newer acts — like LEO, who made his U.S. debut on the outdoor stage.

“2023 is like a crossover event. The last 10 years has been about sort of serving the endemic fanbase of people who already know K-pop and who love K-pop," Chung says. “As evidenced by the iHeartMedia partnership, it’s really like a crossover moment where K-pop goes mainstream.”

On the last day of the convention, not even Tropical Storm Hilary could stop the most devoted fans from lining up in the rain to see their favorite acts. On the train the night before, the AP asked a K-pop fan from Massachusetts, who publishes fan cam videos on YouTube under the name Toadcola, if he was worried about the weather. Not so much.

But, if the weather canceled his flight home, he thought that wouldn't be so bad: maybe, just maybe, the idols would be stuck at the airport with him.