Kpop Makes it in America, at Least for the Weekend: KCON 2013

For American fans of foreign-language music, it’s generally pretty exciting when an artist from across the world turns up for a rare U.S. performance. If what’s true of the lesser is true of the greater, you can imagine what it would be like for Kpop fans to see seven of Korea’s most popular bands, dozens of celebrity panels and workshops and a lot full of food trucks all in the same LA arena.

Imaginary as it may sound, the bill described above is that of KCON, a massive two-day festival for all things Hallyu (the Korean wave) that sold out to 20,000 fans in downtown LA. As an added multi-culti bonus, Missy Elliott co-headlined with rapper G-Dragon in one of her first stage performances in years.

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So aside from you, Max, who goes to a Kpop convention? The general audience can be described as “fanatic teenage girls.” I was encouraged to find that the group was heavily mixed along ethnic lines. Gender and age composition were homogeneous though, which became abundantly clear at the artist meet and greets. I stood like a fool feeling safe in my press zone next to the stage and waited to see some major acts like 2AM and EXO up close, raised the camera to snap an entrance photo, and then felt the thunder of 1000 screaming girls. I snuck out quickly, realizing just how a bittersweet a Beatles concert probably was back in the day.

These meet and greets were so popular that they created a vicious aftermarket of scalpers and scalpees (?) pleading for tickets, holding signs up that they were willing to pay up to $60 for a chance to meet one of the bands. “High-touch with the artist’s only ladies – no low-touch, even if you might want to” joked emcee Paul Kim, perhaps illegally.

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So, Kpop has made it mainstream in America, huh?

This is still inconclusive. KCON demonstrates that Kpop, as an industry, is certainly a joint effort between the US and Asia. Not only are there supporters here on the stateside but contributors as well. The two full days of three simultaneous panel stages showed the faces of those who keep Kpop ticking. And guess what: they’re Americans. Journalists, bloggers, agents, producers, songwriters and choreographers from the US filled the weekend with presentations, proving that you can throw a Kpop convention without even bringing translators.

Among my favorite panels was the producer/songwriter group notably composed of early-20s Angelinos like Drew Ryan Scott and Jeremy Thurber. The two highlighted how it is possible to be a Kpop songwriter without even meeting the artists. “You have to know the band and keep every member’s vocal strength in mind…and it’s all who you know,” they told the crowd of fans and aspiring producers. They amusingly (but sensibly) addressed their fanbase and collaborators as “Korea”, e.g. “You have to know what Korea wants…Korea loves chromatic moving harmonies…and anything Michael Jacksony.” Not so hard, eh? The songs take them “3-4 hours” but the arrangements and mixing, they warn, can take forever to get a song into email-to-Korea shape.

So will it ever be mainstream here?

This question came up at a panel of industry experts titled “Making Kpop work in America.” The panelists all made that face that Newlywed Game contestants make when they get a question they can’t answer about their significant others. Some argued that it was empirically happening, citing sold out events and shows in LA and NYC. Some noted that Kpop is, by definition, ethnic music: pop that Koreans make (conflicts with the above paragraph, I know).

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 Chris Lee of Creative Artists Agency reminded the crowd of the money involved: “It requires a large, risky investment in time and money to crossover an artist”. And as much as America is totally the center of the world (right?!) there’s actually much better business to be had in China and the many other nations in East Asia. “The point of entry is still simply content,” Lee adds. “There was no plan or offshore promotion for PSY. It was the music that brought him here.”

On the other side of the coin, Korea doesn’t entirely understand us. “Our music environment is artist-friendly” says Lee. “In Korea, the artist does whatever the label says.” Lee and panelist Jay Kim recount times they tried to set up a cross promotion act and were told “okay, we’ll do the collaboration if you bring Jay-Z and Beyonce” or “Please fly Brad Pitt over.”
Will we ever reconcile these differences? Hard to say. KCON as an event does an excellent job of immersing American Kpoppers deeper into the culture more so than exposing many new fans. When tickets cost a few hundred dollars, everyone who attends attends with purpose. But the live-stream of the concert on us.MNET.com coupled with the publicity of G-Dragon & Missy’s new single could help to build the army of gossip folks focusing on what’s happening in Korean music.

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