KCON LA 2023: A Captivating Microcosm of K-pop’s Enormous Influence

by Barbara

LOS ANGELES — Well before the doors swung open, throngs of enthusiastic K-pop aficionados lined the streets of downtown Los Angeles, their presence stretching across city blocks under the warm August sun. Dressed in pleated skirts and adorned with platform shoes, these fans sported the distinctive clear bags that have become synonymous with arena gatherings. Among joyful dance sessions and exchanges of homemade stickers, banners, bracelets, and photocards, they awaited their entrance into a real-world haven where they could collectively revel in their digital realm’s passions.

The 2023 LA KCON event, in essence, encapsulated K-pop’s microcosm while reflecting the genre’s vast influence on the broader music industry.

Spanning from Friday to Sunday at the Los Angeles Convention Center and the adjacent Crypto.com Arena, this three-day extravaganza witnessed approximately 140,000 devotees from around the globe celebrating their beloved K-pop icons. The event showcased an array of activities, including panels, exclusive meet-and-greets, interviews, dance interludes, concerts, and more.

Within the convention center’s walls, attendees wielded lightsticks representing their favorite groups, donned personalized DIY shirts emblazoned with messages like “I HEART MINGI,” amassed sticker collections and K-beauty treasures, and eagerly queued up for servings of tteokbokki.

KCON’s origins trace back 11 years to Irvine, California, attracting 10,000 participants for its inaugural Korean culture celebration, as Steve Chung, Chief Global Officer of organizing entity CJ ENM, recounts. Today, it has evolved into a global phenomenon, spanning multiple countries. In 2023 alone, KCON has touched down in Thailand, Japan, and the U.S.

Chung explains, “Over the course of these (11) years, we have embraced around half a million individuals across the world.”

The LA event included diverse panels covering topics such as K-pop songwriting and fan-initiated cup sleeve events held at cafes to commemorate an idol’s birthday, anniversary, or special occasions. Emerging groups like NMIXX took center stage to lead dance workshops, while a separate platform allowed rookie acts to introduce themselves to a wider audience.

Throughout the weekend, The Associated Press engaged with an incredibly diverse range of fans. These enthusiasts traveled extended hours from Utah, journeyed from the U.K. and South America, and hailed from various age groups, genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The prevailing theme among them was the culture of inclusivity that this event fostered, as highlighted by Annya Holston, a 40-year-old from Florida who embraced K-pop through her daughter. She remarked, “We’ve made so many friends, being here.”

Premium tickets, priced at $500 a day, offered an exclusive “Red Carpet” enclave where attendees could capture portraits and partake in brief 30-minute Q&A sessions with the artists, in addition to convention and concert access. An extra $100 provided the opportunity for a “Hi-Touch” encounter—usually involving high-fives—with a chosen group. In light of ongoing COVID-19 concerns, “Hi-Touch” transformed into “Hi-Wave,” a virtual interaction that, while distancing, still resonated with many fans.

These experiences reaffirmed a fundamental truth that K-pop understands better than most: fandom constitutes the music industry’s most potent and enduring asset.

Peyton Tran, a 17-year-old local dancer, expressed, “It’s just cool to see how much people can support these businesses out here.”

In 2023, the music industry confronts unprecedented challenges, notably the “fragmentation of fandom,” as labeled by Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst at MIDiA Research. New artists contend with competition unlike anything experienced prior to the era of streaming, an outcome directly linked to algorithm-driven listening habits. This era starkly contrasts the past, where emerging talents seldom reached the stature of monumental pop icons such as Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Harry Styles—all of whom established their careers before the streaming era.

In the realm of K-pop, companies typically merge as fully integrated entities—record labels and talent agencies united. Embracing hyper-consumerism, these firms channel their efforts into nurturing a community of ardent supporters who passionately advocate for their chosen groups. This approach fosters a sense of involvement that extends beyond mere purchasing power. Facilitating this dynamic is the proactive coordination of global fan actions and the creation of bespoke platforms like WeVerse and Vlive.

To be niche is not to be diminutive; rather, it signifies specialization. KCON vividly underscores this reality.

The event’s concerts, spanning all three nights for the first time, spotlighted K-pop artists and soloists from various “generations.” Performers included Taemin from the second-generation SHINee, Rain—an early K-pop export who now manages artists—fourth-generation boy bands ATEEZ and Stray Kids, alongside rookies like XG and ZEROBASEONE.

XG, for instance, presented tracks such as the Kesha-evoking “TGIF,” seamlessly merging liquid drum and bass elements with U.K. garage trends, encapsulating a retro-futuristic soundscape that resonates with audiences while embracing a futuristic vision.

Significantly, these concerts offered a significant platform for K-pop girl groups, reflecting a shift in listenership trends. Traditionally, boy bands dominated in terms of commercial appeal; however, girl groups like IVE, ITZY, NMIXX, Kep1er, (G)I-DLE, and EVERGLOW shattered this perception with electrifying performances at KCON.

A standout moment was the “Dream Stage,” where select fans, pre-auditioned to perform a dance with K-pop groups, took center stage to share their passion.

On the convention’s second day, iHeartRadio’s KIIS-FM introduced the public to the “K-pop Village,” featuring free performances by newer acts like LEO, who made his U.S. debut on the outdoor stage.

Steve Chung elaborates, “2023 marks a crossover moment. The past decade primarily catered to the existing K-pop fanbase. As evidenced by the iHeartMedia partnership, K-pop’s mainstream arrival is at hand.”

Even a bout of Tropical Storm Hilary couldn’t deter the most fervent fans from braving the rain to catch a glimpse of their beloved artists on the convention’s final day. While on the train the night prior, The Associated Press inquired with a Massachusetts-based K-pop fan who uploads fan cam videos to YouTube as Toadcola, if he had concerns about the weather. His response? The weather wasn’t much of a worry.

In fact, he mused, if the weather grounded his flight home, the prospect of sharing an airport terminal with idols was an appealing notion.

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