clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“There Will Always Be K-Pop”: Tracing the Legacy of KCON and the Industry’s Big Boom

Ten years ago, a humble convention on the outskirts of Los Angeles tapped into growing demand for K-pop and its surrounding culture. Today, the event is bigger, bolder, and no longer an underdog—just like the music it celebrates.

Sarah Rogers

In the middle of a grassy field outside the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, California, a teenage girl stands alone, on the verge of tears. It’s 2012, and she’s in search of a golden ticket—a voucher that will allow her to meet her favorite musical artists—and she’s about to give up hope. It’s taken a lot of commitment for her to get to this point, since it’s not easy to be an American K-pop fan at the time. She’s spent years downloading grainy, subtitled Korean videos, lurking on Tumblr, and waking up at all hours to consume live international content. But finally, her favorite group has come to her. EXO-M has traveled to the United States for the very first KCON, a Korean culture (and mostly K-pop) convention that would, in the coming decade, become a stepping stone for some of the world’s biggest Asian artists to expand their reach into the United States.

But the girl—Lav, as she’s known to her fellow K-pop fans—doesn’t know the significance of this first event, and frankly she doesn’t care. All she wants is one of those vouchers, which have been rather chaotically distributed among event staff for lucky fans to hunt down and acquire. Lav’s friend already has one—she managed to find a food vendor that was hiding a stack of tickets for the EXO-M event—but Lav has struck out. Granted, she’s already seen her idols from a distance—she went to the airport when EXO-M arrived and even tried to find their hotel—but to be so close and then miss the opportunity to meet them face-to-face and receive a signed EXO-M album? It’s a fan’s worst nightmare.

Just when it seems like things can’t get worse, a security guard strides up and grabs Lav by the arm, leading her farther away from the nearby crowd. Clutching her homemade EXO-M sign, she feels the tears brewing. She’s confused, and worried that somehow she’s in trouble. But then he turns, looks over his shoulder, and slips his hand into hers, before walking away.

When Lav opens her hand, she’s holding a voucher to the EXO-M fansign—a ticket to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with the artists she loves most, courtesy of a random man who likely has no idea how significant this gift is. Lav gets to meet EXO-M, a highlight not only of her first—everyone’s first—KCON experience, but of her ongoing history as a K-pop fan. Ten years later, the meet-and-greet system has gone through some changes. But connecting dedicated fans with their favorite K-pop artists is still what KCON does best.

If Lav had been able to track down Angela Killoren at that first KCON, she may have had better luck from the get-go. Killoren, one of the minds who created the event and now the CEO of KCON host company CJ ENM America, was on the ground that year with every member of the CJ staff, no matter their original job. “The film team was working the fan club tent, and the merch booths were manned by my accounting guys, because they knew how to handle money,” Killoren laughs. The first KCON was a bootstraps event, and no one was too good to get their hands dirty.

As for that infamous voucher system, Killoren says that originally, fans could get into the meet-and-greet events by simply purchasing merch, but the CJ staff underestimated the demand and ran out of items far too quickly. So Killoren and her team made up the voucher system on the fly, handing them out to staff members and hoping for the best. While it could have gone better, she acknowledges that they learned a lot from that first attempt—about successful fansign organization, but also self-preservation. “If you were wearing a staff shirt, you became a moving target.”

Lav finally got to meet EXO-M, though she says now her day was not without further drama. “So many people were packed into the tent for EXO-M that the fire marshal had to get involved. He said, ‘If you all do not take three steps back, I’m canceling the fansign.’”

With the event taking place outdoors, fans with and without tickets tried to get a glimpse of EXO-M from all sides of the tent. “We had very little concept of security,” Killoren admits. “Good for us, fans are remarkably kind and generous, as much as they are passionate, so they largely organized themselves—like, ‘Stop crowding them,’ or ‘Give them some space.’”

Lav remembers it slightly differently, however. “It was literally chaotic,” she says. “I remember everyone was screaming at each other, ‘Stop pushing, step back.’ But the people at the back wouldn’t hear, and they’d keep pushing forward.” Miraculously, the fansign ended up happening as planned, and all fans and artists survived—perhaps a bit sweaty and stressed, but with careers, memories, and signed albums intact.

Fast-forward 10 years and KCON LA is still going strong. The event has had a series of makeovers over the years, including stops everywhere from New York City to Thailand—and going digital for the last two years due to COVID—but KCON returned to its original California roots for its in-person 10th anniversary, which took place August 19-21. The updated convention experience would be barely recognizable to those first 2012 attendees. The field full of little white tents, rickety chairs, and accountant-run merch has been replaced by the Los Angeles Convention Center, which houses high-end vendors, massive sponsored booths, and interactive fan experiences. Attendees dance to K-pop choreography in front of screens that make them look like they’re performing on the famous M Countdown stage; others try Korean food, spin wheels to win K-beauty products, or shop around for albums, clothing, or makeup. And the convention isn’t all—the KCON concert, which was first held in 2012 for one night at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, has evolved into a huge two-day affair at Crypto.com Arena (with an additional Friday-night show in the convention center that showcases smaller rookie groups).

The meet-and-greet experience is no less evolved. That cramped, sweltering EXO-M fansign is a thing of distant memory, as modern fans rush into the cavernous, positively chilly Hall G to get an exclusive look at ATEEZ, one of KCON 2022’s most popular boy groups. And though the organization of the event is much improved, that’s all fans really get: a look. COVID has, at least for now, mostly eradicated fansigns and actual meet-and-greets from the KCON program. This year, the lucky fans with “artist engagement” access stand together in the giant room and watch as the members of ATEEZ play games and shoot finger hearts at them from a raised stage. While there’s little individual interaction between fan and artist, and no one is leaving with a signed album, the accessibility is also much improved. This year, no one is pushing, thanks to giant screens on each side of the stage that broadcast every little wink and smile. And the only screaming is directed at the artists.

Several of the American fans watching those screens likely discovered ATEEZ at their first KCON LA appearance in 2019, as did a veteran KCON attendee who goes by the pseudonym Sydney Eryn, who walked into that year’s concert to see Seventeen and walked out with a brand-new favorite group. “I can remember the distinct moment that I was like, They’re going to ruin the rest of my life,” Eryn laughs.

ATEEZ first caught Eryn’s attention with a cover of Block B’s “Very Good,” a throwback song that appealed to the longtime K-pop fan. Then, during ATEEZ’s second concert appearance, they performed their own songs, including “Dancing Like Butterfly Wings,” and it was all over. “Hongjoong turned around—they had been performing to the front of the stage, and we were standing at the back. And he turned around and did his verse for our side, and that was it. I was done.” Even now, Eryn is wearing a purple jacket with butterflies attached—a detail they’ve added to their outfits every time they’ve seen ATEEZ perform since.

Eryn isn’t the only one who got hooked by ATEEZ in 2019. J.You, a member of rookie group TO1, is thrilled to be on the KCON roster with his favorite senior group this year. Several members of TO1 attended the 2019 event as pre-debut trainees, and while groupmate Dong Geon notes that they were all deeply impressed with Seventeen, J.You had eyes only for ATEEZ. “They’re so inspirational to me,” he says, noting their famously intense stage presence, which is what draws in most ATEEZ fans. “I’ve watched all of their performances so many times, and I can’t wait to see them perform this weekend.”

J.You is in for a treat. As it turns out, ATEEZ has the longest set list of any group during this year’s KCON concerts. They kick off the Saturday-night show with eight songs, including this year’s KCON “signature song,” occupying a significant chunk of the concert all by themselves—quite the improvement on their four-song set in 2019, which lasted about 14 minutes. ATEEZ’s expanded set list—and fan base—serve as proof that a memorable KCON LA debut can leave a lasting impression on fans and artists alike, and lead to bigger and better opportunities on U.S. soil.

Fan-favorite girl group LOONA is another act who made waves in 2019 with their take on BTS’s “Not Today.” According to LOONA member Yves, they chose the song because of the lyrics, which describe underdogs who refuse to give up.

K-pop soloist Kevin Woo, who has attended several KCONs over the years, credits LOONA as one of the most impressive groups he’s ever seen perform at the event. “They were really well accepted in 2019, and KCON really boosted their career,” he says. “It’s about the energy the fans receive from them. I think that comes from their character, their energy on stage, and their attitude.” LOONA member Kim Lip agrees that however well LOONA was received in 2019, they seem to have far more fans at this year’s event. The cheers are a lot louder.

Even if LOONA chose “Not Today” merely for the lyrics, it has the added benefit of appealing to many American fans by virtue of being a BTS song. At the end of the day, many newer KCON performers aim to pick a cover song that will be familiar to U.S. audiences, and BTS has become an obvious source. The 2022 KCON cover performances aren’t all or even mostly BTS, but ENHYPEN do cover “Permission to Dance,” and TO1 take on Psy’s “That That” featuring Suga of BTS; a timely double tribute, since Psy’s “Gangnam Style” blew up across the world 10 years ago, the same summer as that first KCON.

Neither BTS nor Psy, of course, are at KCON LA 2022. In recent years, artists seem to outgrow the event after a few years of involvement, but today’s biggest K-pop groups nearly all made stops at KCON at some point in their careers. And even without a recent KCON appearance by the world’s most popular group, it’s impossible to consider the legacy of the event without acknowledging the role KCON played in bringing BTS Stateside.

Kim Youngdae, music critic and author of BTS: The Review, writes in his book that “something completely unexpected” happened when BTS performed at their first KCON in 2014—only their second United States concert following a tiny show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles earlier that year. “The American fans’ response to BTS, a rookie group whose name was barely becoming known, was unusually passionate,” Kim writes. “The wild reception for BTS was quite a surprise. … Such enthusiasm was exceptional, and unlike anything I have noticed recently in the K-pop community. … It seemed to signal the beginning of a new era.”

Eryn, who also attended KCON 2014 as an early fan of BTS, agrees that the group was already something special. But before the KCON concert, BTS was still relatively niche. At that year’s KCON, Eryn won access to a Teen Top hi-touch (another type of meet-and-greet event), but wanted to trade it for access to the BTS event instead. “I love Teen Top, but not enough to go to their hi-touch,” says Eryn. “So what everyone did was go off to the side—this was another year that things were outdoors—and you’d hold up whatever access card you had, and say ‘I have Teen Top hi-touch, looking for BTS hi-touch.’ And within five minutes of raising up that Teen Top hi-touch, I traded it for an event with BTS,” they laugh. “It was so 2014—someone trading the opportunity to meet BTS for Teen Top? It would never happen again.”

Killoren says that in the past decade many K-pop groups have experienced their first large-scale U.S. performances at KCON, and in that sense BTS is no different.

“I guess everyone has a BTS story,” she laughs. “I was walking Eric Garcetti, the mayor of L.A., around KCON in 2014. And we were doing these outdoor interviews, live broadcast stuff, and the only team who was gladly participating in this kind of real-time, free-ranging outdoor interview was BTS. That pointed to something. It wasn’t just about the response to them, it was something about how they were built and how they were prepared to engage with fans.”

She recalls walking past the BTS interview area with Mayor Garcetti, when they heard roars from the gathered crowd. Garcetti asked who was inspiring so much noise, and when Killoren told him it was a new group called the Bangtan Boys, he suggested they go say hello. “So Eric Garcetti met BTS before most of America knew who they were.”

Beyond BTS, huge K-pop names are littered throughout KCON history: IU, Girls’ Generation—even G-Dragon appeared at the event in 2013 and 2014, performing a rare Western collab with Missy Elliott for his song “Niliria.”

“Booking G-Dragon was a huge dream of mine from the very beginning,” says Killoren. “I am kind of [surprised] that we haven’t done more things like that, because there was definitely this feeling of—how do we keep doing these collabs and mashups? G-Dragon had created that collaboration organically, which is why it worked, but that’s something we will keep trying to do more of in the future.”

The longevity of artists like G-Dragon and Girls’ Generation, who were already well-established well before their first KCON appearances and are still going strong, serve as inspiration to many of this year’s performers. “I really look up to Girls’ Generation,” says Yoon of STAYC. “They’re such a long-lasting group, and we want to be performing together like them well into the future.”

Beth, another longtime K-pop fan who attended the first KCON in 2012 who asked The Ringer to not disclose their last name, got into the genre originally because of artists like Girls’ Generation. Both Lav and Eryn also cite SM Entertainment groups including Girls’ Generation, SHINee, and EXO as the root of their original K-pop fandom. Lav even flew to South Korea to see NCT Dream perform in 2019, in case rumors of their graduation from the group following their 2019 concerts turned out to be true.

Thankfully, SM made the members of NCT Dream a fixed unit, and the group survived to attend and close out this year’s KCON 2022. NCT Dream flew to KCON LA straight from another K-pop festival the previous day—the SMTown Live in Suwon—but they insist that KCON is worth the tight schedule. “It’s our first visit to KCON, so it’s very significant to perform on the KCON stage,” says Jeno. “We’re excited to meet with our global fans here as well.”

The overwhelming support those global fans provided for NCT Dream is obvious during Sunday’s show based on the sheer number of neon-green NCT light sticks glowing among the crowd. The cheery symbols of fandom are a fixture of modern K-pop concerts, though they were few and far between at that first KCON. “They gave the audience glow sticks,” Beth says, looking at the pictures they took of the crowd at the 2012 show. “There were very few official light sticks or licensed merchandise, which would never happen these days.”

One constant of KCONs past and present are the concerts’ final moments, during which all the artists come onstage together to bid farewell to the gathered crowd. “Since I had no concept of what to expect that first year, I was so excited when all the artists came out together,” Beth says. “You don’t get to see those kind of interactions too often, and it felt very communal in a way that I loved.” That communal energy is still going strong in 2022, and fans watch gleefully as the members of ATEEZ vibe with Stray Kids, ITZY greets Kep1er, and The Boyz get down to NCT Dream.

These interactive moments are what set KCON shows apart from the average K-pop festival, and fan involvement is prioritized throughout the concerts, even at the cost of a seamless (and timely) set list. Admittedly, it must be a logistical nightmare to have idols passing mics around the audience, and to try to track down raffle winners via a strategy of “if you won, scream really loud.” Artists pop up next to fans with a cheerily bemused air of “Can you believe we’re doing this? Neither can we!” And sure, squeezing games, special stages, and interactive events into the show can take it from a projected three hours to nearly four. But all of this is part of the charm of KCON—nowhere else can talented, passionate fans perform onstage with LOONA, or talk to their favorite idols mid-show via the Jumbotron.

Fan engagement is further heightened—and complicated—by the famous 360-degree KCON stage, dropped smack-dab in the middle of Crypto.com Arena. It’s a blessing and a curse, depending on what direction the idols are facing for any given song. This “K-pop in the round” setting can be a unique challenge for fans and idols alike, but NMIXX’s Lily loves it. “It’s so cool that we get to see fans from all over—literally, they’re from all over the world, and they’re all around us as we perform.”

She laughs at her wordplay, admitting that they did have to make some adjustments due to the stage. “We did change our performances a bit. Originally we face just one direction, but we switch things up in the middle so we can interact with fans on all sides, and everyone can get a little taste of NMIXX.” They weren’t the only ones to make choreography adjustments in the name of fan equality—NCT Dream’s Jaemin explains that they also changed the usual formation for their song “Hello Future,” so that they’d each face a different part of the arena and be able to interact with fans more.

All this is representative of a larger truth: At the end of the day, KCON tries to serve the fans before anyone else. Thinking back to that first KCON a decade ago, Killoren shakes her head. “When I found myself picking out grass samples at two in the morning, being like, ‘What did we do? Why did we do this?’ it always comes back to the fans. Concerts are great, but they’re not this kind of fully shared experience. We wanted fans to be able to come here, meet each other, and finally have an outlet in person to build on the community that they had created online.”

Woo agrees. “Before KCON, America didn’t get that many artists here doing tours. So as soon as KCON created the opportunity, it became this kind of meeting place for fans to come together and meet friends they’ve only met on social media, or make new friends altogether. It creates this bond—and not only between fans, but between fans and their favorite idols.”

Eryn appreciates the opportunity to experience K-pop fandom in person, as opposed to the strictly online experience of many American fans. “I think if you only view K-pop through the lens of netizens and loud Twitter fans, that’s all you’re going to see. But when you put your eyes on what this is and what this event means for us as attendees, there’s such an overwhelming feeling of unity and joy.”

Even as K-pop fans seem to be skewing younger, according to the observations of Woo and Killoren, the attendees at KCON remain delightfully diverse. “It’s a family affair now,” Killoren says. “We still see significant growth in our older attendees, because these are the fans who have been coming for 10 years. I even see people bringing their kids.” Woo had similar thoughts. “You see people of all ages: parents, grandparents, people with strollers and babies. And all different genders and ethnicities as well. Anyone can be a K-pop fan!”

It’s a lesson that Beth learned way back in 2012, after dragging their father to the convention. “My dad disappears while I’m doing stuff during the day, and he comes back and somehow has a picture with Dumbfoundead, one of that year’s performers,” they recall. “He’s like, ‘Do you know who this is? People were in line, so I got in line.’ He also took a picture with a Psy cutout.” Times may change, but dads stay the same.

Over the past decade, KCON has grown to host crowds that far exceed the one that showed up to that field in Irvine—this year’s event saw 90,000 attendees, up from approximately 10,000 in 2012—and the popularity of K-pop worldwide has grown with it. But has KCON affected K-pop’s global expansion, or does it merely serve as an outlet to celebrate an industry already destined to make it big?

“I wish I had data to show that we’ve played a role,” Killoren says. “I believe it in my bones, and I really hope so, because that was our entire purpose from the beginning.” She says that when they were first developing the idea for KCON, the success of groups like BIGBANG, 2NE1, Girls’ Generation, and Super Junior had people worried that the “glory days” of international K-pop success had already passed, and attempts at creating a new wave of international interest would fail. “They told us that we missed the window on promoting K-pop in the U.S., that it had already peaked.”

Killoren was also told that in order to bring about a new K-pop wave in America, they had to find a way to make it “cool.” She disagrees. “Not to be facetious, but I was like, ‘I don’t know that we want to be cool.’ Whether or not you agree that the peak has passed, there will always be K-pop, and there will always be people looking for a place to come together and celebrate their love for it.”

In 10 years, Killoren expects KCON to be bigger, better, and not as focused on merely K-pop; after all, the “K” in KCON doesn’t just refer to Korean music. The event was almost called “HallyuCon,” because Killoren initially wanted people to understand that the event would be a celebration of all things under the umbrella of Hallyu, or the “Korean wave,” encompassing everything from Korean film and K-dramas to food, beauty, and tourism. “Everybody was like, it’s such a foreign word,” says Killoren, “but I wanted it to be like ‘anime.’ We would just push the word in front of people’s faces and make them learn it.” Ultimately, Killoren had her own The Social Network moment, and was convinced that simplifying the name to KCON was the right call. “Even now, I feel bad for the company who owns the real URL, KCON.com. We couldn’t get it. It’s some construction company.”

Whatever you call it, the opportunity to focus on expanding the convention from majority K-pop to all of Korean culture is here. Korean movies and television shows are blowing up and winning international awards (Parasite was a CJ ENM credit, Killoren notes), and K-pop has even made the leap to American theater. Woo will star in KPOP, a musical opening on Broadway this fall, which features the first all-Asian cast on Broadway. “I think it was just a matter of time,” Woo says, on the expansion of Hallyu across Western media. “The future of Korean music and culture in America is already here.”

And KCON is ready to embrace that future. Looking ahead from this year’s anniversary, Killoren has big plans for the event in the decade to come. “It may be even more of an expanded festival,” she says. “Concerts, multiple stages going on all day long. We’ll incorporate more from the TV and film side of things, and it’ll just be a place where you can experience the biggest stars throughout the Hallyu universe.” But it seems that those early days of fans sweating their way through KCON may not be over just yet. “Maybe we’ll have a Korean sauna experience or something by then. Who knows?”

However different the convention looks in 2032, some of KCON’s earliest attendees are clearing their calendars. “I’m 12 years strong into K-pop at this point,” Eryn laughs. “Why stop now?” Lav agrees, even after reminiscing on that first, mildly traumatic KCON experience—standing alone in a field, near tears, rescued by a rogue security guard. “I always thought I’d lose interest in K-pop, but I’m still here, after everything. I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years, but if they’re still having KCON, and I’m still into K-pop, yeah—I think I’ll be there.”

Bandsplain

How the Smashing Pumpkins Became the Antidote to Alt-Rock Slackerism

Ringer Dish

Rihanna’s Super Bowl Halftime Show

Sound Only

What Happened at Rolling Loud, ‘Entergalatic’ and ‘The Outfit’

View all stories in Music