Despite the growing popularity of South Korean pop music in the U.S., the genre has always faced one particular challenge. Very few American fans can see K-pop acts perform live.
Some popular South Korean bands like Girls' Generation or 2NE1 have played showcases in major U.S. cities, and the girl group Crayon Pop just toured with Lady Gaga. Yet for most such acts, it's never made logistical or financial sense to play the States, despite a fervent fan subculture here.
This year's KCON, the third installment of the annual K-pop festival in downtown L.A., might be changing that line of thinking.
Four rising and established South Korean pop acts — Bangtan Boys, IU, Jung Joon Young and SPICA — are making their American live debuts this year. KCON isn't just a sprawling fan convention anymore — it's becoming a hub for Korean acts to make their first steps into the U.S. touring market.
"A lot of [K-pop] acts have met with the top U.S. booking agents, but they couldn't afford the cost of giving up tour dates in Asia," said Angela Killoren, co-project manager of KCON. "But festivals like KCON are a great way for them to meet fans and perform without committing to the infrastructure of a full tour."
Last year, the event moved from Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena downtown and dramatically expanded its scope. An estimated 20,000 fans attended two days' worth of concerts, workshops, panel discussions and Korean pop-culture exhibitions. The festival has become a kind of K-pop Coachella or South by Southwest.
"The reputation for the stateside KCON festival back in Korea is big news," SPICA's members said in a jointly answered email interview. "Many K-pop artists and companies see this as an important portal into the American marketplace, as the festival has been growing every year."
Last year's headlining concert, featuring the likes of G-Dragon, and Teen Top, capped the weekend (with American MC Missy Elliott hopping onstage with G-Dragon). The sets finally scratched the live itch of many U.S. fans.
"Our fans know way more about this music than even we do, but we always try to bring new artists to them," Killoren said. "Last year, Dynamic Duo and 2AM weren't as well known over here, but fans went crazy for them."
Since last year, the genre's crossover has ramped up in America. 2NE1 released "Crush," a dark and modern dance-pop album that debuted at No. 61 on the Billboard 200 chart in March and, at 5,000 copies sold, earned the biggest first-week sales for a K-pop album in the U.S. G-Dragon appeared on EDM producer Skrillex's debut major-label LP and collaborated with well-known U.S. producers like Diplo and Baauer on his album "Coup d'Etat."
In K-pop culture, each of these groups is an established act in America. But now that K-pop (or hallyu, as it's known) culture has grown past the novelty factor here, there's a question of how to introduce new generations of artists in America.
Internet exposure is no problem. Videos like Girls' Generation's "I Got a Boy" can rack up a hundred million YouTube views, and there's a rich ecosystem of hallyu-centric online media to document its stars' comings and goings.
Yet for U.S. audiences outside New York and L.A., digital fandom might not be enough.
"So much fan interaction in K-pop is virtual. Fans are crazy about it, but they never get a chance to touch it," Killoren said. Without in-person ways to connect, American fans could lose enthusiasm.
KCON's increasing focus on U.S. debut performances gives fans something more to see, and crowds are willing to travel for that experience. Killoren estimates that 40% of ticket sales this year have been to fans outside California — from Texas and New York but also from Mexico and Sweden.
For South Korean stars without a big American audience, the fest isn't just a way to make a splashy U.S. debut. It can bolster their reputations back home too.
"It's big news back in Asia when K-pop artists play in the States," SPICA said. "It helps their reputation back home. I think K-pop artists are very careful and selective about what they do in the States. They want to develop fan bases over time and build the confidence to play live here."
SPICA will perform its first English-language single, "I Did It," at the fest as part of a rollout to capture more such markets.
Outside of Psy, the viral sensation behind "Gangnam Style," K-pop hasn't yet made a big dent in U.S. top 40, but it's not necessarily KCON's job to crack that ceiling. It's to keep the K-pop faithful and newly curious fans feeling like they have a stake in the music.
As Killoren put it, "This is a way to recharge your K-pop fandom."
Where: L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, 3939 S. Figueroa Ave., L.A.
When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $70 to $400 for two-day passes