Among the many things to do at this weekend's Korean pop culture convention KCON — sets by K-pop stars G-Dragon and 2 AM, business panels on exporting K-pop and Korean cooking classes among them — some of the most interesting events are about how to become a K-pop star yourself.
Throughout the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena are panels on "Developing K-Pop Songwriting Skills," "The Art of Remixing and Sampling K-Pop" and "How I Became a K-Pop Choreographer." You can drop by a space devoted to learning the dance moves from K-pop videos, or a seminar on beauty tips to prime your face for the K-pop spotlight.
As the "hallyu" wave of fun, futuristic South Korean pop culture dominates Asia and continues its inroads in America with acts such as Girls Generation and 2NE1 signing to major U.S. labels, fans here have a growing curiosity about how it all gets made. KCON is there to show them.
"K-pop bands are built differently than ones from America," said Ted Kim, president and CEO of MNet America, the K-pop cable network and Internet hub presenting KCON. "There's a lot of questions about it — how do you get discovered and become G-Dragon? Why am I hooked on this music in a language I don't speak, from a place that isn't here? But we want people to come away from this saying 'I want to do that!'"
The convention, now in its second year, is MNet's attempt to make this digital, fast-moving music a little more tactile and personal. Like the early years of Comic-Con, it's rooted in an outsider pop culture that mainstream U.S. audiences might find a little strange.
The high-velocity music videos, celebrity gossip and language barriers make for the same kind of tribal allegiances you might see in comic-book devotees. While there's no shortage of Web outlets to get your K-pop fix, in America it can be hard to see much of it in person, or meet other fans face to face.
That's what KCON aims to fix, and not just with its K-pop themed speed-dating meet-up. The first KCON last year at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine drew 10,000 fans for a full day of performances, talks and seminars. This year's event expands to two days and has even bigger goals. Because at this point, K-pop's core audience in America isn't even Korean.
A collaborative appearance by the lauded rapper Missy Elliott and sets by influential U.S. underground artists Tokimonsta and Dumbfoundead prove that the exchange between South Korean and American pop musicians goes both ways. Korean cooking lessons and buzzy local Korean-fusion food trucks aim to broaden U.S. palates for all aspects of Korean culture. Seminars on Asian Americans in hip-hop and the entertainment business take a more academic read on hallyu and how it interacts with American society.
"When we threw the gates open last year, one of the most inspiring things was seeing the diversity of the audience," Kim said. "There was every ethnicity, and I'd say Koreans were probably not the majority."
KCON is also becoming a crucial beachhead for creating a long-term infrastructure for K-pop in America and Los Angeles, home to the largest South Korean population outside that country, makes for a natural spot. Similarly, the K-pop conglomerate SM Entertainment recently announced an impending museum in L.A.'s Koreatown. (To get a sense of how quickly it's developed, KCON has a panel on "vintage" K-pop dating back just to the '90s).
While the rapper Psy has become a genuine top 40 star in America, even the biggest K-pop groups have had lukewarm success — or interest — in trying to replicate his feat. That's partly because they don't need to (an artist like G-Dragon sells out arenas across Asia) and America is a big and expensive country to tour in.
"It would be nice to be successful in America, but I am happy enough to manage myself pursuing a music career to meet fans as I am now," said Seulong of the headlining act 2AM, through a translator.
His bandmate Jo Kwon agrees: "There are many obstacles to cross over in America. There is conflict between the two cultures in terms of sharing common ground and musical aspects," he said. "K-pop has gone global but more effort is needed to exchange music."
American K-pop fans are in the strange position of wanting to engage with a very commercial, people-pleasing kind of music — but having to dig around a complicated foreign subculture to find it.
MNet wants KCON to be that gateway hub in the U.S., to ensure that fans can have a lasting, satisfying engagement with Korean pop. For a culture that exists almost entirely digitally in America, having a live, in-person experience is essential to cement fandom and meet friends who share their interests. "The offline experience forges that connection and makes people more passionate," Kim said.
The fast success of KCON might evoke the path that Comic-Con took from a wonky nerd convention to the default tastemaker of American pop culture. But while MNet wants KCON to centralize Korean pop culture for U.S. crowds, Kim also wants to make sure it maintains a fundamental Korean-ness, and avoid Comic-Con's shift into a Hollywood blockbuster marketing opportunity.