NEW YORK, June 25 (Korea Bizwire) – Thousands of fans flocked to KCON New York over the weekend to experience “hallyu,” or K-pop, K-dramas and K-culture trends, which is expanding its sprawling fan base all over the world.
The convention in Newark, New Jersey, was the second KCON in the greater New York City area since the event’s inauguration in 2012.
Some 42,000 fan girls from all over the United States took various means of transport, even boarding cross-continental flights, to be in the presence of their favorite artists, namely BTS, Seventeen and Ailee, said CJ E&M, the South Korean entertainment company hosting the event.
The festival chain that started in California has rapidly grown in size and locations over the years. This year has been the most far-reaching yet, with the conventions hitting Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Paris, which are cities not particularly known for their hallyu fan bases.’
At New York, the number of programs has tripled since last year. Panels discussed specialized topics, including the life of 30-something K-pop fans and how to stay on budget as K-culture aficionados. At the panel introducing this year’s lineup, fans squealed at a TV screen featuring music videos of their idols.
Booths showcased Korean cosmetics and food. But apparently, die-hard fans found them to be lacking.
“I went to the booth, and I was like, ‘I own all these. I can’t buy anything!’” said Stephanie Ahara, a 24-year-old who collects products by Tony Moly, a South Korean beauty brand. She and her friend bought the two-day ticket for KCON because passes only for Sunday, when their favorite band BTS is performing, had already been sold out.
The VIP entrance to the Prudential Center was clogged with fans craning their necks and climbing onto objects in a bid to witness the hottest Korean acts of the year.’
The evening event was the most anticipated part of KCON — the M Countdown concert. All 20,000 tickets were sold out within a week, and ticket prices ranged up to US$800, a steep price tag for teenagers and 20-somethings with limited financial resources.
On Saturday, 10,000 people filed into the venue to watch Seventeen, Crush, Ailee, BTOB and Dynamic Duo.
Members of Seventeen, a multinational boy band that went first, introduced themselves in Korean, Chinese and English. They are living proof that just like the fans, K-pop artists have also become more diverse in nationality — two of Seventeen’s 13 members are Chinese and one is American.
Ailee, a New Jersey native, stole the spotlight of the night. Wearing killer heels, she seamlessly delivered the powerful choreography of her latest single “Mind Your Own Business.”
“It’s a blessing to come home and be so welcomed,” the 27-year-old said, her eyes glistening with tears caused by the audience chanting her name. Six years ago, she said, she would not have imagined performing at a huge venue in front of so many fans.
Actor Yim Si-wan and actress Park Bo-young, up-and-coming movie stars, punctuated the 2 1/2-hour concert and appeared as special guests.
“It was surreal seeing Seventeen in person and not on a computer screen,” said Syndny Smith, a 15-year-old from Virginia. “It felt like we were in a big party. Everyone is here for the same purpose. Everyone loves it.”
Angela Killoren, CJ E&M America’s chief operating officer, said KCON has undergone significant changes since its inception. Visitor demographics have become more diverse, with only 30 percent of them now being Asian. The remainder are Caucasian, black, Hispanic or others.
“KCON is no longer a Korean event. It’s a multicultural one. The only thing visitors have in common is their age and gender. Racially, they are not similar to each other at all,” Killoren said at a news conference Saturday. Most KCON participants are females in their teens or 20s. “Local media outlets are blown away when they actually come to the event. They’re fascinated by the fact that Americans are going crazy over a foreign culture. Many of them have asked me how mainstream hallyu has become in the U.S.”
Keefa Lovelace, an African-American high school student from New York, said she actually prefers Korean hip-hop over the American one.
“American hip-hop is all about girls and weed,” she said. “They don’t have drugs in Korea so they can’t talk about that. They talk about other stuff. I think it’s amazing they find other things to talk about.”
K-pop fans in the U.S. have also been noted for their loyalty. A significant portion of them have gone to all the KCONs held in the U.S. since 2012, Killoren said, although she did not disclose the precise ratio. Some 60 percent of U.S. visitors traveled more than two hours to attend the event, she added.
Although KCON has made strides in terms of the number of visitors and festivals held, it has been slow to create revenues.
“Of course, we are concerned about the bottom line,” said Shin Hyung-gwan, president of Mnet’s content business. Mnet is a music channel owned by CJ E&M. “KCON has been possible because of the CEO’s vision and conviction that Korean culture will eventually change the habit of people all over the world.”
In the future, KCON organizers said they want to ramp up visitor participation.
”We’re known for our concerts, but the convention side of KCON is also very unique,” Killoren said. “Our goal is to provide more ways to engage fans and increase their participation.”
The New York KCON is only a beginning of that process, she said. Some 200 students from a local charter school whose curriculum includes Korean were invited to the event to experience Korean culture firsthand. And a dance group from the Democracy Prep Charter School performed the opening act of the M Countdown concert on Saturday.
KCON will next take place in Los Angeles from July 29-31.