Korean Import: A Market’s Emergence As A Touring Destination

South Korea
Florian Choblet / AFP / Getty Images
– South Korea
Yang Tae-hwan shreds during the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Pyeongchang Stadfium in Pyeongchang County, South Korea, in February 2018. South Korea is not only responsible for the internationally blossoming K-pop movement, but has become a substantial market in the international landscape.
BTS has proudly planted the K-pop flag in stadiums and arenas around the world, and in addition to incubating top international talent the genre’s nation of origin has positioned itself as a market for international tours. 
Live Nation Korea’s Steven Kim, who started promoting with a Blur show in 1997, said the market has been established as a major stop for over a decade.
“Before the ’90s, on the international side there were not many shows. When we got to the late ’80s, early ’90s, they started to come, off of Japan, where they had been going since the ’60s,” Kim said. “It has been gradual, but since late 2000s to now it has mostly been a an established international market. If an act is known internationally, they can do a tour.”
One act that proves the extensive value of investing in shows in South Korea is Maroon 5. Since 2011 Adam Levine and Co. have visited South Korea on pretty much every album touring cycle, most recently playing Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul Feb. 27 for a $3.5 million gross. 
The group was shepherded through most of that period by longtime manager Jordan Feldstein, who died in December 2017. Earlier that year Feldstein spoke to Pollstar about what it took to break a band in markets like Korea. 
“The music, first and foremost, has [to be] inherently quality enough and the melodies strong enough that it’s not based solely on the lyrical content,” he said. “That’s an important component [of] the kinds of acts that will work on the global level.
“Even though you can spend multiple years – as Maroon 5 did – losing money or breaking even in a lot of those [international] markets, the band really took the time and invested in spending time in a lot of places that were not easy to get to in order to build a business around the world. … We’ve been seeing that benefit for years and years now. It’s allowed us to not have to continually tour the U.S. over and over again.”
Other artists who have reported multiple stops in Korea to Pollstar include Muse (2010 and 2015) and Ed Sheeran, whose April 21 stop in Seoul reported nearly $2.7 million on 25,033 tickets sold, part of his record-setting “Divide” tour. Prior to his 2019 gig, Sheeran played SK Olympic Handball Gymnasium in 2015, grossing $407,507 on 3,296 tickets.
The largest gross ever reported in Korea was Coldplay in 2017, when the band filled Jamsil Olympic Stadium in Seoul with 99,837 attendees for a gross of $10.25 million in one night. 
Seoul is unquestionably the largest Korean city for music, and the city is looking to make itself into a bona-fide international music hub with the recently announced $400 million development project which seeks to construct a new arena and music hall. The city’s efforts to establish Seoul as a must-play market are also intended to increase the quality of life for residents, and the plan includes a center devoted to traditional music.
For international tours, Kim said there are five large cities he would consider prime destinations for major acts: Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Incheon and Daejeon. 
Jason Mraz took in most of those markets in his 2014 tour that hit Daejoeon, Daegu and spent two nights in Seoul. That tour averaged more than $300,000 grossed per night on more than 3,000 average tickets, with support from Raining Jane. 
Kim said the vast majority of Korea’s live business is Korean acts for a local audience, estimating the split as about 80 percent domestic and 20 percent international.
K-pop is undeniably big business based on the numbers BTS is able to do overseas, but the musical landscape within Korea is diverse, with a spectrum of acts, cities and venue sizes, all vibrant at every level. 
“The domestic market is so segmented in terms of genre and demographic,” Kim said. “There are some acts that can tour forever, in every little city. Or there are stadium acts that can do full stadiums in Korea, but not outside.”
Festivals are aplenty in Korea, with both imported and domestic varieties. In terms of EDM, Ultra premiered its Ultra Korea in Seoul in 2011 and this year marked the inaugural edition of EDC Korea, while the Spectrum festival concluded its fourth edition and 5tardium celebrated six years in Seoul. DJs also flew from around the world to take over Seoul Land for the Seoul World DJ Festival.
Incheon Pentaport Rock Festival brought rockers Weezer, Two Door Cinema Club, The Vamps, Steel Heart and more to Incheon. That festival reported its business in 2015, when it sold 9,000 tickets and grossed nearly $1.2 million. The lineup that year featured Scorpions, Kim Chang-wan Band, The Used, Yellow Monsters and Monni. 
The Seoul Jazz Festival, now more than a decade old, also brought artists like Clean Bandit, Rudimental, and Fitz and The Tantrums to Korea. A wide musical selection is also available at Greenplugged, which 10 magazine says is often referred to as “Korea’s Coachella.”
And, of course, K-pop aficionados know Dream Concert, held annually in Seoul since 1995, is the place to take in large amounts of live K-pop. 
The promoting titans are certainly looking at Korea in the long term. Live Nation has an office in Seoul and AEG Asia CEO Adam Wilkes recently told Forbes he is now largely concentrating on expanding the company’s operations in South Korea because “some of the titans of global industry are based out of [Seoul].”
Finally, all references to Korea in this article refer to South Korea, as Pollstar has no records of live performances in North Korea in the last 10 years. Live music has been a key part of diplomatic efforts to relieve tension between the two Koreas as 160 South Korean musicians performed in Pyongyang ahead of a historic inter-Korean summit in 2018. The DMZ Peace Train Music Festival has also been held in the demilitarized zone over the last two years to promote peace and unification between the nations.