Pollstar Live! Coverage: K-pop’s Overseas Crossover Explored

Black Coffee
– K-pop Panel
Sarah Pittman, Ashley Choi, Steve Dixon, David Zedeck, and Debbie White at Pollstar Live! 2020

With global phenomenon BTS leading the charge, K-pop has taken the world by storm and at Pollstar Live! 2020 a panel of industry vets delved into how the genre exploded in 2019, and where it is headed.

Moderated by Pollstar’s own Sarah Pittman, the “K-pop + J-pop: Demystifying a Red Hot Global Phenomenon” panel included Ashley Choi of Global Music Management; Steve Dixon of Music Tour Management; David Zedeck, Global Head of Music at UTA; and Debbie White, Vice Chair of Music Industry at Loeb Loeb LLP, which represents BTS in North America.
The conversation touched on the many aspects of K-pop’s explosion into the Western consciousness, noting that there were many factors that primed the pump for BTS’ success. 
“It was the perfect timing for everything,” Choi said of BTS’ incredible growth, joking that the band itself was composed of “rejects,” who had previously been with other companies, but they had the work ethic and humility to do what needed to be done to overcome the cultural boundaries that had kept K-pop from breaking in the West and beyond.
One of the biggest boundaries, panelists agreed, was the differences between the Eastern and Western music industries’ approaches to artist accessibility. The K-pop and J-pop industries are famous for keeping very tight control of artists and have historically made them inaccessible compared to Western expectations of constant interaction through social media and television. 
The panelists seemed to agree that BTS’ willingness to be flexible and unscripted in their media appearances, to play many different kinds of shows, and to just generally be more accessible to their fans is what allowed so many Western fans to discover them. Much credit for this is given to the band itself, and to the management company Big Hit Entertainment.
“Big Hit is different from these other labels,” White said of her client. “BTS did the things people wanted them to do.” 
BTS is hardly the only K-pop band that is seeing success, as BigBang is set to return to the U.S. with an appearance at Coachella in April, Zedeck boasted of the Monsta X tour in North America, and club/theater level artists like Jay Park and Eric Nam were also shouted out. Zedeck said he expects the music to continue expanding in all sizes of venues, and shouted out J-pop bands as being particularly effective at establishing themselves through the club/theater circuit. 
When planning Monsta X’s tour, Zedeck said not only was it selling strongly in markets where there are establishes Asian-American fanbases, but they were taking in Denver, Minneapolis, Orlando, and other markets that many in the industry wouldn’t consider Asian-American markets, emphasizing the music really does appeal beyond ethnic boundaries.
Choi, who has lived in Korea and worked with powerhouse management company CJ ENM, mentioned that as the genre of K-pop continues to spread out into more areas of the music industry, she hopes people will realize that K-pop fans are also fans of other kinds of music, like Ariana Grande or Billie Eilish, and smaller K-pop acts have a place at many festivals simply as a performer on a hip-hop stage or soul stage, and compartmentalization should be avoided. 
Dixon discussed how production is another area where the Eastern and Western music industries often diverge and described the nerve-wracking adventure in 2015 when BigBang finally allowed him to apply some of the Western production practices to their performance model.
“The asian model is a different capitalization and a different operating model. It takes three days or four days to set up a show, it takes a couple days to tear it down,” Dixon said. “Any domestic product, being a domestic product, you have a hard time exporting the product and keeping the quality up, so you make sacrifices or you choose not to do it. Early on there wasn’t the right business equation to do it.”
Another factor that has influenced the explosion of K-pop around the world has been the expansion beyond the traditional regional territories of China, Japan and Korea. In the past, it has been so logistically challenging to export a show beyond Eastern Asia, that many acts have opted for the safer choice to stay close to home. 
Zedeck mentioned in response to a question about the Coronavirus that if it is not contained by summer, there is a good chance many acts will opt to perform abroad, because many of them want to be performing.
The panel had mixed responses about how important it was for Eastern bands to know English, whether it be for singing or interview purposes, but all panelists agreed that the language barrier is not the huge obstacle it was once thought to be, particularly with the zealous transcription services of fans around the world. Zedeck went a step further and said that he expects North American consumption of Non-English entertainment to increase across the board in the coming years, including in film and television. 
Choi said that the U.S. market is still seen as a goal for many Korean acts, and these artists want to interact and collaborate with their American contemporaries as peers. She said she was excited to see more Western artists interested in authentic collaborations with Eastern artists and said she looked forward to a day when K-pop producers would be called upon to work for non K-pop bands.