The K-Popportunities: Sleep On The K-Pop Explosion At Your Own Peril

With the rise of Asian music industries expanding internationally, fan-focused engagement and activations have benefits far beyond just one concert.

By Jeff Benjamin

Lead Photo SUGA Agust D TOUR D DAY NY UBS Arena Exterior 1
Suga Rush: Fans gather and participate in activations and activities ahead of Suga’s UBS Arena show in Elmont, New York, on April 27, the second of two shows.
Photo by Bight Music

April 26 marked the first of five different K-pop concerts at New York’s recently opened UBS Arena and the implementation of a specific marketing strategy from the venue’s marketing and promotion teams. The sold-out show was opening night for Suga, a rapper, songwriter and producer in stadium-filling South Korean group BTS, as part of his “Suga Agust D Tour,” which marked the first concert held by a sole member of pop marvels who last performed together during an April 2022 weekend at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium to gross $18 million across two nights.

BTS hadn’t visited the East Coast since two sold-out nights at MetLife Stadium in early 2019 (their 2020 “Map of the Soul Tour” also had a pair of MetLife stops until COVID-19 canceled the trek), before the ground had even broke on UBS Arena, but the venue teams saw the show as an opportunity to lean into and engage K-pop fans’ traditions of turning concert nights into all-day-long community gatherings (and sometimes night-before gatherings).

The latest reports estimate that over 150 million K-pop fans worldwide support South Korea’s multibillion-dollar music industry. Undoubtedly led by BTS across all metrics, the septet is the only Korean-pop act to boast statistics like their No. 25 ranking on Pollstar’s year-end Top 200 North American Tours of 2022 in addition to scoring multiple chart-topping albums, singles, and Grammy nominations. But big and small, K-pop artists are united in how their fans use concerts to connect in real life and collectively enjoy the mostly digital experience of consuming Korean culture into a group experience for a night.

By the time May concludes, there will have been more than 30 different Korean artists to have toured across the U.S. This summer, K-pop boy band Tomorrow X Together will headline Lollapalooza in Chicago, as girl groups TWICE and BLACKPINK are performing across multiple U.S. stadiums. Meanwhile, younger, rising artists are also making their mark like female quartet aespa will be the first K-pop act to play Governor’s Ball and Outside Lands.

A range of opportunities are available for the live industry to reach the young, diverse and highly engaged K-pop fandom. A 2022 report from Luminate shared that U.S. K-pop fans are overwhelmingly Generation Z and Millenials, with the fandom 40 percent more likely to attend an in-person event than other music fans and spend more than $180 per month on average for their interest.

Ahead of Suga’s New York concert, the first tweet shared by UBS Arena (who boast a humble 17,300 followers on their @UBSArena account) featured photos of the free chalk to decorate the venue’s concrete and BTS fans drawing with materials. The post earned more than 994,500 impressions and 30,500 likes, at press time, according to Twitter’s metrics. No backstage celebrity shot, no clickbait marketing link, just cell phone–shot snaps that spread across the social network from simple interest and appreciation from the fans.

K-pop concert attendees spend hours, sometimes days, lining up ahead for the best spots for shows (particularly those with general-admission seating like Suga’s) and get a rare chance to connect with fellow supporters in real life. While fans might attempt to trade merchandise items or film TikTok dance covers together, UBS Arena invited all to the plaza around their main gates to write Suga colorful chalk messages, bead friendship bracelets, dance in massive group choreographies, and play outdoor games like cornhole and giant Jenga as Suga and BTS music played over loudspeakers. The on-the-ground team even crafted a guide for GA attendees to help them navigate and other important FAQs. UBS Arena also worked with concessionaire Delaware North for specialty food and beverage items in the venue, like Japanese snack Pocky (a favorite among K-pop stars), plus bubble tea and smoothies, and even a specialty mocktail and cocktails.

Throughout Suga’s two days at UBS Arena, followed by two shows from BTS’ HYBE label mates Tomorrow X Together, and girl group MAMAMOO on May 16, the venue saw leaps across its different marketing metrics. Even as it hosted NHL playoff games with its New York Islanders, UBS Arena shared with me that they saw a 60 percent overall engagement rate jump across all social metrics during these K-pop activations, including a 160 percent increase in the number of social engagements and 245 percent increase in video views.

The fans made sure to show their appreciation, too. BTS fan user @darcysprinkles wrote, “You guys are my favourite concert venue” on Twitter. By the time Tomorrow X Together was performing, users were asking if they’d have the same experiences as BTS fans. “I’m gonna finally experience this,” @popstarhui posted above a photo depicting the different activities on the arena campus while @fairyshampoox conveyed their admiration TXT fans, affectionately known as MOAs, “The effort they put into this is incredible, this is a one-time experience.” Even West Coast–based user @txtbyremi gave a shoutout from California. “Even though I live on the other side of the States, I love you UBS Arena!” they tweeted. “Thank you for taking care of the MOAs there!”

The modern-day K-pop scene is relatively young compared to the music industries it competes with today. After taking shape in the ‘90s, Korea has polished and perfected influences from across the world—ranging from label systems reminiscent of the Motown era to blending genres like hip-hop, EDM, jazz, R&B, Afrobeats, Latin music and more—into an inimitable pop machine. The definition of who and what defines K-pop now spans Asia, the diaspora and the world: Pollstar cover stars SEVENTEEN (see here) boast two Korean-American members, as well as two members from China, and have recorded music in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese.

Today, more countries seemed primed for further takeover with similar approaches to fan engagement.

Despite boasting the second-largest record industry in the world behind America, Japan’s pop market has yet to see similarly successful crossovers like its K-pop counterparts. But artists like the seven-member Japanese girl group XG show promise after they began their careers performing on South Korean television, making parallel K-pop moves like establishing a fanbase name and delivering similarly flawless performances. XG’s first live performance in the States was at 88 Rising’s (see page 22) Head in the Clouds New York festival, their 35-minute evening set producing a packed audience at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens.

Chinese stars like Jackson Wang and Lay Zhang, who began as members of K-pop boy bands and have branched into solo careers, have performed across theaters, arenas and in major festival slots in the U.S. like Coachella and Lollapalooza. While fans expressed their upset online when the Barclays Arena didn’t allow merch items dedicated to Wang’s original K-pop group GOT7 in the venue, most seemed assuaged when given glowing finger lights instead.

From the Philippines, viral boy band SB19 (formed by a Korean management team) and folk-pop band Ben&Ben (that have collaborated with Korean artists) played shows across North American coasts. Meanwhile, Hong Kong boy band MIRROR, and Travis Japan based in Tokyo, have begun releasing all-English music, eyeing an American crossover. All these acts have leaned into models reminiscent of the K-pop industry by appealing to the diverse and digitally connected K-pop fandom that has already shown their interest in cultures beyond their own.

After years of watching the K-pop model develop into the juggernaut it is today, more industries are taking cues from Korea and its fan-service models. K-pop industry executives keep their eyes on all aspects of their artists’ lives, and the live sector seems poised to benefit from meaningful connections into the K-culture to boost engagement, retail and the overall concert and music experience. Whether it’s UBS Arena’s “Electric Lemonade” cocktail inspired by Tomorrow X Together’s song “Blue Orangeade” or constructing a doughnut wall reminiscent of a MAMAMOO music video that leader Solar shared to her 3.3 million Instagram followers, harnessing the power of these influential K-pop artists in a respectful ways correlates directly into a highly engaged audience.