What in the world is happening with the K-pop concert market in the US

And is it a lost cause?

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A few weeks ago, I got an email from a concert promoter about Keane’s upcoming tour. I, a basic bitch with an older brother who is even more basic and who let me rip all their early albums while I was an impressionable teen into my iTunes library, contemplated for a few seconds whether I wanted to go. But then realized the show was on September 24, which meant it would coincide with the 2023 occurance of the beginning of the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur Eve.

And then I realized it was a 2024 concert and lost my mind.

Here was a pretty succesful band with what I assume a sizable audience who would be willing to come out for them while they perform in NYC and celebrate the 20th anniversary of their Hopes and Fear album, you know the one with Somewhere Only We Know. (I’m an Under the Iron Sea girl, personally, so will not be going probably even if it is next year.)

It was unthinkable to me: fans given time to plan, prep, and save to see their favorite artist, so that the show could be a success for all parties involved? K-pop doesn’t feel like that nowadays.

Instead, K-pop acts are dropping new tickets a minute before the show begins, overlapping concerts in NYC so that people have to pick between artists on multiple occasions. So far since the start of the summer, NYC has seen fans choosing between Mamamoo and NMIXX; The Rose and xikers; Eric Nam and StayC; and aespa and iKon, because promoters have them performing the same night in the Tri-State area.

Promoters are competitors, so it’s understandable they’re not coordinating or anything but honestly… maybe they should be if they’d like sold out venues.

I recently received the below, redacted, email from a PR rep:

“Do you want to consider coming to X’s [NYC] show on DATE?

Y is also performing the same day [in the same city].

Are you interested in either or both (lol if you can make it)”

They’re obviously not the one at fault here, but it’s kind of wild that a single PR rep is representing two Korean acts whose NY dates are the same exact nights! They’re very different artists, and perhaps different audiences, but I can’t possibly be the only person who is a fan of both. (No, I don’t know which one I want to attend yet, please don’t make me, a LIBRA, make decisions.)

Fans nowadays simply do not as a collective have enough money to sustain the surge of concerts lately. This isn’t just a K-pop think: we know ticket costs in the US are increasingly prohibitive, and that’s why we’re seeing things like multiple lawsuits against Ticketmaster and other vendors for adding costs. But cutting into the market like this by offering a direct competitor the same night seems short sighted beyond belief, and for it to become a regular occurance is a head scratching.

This new trend comes on top of the fact that the K-pop audience in the US has changed in recent years, even as more and more acts want to tour, and this has left an environment where concerts are happening and people simply are not going.

So what you end up with are events like the Immortal Songs concert at Metlife Stadium on October 26 barely selling tickets, let alone barely selling out. It features PSY, ATEEZ, NewJeans, Lena Park, Kim Tae Woo, YOUNGTAK, Jannabi, and Patti Kim.

Screenshot of Ticketmaster on September 20th showing many empty seats
Ticketing as of September 20th 2:40PM EST.

This isn’t the first poorly selling Korean-focused festival in the NY area recently. No, earlier this year we had the Krazy K-pop Super Concert at UBS Arena on August 26, which featured Monsta X's Shownu & Hyungwon, IVE, Cravity, Kwon Eun Bi, and AB6IX. I wasn’t able to attend due to a personal conflict but by all reports it was not a well-attended event, and I heard from sources that the production team was cutting costs as they got closer to the event in efforts to make their losses less severe.

It’s not the audience isn’t there: it’s just the spenders aren’t necessarily the ones coming out for festivals the same way, and promoters are assuming they’ll come out in crowds.

Metlife is a possibility for K-pop artists: this summer the venue hosted well-attended shows by Blackpink and TWICE, and arenas in the tristate area regularly host shows. Some are better attended than others, but nothing quite as severe as these multi-artists events more or less bombing.

What’s going on here, I think, are a few factors.

Unlike Pokémon, unless you’re the most privileged of person, it is impossible to catch all these artists on tour.

Firstly, nobody’s considering just how many acts are touring. With so many K-pop-adjacent concerts in the US nowadays, let alone in major metropolitan areas like LA and NYC, even the most dedicated multi-artist fan will be unable to attend everything simply because the costs will become so prohibitive. I am lucky enough that I get comped tickets to many events as I cover these artists and I live in an area where there are many concerts, but the average person doesn’t have that. Fans regularly declare publicly they’re not ATMs, but I’m not sure the people putting on these productions have received the memo.

Many decision makers opting to take artists on tour don’t seem to be taking into account the prohibitive costs of ticketing, with ticketing agents taking a major cut, and the necessity of travel for many fans. You can’t spring tours on fans in the US a month before the event, because the US is too big and too expensive. Keane, a well-known act with one of the most definitive songs of the early aughts, is announcing a tour a year in advance. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé announce tour dates ages in advance.

Secondly, K-pop fans in the US are not as reliably multifans as they used to be. Many comments I saw about the Immortal Songs concert were from fans of ATEEZ and NewJeans saying they’d rather save their money for solo tours, and, well, why not?

It used to be, and it still is to some degree, that K-pop fans in the US were more or less fans of K-pop, an industry. They would have biases, but if a K-pop act is coming to town, you are going to be there. Nowadays, I often hear people debating whether you should bring other artists’ lightsticks to concerts. But back when I first began attending shows in the early 2010s, you would bring any merch you had. It was a communal event, regardless of if your bias was there or not, because you wanted to show support so that other artists would come to town.

Smaller acts touring brought droves of people just excited to see a K-pop act they knew. Now some shows I’ve heard of don’t even get 200 people attending, which is just bleak all around. (Update post-publishing: I originally wrote 50 people, but checked with the friend who has attended many of these smaller shows and she said she’s never been to one that small, so I misremembered what she told me. Sorry for the fake news.)

Events like music festivals featuring a ton of artists were often the only way to see your favorites. Nowadays, that’s changed, so people will pick and choose who to see when they’re on tour.

In Korea, it’s been a long term thing that people are only fans of one act. It’s assumed if you’re remotely a fan rather than a casual listener, you probably only favor one artist. A lot of people I’ve spoken to here in the US question whether this behavior, which isn’t so typical here until recently as fandoms have become more powerful, results from some innate Korean cultural aspect of loyalty or something. But I think it’s more that when it comes to K-pop there is only a limited amount of money and time a single person can spend. Because there are so many offerings in Korea, it was natural for the competitive-based industry to create single-artists stans.

In the US, that has caught up and now fans across music genres are more likely to invest themselves fully into a singular act more than becoming invested in every artist they can catch. Unlike Pokémon, unless you’re the most privileged of person, it is impossible to catch up on all the content, or catch all these artists on tour.

A screenshot from Ticketmaster’s site showing xikers and The Rose’s upcoming shows, happening at the same time. Maybe I’ll go to xikers at 7 and catch an hour then head to The Rose, which will begin at 8.

People are picking and choosing who they spend their money on, and multiple-artist festivals aren’t where everyone wants to put their savings into.

Even a major event like Global Citizen Festival in Central Park, held this upcoming weekend, isn’t a surefire sell-out: It will be headlined by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and Jungkook of BTS and feature other acts including Stray Kids’s 3Racha (unfortunately, other members were in a recent accident, but hopefully they’ll all have a full and swift recovery) and Anitta. But I saw very affordable VIP tickets still available for resale today. Admittedly, NYC music festivals haven’t been having a good year so honestly this may be other issues, but it feels all interrelated in that the cost is just too damn high for people to see their favorites at every single show they’re performing at. (I’m stuck in the middle of the Jewish holiday season pretty much every weekend for the foreseeable future, so am not attending, but honestly the prices are extraordinarily tempting to abandon my family and religion for, sorry G-d!)

Thirdly, we’re in the perpetual middle of a crisis in many places around the world, but especially in the US, where people are stressing about liveable wages and the future. Here, we have no safety nets like nationalized health care or pension plans, and increasingly college loan debt is ruining lives. As I get older I keep hearing from longterm fandom friends that although they used to set aside some money each month for their K-pop spending, now it’s gotten harder. Probably has something to do with the fact that the cost of living is going up while salaries are not, but I’m not a markets expert so… I’ll just blame inflation!

New York, and the US, is a sizable K-pop market, but it’s also simply Sizable so it is expensive to get around, to travel, to do anything.

photo of aespa and their dancers performing on stage, wit their logo and ae's on screenbehind them
I attended aespa’s show the same night friends of mine were in the same city attending iKon. The top tier seats weren’t sold, which is a good way to get to a bigger venue with a larger audience while still not getting caught with a lot of empty seats.

Going to a K-pop concert, or any concert, is a luxury, as much as we’d like to pretend that everyone can attend every show. I personally believe everyone should be able to attend concerts and they shouldn’t be some rarefied experience, but nowadays that feels increasingly optimistic as it’s rare to hear of people paying under $100 USD for a K-pop concert ticket, even at the smallest of venues.

Bringing artists to the US is expensive, not even considering the travel, accomodations, and putting up the show itself; there are even prohibitive visa costs. So, of course, it’s expected that promoters and artist management would like to make their money back, but milking your audience out of all their money with onslaught of tours isn’t a viable future for the industry.

There’s a reason we’re seeing some more cancellations: Loossemble, the LOONA group, and tripleS both recently cancelled shows in Reading, Pennsylvania allegedly due to lackluster ticket sales. I have no idea who greenlit shows in Pennsylvania, which is close enough to the New York area that it definitely would cut into ticketing, but it seems tour organizers are largely overestimating demand at the moment for many, if not all, acts.

Unlike Pokémon, unless you’re the most privileged of person, it is impossible to catch up on all the content, or catch all these artists on tour.

This mad dash to have everyone touring, all at the same time, because overseas K-pop fans are seen as a good financial opportunity? It’s ruining everything by too many people trying to make a buck now while the fire is burning and not considering that maybe they themselves are the ones pouring water onto the flames.

I expect to see many more tours get lackluster results, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a total shift where Korean companies and promoters look to the US market more cautiously and just decide we’re not worth the risk. Hopefully it’s not too dramatic, and we can find a moderate middle ground, but we are in an extreme of the pendulum and I’m hoping we won’t swing the other way where this deluge becomes a famine.

By the way, I’m focusing on my local market, but it’s not just the US where K-pop concert sales are facing upheaval: KPOP LUX x SBS Super Concert, set to be held in London’s The O2 arena this weekend, has been cancelled ahead of the event, and in Mexico City both the KAMP festival and Super Junior concerts have experienced venue changes.

I wonder if there’s a dip in prominence of K-pop as a money maker in a way that people assumed would keep going from the pandemic, but the reality is different from coronavirus comfort spending. A friend recently told me that she was thinking back on how happy she was to spend money to stay up until the wee hours of the morning watching virtual concerts during the peak days of COVID-19 lockdowns, but now she has more considerations and obligations, so she’s not able to attend as many shows. This is a reality not only for her, I assume.

K-pop fans are still very generous with their spending. They are typically, as Luminate (formerly Nielsen Music) declares, super fans, and super fans spend money. “Luminate Insights consumer research data shows that physical music buyers are more than twice as likely to be super fans (+128%),” according to Luminate’s weekly newsletter from August 8. “This also provides excellent opportunities for merch upsell to this valuable group as super fans spend +80% more per month on music activities than the US music listener.” But with more opportunities to spend overlapping, people are being particular where they’re putting their wallets, and concert organizers need to take note as the current state of things doesn’t seem viable at all.

Anyhow… I’m open for consulting so if any promoters read this and want to hire me, or really anyone with an awareness of the audience, for market research before you end up in these situations, promoters. For now, here’s my free feedback and advice via this newsletter because this situation is ridiculous, so please like and subscribe!

What I’m working on

I reviewed Key’s Good & Great album for NME, which I really enjoyed. This is an album for the vibes, and I for one am feeling them fully. I think it may be one of my favorite EPs of the year, to be honest. Kind of didn’t expect that, but that’s where I am!

screenshot of Key's Good & Great MV, where the subtitle says "Man, coffee's the only Reason I function"
Key is a fellow 91 Libra who gets it.

What I’m listening to

Cravity’s Ready or Not and Weeekly’s Good Day (Special Daileee) don’t have much in common to you, dear reader, but to me they’re each a dose of serotonin.

This year has been a pretty mixed bag when it comes to exuberant K-pop feel-good songs for me personally, but I was updating my playlists and put these on back-to-back somehow, and I just reallllllly am happy about that occurrence. The production on both of these songs feel very comfortably fresh without feeling tired and built solely for TikTok while still having catchy hooks, which is something I think more songs need to spend more time thinking about in production.

More autumnally, D.O. of EXO’s Expectation album is like wrapping oneself in a sonic sweater of his rich voice, and I’m very much enjoying that experience. I don’t have a favorite song in particular, but have enjoyed listening while walking around NYC as the temperatures start rising.

What I’m reading

I didn’t sleep well last night due to existential thoughts about life and my career attacking me at 2:30am as they tend to do, so I woke up late today and the first thing I saw was the press release that BTS have renewed with BigHit and Hybe beyond 2025, as was previously reported. This comes amid a whole series of contract rumors surrounding the fates of BLACKPINK and Red Velvet, so it was pleasant to be able to let out a sigh of relief at the confirmation that one of these very beloved groups has confirmed plans for the future. I was thinking of maybe writing about this generational shift and the contractual anxiety fans are feeling at the moment, but that felt too much like a Part 2 to last week’s generation piece so decided nah.

Speaking of last week’s piece… Patrick St. Michel’s takes on the Japanese music scene in  are always insightful, so I appreciate him using my recent newsletter on K-pop generations as a jumping off point for his most recent newsletter. In it, he really drives home the power of K-pop competition shows and how everything is now AKB48, which may be my favorite recurring theme of Make Believe Mailer. For what it’s worth, , I do agree with you that P101 is responsible largely for the fourth gen! But I think it also falls into my “tech changes=new generations in K-pop” analysis, since so much of the show was (allegedly, which proved not to be true thanks to rigging,) reliant on fan voting and accessibility to fans around the world, so I do think we’re on the same page more or less about the impact.

What I’m watching

A2K’s finale airs this week, and I’m eager to see how the final group comes together!

Not K-pop, but I was in the middle of Ahsoka episode five and realized I really need to watch the animated Star Wars Clone Wars, Rebels, and Bad Batch series to enjoy the show fully, so that’s where I am living at the moment outside of K-pop.

I also went to the Won Soju launch in NYC, and saw Jay Park perform and promote his new liquor line. We accidentally ended up front row, so that happened!

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