The Hallyu wave is here and it’s only getting bigger. This past weekend marked the 6th annual KCON festival held at the Los Angeles Convention Center along with star-studded concerts at the Staples Center. Korean music, culture, and beauty fans gathered in Downtown L.A. during the last weeks of summer to celebrate their shared affinity for their idols.
Riding on the inflated success of Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, KCON debuted in 2012 in Irvine, California – a safety net for venturing into uncharted American territory, with almost 40% of the population of Asian heritage. The intentions of powerhouse companies Mnet America and CJ E&M were to bring American fans closer to their favorite artists from the Kpop industry and vice versa.
Fast forward five years and what began as a one day event with about 20,000 in attendance has ballooned into a three day convention event, two night concerts, and an Asian food market with almost triple the attendance. KCON has truly become a global phenomenon, launching equally successful branches in New York, Japan, Paris, Mexico, Abu Dhabi, and the upcoming addition of Australia.
As the point of origin, KCON LA tends to hold the highest tier of expectation from fans. This year’s lineup tended to be a hit or miss depending on who you asked. The always effervescent Oh My Girl, cheerful Cosmic Girls, spunky solo K-R&B artist Heize, and seasoned veterans Girl’s Day were the only additions for avid girl-group followers out of a 14 artist lineup.
With an overwhelming majority of Kpop fans identifying as female, KCON organizers have shifted to favor male artists and groups, knowing they’ll draw in more attendees and thus more revenue. This year, KCON seemed to target a wide range of male-group fans, snagging groups varying from concept, average member age, and career-length. The dark, mystical VIXX, fresh from their military service Super Junior D&E, and legendary g.o.d member Kim Tae Woo served as the sunbaes – idols with the most experience – to the other emerging groups. GOT7 and SEVENTEEN returned to the stage as fan favorites; KCON served as SEVENTEEN’s Los Angeles stop for their first world tour DIAMOND EDGE in North America. Undeniably, the organizers pushed for rookie groups to carry the bulk of the artist lineup, riding on the recent success of the bubbly ASTRO boys, the groundbreaking co-ed group KARD, the experimental NCT 127, and the suave SF9 – having at most a little over a year of experience in the business.
The focus of this year’s KCON was evidently Wanna One, the 11 member male group formed on the second season of Mnet America’s idol competition program Produce 101. The boys formally debuted a mere 13 days before their KCON appearance. KCON LA 2016 invited the winners of season 1, girl group I.O.I who saw a massive explosion of popularity in South Korea. However, this year, the Wanna One boys saw an influx of viewers, both in fans of I.O.I’s formation and newcomers curious about the hype. Their appearance at KCON reminded fans of their potentially sole chance to see the group in person, as the group will disband after a year of promotions like their predecessors. Merchandise raffling a chance to high-five the artists sold out in minutes with fans stocking up in bulk and reselling for up to thousands of dollars. The boys were nearly stampeded at their appearance at the K-beauty brand innisfree’s booth. Because of their numbered days, KCON goers couldn’t help but wonder if the KCON organizers shifted too much attention towards the group thus causing technical difficulties and confusion among fans.
In regards to the convention itself, the booths offered attendees a variety of opportunities to grab free goodies, to take Instagram-worthy pictures and videos, and to pick up beauty and music products that could otherwise be pricey due to shipping prices from South Korea. As per usual, however, the disorganization in times, artist engagement locations, and booth layouts are expected as organizers usually attempt to combat a problem one year thus unintentionally opening up another the next. The KTOWN Food Street is located on the other side of the Staples Center, making it difficult for people to eat without missing a surprise appearance from an artist or to attend a panel with their favorite Youtubers. Miscommunication between the KCON coordinators and the Staples Center staff has always led to frustrating consequences for concertgoers. Fans resell their artist engagement and hi-touch passes for astronomical prices, extending into the hundreds of dollars; you pay a hundred dollars to wait for 3+ hours, only to have a security guard breath down your back whilst simply high-fiving your favorite group in the span of thirty seconds, and you don’t even have a picture to save for it.
Despite all of these flaws, KCON’s magic derives from the spontaneous occurrences that make each year a unique experience. It provides a safe space for fans to meet thousands of others who travel from all over the world (I met a girl who came from Barcelona!), all seeking to engage in their passions and interests. In this increasingly globalized world, it may become normal to indulge in international media despite all of the language and cultural differences, but for now KCON serves as a small space of unity in a time and country where being different could be subject to xenophobia.