Ten years ago, organizers of the first KCON fan gathering had plenty of faith in the appeal of K-pop and South Korean pop culture, but there was nervousness about how many people would show up to celebrate it in Southern California.
In October 2012, executives at CJ ENM were pleasantly surprised when about 10,000 aficionados turned out for a daylong conference and evening concert at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in Orange County. At the time, KCON was the biggest real-world expression of CJ ENM vice chair Miky Lee’s determination to promote Korean content and culture on the world stage.
A decade later, the seeds Lee and her team planted with KCON and other events are delivering a bountiful harvest. KCON 2022 is expected to draw about 100,000 fans to the Los Angeles Convention Center and Crypto.com Arena as it unfolds Aug. 19-21.
“We’re past an inflection point for Korean content,” says Angela Killoren, CEO of CJ ENM America, who was part of the team that launched KCON in 2012. “This is more than a bubble.”
The popularity of Korean movies and TV shows has spread far beyond the country’s borders.
The CJ ENM-produced “Parasite” made movie history by winning the 2019 best picture Oscar. Korean-language drama “Squid Game” set viewership records for Netflix in 2021. And fueled by social media, K-pop is reaching new heights.
Killoren recalled that at the last in-person KCON in Los Angeles in 2019, she was floored at how many fans attended in multi-generational combinations with parents and siblings, and how far many traveled to get there.
“There’s a generation now that has grown up with this event,” she says. “It’s a great thing that they think it’s normal to have big K-Pop events in a big venue.”
Killoren adds the first time that future superstars BTS ever performed in the U.S., it was on a KCON stage, in 2014. As always, the KCON lineup for this year’s concerts on Aug. 20-21 put the emphasis on rising musical acts, including ATEEZ, Enhypen, Stray Kids and NCT Dream.
During the day, the conference programming is a mix of fan meet-and-greets, Q&As with songwriters and producers and panels devoted to fan-favorite movies, TV shows, webtoons and more.
As KCON has grown, so has its platform. Today, the event is also a showcase for Korean beauty products, foods, toys and other aspects of Korean culture.
For the first time, in another sign of KCON’s maturation, there will be sessions devoted to marketing and reaching K-Pop consumers for entertainment industry pros.
Killoren observes that the interconnections common within Korean pop culture — where everybody knows everybody and collaborations are prized — was ahead of the curve on general trends in entertainment.
“K-pop has grown through the same pathways that other parts of the industry are taking, focusing on work being fan-driven and community-based,” she says. “It’s a hybrid of the traditional celebrity and the influencer where fans feel they have a direct connection to the [talent’s] daily life.”
After a long break from in-person gatherings, the CJ ENM team is working overtime to ensure that KCON comes back strong. While CJ ENM is a heavyweight player in Korean entertainment, the confab embraces a broad range of talent from rival companies.
“KCON is more than just about one company promoting an act. It’s about feeding an eco-system and a community,” Killoren says. “We want KCON to be a mecca for K-pop and Korean entertainment. We want our fans to make that pilgrimage once a year to feel like you’re really a part of this community.”