K-Pop’s U.S. Touring Business Is Booming as Fandom Grows –


A decade ago, if you wanted to see your favorite K-pop act in concert, you probably had to travel to New York or Los Angeles to catch a rare U.S. appearance. At arena shows and the now-popular KCON festival, acts like BIGBANG and EXO were “doing insane numbers, but they were considered outsiders or outliers,” says Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based artist and label services agency. “A lot of these K-Pop tours were dismissed as being extremely niche; but to me K-pop was like the Grateful Dead.” 

“It turns out,” adds Cho, “the new Asian market is Caucasian.” 

Since BTS broke into the U.S. mainstream in 2017, followed by a wave of other K-pop chart-topping successes from such acts as SuperM, Stray Kids, BLACKPINK, TOMORROW X TOGETHER and, most recently, NewJeans, new touring opportunities are opening up and driving gigs — and business — to more markets across the United States.   

For UTA agent Janet Kim, who’s helped the company expand its K-pop roster and represents acts including “Gangnam Style” icon PSY, the industry’s recognition of and focus on K-pop is capitalizing on a market demand “that has always been there” among Asian communities. The genre’s current expansion is now “opening so many doors for other Korean artists to come to the U.S. and have a real audience,” she says. 

Such strong album sales put K-pop consumption (in terms of equivalent album units) up 43.9% year to date, which is better than Latin, country and the overall market. Within that, from January to July, K-pop on-demand audio streams in the United States are up 20.9% over the same period in 2022, according to Luminate. K-pop album sales are up 77% year to date, with most of that growth coming from physical sales, almost entirely CDs. From January through late July, five of the top 10 physical albums were from K-pop acts, according to Luminate.  

That demand is translating to ticket sales. According to numbers reported to Billboard Boxscore, a 2022 12-date arena tour by HYBE act Seventeen sold nearly 126,000 tickets and averaged $1.2 million a night in revenue. Stops on this tour included Vancouver, Canada, Fort Worth, Texas, and Atlanta, as well as other markets not previously known as genre strongholds. This past spring, BTS’ SUGA performed three sold-out shows in the Chicago area — an expanding K-pop market — and grossed more than $8 million, according to numbers reported to Billboard Boxscore.  

“As we expanded into new and smaller cities, we found demand was often just as high, relative to population size,” says Ellen Kim, CEO of Subkulture Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based K-pop tour production company that launched in 2015 and produced four U.S. shows on BTS’ global Red Bullet tour. “In certain circumstances, we found that demand was higher in smaller markets than more established ones, which were perhaps seeing market fatigue due to an increasing number of artists and shows.”  

A representative for the concert business department at HYBE pinpoints Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Oakland and the whole of Texas as markets the Seoul-based company currently considers especially viable for its roster. Janet Kim at UTA is seeing emerging K-pop acts hold successful concerts in Puerto Rico, Nashville and San Diego which, she says, “were not typical stops on K-pop tours in the past.” 

Globally, K-pop tours are, naturally, most robust in Asia, with the largest of them — like BLACKPINK’s 2022/2023 Born Pink World Tour — typically stopping in South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, China, The Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan. But international demand is growing — and not just in the States. Subkulture has recently expanded into Mexico and Canada, says Ellen Kim, with tour plans later this year for Europe and Latin America, which has been a K-pop touring destination since the mid-2010s, with acts most frequently playing in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Peru and Argentina.  

K-pop U.S. tour legs are getting longer, too. Whereas they once averaged two to four shows in major markets, tours now average between eight and 12 shows in major and secondary markets, with many artists playing multiple nights in one city. In 2022 and 2023, K-pop artists SUGA/Agust D, TWICE, Stray Kids, SEVENTEEN and TOMORROW X TOGETHER all launched arena and stadium tours that collectively hit such cities as New York, L.A. Atlanta, Seattle, Charlotte, Washington D.C., Houston, Fort Worth, Chicago, Oakland and Toronto. This fall, HYBE act ENHYPEN has scheduled arena gigs in Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Glendale, Ariz., among other cities.  

Cho says data analytics tools like Chartmetric — which identifies artists’ streaming, social media and audience data by factors including location, gender, ethnicity and age — have proven especially helpful for artist teams to discover new fanbases while determining routing. He cites a sold-out Epik High show in April at a 3,000-capacity venue in Salt Lake City — typically considered a relatively sleepy B-level market — as an example of such data helping K-pop artists locate fans.  

Many Korean labels and management companies are also currently paying to send their emerging acts to the United States in hopes of breaking them here before Asia, given the prestige fostered by making it in North America. “BTS demonstrated that formula,” says Janet Kim, “where they may not have been the biggest artists in Korea when first starting out, but they spent time and money coming to the U.S. and building their fan base and have done very well for themselves.” 

“If an act can successfully do a U.S. tour, that leads to a world tour,” adds Cho. “It’s validation they’re going to have longevity and, hopefully, a legacy.” 

While KCON has served as a Stateside launching pad for K-pop acts over the past decade, now their management companies and agents are eying marquee festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Governor’s Ball as crowning crossover achievements. Given that such shows put artists in front of huge crowds, they’re also major opportunities for fanbase development.  

It’s a formula that worked for BLACKPINK, who in 2019 became the first K-pop girl group to ever play Coachella. Four years and a global pandemic later, the group headlined the 2023 edition last April. This summer, aespa made history as the first K-pop act to play Governor’s Ball and Outside Lands. After playing Lollapalooza for the first time in 2022, TOMORROW X TOGETHER headlined the festival earlier this month, when NewJeans made its Lollapalooza debut. (This appearance was NewJeans’ first U.S. festival performance, an achievement that happened the same week the group landed its first No. 1 — not to mention its first entry — on the Billboard 200 albums chart with its sophomore EP, Get Up.) 

“Festival plays have really helped elevate credibility and the clout that K-pop has arrived,” says Cho. “It’s not just through grinding on tours no one knows about. Having big acts and emerging artists play festivals has really been helpful in landing K-pop as something less foreign and more fun.” 

All the sources interviewed for this story said they predict K-pop will continue to grow in the United States. Supporting this, Ellen Kim at Subkulture says that younger fans are more open to non-English content than previous generations, while UTA’s Janet Kim says she’s seen a growing number of labels and A&R executives looking to take on K-pop projects. The HYBE rep says, too, that the many subgenres of K-pop represent pure potential, with these currently “untapped areas” likely to attract even more fans.  

This expanding interest will only further fuel a touring market that used to feel “a lot more niche, like a community or cultural event,” says Janet Kim.  

“Now,” she continues, “it’s just a pop show.” 

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