By Caitlin Kelley
Money is the cornerstone of any parasocial relationship. You become emotionally attached to a famous stranger. Next thing you know, you’ve joined a collective that pools the rent on their bedazzled tank or their at-home luxuries. But the intricacies of such a commercialized form of human connection translates to all kinds of financial situations. This year, among the K-pop idolsphere, one of the most fevered fan communities on the planet, tours in the U.S. are all the rage.
K-pop fandoms work a little differently from those of Western artists. Given that idols often have to pay back their trainee debt, it’s common knowledge that many Korean acts do not make much money if they haven’t attained the rarified stature of a top-selling group like BTS. But, as with BTS, a group’s crossover success outside of Korea is increasingly dependent on their fans’ performance as consumers. Accordingly, many international fans are saddled with heavier expectations in 2019 to help their favorite idols break big.
A group’s tour performance can make or break their Stateside viability. BTS has incrementally leveled up since their first U.S. tour in 2015, leapfrogging from concert halls to arenas to stadiums. But acts newer to the scene are starting to make their own strides. Rookie boy band ATEEZ sold out a slew of 1,000-seat theaters in March, while colorful girl group Red Velvet sold out their Feb. 7 L.A. stop in less than an hour.
This year, a grand total of 20 headliners hailing from South Korea are making a splash in the States — with more being announced by the week — and their tour dates largely run through the first half of the year: Winner, Oh My Girl, MXM, Red Velvet, KNK, Tiffany Young, ATEEZ, Sunmi, ASTRO, M.O.N.T., Epik High, SF9, BLACKPINK, BTS, TXT, VAV, NCT 127, Stray Kids, TWICE, and Monsta X. The number of U.S. tours in the first half of 2019 has already outdone last year’s crop of stateside acts, when 18 artists trekked the States. In other words, we’re not even halfway through the year of our Lord 2019, and we’re all overwhelmed.
Alyson Luskey, 25, is a longtime fan who lives 45 minutes away from Dallas, an increasingly common tour destination for K-pop artists. She’s noticed a huge surge in shows that are more local to her. Hip-hop trio Epik High was the only act to play the Texas city in 2015 — and the number has already ramped up to seven this year. “It’s very hectic, kinda stressful, especially when you know you’re budgeting on it,” she said. “It’s nice, though. It’s nice to have that be focused, because I don’t have to worry about flying.”
The University of North Texas student wants to go to KCON — a multiple-day K-pop convention held on both coasts in July and August — but she can’t reconcile the price with the reduced setlist for each act. (In 2018, KCON prices ranged from $50 one-night tickets to $1,500 "diamond" passes.) “I don’t think I could justify spending that much, especially when they’re not playing all their songs. It’s just a few songs per group,” she said. “It’s amazing. I have no problems with it at all, it’s just not something that I can afford. And it’s not anywhere near me.”
Lily Dabbs, 21, is a Nashville-based superfan whose city’s barren tour schedule for K-pop acts means she’s often travelling to see her favorite groups. At the moment, she already has plans to see BTS in L.A. and in Chicago and BLACKPINK in Dallas. She’s also hoping to make it to NCT 127’s stops in Dallas and Chicago. Earlier this year, she even flew out to L.A. to see Red Velvet. (Full disclosure: I met her at that show.)
The college junior feels the opposite about the bicoastal K-pop convention. “It might be more worth it to travel to KCON to see 10 groups rather than to see one group that’s nearby,” she said. “It might be the same amount, even.”
Dabbs lives three hours outside of Atlanta, where she occasionally drives for K-pop shows, like ATEEZ on March 22. But even as tour dates spread farther across the States, the emphasis on major cities is still inaccessible for many fans. “It is still kind of difficult because even if a group comes to Atlanta within a six month radius,” she said, “that’ll be the only group that will come.”
Rookie group ATEEZ perform in London in April 2019 as part of their Expedition world tour
One of the biggest challenges to the multifandom life — in which fans support multiple groups — is the ticket prices. "Tickets for most K-pop concerts, even lesser-known or newer acts, range between $50-$350," according to a Forbes report. That’s because acts need to make enough money to cover their hiked-up overhead costs while making a worthwhile profit. Tour promoters like SubKulture Entertainment often have to pay for an act’s travel, lodging and venues — and K-pop groups can travel in packs as large as 13. Despite the insatiable appetite of K-pop fandom, it’s hard enough for touring artists to sell enough tickets to break even, which is a struggle that even KCON has faced.
Tiered pricing often makes room for additional fan experiences such as “hi-touch,” where fans can literally give their “biases,” or favorite members, high-fives. Then there’s ticket resellers, who are known to drastically hike up the costs. Right now, you can find scalpers selling BTS tickets on StubHub for $2,850 a pop — a far cry from the original price points.
Dabbs said her most expensive purchase was a trip to see BTS perform at the American Music Awards. In total, her estimated bill was around $1,300 — including a $700 flight, a $400 ticket and $200 for lodging. “I don’t regret that I went,” she said, “but I regret that I paid so much for it.” Then again, she ended up seeing the group’s appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show for free during that same trip — and you can see her in the front row.
BTS take the stage at the 2017 American Music Awards on November 19, 2017
In another instance, the 21-year-old estimates that she dropped $1,300 for four shows in one morning when BTS tickets went on sale last year. For those uninitiated, the race to snag concert tickets is real — after all, the septet sold out their first Wembley Stadium date in 90 minutes this year. “We set up an operation room, and we bought as many tickets as we could,” she said. “And that was my entire tax return.”
Luskey points to one barrier for aspiring concertgoers: the abrupt timing for ticket sales. A lot of the time, K-pop acts put the tickets for sale only a week after announcing the tour. In some cases, the ticket prices aren’t even announced until the day the sale goes live. “I understand that they have to get everything settled with the management and the venue,” she said. “But it’s hard. I get lucky because the tickets go on sale right when I get paid.” Fans with less-than-convenient payout schedules might not have the time to save for a show that will sell out. She said this has only become more of a problem recently.
Indeed, if streaming parties are the domain of the jobless, the employed side of fandom has a leg up when it comes to big-ticket items. But this also means that concert demographics aren’t necessarily reflective of fandom at large. Attendance is determined by who can pay. In MTV News’ highly scientific sample size of Twitter respondees planning to attend a K-pop concert in the U.S. this year, almost everyone had a job and saved money.
Stans are often pegged as teenagers — and while there’s a lot of diversity among the age brackets, there’s some truth to that assessment. At the same time, only 17 percent KCON attendees were under the age of 17 last year. Fifty-four percent fit into the 18 to 24 age range, while 29 percent were over the age of 25. Adult fans have the upper hand at live events.
Blackpink perform at the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 19, 2019
One K-pop fan named Susan Kelly, 26, splurges on tickets every so often. She lives in Long Island, so travel isn’t as much of a concern for her — even though it tempts her to buy more tickets. Her most expensive purchase was a $300 ticket at EXO’s Newark stop during their The Exo'luxion tour in 2016. “I didn’t feel bad at all,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m doing it.’”
At the same time, she’s been getting a free pass to KCON in New York almost every year. “I do a million different jobs, but my main job is I’m an artist,” she said. “I do stained glass portraiture, and I do a lot of K-pop-inspired works.” In fact, her fanart helps sustain her fandom. She’s sold pieces for upwards of $400, and her Etsy shop already had over 50 sales this year. And though she attends KCON as a guest, she now runs a few workshops at the event.
“It’s people looking from the outside in,” Luskey said of the misconceptions about K-pop fandom. “At least in America, they see a boy band, and they think, ‘Oh, teenage girls that go crazy. They don’t recognize the revenue that the older fans — male or female or however they identify — that we bring in, at least for the Stateside stuff.”
Longtime fans know the struggle of being too young to travel. Dabbs fell into the K-pop rabbit hole when she unwittingly stumbled upon a Girls’ Generation song in 2009 at age 11. But she wasn’t able to make it to a K-pop concert until 2017 when BIGBANG’s Taeyang played Atlanta. “It totally affected me, because once I could go to these [places], I maybe abused that power,” she said. “Every time a group comes, I’ll go."
To borrow an ancient phrase from the early 2010s, international fans are well-acquainted with the concept of “YOLO.” A heightened sense of ephemerality characterizes K-pop fandom in the U.S. “There’s definitely groups I’ve seen years ago that have not been back since, and they won’t be back,” Kelly said. “So you never know what will happen.” Her all-time favorite group, TVXQ, haven’t played the States since 2013.
Fans don’t know how long the K-pop craze will last in the States, and the longevity of groups is unpredictable. “I’ve had a lot of groups that I really like break up, and then I’ll really never see them again,” Dabbs said. “So it’s urgent for me to be able to see who I like.” That undercurrent of impermanence means that many are willing to pay a premium to enjoy what exists in the now.
At the end of the day, that’s the main thing that keeps fans coming back despite the costs: the happiness K-pop gives them. "I think that K-pop is such a huge part of my personality," said Dabbs. "So it’s really important for me to have those experiences and see those songs that are the soundtrack of my life at this point live."
"A lot of things go on [in life]," Kelly adds, "but I can always plug in my earphones and look at pictures of Chanyeol and be like, 'I am at peace.'"