[Post-Covid-19 New Normal] K-pop finds solace online, but how long can it really last?
The show must go on — but where?
In a virus-stricken world where social distancing is the new norm, K-pop fans are no exception to society's new rules.
Concerts and tours have been canceled, along with showcases and fan meet-and-greet events, not to mention a whole festival where a number of different celebrities and their fans were set to come together.
The music hasn't stopped but how its enjoyed has. Fans who are cooped up in their homes are taking refuge in a place where the virus can't reach them — online.
The culture of K-pop is unique among music genres as it bases itself upon human-to-human contact. The reason fans still by hard copy CDs is to get a place at fan meet-and-greet sessions, and many are known to follow their favorite acts around the world as they tour just to catch a glimpse of the stars in person. But with the coronavirus pandemic, fans are forced to find new ways to show their support.
And its not just the fans that are adapting. Musicians and their agencies have taken their regular schedules online in a bid to maintain their unfaltering fan bases. From live streaming sessions and replaying old concerts, to personal video phone calls made by the celebrities to their fans, K-pop has evolved at a rate faster never before seen in the industry amid the pandemic.
YouTube and Instagram have become the most popular platforms for musicians to stream videos and performances. Agencies are promoting these streaming sessions as “untact” events — a portmanteau of the prefix “un” and contact, meaning “no contact” — to be safe and fun at the same time.
Another term “ontact” was also coined, adding the word “on” to emphasize that the contact takes place online.
First to move online were showcases. GFriend was supposed to meet with fans for the release of its EP “Labyrinth” on Feb. 3, but instead streamed it through Naver V Live after holding the showcase without an audience. The showcase held for the local press was conducted after a thorough inspection on each reporter’s body temperature, and everyone was required to wear masks as well as sanitize their hands before entering the concert hall. Many bands cancelled or postponed their new releases, but others who decided to tough it out such as Super Junior, Everglow and LUNA, also took shelter online.
From late February, musicians and agencies began rolling out free online performances to help console disappointed fans. Singer Sunwoojunga kicked off the trend by posting a video of her “Jazz Box” performance on her YouTube channel, followed by singer Lim Kim who performed her songs “Mong” and “Yo-soul” live in a botanical park for Universal Music’s YouTube channel in early March.
Soon, Sunwoojunga’s agency Magic Strawberry Sound followed with an online music festival featuring all the agency's artists, dubbed the “Secret Festa” on March 28.
Overseas, Chris Martin of Coldplay held his first online concert through Instagram on March 17, as well as Yungblud who performed online on the same day. Stars from all over the world joined in for a charity concert called “One World: Together At Home” in mid-April, in which SuperM was the only K-pop band to join global stars like Lady Gaga, Elton John, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Jessie J. The concert drew an audience of 3.4 million from across the globe during its eight-hour run.
According to industry insiders, this transition into the digital world definitely came unexpectedly — but it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t welcome.
“Entertainment companies and musicians have all been trying to think about how to engage the fans better using digital platforms, but the coronavirus just hastened that timing,” said a PR manager at an entertainment agency who wished to remain anonymous. “We always talked about ways in which we could do it, but we didn’t really have the chance nor the reason to make any changes. It was partly because we didn’t know how, but also because we didn’t need to — plus the fans always craved the chance to meet the celebrities in real life.”
But now, the pandemic means that musicians must adapt to survive.
Online concerts and festivals held in April included Antenna Music’s “Everything Is Okay, With Antenna” featuring the company’s artists, JYP Entertainment’s Chinese boy band Boy Story’s online concert, video sharing platform TikTok’s K-pop and hip-hop concerts, the Korea Creative Content Agency’s “Trip to K-pop” concert, Moonbyul of girl group Mamamoo’s concert, music service FLO’s “Stage & FLO” concert and Hyundai Card's "Supermarket Concert" series, just to name a few.
Two concerts jointly organized by FNC Entertainment and Kotra Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra) were held on Saturday and Sunday, while entertainment conglomerate CJ ENM’s week-long “KCON:TACT 2020 Summer” is set to take place from this weekend.
More than music
K-pop fans are known to be some of, if not the most, dedicated and loyal in the world.
This is mainly because the of the deeply personal relationships K-pop stars build with their fans and the popularity of meet and greets.
In these challenging times, celebrities had to come up with ways they could “meet” with fans without any physical contact. The solution was simple — video calls.
On April 11 and 12 before member Lee Seung-hun began his military service, boy band Winner randomly chose fans among those who bought their album CD, then called them either through LINE, WeChat or Skype. Each fan was able to talk to the boy band for two minutes, during which the stars chatted as if they were at an offline fan meet event. For a fan who had her birthday, Winner sang "happy birthday" and “took part” in blowing her candles together.
Video phone-calling fans was actually started by rookie boy band MCND that made its debut in February, which followed its chats by sending fans signed CDs later to their homes.
Boy bands Monsta X, Tomorrow X Together, Victon, and OneUs have all held video phone call sessions with fans since, as well as Sejeong of girl group Gugudan, girl group Elris and Ryu Su-jeong of Lovelyz. Singer Jung Yong-hwa of rock band CNBlue even sang a congratulatory song and recorded himself doing it, then sent the video to newly-wed couples as a present for their weddings.
Making it last
Out of all the new endeavors, one agency that is definitely paving the way is SM Entertainment, home to some of K-pop’s biggest bands such as SuperM, EXO, NCT, SHINee and Red Velvet.
SM Entertainment became the first to charge its fans for tickets to its bands’ online concerts.
Starting with the concert for boy band SuperM on April 26 on Naver’s V Live, SM Entertainment began a series of concerts titled the “Beyond LIVE” series. It charged between 33,000 won to 68,000 won for tickets to the online concert held simultaneously around the world, depending on whether the viewer just paid to view the performances or they added in options like augmented reality (AR) and a Bluetooth sync to their light sticks.
The concerts also incorporated features like mixed reality (MR) technology to add computer graphic images alongside the members performing as well as live footage of fans cheering.
“We created something that went beyond just streaming offline performances, and added new aspects that can only be realized through the online space,” said SM Entertainment. “Organizing an offline concert was different from an online one. We thought about what it would be like for fans to watch the performances at home through a screen, and tried things that couldn’t be done in real life."
SuperM’s concert sold 75,000 tickets across the world, generating at least 2.4 billion won in revenue. Boy bands NCT 127, NCT Dream, TVXQ and Super Junior followed with performances of their own and garnered the attention of tens of thousands of fans each time. The “Beyond LIVE” series will likely continue into the future with other artists under SM Entertainment, although no roster has been set yet.
Other than SM, the paid online ticket format was also adapted by BTS, who held its online concert “Bang Bang Con” on Sunday.
Will it last?
A big question remains — will these online formats become the new norm after the pandemic subsides?
Experts opinions' vary but the general consensus is that the digital realm will not remain inhabited.
“Right now, agencies and musicians are holding free concerts because they think this is something temporary and they don’t really need to make money off of them,” said Professor Lee Gyu-tag of pop music and media studies at George Mason University Korea.
“Online concerts don’t offer much more than what we can already see at offline concerts — just closer. The thrill and passion felt at a real concert can’t be replaced so the online concerts must come up with something that can’t be seen offline in order for them to really succeed."
In fact, many of the “new” events being offered are actually that new.
Online streaming has been done before and even video phone calls to fans — they just weren’t common.
The idea of transcending physical boundaries definitely has its advantages, but the key will lie in finding the one thing that the offline experience can’t offer for it to be more appealing to fans than going to actual concerts.
“The coronavirus was a timely opportunity that will definitely act as a diving point in the music industry, not just K-pop,” said music critic Cha Woo-jin. “We’ve seen that fans are ready to consume online events – we’ve seen the demand, so it’s time for the producers to develop them commercially. We know that we can enjoy performances at home, so not long after, there may come a day when offline concerts become a rarity and online concerts become the new norm. The changes have already been made in the past. This was just the opportunity that brought ideas to life.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]