[INTERVIEW] KCON's Killoren has brought K-pop to the U.S.
When Angela Killoren, CEO of CJ ENM America, first proposed a K-pop festival in the United States, people told her she was “reckless.”
That was in 2012. Flash forward to 2022, and CJ ENM’s KCON, an annual get-together for K-pop and K-culture fans from all over the United States, is an unqualified hit.
In its first year, KCON attracted a little over 10,000 enthusiasts to its activities in Los Angeles. By 2019, just before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out and when parallel festivals were held in L.A. and New York, that had grown to 147,000 combined. For the next two years, the event was held online.
This year, KCON attracted 90,000 visitors during its three-day run in L.A., cementing its reputation as a stepping stone for K-pop artists to make their way onto the global scene.
Rather than rejoicing at its success, Killoren’s dreaming up the next steps for CJ ENM America.
Having majored in East Asian studies at Columbia University, Killoren started her career at Bear Stearns, a major Wall Street investment bank. She joined CJ ENM in 2011 and was appointed CEO in 2020.
Her father was Kenneth Killoren, the first president of Sogang University, and her mother is Joanne Lee, a business woman who founded Star Communication PR agency. Angela Killoren has a deep understanding of both the U.S. and Korean culture and language.
She sat down for an interview at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Aug. 19 during KCON 2022 LA, where she spoke in native Korean. Following are edited excerpts.
Q. How do you feel seeing KCON grow so big?
A. There aren’t many “old” members from back then. Those that are still here, we gave each other a hug after we finished preparations for this year’s festival. But what made us happier than the 10th anniversary was the fact that it was back offline, because the essence of KCON lies in fans cheering and having fun. So I watched the people lining up outside from early morning. I could see a lot had changed.
What changed the most?
The fans are getting more diverse. There was a certain image of a fervent K-pop fan in the past, but now there’s nothing like that. I can see from the fans that K-pop has become just a part of another ordinary culture in the United States.
How did you feel during 2020 and 2021 when KCON had to be held online?
Even though the event had to be held online, it actually helped me work out some of the biggest problems I had been trying to solve for a long time.
The people who come to the festival are important, but I’ve always thought about how to provide the same experience to the people who couldn’t come to KCON. We can now hold the festival in a hybrid format, both online and offline. I hope people who attend online will grow to be a fan of KCON and come in person one day.
Is participation a key factor to KCON?
The hottest and most active platform among Generation Z [people born between mid-1990s to early 2010s] in the United States is TikTok. And the most popular content in Tiktok is dance videos.
Fans don’t just stop at mimicking their favorite singer, but they like to add their own color to their content. Global K-pop fans have been using the app in such a way for a long time. At CJ ENM, we even say, “Why didn’t we make TikTok first?”
People try to participate and enjoy together. U.S. fans like to show the people around them what they like. They also want to learn a lot. We get energy from such passionate fans.
What do you think is the reason K-pop is loved so much in the United States?
There’s an element of innocence that isn’t there in U.S. music.
There were more black K-pop fans at New York KCON. Why would they like K-pop, when there are some of the best pop musicians in the world that are black, like Beyonce or Drake? It’s because K-pop artists’ sincerity gives listeners consolation and moves their hearts in a way that’s contrary to the hip-hop swagger.
They like the artists’ mindset that approach the fans with sincerity and makes fans happy.
Yet, some say K-pop still isn't being treated as mainstream music in the United States. What is the barrier?
I often ask that question to people in the U.S. music market, and that makes them confused. They say, “You have BTS and Blackpink, so what makes you say you haven’t made it?”
So I would say that rather than a barrier, it’s just the uniqueness of the genre. We also have to take into account that the linguistic audience is different. It could actually be said that that K-pop, which centers on the Korean language, has managed to widen its audience despite the language difference.
I do not think that it’s because K-pop is inferior. In fact, I think it’s secured itself a position as an alternative to mainstream U.S. pop music.
KCON was your biggest project for the first half of the year. What plans do you have for the rest of the year?
We have the campaigns for films “Decision to Leave” and “Broker.” Neither have played in U.S. theaters yet. I’m determined to make them loved by the U.S. critics and Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] members.
As in the case of “Parasite,” it’s our mission to bring out the best in each work. Just because one work did well, it doesn’t mean that something similar will appeal to people. I think good marketing comes from truly showcasing a work as it is and matching the work with the people who will like such a work.
BY PARK KUN [email@example.com]