Day 6

K-pop bands are redefining live music, fan experiences with virtual concerts

Mega-popular K-pop groups like BTS have been experimenting with hybrid live-and-virtual concerts. Experts say the business model is so profitable, it will likely continue well after the pandemic is over.

For K-pop fans around the world, virtual shows have allowed them to connect with their favourite idols

Jimin, J-Hope, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Suga, and V of BTS perform onstage during the 2021 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 21, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Olivia Rodrigo, BTS, Billie Eilish to perform at Grammys during next month's ceremony in Las Vegas. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

When Elain Subido became a fan of South Korean boy band BTS during the pandemic, the only way she could experience their music live was in her living room.

With in-person concerts cancelled and music venues closed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Subido tuned in from her Ottawa home via livestream to catch them performing in Seoul.

Due to time zone differences, that meant she would have to wake up at 5 a.m. just to catch concert live. Despite getting up early, Subido says it is worth it just to see her favourite idols up close on screen.

"Even though I'm watching it from my house in the living room, it feels like we're there because it's happening live. It's happening right at that moment," she said in an interview with Day 6. 

Elain Subido became a fan of South Korean boy band BTS during the pandemic. (Submitted by Elain Subido)

Now that concerts are coming back in-person, BTS will close off their final two of four shows this weekend in Las Vegas. 

Subido is among approximately 200,000 fans who will be in Las Vegas to watch the group perform in person over four concert dates. However, she says she's grateful that BTS has allowed her to see them virtually over the past year. 

'Democratizing' the concert experience

Throughout the pandemic, K-pop groups like BTS have embraced new ways of performing live music through virtual platforms. 

The shows are incredibly elaborate, featuring complex choreography and multiple costume changes, as well as high-production value and camera work. 

For fans who don't want to miss a moment, some live streams have a multi-view option, where you can watch the concert from up to six different camera angles. 

Experts like Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of East Asian popular cultures at the University of Toronto, says the transition to virtual streaming platforms wasn't that drastic, as the shows aren't very different from how K-pop artists have performed pre-pandemic.

"The main distribution medium for K-pop live performance is actually televised music shows in South Korea. So, K-pop artists are really well trained to perform to a camera as well as to a live audience," she said. 

Virtual concerts are also cheaper than a BTS stadium show , with tickets ranging from $58 to 69. Live concert tickets, comparatively, can range from $75 for nosebleed seats to $567 for VIP passes. 

Cho says that virtual shows allow more fans to see their favourite groups live without having to pay for travel and compete for pricey concert tickets. 

"It's really kind of democratizing the concert experience so that you don't have to be in a particular region of the world, or have a certain class status. I think that you are able to participate in many ways, regardless of those factors," said Cho, who studies fandom as part of her research.

The virtual concerts are extremely profitable for the group, too.

Michelle Cho is an assistant professor of East Asian popular cultures at the University of Toronto. (Submitted by Michelle Cho)

During their most recent concerts in Seoul in March, BTS performed in front of 45,000 live audience members in Olympic Stadium while livestreaming two of their shows online.

A third concert was broadcast in movie theatres across 75 countries. BTS made a total of $113 million in ticket sales from those shows, according to CedarBough Saeji, an assistant professor of Korean and East Asian studies at Pusan National University in South Korea. 

Government heavily invested in using K-pop as 'soft power'

Throughout the pandemic, K-pop groups like SHINee, Blackpink, Twice and NCT 127 have also held their own livestream concerts. However, the K-pop industry has been experimenting with virtual performances since before the pandemic, too.

Record labels like SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment have created special concert halls built specifically to accommodate both live and virtual performances. Girl groups like aespa have also entered the virtual world, with each member of the girl group depicted by computer-generated, artificial intelligent versions of themselves called avatars. 

"I think that now, with the technological push that the pandemic has given ... we're going to see even more of that sort of content being developed and being offered," said Saeji,

The South Korean government, which has already been spending heavily to promote Korean pop culture — also known as Hallyu— is even taking notice of the success of virtual concerts, Saeji says. 

CedarBough Saejian is an assistant professor Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan National University in South Korea. (Submitted by CedarBough Saeji)

In the 2021 budget, the finance ministry set aside $738 million to promote Hallyu, with $49.5 million earmarked for streaming platforms and visual content. In the same year, the government launched a metaverse alliance, with over 200 companies and institutions to strengthen partnership in virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence sectors. 

"In May of 2021, the government launched this metaverse alliance with over 200 companies and institutions cooperating with the government. And from the 2022 budget, they earmarked $8 billion [US] towards digital transformation." 

"Obviously, the government is heavily invested in using K-pop as a soft power," Saeji said.

Here to stay

After seeing the success of BTS's virtual concerts, Cho thinks K-pop groups will opt for a hybrid format when it comes to live shows, even after the pandemic ends.

That means groups will welcome an in-person audience, while streaming the concert worldwide at the same time. 

"The benefits are huge," she said. "The technological infrastructure already exists, and it's just going to get better. There's really no downside to continuing to do these remote broadcasts while also playing to a live audience." 

South Korean boy band BTS said on Friday they hoped their new digital single Dynamite refreshes fans and helps them recharge their batteries as they cope with the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Big Hit Entertainment/YouTube)

As for fans like Elain Subido, she says she will continue paying for virtual concerts even when BTS are allowed to tour in stadiums worldwide again.

 Knowing that she can't afford or take time off to see the band at every show, this gives her an option to stay connected with her favourite band and other fans.

"Every concert day is different from the other concert days," she said. "I will definitely still watch it because I don't want to miss anything." 

Written and produced by Samantha Lui.

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