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How Close is India to its First Large-scale K-pop Concert?

Max Jang, founder of Maxperience, breaks down the process of hosting a K-pop concert and tells us if India is ready to host a full-blown K-pop concert or not

Divyansha Dongre May 28, 2022

Max Jang. Founder, Maxperience. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

How Indian K-pop Fans Put The Country On The Radar

Let’s get one thing straight: India is a lucrative market for K-pop and K-drama. With India consistently ranking in streaming counts for various K-pop songs on Spotify and YouTube, and making regular appearances on Twitter’s annual rundown charts as one of the top 10 countries driving conversations around K-pop globally, one thing is indisputable – Indian K-pop fans have cracked the code to spotlighting the country as the next big market for K-pop. From here on, it’s up to the music business leaders to see how best they can leverage the groundwork that’s already beautifully laid out.

Fandom efforts, however, don’t end at spotlighting the Indian market globally. At a localized level, we’ve already started experiencing its butterfly effect. Like any cohesive marketing team driving the sales of your favorite brands, K-pop fandoms have channeled the hidden marketers in them to execute some of the most thought-through and creatively robust campaigns around their favorite group’s music release. Often dubbed as comeback goals, these expansive efforts target various channels to drive streams, view counts and chatter. Of course, the core objective has always been to rack up the YouTube views and streaming numbers on DSP. However, a secondary effect of this comes in the form of organic news coverage where several media outlets report on the group’s breaking streaming records. While this has been the norm for nearly half a decade, the interest in K-pop amongst the Indian audience experienced an unfathomable rise during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.

Over the past five years, there has been a significant rise in online chatter around K-pop. According to Google Trends, web searches for the term ‘K-pop’ shot up since March 2020 (around the same time that the world went into a lockdown as a result of COVID-19) and the interest has been on the rise till this day. The top queries during this period were largely around generic terms (K-pop and K-pop idol). However, groups such as EXO, BTS and BLACKPINK, and their members Jung Kook (BTS), Lisa (BLACKPINK) and V (BTS), secured spots in the top-25 search list.

Web searches around the term K-pop between 27th April, 2017-27th May, 2022

Elsewhere, on YouTube, the interest in K-pop was always prevalent with peaks seen between May 2017 and July 2017, and December 2018 and December 2019. With everyone locked inside their homes and K-pop edits like those of BTS dancing to “Chunari Chunari” going viral, the interest in the genre shot up and has been following a similar trend since. 

YouTube Searches around the term K-pop between 27th April, 2017-27th May, 2022

According to an analysis of YouTube’s data by JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, India was the second-highest country to have streamed BTS’ official and lyric videos between March 2021 and February 2022 (1,650,000,000 streams), leaving behind countries like the United States, Thailand, Brazil, Philippines and Korea – all of which have hosted large-scale K-pop concerts and festivals in the past. In the case of BLACKPINK, India ranked first, contributing 823,000,000 views, and was the second-highest country to have streamed I.U’s official and lyric videos. As for TWICE and Stray Kids, India secured the seventh spot, contributing 150,000,000 and 59,500,000 views, respectively. 

Slowly but steadily, K-pop became a household name. In December 2020, Spotify revealed BTS as the most-streamed act in India overall and the only international act to make the list of top-five most streamed artists in the country. Soon, we started seeing a rise in vernacular and national publications monitoring and reporting on the industry. Primetime news shows followed shortly with a few of them dedicating as much as a 30-minute slot to discuss BTS and their impact on today’s youth. Hearing your favorite K-pop songs playing at malls, stores or even on the radio became a regular affair and before we knew it, global brands such as McDonald’s and MAC were rolling out K-pop-centric product launches in India (which, might I add, sold out like hot cakes).

The numbers accounted for over the years speak volumes. Indian K-pop fans are clearly a force to be reckoned with. Yet, we are still to witness a large-scale K-pop concert or festival. So, where is the disconnect? Why is India consistently overlooked when K-pop labels plan a group’s world tour?

The answer essentially lies in a lack of infrastructure, states Maxperience’s founder, Max Jang. “To do live events, I believe the infrastructure of India should be more developed because when Koreans tour foreign countries, they really care about the hospitality and technical bits.”

Is India ready?

Formed in 2015, Maxperiece has been connecting Korea to the rest of Asia. Founded on Jang’s belief that “entertainment is a gateway to culture,” the firm has been handling various celebrity endorsement projects, press requests and large-scale concert appearances for over half a decade. Jang, who started as a booking agent for DJs, got the idea of starting his venture after a brief conversation with a colleague: “I was staying in Singapore and met a Japanese guy who was exporting Japanese movies to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. He asked me, ‘Max, you are Korean. So why don’t you bring some Korean content to Asia because there is a Korean wave?’ I then went around asking my potential clients, ‘If I bring Korean content, are you willing to buy?’ and they said yes.'”

Jang’s initial gig started from a place of familiarity – bringing Korean DJs to Asian countries. But his ambitions to expand into K-pop and work with A-list clients needed more work. “Korean management… they are very conservative and very cautious when it comes to working with people they don’t know. I never gave up on trying to find out how I can get access to A-list management companies. That was a hard, hard time – I knocked on the door like 100 times but never gave up. Later, I met a good person who was lucky for me. He opened the door for me to [rock band] F.T. Island from FNC Entertainment. Soon after, we hosted F.T. Island’s fan meeting in Taiwan, back in 2017.”

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From planning F.T. Island’s first fan meet to organizing large-scale appearances and celebrity endorsements from the likes of PSY, NCT DREAM, EXO’s Sehun, Park Seojoon, Park Hyungsik and more, Jang has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about live shows, endorsements and Korean entertainment along the way. “India is definitely one of our top countries, we want to develop more. That’s why we are trying to arrange a lot of Korean celebrity interviews with Indian media channels,” he says.

Jang is a man of the people and believes in adapting. Embodying the essence of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ the entrepreneur trusts that the key to opening doors to cross-country events and business deals lies in the relationships you build: “I realized that in the entertainment industry, trust and reputation are the most important things. I used to live in many different countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, Bangkok, Jakarta, Taipei, etc. The reason why I lived in these places is to understand the cultural business. I believe in global business, understanding the local culture and their language is everything. So wherever I go, I’m trying to learn about their culture. If I am in India, I’m Indian. It helps us get a lot of trust from the media channels, clients and event promoters.”

“I have attended EDM festivals in India,” Jang recalls. “It was really exciting. I mean, the quality was really good. But DJs and artists or idol groups think differently.” What Jang says next is the unspoken rule of business that can potentially open the door for K-pop concerts in India. It’s a lesson that is often never taught and only experienced once you step out of the comfort of your classroom: “We’ll bring more Korean top stars [to India]. I believe the [local] host should be a company that understands the Korean culture and how the Korean management thinks. If that can be solved, more and more Korean management [companies] will look into the Indian market.”

So far, Jang has identified two potential areas holding India back from its first major K-pop concert – a lack of infrastructure and a weak grasp over the Korean business and cultural landscape. However, the question arises, are these areas a cause of concern for small-scale concerts and festivals? “[For] smaller and emerging artists [lack of infrastructure] is okay for them. Promoters who want to invest in K-pop concerts also need to learn. They can start from smaller, emerging artists and learn the lessons on how they can treat the Korean artists when they come to [India]. Yeah, I was talking about infrastructure [being a cause for concern] for the big acts like BIGBANG, BLACKPINK, BTS or GOT7.”

https://twitter.com/GOT7/status/1528351862109315072?s=20&t=B1aYqoXX_-asZpcL1zMBqQ

When it comes to concerts, be it K-pop or a show for a Western pop star, sponsors play a crucial role in influencing the decision of whether India can be a tour stop. Alco-beverage brand Kingfisher has often sponsored multiple Sunburn and other EDM festivals in India in exchange for solid brand traction and promotion, and K-pop is no different. “They [sponsors] want to promote their products and their brand. That’s why they try to invest in the concert. K-pop fans are different from fans of [western] pop stars; they’re more aggressive and engaging, making the [K-pop] artist’s engagement levels higher than that of other artists.” 

As for K-pop labels and artist management companies, the capacity of the venue and whether the artist fee can be met are two factors taken into consideration before agreeing on touring a specific venue. According to Jang, barring China and Japan, Thailand and Taiwan are big markets for live events. A promoter or sponsor is likely to invest in these markets as opposed to India as they guarantee profits. Flight, accommodation and artist fees will always be taken care of, but if the show fails to generate profits, the sponsor migt not invest in any future event.

So, how can the profit deficit be met? “The income mainly comes from ticketing and sponsorship from brands,” Jang explains. “However, ticketing is not mature in emerging [music] markets yet. Take Vietnam, for example. Their market is not mature in ticket selling, even though their GDP is higher than other countries in Southeast Asia like Myanmar and Laos. However, people’s spending habits are not flexible. They feel like, ‘Oh, why should we pay? We should go there [to a live show] for free.’ I think India might be in the same situation at the moment.

Gauging the price of a K-pop concert based on the ticket pricing implemented in other countries is almost a natural human instinct. However, this is an incorrect method as the cost of tickets depends on various factors such as the venue and artist fees, logistics, travel, accommodation and ticketing-platform service fees, adjusted to the rate of inflation the country is currently experiencing. Say, the cost of BTS’ Gold Sound Check package is going for $500 in the U.S (roughly INR 39,000). There is then a high possibility that this price will not sustain in the Indian market. “We need to check whether the artist can pull the crowd, fill the capacity and have fans who are willing to spend money for the tickets,” Jang says. He touches upon the mindset of promoters before handpicking which artist tours India. “We then factor in how much the artist is asking. If that amount is not profitable, even though we covered the cost, then it may not work. The local promoter should make a profit.”

Fans often rely on streaming numbers to display their dominance and demand for a particular artist in a country. Jang agrees that streaming numbers are necessary, but so are album sales. “Album sales is the standard of how the management makes the decision to tour a specific country, as it shows that people are willing to spend money for their artist. Streaming numbers and social media counts are important, but these do not show whether an artist can sell tickets or not,” Jang explains.

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Though album sales are crucial, India is yet to have an official retailer. Until then, fans will have to rely on placing their orders through third-party websites. Jang mulls upon this drawback, offering an alternative approach to tackling this issue. “There should be a lot of commercial deals,” he states, referring to commercial brand deals and advertisements. “People will see these and go like ‘Oh, who is that? ‘Who is that guy?’ They might wonder and even search on Google. I also think there should be more and more exposure for K-pop contests in India and unity for live events or commercial ads.”

“I think that’s also a good strategy,” Jang agrees when we discuss whether collaborations with Bollywood and Indian musicians would be a good way to get more Indians interested in K-pop. “See, Bollywood opens doors to engage with potential Indian fans from India. This will also make the K-pop market bigger in India. We are quite open to exploring such a project.”

These are all short-term solutions for a dream shared by millions – a dream that stretches to a point where fans get to spend their summer catching their favorite K-pop group perform live along with their Internet friends who share the same passion and fandom as them. However, efforts will be futile unless both India and South Korea take an interest in the cultural and business landscape each operates within. “To be honest, most artist management companies don’t know about the Indian market. They don’t know the language Indians speak. Personally, I have toured northern India and been to a lot of different regions like Delhi, Varanasi, Manali and Rajasthan. But the Korean management… they don’t know the social situation or what’s happening in India. So they think, ‘Oh, I don’t know this country,’ and don’t consider the market,” Jang explains. He continues, “When I meet people from the entertainment industry, I always explain the importance of the Indian market to them, and people are slowly starting to look at India as a potential market. I always tell them that India is a country where people love content and entertainment. So I believe that if there’s an exchange of values between both countries, then yeah, K-pop could be big in India as well.”

K-pop and local brand endorsements: A possibility?

Jang goes on to talk about the possibilities of K-pop artists endorsing brands in India. Citing this as one of his biggest goals for the year, he continues, “After the pandemic, we are really focusing on artists’ PR and brand-endorsement deals. Last year, we did like 20 different deals for brand ambassadors in Southeast Asian countries, and India is one of the potential markets we are looking at right now. That’s why we are trying to do more interviews with a lot of Indian media channels and are also discussing [brand endorsement deal] with Coca-Cola India.”

“It’s a work in progress,” he continues. “But it’s not confirmed yet. I’m not discussing this directly with Coca-Cola, there is a local agency for this. We are discussing it with them [local agency] to make it possible. Indian K-pop fans will literally love it. So, I want to do something commercial in India. “

That last statement is the perfect segue to inform Jang about the absolute craze (and every brand’s dream scenario) the BTS Meal caused in India. Released on June 1st, 2021, the limited-edition McDonald’s BTS Meal featured the septet’s favorite order: chicken nuggets, fries and Coca-Cola, along with two dipping sauces – cajun and sweet chili. Enclosed in a purple takeout box and a brown paper bag with the band’s logo (also in purple), getting your hands on the BTS Meal was as difficult as pinning a medal on a shadow. The chances of finding life on Mars seemed more plausible than stepping into your nearest McDonald’s store and finding the BTS Meal. Luckily, I was able to get my hands on it on the day of its launch. Unfortunately, I never got to taste the flavors of cajun and sweet chili sauces ever again. Unfathomable, intense and somehow, expected – such was the demand for the BTS Meal in India.

“I want to personally support the local brand rather than global brands. Brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mcdonald’s and Samsung are definitely good for profit, but we want to support a local brand to become more popular and successful in the local country through K-pop idols. That’s why we are trying to deliver Korean content to local brands. Currently, K-pop idols are brand ambassadors for local brands in Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, etc. So for India, we will fully support it if there is a potential opportunity for brands that are willing to collaborate with Korean celebrities.”

When will the waiting game end?

This goes without saying, but the COVID-19 pandemic may have put India a few years behind, especially in the case of live events. Sure, the country is slowly opening up and consumers are willing to invest in live events (all that pent-up frustration of the grueling lockdowns needs to be expelled somewhere). Just recently, Justin Bieber announced he’ll be touring India later this year. This marks Bieber’s second show in India, proving that his debut Indian showcase checked off all the boxes, giving sponsors the confidence to host him again. 

As far as K-pop concerts go, the decision lies in the hands of leaders in the market. Several K-pop groups and solo artists have always expressed their desire to tour India. Personally, I have not profiled a single artist that has not been keen on performing and interacting with their Indian fans. While infrastructure will always be a pressing point, it will eventually catch up. In the meantime, both countries can take this space to sensitize themselves about each other’s cultural and business nuances. After all, business is built on relationships. Jang’s insights are truly eye-opening. Infrasture has always been highlighted as the major drawback thwarting India’s prospects of hosting bigger K-pop acts such as BTS or BLACKPINK. However, no one has openly discussed how ambiguity around the cultural and business landscapes also plays a significant role in determining whether a country is truly ready to host a K-pop act.  

Until then, fans can continue supporting the artists through channels that have proven to be successful, and these include streaming on Spotify and YouTube, or trending hashtags on Twitter. Every effort put in by fans will bring them one step closer to the ultimate dream. Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, right? 

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