Kulture Kolumn: The Problem With K-pop Live Shows in India
Ticket pricing, parental permission and media coverage all play a part in K-pop’s endeavour to break into the Indian live show space
I have a lot of mixed feelings about the K-pop audience in India. There are plenty of unanswered questions that bug me on the daily and seeing my social media timelines flood with artists announcing their 50th North American tour doesn’t really help. Now it’s true 2019 has been the best year so far for desi K-pop fans; we’ve had five South Korean acts make their debut in the country, starting with IN2IT and AleXa in April, followed by VAV in May, KARD in July and singer Jang Hanbyul in June. IN2IT and AleXa returned to attend and perform at the K-pop Contest Finale last weekend while K-pop trio Mont who visited India last year are set to return in September (and hopefully check out the rest of India outside the North East this time.) So clearly there’s something about us the artists seem to like. But why has it taken so long to be considered a touring destination?
Over the past year I’ve been digging a little deeper into K-pop concert culture in India. The biggest issue is of course that we just don’t have enough numbers. There’s no data to present to artists who are interested in coming and a lot of it rides on them making the decision to take a leap of faith and test the market. Now, most A-list K-pop acts draw an audience of around 10,000 per show in the U.S. K-pop juggernaut BTS’ Love Yourself Tour was stadium-only and pulled around 30,000 to 40,000 per concert (45,000 in one day during the Bangkok show I attended in April!) G-Dragon’s was another I had the privilege to attend in Bangkok in 2017 and I saw 20,000 fans gather to watch the final leg of his M.O.T.T.E. tour. GOT7 reportedly drew 24,000 fans during their Eyes On You Tour across Berlin, Moscow and Paris (which I attended as well and can attest to.) India’s biggest show so far, which was KARD’s in July, saw an estimated total of 4000 across two cities.
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It’s a little overwhelming when you compare these stats, and fan discussions all over social media can provide a better understanding of why. Yesterday, I started (yet another) poll on my Twitter account asking fans if India is ready for large scale K-pop concerts, i.e., 20,000-strong audiences, and this one led to the most fascinating discussions so far. One of the major points consistently brought up was the cost of tickets. Ticket pricing for artists like BlackPink, BTS, GOT7 etc begin at around $150 which is around INR 10,300–a price most average urban families would consider obscene for a concert of an artist they aren’t too familiar with. The solution is of course stripped-down, custom-shows for India which artists like VAV and KARD have already done. “I sometimes feel if K-industry wants India to notice Kpop/Hallyu wave they can come down to audience level too,” said India-based Twitter user @LilOctupie. “Like we don’t need huge sets like other concerts. Just seeing them perform is enough. So they can reduce the price for audience here, where majority [of K-pop fans] are students.”
Getting the price right for each K-pop show is tricky business. Most Indian K-pop fans seem to fall in the age range between 12 to 20 years old and rely on saving enough pocket money and gift money to purchase tickets and merch. Telling K-pop artists and their management about this leads to a lot of shocked faces all around. Pricing will have to be re-worked just for the Indian audience which means stage designs, sets and crew numbers change for an India tour, so immediately there is (understandable) hesitation. But as of now, this seems to be the best solution. “[I don’t know] if I make sense but if prices are low for big artists like Got7, Seventeen, BTS, EXO I feel neighboring countries will also be interested,” continues @LilOctupie in another tweet. “Even America got a free concert to promote in the beginning. We are not even asking them for free but at price which audience can afford.” Comfortable GA (general admission) pricing most fans seem to agree on hover around INR 5000 ($70) for bigger acts, which means there isn’t much chance of breaking even–this in turn keeps promoters and investors at bay. Companies who have brought K-pop artists here like Namas-K (IN2IT and AleXa) or KIWA (VAV) are largely doing so at their own cost because they’re willing to risk it and build an atmosphere for K-pop concert culture by pricing GA tickets as low as INR 1000 ($14.)
Is India ready for large-scale (20,000+ attendance) K-pop concerts yet? For context, KARD’s New Delhi show saw an attendance of around 1200 and Guwahati somewhere around 2000–and they are an A-list group.
— Riddhi Chakraborty (@thisisridz) August 1, 2019
Ticket pricing leads right into another big issue: parental permission. Combine parents controlling the household expenses with India’s conservative culture and you have yourself a rather difficult situation. Regular concert culture in general is sort of a new thing for most of urban India. Maybe it’s because the number of major artists visiting the country is that low (read Justin Bieber or Coldplay and Jay-Z’s one and done visits) or perhaps the image connected to concerts is unsavory, but parents just don’t seem to trust live show atmospheres. If you add the aspect of having to travel to another city as a student to catch a live act and it’s near impossible to get permission to attend; most teens aren’t even allowed out after curfews. “My parents wouldn’t allow me to travel for a concert,” says 19-year-old Mumbai student Siddhi Konduskar about not being able to see KARD live in New Delhi or Guwahati. “That’s like the only reason why for me.”
Another reason K-pop concerts in India haven’t pulled in bigger numbers is poorly-timed concert announcements. KARD’s show was announced just a month in advance and for most of us, even those of us who are working professionals, it isn’t enough time to book flight tickets and accommodation. I personally could not attend for this very reason–our country is massive and a round-trip flight ticket to New Delhi even a month before can go up to INR 16,000–around $200. “Not everyone who wants to attend can attend,” said Twitter user @rubalasuresh. “That’s the problem. I wanted to see KARD, but a Delhi trip would cost me (INR) 50k. Cant afford.” Mumbai-based filmmaker Ruchi Sawardekar voices similar concerns. “I mean we all genuinely couldn’t go for KARD because it was a Friday night in New Delhi and the dates were announced a month in advance. It would have been too expensive.”
Other than these usual issues, one Twitter user who goes by the handle @Ilanvana looked at the rarely examined bigger picture: “K-pop needs more of media attention in India,” they said. “A lot need to be made aware of it much less become fans. It is only recently that I have started seeing news articles- in South India – about BTS and such.” It’s a good point: Most of the media in the country have been producing articles with titles like ‘The K-pop Wave Hits India’ since mid-2018 and it’s tiring that news cannot evolve beyond this. K-pop is being treated as an alien ‘invasion,’ a passing fad with no substance, because there’s no effort made to explain the artistry or integrate it . A few major publications like The Times of India, its subsidiaries and the Hindustan Times do cover more news around industry leaders BTS’ achievements these days–awards won, fan initiatives and UN-related projects are reported upon–but none of it evolves into longer pieces that discuss their artistry. Vice India recently re-uploaded a year-old documentary about the Indian K-pop scene instead of examining it’s rapid evolution since 2018. Other than Rolling Stone India, there are no Indian publications featuring regular interviews with artists either.
All is not lost however, and it’s mostly because Indian K-pop fans are a force to be reckoned with. They’re constantly coming up with ideas that can help serve as a solution. “Maybe we could start with a mini-Kcon but that would prob not breakeven because we know most fans are from big fanbases,” says Twitter user @forevergoofy. “But big ones don’t have the scale for India shows. Maybe we could start with popular rookie concerts.” They go on to cite artists like ATEEZ and TXT as acts that could help expand the concert wave thanks to their unique status as powerful rookies who are touring but still developing their live shows and might therefore take a shot at testing India. Desi fans are growing in number and have made a powerful mark in online fan communities through charity initiatives, Twitter trends, dance covers, competitions (this year’s Changwon International K-pop Contest’s India rounds saw over 3000 entries) and much more. All the K-pop artists who have visited so far have been received warmly with airport greetings, loud cheering and solid attendance at most shows, free or paid.
From the artists’ side, there is an infinite amount of interest in what Indian fans and culture are like. ATEEZ made the effort to try Indian food their fans had recommended, while IN2IT and AleXa reciprocated the dance cover culture with a performance to “The Jawaani Song” from 2019 Bollywood film Student of the Year 2. Artists like Pentagon, WINNER, Mrshll, GOT7’s Jackson, Monsta X’s Wonho and more have all expressed interest in visiting India someday while NCT’s Taeyong spoke about his love for Indian singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad’s music on a recent livestream. The release and widespread distribution of BTS’ three films Burn the Stage: The Movie (2018), Love Yourself in Seoul (2019) and the upcoming Bring the Soul: The Movie (2019) in India is a massive acknowledgement of their Indian fanbase, as is their first ‘official merchandise’ in the country through a recent collaboration with beauty brand Innisfree. Twitter user @Priyash85541805 feels this is all just the beginning and it’s only a matter of time before K-pop breaks into the local concert market. “India has just entered the k-pop world..it needs time to adjust,” she said. “Indians’ mindset has to change on how they view kpop..so we can’t expect 20k people in India.. maybe after 5 years we can when Indians get used to k-pop.”