Why K-pop girl groups are finally getting their due in America
Red Velvet, K-pop’s most colorful girl group, knows how to work an American crowd into a frenzy. The band kicked off their first U.S. tour earlier this year at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where their biggest songs were spun into a morbid narrative about an evil robot named Rêve. As soon as the girls hit the stage, you could hardly make out the music over the deafening cheers, and the group’s leader, Irene, was unable to hear her in-ear monitors.
The overwhelming response is just a taste of how in demand female K-pop acts are right now in the United States. This year, a record-setting five acts have scheduled headlining tours in the West, including Red Velvet, Oh My Girl, Sunmi, and Tiffany Young. There’s also Blackpink, who will become the first K-pop girl group to perform at Coachella (their name stands out in big font on the festival lineup, alongside mainstream artists like Janelle Monáe, the 1975, and Diplo).
This trend marks a new chapter in Korean pop music. It’s been three years since a girl group toured the States, following Apink in January 2016. Minzy, a former member of 2NE1, was the only female solo act to tour the U.S. in 2018. There have been a few more all-female tours since 2010, but you can count the total on your fingers. Resources for North American trips are generally allocated to male idols. In the past, performances by K-pop girl groups in the States have been at events like KCON, Korea Spotlight at SXSW, or the Korea Times Music Festival. Various artists — ranging from girl groups to boy groups to soloists — share the stage at these events, meaning each act only gets to play a few songs during their set. If you’re a hardcore fan of only one group, it’s hardly a full concert experience. Still, these moments have served as a testing ground for agencies to see how their artists fare abroad.
“At KCON, when these different groups come, their management also notices if there’s engagement with them,” says Winnie Galbadores, KCON’s talent relations and programming manager. “We’ve had a lot of girl groups who’ve had their first performances in America here.… It’s a great opportunity for these companies to also see where their American fans are.” The idea is that if an artist does well at a bigger event, there’s a higher likelihood for an overseas tour.
For a lot of acts, 2019 is the ideal year to strike while the iron is hot, as bands like BTS continue to breakthrough to American audiences. “BTS has opened a lot of doors in terms of mainstream America knowing what K-pop is,” says Derek Lee, president of SubKulture Entertainment, one of the biggest tour promoters for K-pop. “As a result, a lot of people are discovering all kinds of groups, whether it’s a boy group or a girl group.”
Yet female idols were the ones to lay the groundwork for the K-pop crossover. Wonder Girls was the first K-pop group to chart on the Hot 100, with “Nobody,” in 2009. Earlier that year, BoA became the first Hallyu artist to hit the Billboard 200. Then there are the Kim Sisters, who got their big break in the 1960s.
Girls’ Generation was one of the rare K-pop girl groups to target the U.S. market earlier in the decade, making their TV debut on Late Show with David Letterman in 2011. Now, one of the members, Tiffany Young, is setting her sights on her home country as a soloist. “I got to experience an amazing opportunity when we were doing American promo and press here in America with Girls’ Generation,” she tells EW over the phone. “I’m so happy that I’m here at this time when I get to embrace both the Korean and American in me in music.”
The Korean-American songstress recently embarked on her first headlining tour across eight cities in North America. Before she closed out her trip, she made a pit stop at the iHeartRadio Music Awards, where she won Best Solo Breakout. The next item on her bucket list? The festival circuit.
Young had, in fact, performed a concert in the States before going solo. Back in 2011, Girls’ Generation — along with seven labelmates at SMTOWN — sold out Madison Square Garden. Still, it’s peculiar the “Nation’s Girl Group” never toured the U.S. on their own. After all, they have several of the top-grossing girl group tours of all time (according to MTV News, their 2014 Love & Peace world trek racked up $31 million). “I was so busy and just taking it day by day, setlist by setlist, that I didn’t see the whole structure of what we were doing,” Young says. “I’ve had the chance to step back, like, ‘Why haven’t we toured yet in Girls’ Generation?’”
The U.S.-based concert promoters that specialize in K-pop rely heavily on the supply and demand determined by fandom. SubKulture Entertainment, KCON, and even Goldenvoice look to social media as a guiding light when configuring artist outreach. It just so happens that demand has historically skewed in favor of boy groups.
“In previous years, there’s always been an established notion that it was pretty hard to turn a profit with girl groups,” Lee says. The main demographic for K-pop has typically been young women. You can see that claim reinforced by SubKulture’s engagement metrics. Lee estimates that upwards of 90 percent of their social media followers have been women. The same holds true for KCON, as ladies accounted for 81 percent of attendees last year. “We’ve always tried to appeal to those girls by bringing boys over,” he says. “But we see close to half of our ticket purchasers for Red Velvet concerts are males, so now we’ve discovered a different demographic in K-pop.”
Galbadores admits that KCON’s approach to lineups were “heteronormative in the beginning,” where it was assumed that men liked girl groups, while women liked boy groups. In 2013, the Los Angeles lineup included seven male acts to the three female acts. But the gender ratio of the lineups has improved over time. The first Los Angeles date last year was split down the middle, with five male and five female acts. However, most lineup ratios still skew toward men.
But Red Velvet — who became the first girl group to work with SubKulture — and their RedMare tour have already proven that girl groups can be successful on American treks. Their first Los Angeles date sold out instantly in a venue with a capacity of nearly 3,000. And their stop at the Theatre at Grand Prairie in Dallas, with a capacity of 6,350, sold between 4,500 and 5,000 tickets — which, as Lee notes, was unheard of several years ago. However, it remains to be seen how the successful tours will affect the viability of girl groups at large. “We do see [successful girl group tours] spilling over into the rest of K-pop,” the SubKulture president says. “We just haven’t figured out which groups would be tourable or not.”
Still, the market for K-pop in the West continues to evolve. Lee thinks that girl groups will lead the next paradigm shift — not only in terms of K-pop concerts, but also how Korean entertainment is marketed in the States. “To this point, it’s been male-dominated with BTS and even Psy,” he says. “But with Blackpink appearing at Coachella, I think that’s maybe going to be a turning point in terms of girl groups being marketable in America.”
Adds Young, “It’s not just about one artist, one group. It’s everybody coming together. Representation is very, very important to me. I identified with a K-pop artist when I was a young girl too. Now there are bilingual, trilingual K-pop artists. We can represent Asian artists in general and Asian females in general.”