K-Pop Points to the Future of Live Music With Immersive Online Concerts

Crystal Bell

In an alternate universe, 18-year-old Brooke Morgan would be counting down the days until K-pop superstars NCT 127 kicked off their second North American tour in June. She bought her ticket to Neo City - The Awards in February, and she was excited to see her favorite group — whose chiseled faces and technicolor fringe adorn the walls of her Newport Beach bedroom — perform at The Forum in Los Angeles. It was something to look forward to, an important date in a summer schedule already packed with K-pop concerts. But that was before the world stopped.

In March, the spread of the novel coronavirus put a temporary end to live music. Major concert promoters like Live Nation have suspended concert tours for the foreseeable future, and even as states around the country slowly begin to reopen, it could be at least another six to 18 months before the live music industry is up and running again — and that will come after major financial losses. Even then, it's unlikely that things will immediately go back to normal, whatever normal may mean in a reality where coronavirus is part of our global vernacular.

The absence of live concerts has impacted fans and artists worldwide, and everyone's found their own ways to cope. Artists have taken to platforms like Instagram Live, Twitter, and YouTube to stream lo-fi performances from their living rooms. On any given day, you can watch Niall Horan strumming his guitar in his brightly lit kitchen; Ariana Grande singing her heart out (remotely) alongside composer Jason Robert Brown; and Megan Thee Stallion vibing out on TikTok. The internet has become a free, virtual music festival, which is cool for now but not very sustainable for an industry in crisis, or for fans desperate to feel the physical sensations of live music — the warm vibrations in your chest, the static humming in your head.

Enter Beyond LIVE, a collaboration between Korea's SM Entertainment (home to NCT, SuperM, EXO, and more) and tech giant Naver, that combines the intimacy of a fan-focused live stream with the spectacle of a full-scale concert production.

Described as a "new era of live music," SM announced that Beyond LIVE would launch with a series of online live concerts for four of its most prominent boy groups: SuperM, WayV, NCT Dream, and NCT 127. (Others have since been scheduled.) The first of which, SuperM's Beyond The Future concert, was broadcast live on April 26 via the V Live app in over 109 countries, followed by WayV and NCT Dream. NCT 127 is set to take the stage on May 17, giving NCTzens the opportunity to see their faves serve vocals, visuals, and choreography through their screens in real time. For Brooke, who was one of the 75,000 who purchased a virtual ticket to see SuperM perform their two-hour set live from an empty Seoul arena, the experience was so visceral that "it felt like I was rewatching the video I took at their actual concert [in San Diego]," she tells Teen Vogue.

"If you turned off the lights in your room and had your computer in front of you, it felt like you were really there," she says, adding that the augmented reality effects (including holographic tigers that leapt across the stage during a performance of their new song "Tiger Inside" and virtual lightsticks that lit up the venue's hollow audience pit), in addition to the agile camerawork that moved with the performers on stage, gave the online affair a surprisingly immersive quality. "It literally felt like you were standing on stage with them, like you were about to join the backup dancers. It's cool to see how SM has innovated."

<h1 class="title">SuperM — Beyond The Future live concert stream.</h1> <div class="caption"> <em>SuperM</em> — <em>Beyond The Future</em> live concert stream. </div> <cite class="credit">Courtesy of SM Entertainment</cite>

SuperM — Beyond The Future live concert stream.

SuperMBeyond The Future live concert stream.
Courtesy of SM Entertainment

With live music on hold for the foreseeable future, there's been an influx of virtual experiences from companies looking to engage with fans while adhering to social distancing guidelines. 88rising produced Asia Rising Forever, a five-hour Twitter live stream of pre-taped performances and segments from artists like Rich Brian, mxmtoon, LOONA, and more; Big Hit Entertainment organized Bang Bang Con, a weekend marathon of old BTS concerts streamed for free on YouTube that amassed over 50 million total views; and for 10 minutes on a Thursday in late April, 12 million Fortnite players watched a digital avatar of Travis Scott, wearing his signature Nikes, perform his new song "The Scotts" in the game. The track then topped the Billboard Hot 100.

"It's been proven that there's a global appetite for this kind of content," Danny Lee, the founder of artist management agency Asian Agent, says. Lee, who's worked with artists like BLACKPINK, Black Eyed Peas, and (G)I-DLE, looks at Scott and Fortnite's cross-platform approach as a healthy way for the industry to move forward. "From a management perspective, when your song achieves a No. 1 on Billboard, and you're able to turn that traffic into download sales and merch sales after the event, that's really exciting."

It helps, of course, that SM has been developing this kind of "culture technology" for years. At SM, art is a science to be optimized. So it's no surprise that the company is pushing the boundaries of live music even further by broadcasting full-sized concerts from inside an actual concert hall, complete with chaotic interactive challenges, a lightstick syncing service, and technology that "allowed us to chat with fans in real time and see their reactions," SuperM's Mark tells Teen Vogue. For the young rapper, it was "as if [the fans] were there in person." Dancer Ten adds, "It was really meaningful to be able to interact with our fans via video call." If Beyond LIVE is a case study, then what can the industry learn from this type of pay-per-view live programming?

"I'm very thirsty for content with all of these concerts getting canceled and not having that as an outlet anymore," Rocky Weintrob says from her bedroom in upstate New York. Though, like many fans, the 25-year-old student was initially wary of spending the money. Each Beyond LIVE concert costs roughly $27 USD, or 1,500 V coins on V Live, to stream. The steep ticket price for a purely online experience sparked a debate among fans, some of whom thought seeking profit in the middle of a global health pandemic and economic downturn was, well, a tactless move. The company even released a warning prior to the show that it would potentially take legal action against those streaming the event illegally to keep piracy to a minimum.

"The $30 ticket price was off putting to me," Sarah, who NCTzens know as @banana_uwu online, says. The 25-year-old meme maestro behind the popular account says her main concern was spending money without knowing what exactly she was paying for. "We didn't know what we were getting before the first SuperM concert, so that first one hurt a little bit," she adds. "But after seeing SuperM and WayV, and the effort that they put into the visual effects and each stage, I'm personally willing to pay $30." There's also the fact that the concert will eventually be made available on video-on-demand, so ticket holders can watch it as many times as they want. "If you want to purchase a concert DVD produced by the company, those can go for $60-plus," Brooke adds. "So you're seeing four different concerts for the price of $120." However, Sarah thinks the company should consider lowering the cost for future Beyond LIVE events. "SM was really successful with the amount of tickets that they sold, but as a sentiment overall from what I saw it was viewed as slightly too expensive for something that's not in person."

While Beyond LIVE does require a bit of disposable income, it's still a more affordable alternative to live shows, where the average concert ticket price in 2019, according to Pollstar, was $94.83. And as any K-pop fan knows, the price of seeing their idols in the flesh can sometimes quadruple that. "The minimum cost could be $60 for a nosebleed seat, and then up to $400 for a good seat," Sarah says. And those good, P1 seats often come with exclusive artist engagements, like photos and hi-touches (where artists stand in a line, palms out, and fans move down the queue to swiftly say hello and give the idols high fives). Beyond LIVE thought of that, too.

Among those who were invited to be part of the virtual audience — their faces projected in boxes on the LED screens in front of and behind the artists on stage — a handful were selected to ask the members questions during a live fan Q&A segment. Allison Clement was one of the lucky few who got to personally introduce herself to SuperM and her ultimate bias, Taemin.

A K-pop fan since 2009 (and she has the signed MBLAQ albums to prove it), the 27-year-old Florida native submitted her information through SM's fan community app Lysn on a whim. Even after she was asked to participate in the stream, she didn't fully grasp the situation until she heard Taemin say, "Hi, Allison." It still feels surreal. "You don't get that at a regular concert," she says, donning her favorite green NCT Dream barrettes. "You might get a hi-touch or a photo opportunity, but hi-touches happen so quickly — you pass by and people rush you, and you don't always get to say anything to them. This was completely different."

Not only did she get to ask Taemin a question, but she also created the concert series's first viral moment when instead of waiting for English-speaking member Mark to translate Taemin's response from Korean to English, she utilized her own knowledge of the Korean language, surprising the members and viewers watching from around the globe. "What I said was really basic," she says humbly. "I said, 'I can only speak a little bit' in Korean, and [Taemin] still smiled so brightly. To know that was because of me? I'll never experience that again."

It's a feeling that Alba Roa Marin shares. The 22-year-old WayV fan from Seville, Spain, had a similar out-of-body experience when she asked member Hendery to recount his most memorable day. "Most of the people who thanked me [on Twitter] were like, 'I'm so glad that you picked Hendery,'" she says. "And of course I'm going to pick him, I love him to death." Alba knows that an opportunity like this — face time with a member of WayV, an Asian group primarily focused on the Asian market — is also rare for a European fan. "I love WayV," she says. "They're one of my ultimate groups, and when I saw the merch on sale, I thought, 'They're not going to come to Europe anytime soon, so I need to buy this.'" She bought an AR ticket set, which included an AR ticket, a Hendery AR photocard, a ticket holder, and a photo stand. The merch bundle also came with a code to stream the concert. "They know what they're doing," she adds wryly. "I buy many things just because it has a picture of my fave."

But while Alba appreciates the virtual interactions, it still doesn't replace the energy of a live show. "When I watch a concert online, it's like watching a YouTube video," she says. "They're performing somewhere I cannot attend. But at an actual concert, even if I'm far away and cannot see them properly, I know I'm there. It's the feeling of sharing the moment with them. For me, the experience of talking with them was through a screen — I had no real interaction. Even if I was lucky enough to talk to them, it feels for me like it wasn't real? I don't know how to explain it."

Luckily, Jessica Grahn, a music neuroscientist and researcher at Western University's Brain and Mind Institute, can. "When people are watching live music inside a venue, they are generally more aroused," she says. In this connotation, arousal is a measure of energy and engagement, but essentially what this means is that there is more activity in your nervous system when you're at a live show. "You are more absorbed when you're listening to a live performance versus any kind of recorded performance," Grahn says. That, in turn, can greatly affect your overall mood and mental health. It's what music therapists like New York City-based private practitioner David Marcus refer to as an "affirmative experience."

"K-pop has been an escape, something that's changed my life for the better. So to see companies and artists find new and exciting ways to make fans feel seen and appreciated is really special."

But can that experience be replicated over video-streaming platforms? Yes and no. "One of the things you can do at a concert is sing along and shout things out, where your actions might have an impact," Grahn says. Those actions will also influence the people around you. Think about it: Have you ever started cheering because the person next to you was? Or chanting your favorite artist's name in your section to get their attention? Human connection is an essential aspect of concert-going.

For SHINee and Taemin superfan Alyssa Gecosala, Beyond LIVE mimicked that sense of community as best as the technology allowed. Fans were frequently unmuted in an effort to recreate the buzz of a live event. Members of the audience also had a separate chat room on the platform where they could all communicate in real time, which became especially vital for translations. "One of the [SuperM] members would be talking, and we'd put in the chat, 'Hey, what did they say?' And someone in the chat would translate it immediately," the 27-year-old from Chicago says. By the end of the show "no one really wanted to leave the video call."

"We were exchanging contact information and Twitter handles," she says. "I started following Allison."

Yet, by watching something through a screen, live or not, Marcus says there's still a level of social detachment that affects your overall experience as a fan. In other words, Beyond LIVE may give you a closer-than-barricade view in 1080p ("I love that I could see their pores and their sweat," Alyssa smiles), but it doesn't emit the same kind of emotional and physical rush. "It felt pretty solitary to me," Rocky says. "Fandom is a lot more tangible at an actual concert."

So much of K-pop fandom is experienced online that moments where artists and fans can come together feel especially vital. But, as Allison reasons, this is our new normal, at least for now. "This is a virus," she says. "It's not going away anytime soon. I don't think it's going to be safe to get together for concerts, so this might be the way to still have that fan connection."

For fans like Brooke, who won't be seeing NCT 127 this summer as planned (On May 15, NCT 127 officially announced the cancelation of their North American tour), Beyond LIVE has been a beacon of light in otherwise uncertain times. "K-pop has been an escape, something that's changed my life for the better," she says. "So to see companies and artists find new and exciting ways to make fans feel seen and appreciated is really special."

During this unprecedented and extended period of isolation, feeling seen is all any of us want, even if that acknowledgement comes from a face thousands of miles away through a screen with a spotty Wi-Fi connection. And as the industry starts to weather a summer without traditional live events, the Beyond LIVE model will serve as a blueprint — a premium online concert that engages fans in real time and drives concrete results via Twitter trends, digital song streams, and merch sales. In June, KCON, an annual convention-meets-concert that brings K-pop artists and Asian pop culture to cities worldwide, will follow SM's lead with their own interactive online event: KCON:TACT 2020 SUMMER. The week-long global YouTube stream, hosted on Mnet's channel, will mix live performances from Seoul with pre-taped content, influencer panels, and virtual meet and greet sessions with the artists themselves. Of course, the interaction will come at a cost: The event will combine ticketed and free elements. Also in June? Bang Bang Con The Live, a pay-per-view live stream that will connect hitmakers BTS to hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world for 90 minutes of intimate performances to celebrate their seventh anniversary. ARMY are already eagerly awaiting the arrival of their special edition ARMY Bombs, counting down the days until tickets are available for pre-order on June 1. The excitement on social media is palpable, and the world is slowly starting to turn again.

"Nothing is going to replace the live experience," Lee says. "URL cannot replace IRL." But a successful integration of the two? Now, that's the future.

This story has been updated to include NCT 127's concert cancelation announcement.

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