Nearly four years ago, BLACKPINK made history. Performing on Coachella’s Sahara stage in 2019, the powerhouse group became the first female K-pop act to appear at the festival (and proved they deserved such a title). At the time, their booking felt like a momentous feat and a signal that a tide was turning – interest in K-pop was rapidly rising in the west, but it was still flying under the radar almost a decade after PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ became a global phenomenon.
Now, as BLACKPINK are invited back to the Californian desert to take their place as headliners, things have changed. Korean culture is very much a dominant force right now, with creatives from the country leading everything from music to film and TV, fashion and beauty to food. According to Duolingo, in 2021, Korean was the second-fastest-growing language on the app.
On festival bills in the US, more and more K-pop acts are popping up among their western counterparts. Last year, BTS rapper J-hope became the first South Korean artist to headline a main stage at a US festival with his triumphant Lollapalooza performance while a day prior, Tomorrow X Together became the first K-pop artist to appear at the Chicago festival. In December, SEVENTEEN took over LAC3 alongside Snoop Dogg, Lil Baby, Maluma and more, and back in 2019, MONSTA X took a trip to Las Vegas for Life Is Beautiful. When a mocked-up version of this year’s Coachella line-up circulated online last week, its proposition that boyband CIX – popular but not one of the biggest acts to make an impact outside of Korea – could have been booked by the festival wasn’t surprising (alas, the rumour was too good to be true).
K-pop’s growth in the west hasn’t just been confined to the US, although you might think it to look at UK festival line-ups. Where the likes of Coachella have been proactive and open-minded in embracing Korean artists’ increasing popularity, Britain is lagging far behind. So far, just one K-pop act has been unveiled to be heading to British fields this summer – BLACKPINK once again making history at London’s BST Hyde Park – while recent festival seasons have been sorely lacking in the K-pop department. Even Glastonbury, a utopia of different sounds, styles and cultures, hasn’t made the leap yet.
It’s not like there isn’t a demand for these artists here. Huge names like BTS and BLACKPINK have sold out multiple nights at massive venues in minutes in London, while a quick scan of the city’s upcoming gigs showing concerts from the likes of CIX, Kang Daniel, ATEEZ, The Rose and more, with the latter two sold out or near to it. There’s been a rise in K-pop club nights in the UK since the country reopened that, from social media, look heaving with fans, while BTS, TWICE and BLACKPINK have all entered the difficult-to-penetrate UK charts. There’s even an exhibition at the V&A on the rise of Korean culture as we speak.
Of course, there are many different logical reasons why K-pop could yet to break into the UK festival scene – visa complexities, budgets, schedule conflicts, the artists themselves turning down opportunities – that will remain unseen and unknown by the general public. But, with interest in K-culture not going away anytime soon and K-pop set to go from strength to strength, British festival organisers need to start looking closer at the scene to stop their events from being left behind by the rest of the world. Leaving these artists siloed off into K-pop-only festivals might provide fun opportunities to enjoy a healthy dose of the scene but, if those are the UK’s only offerings, aren’t hugely in the spirit of modern music consumption.
At this point in the 21st century, we often talk proudly of how there are no boundaries to music anymore – tribalism is dead, anyone can listen to whatever eclectic mix of genres they like. Coachella’s 2023 line-up certainly represents that – a festival where you can flit between reggaetón star Bad Bunny, New York punks Blondie, forward-thinking British pop from Charli XCX, experimental mind-benders courtesy of Björk, jungle reviver Nia Archives and, of course, BLACKPINK’s infectious K-pop. British festivals aren’t massively off-the-mark regarding diversity, but it seems strange that we haven’t been quite as eager to throw K-pop into our celebratory melting pot thus far.
There could be hope for the near future, though. Last year, Reading & Leeds surveyed who fans wanted to see at the events in 2023. Among the listed choices was J-hope, hot off his Lollapalooza set. At the very least, it suggests big festival organisers are starting to sit up and consider K-pop’s place on their bills – fingers crossed those considerations turn into reality very soon.