I went to a gigantic virtual K-pop convention, and I saw the future

The feeling of watching your favorite singers perform live on stage in front of you is fantastic, and the excitement of a meet-and-greet event afterward is something fans remember for years.

Sadly, events like these have been canceled all over the world due to the coronavirus pandemic, but resourceful organizers have swapped these real-world events to a virtual format, so even though we can’t be there in person, we still have a chance to support and meet our idols.

Unable to hold its planned real-world events in 2020, Korean culture festival KCON went online in June as KCON:TACT 2020 SUMMER, a music-focused virtual event. Among the dozens of artists performing, a personal favorite was playing, so I wanted to know, could a virtual “con” really bring me and other fans closer to our idols?

The Iz*One K-pop group takes the stage at KCON:TACT 2020 KCON / CJ ENM

I discovered that not only can it work, but in some ways it can be even better than the real thing.

What is KCON:TACT?

Originally set to be held in various cities around the world this year, including Los Angeles and New York, the in-person KCON event had been held several times previously, but its rebirth as the online event KCON:TACT transformed it into a trendsetter.

“KCON:TACT was the first of its kind in terms of scale and length of the event,” Ki Hyun Kim, head of tech creation at CJ ENM, the entertainment company behind the Mnet brand in charge of KCON, told me in an email.

KCON:TACT celebrates Korean pop music, or K-pop, and streamed 24-hours a day for a full week. Iteaturing daily four-hour live performances from dozens of popular K-pop artists, virtual meet-and-greet sessions, special audience participation events, and behind-the-scenes shows, all resulting in 600 total videos by its end.

And in case you think this is a bit of a niche event, KCON:TACT welcomed 4.81 million viewers from 152 countries, and the videos have been watched more than 15 million times.

Despite having no other similar prior online events to learn from, Kim told me KCON:TACT all went according to plan, and more surprisingly, the technology to make it all happen was the easy part.

“There was no special or new equipment used in producing the show. All the streaming equipment and cameras are the same exact ones you would expect to see at any livestreamed concert or event,” Kim said. “Our secret weapon was the people, not the equipment. We had a strong roster of creative directors and technicians who have extensive experience in this area. As with all of our productions, there is nonstop discussion and testing to find the best solution we could rely on, and it paid off when it was finally showtime. Everything ran smoothly.”

Putting on a live show of this scale is still packed full of challenges though, Kim explained.

“The biggest challenge is always the trade-off between creative innovation and a flawless broadcast,” Kim said. “Trying something new and innovative comes with inevitable instability such as technical glitches and hiccups. But with a flawless show being one of the top priorities as a show producer, we have to pull it off on our first try like it is our 10th, while continuously taking on new challenges. This outweighs any technical challenges … .”

Making the virtual feel real

Visually, KCON:TACT went far beyond the production values of even the most lavish real-life events, with the live performances taking place on incredible stages. These were created using multiple LED screens on the walls and even the floors, and then extending out beyond the stage itself to create a seemingly endless virtual environment.

It was all very striking and highly polished, but that’s almost a given in these high-tech times. Re-creating the energy and atmosphere present during any live music performance and meet-and-greet session was always going to be much harder. However. I discovered there’s still a surprising amount of energy in a virtual con like this, along with several benefits an in-person event can’t offer at all.

Like what? You were guaranteed the best seat in the house, of course, there were no schedule clashes, and you were instantly able to understand what the performers (many of whom did not speak English) were saying thanks to live subtitles. There was no queuing, no squeezing together for the best spot, no need to watch anything on the screen of someone else’s phone, and no chance of a very tall person suddenly obscuring your otherwise perfect view.

Getting closer, virtually

Arguably, there’s nothing here you wouldn’t expect to find at any livestreamed event, so what about the interactive elements?

“During the production process, we spent the most amount of time brainstorming and planning how to make virtual meet and greets feel as real and close as possible to traditional, physical ones. Our focus was on the creative ideas that would increase interactivity,” Kim said.

To find out how successful these were, I spoke to KCON:TACT attendees who won the chance to be a part of their favorite group’s performance. The KCON team utilized Zoom for this element, and had the clever idea of surrounding the virtual stage with individual Zoom screens to make it feel like you were actually there with the performers. Some fans even got the chance to ask questions live.

The Itzy K-pop group partiticipates in a meet-and-greet session at KCON:TACT 2020 KCON / CJ ENM

Miggy, an attendee from the U.S., had a great experience cheering on the Korean/Japanese group Iz*One during the live element of their performance.

“If I compare it to a concert experience, I think it’s pretty close, if not better,” Miggy told me in a Twitter message. “It’s easier to get noticed by the artist since there’s fewer people, and the screen was big. Seeing a screenshot where I was on the screen in front of Iz*One made me happy! Seeing myself on broadcast feels good since it becomes a tangible memory. It was my first K-pop concert ever, so it’s something that I will always remember.”

Saku from South Korea also joined in on Zoom, and felt similarly. “Since our idol can see us on the screen, I felt closer to them, and that made it special,” Saku told me via Twitter messaging.

Those lucky enough to be selected for the live show were asked to submit messages to the group ahead of the show, and this turned out to be very memorable, as Saku’s message appeared on the main screen and was noticed by one of the group’s members. It sounds like a small thing, but this is a crucial part of a live show, and it’s great to see it translate into a virtual event thanks to creative use of videoconferencing.

Messages sent by fans are shown on KCON:TACT 2020’s screens

Like Miggy and Saku, I “attended” KCON:TACT mostly for Iz*One. The moments when the fans who Zoom-called in added to the atmosphere. Just like a real-life event, I saw many happy people who held custom signs like Saku’s, waved light sticks, made heart signs with their hands, and genuinely looked like they were having a fantastic time. The group’s members, too, seemed to enjoy being able to interact with people this way, and when the group has more fun and can see fans enjoying themselves, it adds more life to the performance.

Comparison to a real-life concert

Fel, a fan from Indonesia, had previously seen Iz*One perform in person during KCON 2019 in Los Angeles, and therefore had a slightly different KCON:TACT experience.

The ONF K-pop group interacts with fans on a Zoom call at KCON:TACT 2020.

“It’s great that I could see my face on the big screen, but it still couldn’t replace the feeling of physically going to an actual concert to watch Iz*One. It’s just a whole different experience and vibe. After seeing them live, it’s pretty hard to feel as much excitement for the online live,” Fel explained to me over Twitter.

There were other problems too. Domi from Germany talked to me about the organizational issues around using an online conferencing system like Zoom during a live concert. Iz*One’s performance came at the end of the four-hour live show, and live attendees were not informed of the time, simply having to wait on the Zoom call until that point. Domi was also disappointed with the live and meet-and-greet aspects:

“The meet and greet itself was really uneventful, since no one got do anything. We were just there,” Domi explained. “The concert was the most fun, since we actually got to cheer the group on.”

Despite this, Domi still enjoyed the show, adding, “It was an experience I would do again, but I somehow expected a bit more.”

The Pentagon K-pop group participates in a meet and greet during KCON:TACT 2020 KCON / CJ ENM

It’s early days, and obviously there’s still work to be done. It’s unclear how much negotiation and organization was needed between the KCON team, management, and the groups, but it was likely extensive, and rather last-minute. KCON:TACT will help future events have a better grasp of the logistics surrounding the interactive elements. Despite the downsides, the meet-and-greet sessions still seemed to please most attendees.

Adapt and survive

In the wake of the canceled real-world KCON shows, KCON:TACT not only helped the company continue its business, but also gave a unique opportunity to K-pop fans around the world to watch and enjoy a live performance, when perhaps they may never have had the chance otherwise. It’s not specific to the fandom-focused con circuit either. Going virtual is a way for the entire live entertainment industry to continue working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Digital streaming and virtual performances are something the industry has been averse to in the past, but that’s changing. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bonnie Comley, the founder of on-demand theater streaming service BroadwayHD, said: “Producers used to say, ‘We’re not doing it,’ but now they’re saying, ‘When should we do it?’ That’s a 180-degree change from when we launched 4-and-a-half years ago.”

Audiences are also keen. A survey in the U.K. showed 20% of adults now watch music, dance, and theatrical content digitally, and for 27% of them, it was the first time doing so. A massive 51% said they were watching more digital theatrical content than they had before theaters closed. The demand is there from both sides, apparently.

Like Kim said, the technology to carry out this kind of event is there already. With the advent of 5G and ever-faster Wi-Fi, shows are not only going to become more accessible, but the all-important participation options will become more varied in the near future too. KCON:TACT has led the way for other massive fan-focused con events to convert to an online format, including the exciting San Diego Comic-Con at Home event happening between July 22 and 25.

Is it the future?

Thanks to KCON:TACT, I saw a group that I love perform live — and that might be the only time I’ll ever do so. While not as memorably all-encompassing as actually attending a stadium and being part of an audience, I still felt closer to not just the group performing, but also other fans through social media and live chat during it. There is a lot I’ll remember, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel this way.

On a technical level, the industry is up to speed, but coming up with more inventive ways to involve the audience, as well as greater opportunities for us to connect with groups and stars on a personal level without signature sessions or handshake events, will be crucial to people paying out for the chance to get involved.

There’s still plenty to learn about what works and what doesn’t, but as the first of its kind, KCON:TACT makes me excited for the future of virtual events, where meeting our idols is as important as seeing them perform. They can obviously never entirely replace the electric atmosphere we love about actual live events; but in the absence of such things taking place, it’s refreshing to know virtual alternatives can work.

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