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Has Tacoma become the K-pop capital of the US? Evidence suggests we’re in the running

By Craig Sailor, The News Tribune
Published: June 23, 2024, 5:55am

TACOMA — Move over Seoul, Tacoma might be the new capital of K-pop culture.

Korean pop music, or K-pop, is taking the American music scene by storm, and Tacoma is cashing in.

On Monday, the Tacoma Dome announced that (G)I-DLE, a five-person South Korean girl group, will begin the U.S. segment of its world tour at the venue on Sept. 6. It’s just the latest foray of K-pop bands to Tacoma.

Two big K-pop boy bands — Enhypen and Tomorrow x Together — headlined the Tacoma Dome this year. One more, ATEEZ, arrives July 14. In June 2023, K-pop’s biggest selling girl group, TWICE, played a sold-out show at the Dome.

The genre has become so big that it’s about to spill over into Tacoma’s smaller venues.

Even the Tacoma Mall, always a bellwether of tastes and trends, has gotten into the act. KPOP Station opened there earlier this year, selling everything a die-hard fan would need before or after a show.

K-pop fans are dedicated, well organized and bring revenue to the city from all over the western United States and Canada, say those who manage the city’s entertainment venues.

“I think that we definitely have what it takes to make these fans happy,” said Aleecia Ramsey-Gonzalez, spokesperson for ASM Global, which manages the Pantages Theater and other downtown venues.

What is K-pop?

K-pop originated in South Korea in the 1990s. Some artists are solo, like Psy, who introduced many Americans to K-pop with his 2012 hit, “Gangnam Style.” But the big shows filling the Tacoma Dome are ensemble acts — boy bands. Think —NSYNC and Backstreet Boys but with more advanced production values.

The acts feature clean-shaven young men or comely women, synchronized dance routines and eye-popping music videos. Lyrics can switch from Korean to English and back to Korean several times in a single song.

BTS, arguably the biggest of all K-pop groups, has thoroughly infiltrated American culture. They even visited the Oval Office in 2022.

Tacoma might be the latest victory of K-pop supremacy but make no mistake, this is a countrywide take over. Not since the British Invasion of the 1960s has the American music landscape been so influenced by a foreign country’s culture. Completing the Korean infusion are movies and television shows on streaming services like Netflix and literature.

North vs. South

K-pop made international news earlier in June when South Korea began blasting BTS tunes into North Korea via loudspeakers. It’s retaliation after weeks of aerial bombardments of balloons from North Korea carrying excrement, garbage and other unpleasant items.

BTS fans call themselves, “The Army.” It’s unknown if North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s highly trained army can resist the catchy tunes of a South Korean boy band. But K-pop and its alluring power is clearly feared by the “hermit kingdom.”

“This is the prelude to a very dangerous situation,” Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, said of the musical invasion on June 9.

The poop vs. pop cold war notwithstanding, most people use the music for entertainment.

Tacoma Dome

The recent K-pop shows at the Dome have pulled in audiences ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 attendees. The concerts either sell out or come close to it.

K-pop groups typically hit only 10-12 North American venues on a tour, according to Tacoma Dome spokesperson Hillary Brenner. (G)I-DLE is only making six stops. Compare that with Taylor Swift’s 20-stop Eras Tour in 2023. Thanks to the limited K-pop tour schedule, Tacoma’s shows draw from across the West and Canada. In May, two Tomorrow x Together fans camping out for the show came from Kansas City and Phoenix.

The Dome realized the powerful draw of K-pop in 2023 following TWICE’s sold-out show, according to Dome executive director Adam Cook.

“At that point, we knew we kind of had a little bit of lightning in the bottle,” he said. “And so we doubled down on our efforts with the key promoters to really push the aspect of Tacoma as a viable and solid K-pop market.”

Financial impact

Along with EDM (electronic dance music) and country, K-pop shows bring an economic boost to the city, according to Matt Wakefield with the Tacoma-Pierce County Tourism Authority.

“Dome events have a tangible, measurable impact on downtown Tacoma,” Wakefield said. “People will come a long way for a big show, and they stay overnight in huge numbers.”

Last year’s TWICE show buoyed downtown Tacoma hotel occupancy to 92 percent with rates shooting up to $225. That’s a year-over-year increase of 21.3 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

“Those are the types of rates we usually only see for major Tacoma Dome events,” Wakefield said.

The influence is felt on the streets of Tacoma as well, he said, with hotel lobbies and restaurants filled with young, colorful and eclectic crowds.

Fans who camped in tents for days across from the Tacoma Dome to be first in line for the Tomorrow X Together show in May still had hotel rooms and Airbnbs rented to take showers and naps, they told The News Tribune.

City theaters

Demand for K-pop concerts is about to spill over into the city’s smaller venues. On Sept 5, the K-pop girl group ARTMS brings its “Moon Shot” world tour to the Pantages Theater. It’s the first K-pop show for the downtown theaters with two more in negotiation, according to Ramsey-Gonzalez.

“It is a place where these artists can really have an intimate opportunity to perform for their fans, especially at these first stops for their tour,” she said.

Whether the city’s smaller venues (the Pantages seats 1,200) take off as K-pop niche stops will be up to the fans, Ramsey-Gonzalez said.

“They are talking among each other,” she said of the fans. “They are talking about what they want, where they want to see these performers come. They’re tapped into these promoters, and the artists are tapped into what these fans are saying.”

K-pop fans are different from others, Ramsey-Gonzalez said. They are particular in their needs which focus on the maximum fan experiences with their favorite groups.

“They don’t want to miss out on any little thing,” she said. “They have no interest in concessions. They have no interest in anything the venue can provide other than the experience for the show.”

Ramsey-Gonzalez expects the ARTMS show to sell out.

Big fan

Kyo Hosfield, 22, has been a K-pop fan since she was 16. She works in her element — as a clerk at KPOP Station. She got drawn into K-pop by ATEEZ — the group coming to Tacoma in July. Yes, she’s going to the show.

“I’m going to be on the floor, and I have VIP,” she said. “I’m really excited about it.”

As she explored K-pop culture, Hosfield discovered like-minded fans who group together at events or casual meet-ups.

“And, yeah, it turned into this,” she said, looking around the store stuffed with K-pop albums, books, skin-care products and other must-haves.

She once stayed awake for 36 hours to drive to Vancouver, B.C., and back for a K-pop concert.

“Was that the craziest thing I’ve done? Yeah,” she said.

Hosfield wants the uninitiated to know that K-pop isn’t all boy and girl groups.

“There’s people who make beautiful ballad songs in Korean that fall under K-pop,” she said. “There’s an acapella group. There is a band that has a violinist as their lead singer … There’s hardcore rock songs.”

Hosfield doesn’t speak Korean, but the lyrics aren’t a cultural barrier.

“You get to experience new sounds, culture,” she said. “It can be like a little bit frustrating sometimes if you can’t sing along to it — as someone who likes to sing along to a song — but eventually if I’ve heard it enough, I can kind of just memorize how to say it.”

Economics

The City of Tacoma invested $6 million in improvements to the Dome in the 2022-2023 fiscal period and had an operating budget of $25.4 million, according to the city’s budget book. Funding comes primarily from event operations including rental fees, food and beverage sales, parking revenues and ticket fees.

Cook said the Dome is self-supporting again after seeing a more than 90 percent drop in revenue during the 2020-2021 pandemic years. The Dome sold more than 86,000 tickets and had $6 million in gross revenue during the first quarter of 2024, according to Pollstar.

The eight-member ATEEZ is kicking off their “Towards the light : Will to Power” tour in Tacoma. It’s the first of only 10 North American stops. Like other K-pop groups, ATEEZ’s fans have their own name: ATINY — a combination of ATEEZ and destiny.

Further cementing K-Pop’s integration into American music culture, ATEEZ became the first K-pop boy group to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival when they appeared there in April.

The show

Cook has attended all the K-pop shows at the Dome, which he describes as, “… a lot of synchronized dancing and amazing production video … smoke and fog … videos and lasers.”

K-pop fans skew young and female, Cook said.

“They’re really nice people,” he said. “When they camp out, they have their own system of rules and policies that they all know and follow together.”

Those rules were in place in May when a line of fans set up tents across from the Dome to be first in line for the Tomorrow X Together show. At the front of the line, fan Lauren Tibbett of Yakima kept a list of who arrived and in what order and dispensed wrist bands for identification.

Then there is the merchandise, which includes light sticks. These aren’t your father’s glow sticks that do little more than light up. The K-pop sticks, which require purchasing, are synced to a concert goer’s location. They can then be manipulated to flash and change color in synchronization. An entire Dome filled with them can create a wave effect.

“These light sticks that are just phenomenal, and so it engages the fan a little bit more than just being a passive watcher,” Cook said.

KPOP Station

While each band brings its own collection of merchandise, Tacoma fans can stock up on K-pop merch year round.

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KPOP Station opened in February, a few steps from the mall’s food court. There are 14 stores across the United States and more on the way, according to Azadeh Walner, who goes by Z, and Thalia Maldonado, who goes by T. They are managers with the chain.

“We get people from Alaska, Canada, Chicago …. it brings in a lot of people,” T said. “Wherever there’s K-pop fans, we want to be there for them.”

Most of the store is dominated by BTS and their various merchandise lines. But plenty of other groups and soloists are represented. Home decor, avatars in various forms and frying pans that create character-shaped pancakes are some of the items offered.

The store sees a dramatic uptick in sales before and after a K-pop show.

“I worked that next morning after the (Enhyphen) concert,” Z said. “I had people from Europe shopping, trying to find last-minute gifts before they flew off. Enhphen albums have not been able to stay on the shelves.”

T and Z are both K-pop fans but said it’s not necessarily a requirement to work at KPOP Station. But, it helps.

“We work here because we love what we do,” T said.

K-Pop terminology

  • Bias: your favorite member(s).
  • All-Kill: when a song hits number one on all major music charts.
  • Maknae: the youngest member of the group.
  • Killing Part: a part of the choreography, song or performance that is the best.
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