Few people could have predicted the global explosion of the Korean cultural wave (Hallyu). Take K-pop, which has enjoyed an international market for decades. But the past few years – and the rise of streaming services – has seen an already contagious virus go epidemic. Between 2008 and 2012 the international revenue banked from K-pop increased an incredible 14 times over (from Dh60 million to Dh860 million).
Among the most concrete proof of the genre’s role in popular culture can be found in the sudden growth of KCon. The first edition of the Korean music and culture festival was held in California in late 2012, attracting 10,000 visitors. A year later the audience doubled, then jumped to 42,000 again in 2014. By 2015, the concept launched in Japan and at home in Korea, and had grown bigger in Los Angeles, with 58,000 fans in attendance.
On Friday, KCon lands in Abu Dhabi for the first time, with an all-day event at du Arena.
Among the headline attractions are SPICA, a five-piece girl group who mix contemporary electro-pop with retro soul influences.
It marks the band’s third KCon concert, following gigs in Los Angeles and Seoul.
“KCon is a total package with Korea in its centre,” says band member Bohyun Kim. “I think it acts a bridge to Korean culture by providing a multidimensional experience. Our fans, for example, come to KCON to see us perform but they get to experience Korean food, technology and service in the course of the day.”
It will mark the quintet’s first concert in the emirates, and the girls face a certain weight of anticipation ahead of the debut.
To mark the special occasion, the band have prepared a specially arranged version of 2014's retro soul-infused hit You Don't Love Me, said Sihyun Park.
Featuring a catchy English-language chorus, You Don't Love Me notably broadened the group's international following. The follow-up I Did It was aimed squarely at the US market, sung entirely in English, a language the girls admit they are yet to master.
“It is not easy for sure,” confesses bandleader Boa Kim. “Word-by-word translation is not enough to deliver the original song’s undertone. It requires different approaches and expressions.”
“We don’t want it to be another Korean song translated in English,” says Bohyun Kim. “It may not be perfect, but we try our best to make it natural to our fans outside Korea.”
Like most K-pop acts, SPICA were a manufactured group, put together by B2M Entertainment in 2012, releasing EPs Russian Roulette and Lonely the very same year. Their biggest hit, Tonight, came a year later.
Such a genesis could breed rivalries and resentments, but the group insist they are of the “stronger together” school.
“We were just five random people with only one thing in common, a dream to become a musician,” says Jiwon Yang. “Now we all work together as SPICA; I don’t think it was just a coincidence.”
Looking at the other artists on the KCon bill – solo performances from Girls Generation’s Taeyeon and Super Junior’s Kyuhyun, plus a reunion from members of SS501 (now dubbed SS301) after extensive solo work – it seems inevitable that the time will come when the members of SPICA will each go their own way.
“I think all our members have great capabilities as a solo artist,” says Jiwon Yang. “But I don’t think our career as a group and as solo artists are incompatible.”
For now all energies are focused on the present.
“I personally think this is a new start for SPICA,” says Jiwon Yang. “And KCon Abu Dhabi will be a great starting point.”