MU:CON’s Decade Of Growth With K-Pop: How Seoul’s International Music Conference Grew To Be Global
There are key moments that capture how important the year 2012 was to the international expansion of K-pop: PSY’s “Gangnam Style” took over the world and introduced billions to Korean-pop music, the Korean-culture festival KCON debuted in California, the first K-pop artists played solo own arena shows in America and Europe, and Korean artists were on mainstream U.S. television shows for the first time.
An equally important contribution was the establishment of MU:CON as the Seoul, South Korea–based industry conference and festival to not only strengthen business throughout Asia but help professionals and companies expand alongside the beloved stars—a trend that’s continued for a decade.
MU:CON was envisioned as Asia’s response to SXSW in the U.S., MIDEM in France, and TGE in the U.K. as a conference-festival hybrid that not only served and spotlighted artists but the professionals and teams behind them. According to reports at the time, MU:CON in 2012 was planned in hopes to identify a second wave of “PSY-like syndrome” with Korean musicians. Artists with a burgeoning international appeal like Block B, Miss A, BTOB and EXO-K (above) all performed at the inaugural event’s “Korea Spotlight” performance and helped established what has become a staple process of MU:CON known as the “Festival Pitching & Choice” to create each year’s overseas-focused showcase.
As MU:CON matured in age, the festival began becoming increasingly international as its global counterparts like SXSW and MIDEM. Key moments of early Korean crossover potential were seen in years like 2013 (when Mexico’s beloved rock-pop band Reik performed with boy band MBLAQ on stage) and 2014 (attendees saw Crayon Pop perform at the festival fresh off of finishing their opening-act duties for Lady Gaga’s ArtRave arena tour).
By 2015, more artists were becoming excited by the prospect and benefits of MU:CON including the Korean retro-pop trio, The Barberettes, specifically sharing how they had booked seven overseas performances after appearing at the conference the prior year. MU:CON 2016 set the stage for the “godfather of electronic music” Giorgio Moroder to create “One More Day,” a crossover record with chart-topping K-pop girl group Sistar to show what could potentially be created from attending MU:CON.
Soon, MU:CON had established itself not just as a place for rising musicians to get noticed but for the biggest mainstream players to also collaborate. Billboard noted that 2018 was the first time executives from all of South Korea's “Big Three” K-pop agencies at the time—the nickname for SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment—were in attendance. Meanwhile, the Asian Music Network (A.M.N) stage delivered key performances of future K-pop stars like The Boyz, N.Flying, Dreamcatcher and A.C.E, as well as the Japan-based girl group BANANALEMON and Vietnamese rap act Da Lab. MU:CON reported representatives from 18 countries came to Seoul for the event.
As international interest in K-pop grew, MU:CON fared well even as the global COVID-19 pandemic forced it to move digitally in 2020 as well as the upcoming 2021 fest which begins place this week on September 30. An impressive range of executives, academics and stars have been booked through the online event (including executives from Twitter, Spotify, Triller, Chartmetric, SM Entertainment, plus presenters from Harvard University and New York University) with the conference still able to successfully thrive online through platforms like its online database, YouTube, Twitter and more. Meanwhile, artists like NCT Dream (who has one of 2021’s biggest-selling albums from Korea), Brave Girls, Jamie, and ATEEZ are all participating in MU:CON-related showcases, and notable names like songwriter-producer Jenna Andrews (a now-frequent collaborator with BTS) and MC/YouTube personality GeniusSKLee as part of the conference portion.
Today, MU:CON reports more than 8,908 buyers, 640 musicians and 441 speakers have all been featured throughout its first decade.
Just as K-pop music has been able to grow and thrive to help South Korea become the world’s sixth-largest music industry and an active part of the mainstream-music conversation, MU:CON itself has grown right alongside the scene to not just be Korea’s representative music conference but a key gathering for the entire international music community.
MU:CON 2021 runs online from September 30-October 2, 2021
by Jeff Benjamin