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Deep Dive

In and Out of Korea, the Coronavirus Threatens To Upset K-Pop’s Rise

As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread globally, it threatens to slow the momentum of South Korea’s burgeoning K-pop music scene both in and out of the country

SEOUL — Music Bank, South Korea’s oldest K-pop chart program, regularly draws hundreds of excited fans to the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) building. They wait outside to catch a glimpse of their favorite artists as they make their way in to record the show, which is broadcast in over 100 countries by the national public network.

But on one recent Friday it was eerily quiet. Instead of screaming fans, only a handful of people wearing face masks hurried by the building.

The surreal scene has become a familiar reality across South Korea, as the country struggles with the fourth-highest number of cases of the coronavirus after China. As the total number of COVID-19 diagnoses continued to climb, Music Bank producers made the decision on Jan. 31 to tape the program without an audience for the foreseeable future — the first time they have done so in the program’s 22-year history. Other K-pop TV shows have done the same.

As the virus continues to spread globally, it threatens to slow the momentum of South Korea’s burgeoning K-pop music scene both in and out of the country. Pushed by government edicts meant to contain the outbreak, promoters are canceling dozens of live events, fan meet-and-greets and other public gatherings where the virus could be spread.

Big Hit Entertainment decided to hold a public briefing of its corporate results online and canceled BTS’ four Seoul concerts that were set for mid-April as part of the boy band’s Map of the Soul tour. SM Entertainment, JYP and YG also shelved domestic concerts, as well as those scheduled in the rest of Asia — cancellations that will affect such popular artists as Taemin, Taeyeong and TWICE.

Industry officials say it’s inevitable that music companies’ bottom lines will suffer. An index from the Bank of Korea showed that in February consumer sentiment dropped to 96.9, the lowest point since 2015, the year of the MERS outbreak.

With 106 countries denying or restricting entry for people traveling from South Korea, industry figures say it’s no longer feasible for purveyors of K-pop to adhere to marketing and touring plans. In a statement issued by Big Hit at the time BTS’ Seoul concerts were canceled, the company said that it is “impossible at this time to predict the scale of the outbreak” and cited “increasing uncertainty about the cross-border movement of concert staff and equipment.”

The outlook for the rest of the year looks bleak. According to a manager at a major Korean music company who requested anonymity, “It takes at least a year to prepare an event overseas, so it is nearly impossible to suddenly change our plans now.”

Billboard Boxscore estimates that the four canceled BTS shows, which were to take place at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium in April, could mean the loss of over $16 million in gross revenue. That’s based on the $12 million the group grossed last October for three shows at the same venue, which collectively sold 129,268 tickets at an average price of $94.

The manager at the Korean music company says that discussions are underway to make artists’ online “communication and merchandise purchasing experience better for our fans,” including through Instagram and online fan cafes.

No one can say yet when Music Bank and other K-pop-related shows and marketing and promotion events will return to normal. Kwon Yong-taek, the chief producer of Music Bank, says he will only bring back audience members when South Korean authorities say it’s safe to do so. “A music show needs an audience,” says Kwon. “They’re a huge part of Music Bank, so it’s like having only half the show without them.”

Unlike other K-pop chart programs, Music Bank does not use canned sound effects to replace the cheers and screams of fans. “We decided against fakery,” says Kwon.

As South Korean authorities urge citizens to stay indoors as much as possible, more Koreans are working from home, which has boosted TV viewership considerably. Korea’s most popular news program, KBS 9 o’ Clock News, has surged in viewership by 58%, to 2.7 million a day, since Jan. 17, according to Nielsen Korea. But that hasn’t translated into more advertising revenue because Koreans are mostly watching news shows to keep current with the latest reporting on the virus, and commercials for news programs are sold at lower rates. Two sources at KBS estimate that overall ad revenue is actually down 10% for the network. “It’s usually advertising for K-pop shows and dramas that bring in the big cash, but corporations are less willing to splurge due to the epidemic,” says a marketing staffer at a major Korean broadcaster, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The situation hit closer to home when in early March two staffers who work with the South Korean singer-songwriter, dancer and choreographer Chung Ha were confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 after attending Milan Fashion Week with the artist. (Chung Ha tested negative.) Hwang Minhyun of NU’EST, who also attended the event, tested negative, but the situation nevertheless unnerved the industry. “Chung Ha’s situation was when everyone in the industry decided they should stop everything for now and see what happens,” says Dae-oh Kim, a local pop culture columnist. “We have no idea who will get infected where.”

As the virus has spread, local artists and music companies have made sizable donations to the city of Daegu, which has been most affected by the epidemic. Both SM and JYP made charitable contributions of 500 million won (about $420,500), along with many artists, including Daegu natives Suga of BTS and Irene of Red Velvet.

As the industry waits for the epidemic to subside, fans are rallying behind their favorite acts. Thousands of BTS fans who received refunds for concert tickets donated the proceeds to Daegu. “It is disappointing, but even before the concert got canceled, we were asking for it to be canceled,” says Yoonji Lee, a member of ARMY, BTS’ fan club. “We don’t want our artists to be affected and the faster the spread dies down, the quicker we’ll be able to see them.”

Additional reporting by Eric Frankenberg