[WHY] Are Taylor Swift and Korea ever ever ever getting back together?

U.S. singer Taylor Swift on stage during a concert as part of her ″Eras″ world tour in Sydney on Feb. 23 [AFP/YONHAP]

Why has Taylor Swift not come to Korea since 2011? This question has been weighing on the hearts of Korean Swifties and the music scene alike since the American pop star last performed in Korea some 13 years ago.

And Swifties aren't the only ones lamenting. The “Blank Space” left in Korea by one of the world’s biggest pop stars has domestic consumers second-guessing whether the whole “K-pop has grown and so has the Korean music industry along with it” catchphrase has been nothing but ungrounded conjecture, slapped in the face by the harsh reality.

Taylor Swift last performed in Korea in February 2011 as part of her “Speak Now” tour, at the KSPO Dome in Songpa District, southern Seoul. The venue could seat up to 15,000 people — except it didn’t.

The singer-songwriter’s last Korean concert was one of the few performances of the “Speak Now” tour that didn’t sell out, which was perhaps a contributing factor to why her latest “Eras” pin didn’t drop on the peninsula.

Neither Swift’s management agency Universal Music nor the tour promoter Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) have commented on why the singer only stops in Japan and Singapore for the Asian “Eras” leg. But Korean industry insiders generally agree on one thing: She couldn’t perform here now, even if she wanted to.

Korea’s largest sports stadium, the Olympic Main Stadium in Jamsil, began renovations last year and will not be operating again until December 2026. Gocheok Sky Dome’s renovations end this month, but it won't be open up to any music events during baseball season, and the World Cup Stadium seldom allows concertgoers to tread on its meticulously upkept grass field.

The absence of a venue large enough to house the “Anti-Hero” diva and a musical narrative that doesn’t precisely translate well in the domestic market is not a hard pass at Korea’s achievement or lack thereof; however, Taylor Swift’s nonappearance could be just the beginning of a streak of major stars skipping over the peninsula in their tours, experts say.

Psy's ″Summer Swag″ concert-slash-water-festival being held the Jamsil Olympic Stadium in southern Seoul on July 2, 2023 [YONHAP]

Is there really no available venue?

There are music venues, but not any that are big enough to house a concert as big as the ones that Taylor Swift holds in other countries.

The aforementioned renovations and the unavailability of other larger sports stadiums mean that artists are forced to hold concerts at smaller alternatives, then make up for the downsized revenue by holding more shows over the span of multiple weeks. All available venues have been booked for the next few months, some for even six months, according to insiders.

“The congestion for reservations is very severe at the moment,” Ko Kee-ho, vice president of the Music Concert Industry Association of Korea (Mciak), said.

“There’s been a domino effect where big names book smaller venues for weeks, and smaller artists are forced to do the same at even smaller venues, and so on. Taylor Swift’s ‘Eras’ tour is making headlines for skipping Korea, but we’re already missing from the tour lists of Coldplay and Sam Smith.”

A picture of Inspire Arena recently built in Incheon [INSPIRE ENTERTAINMENT RESORT]

Technically speaking, there is only one large-scale venue in Korea that was actually built for the very purpose of a performance hall — the recently-constructed Inspire Arena in Incheon, which can seat up to 15,000 people at once.

It’s customary for music concerts to be held in sports stadiums, which are typically built to house tens of thousands of people at once, as in the famed stadium in Los Angeles. But there has not been a single performance hall with over 10,000 seats in Korea until the Mohegan-built arena first opened its doors three months ago.

A similar-sized alternative in Seoul, the 15,000-seat KSPO Dome, is generally the next best option for artists. This means artists all flock there to book themselves for multiple weekends so as to rake in the same ticket sales as they would have done with just a single weekend at Jamsil stadium.

"It's virtually a battle for all artists, from in and outside of Korea," said an official from concert organizer Private Curve, which organizes the annual Seoul Jazz Festival.

"The Gocheok Sky Dome and KSPO Dome are both the best options for big-name artists, but those domes also end up opening up to domestic artists because they book for weeks, whereas foreign acts can only stay for a day or two because of their tight tour schedules. For us, we've been failing to book foreign artists because we just couldn't find a venue for them."

U.S. singer Taylor Swift on stage during a concert as part of her ″Eras″ world tour in Sydney on Feb. 23 [AFP/YONHAP]

Is that really why Taylor Swift didn’t come?

There’s no official word on it, because no artist ever has to explain their reason for why they picked the cities they did. But the general consensus here is that, yes, Korea couldn’t even be considered an option because there wasn’t a stadium big enough for her to perform in.

The two other venues in Asia that she did stop in — the Tokyo Dome in Japan and the Singapore National Stadium — both accommodate up to 55,000 people at once. Taylor Swift held four concerts in Japan and is set to perform a whopping six times in Singapore, which means that she would have had to perform many, many more times to make the same ticket sales at Korea’s smaller venues.

Adding that to the fact that her last stop in Korea likely didn’t leave her with the best memories, notably by not selling out the venue, Hyundai Card CEO Chung Tae-young's comment last month that he “should’ve brought the concert to Korea and heard Taylor Swift say ‘Hello, Seoul’ stead of ‘Hello, Tokyo’” was no more than wishful thinking, industry insiders say.

“At the end of the day, the artist has to want to come,” one concert organizer said, who wished to remain unnamed.

“The income counts, but it’s not always about the money. Taylor Swift’s agency would have considered everything — the potential income, the cost, the fans in Korea, their online engagement, how much they’re expected to spend at the concert and so on.”

Taylor Swift during the ″Eras″ world tour on May 5, 2023, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee [AP/YONHAP]

But why only two countries in Asia?

The fact that Taylor Swift’s previous concert here didn’t sell out despite the smaller capacity would have put Korea lower on the list of priorities regardless, but her nonattendance in other Asian countries is often blamed on a certain city-state’s government.

Rumor has it that the Singaporean government promised the singer “incentives,” of which was mentioned a $3 million guarantee for the show, for her to perform exclusively in Singapore out of all the Southeast Asian countries.

The country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong confirmed that Swift was provided with “certain incentives,” but not as an “unfriendly” gesture toward neighboring countries.

“It has turned out to be a very successful arrangement. I don’t see that as being unfriendly,” Lee said on Tuesday while attending an Asean leaders’ summit. No specific amount of money or details of the deal were mentioned.

Weather also no doubt played a part. Korea’s harsh sub-zero temperatures during the winter mean that outdoor venues are hard on an artist and the band, especially if the only available time slot was in January, before she went on to her other Asia-Oceania stops. And since Korea doesn’t have a suitable indoor stadium, it may have not seemed like a huge loss to pass up.

U.S. singer Taylor Swift on stage during a concert as part of her ″Eras″ world tour in Sydney on Feb. 23 [AFP/YONHAP]

Is Taylor Swift not popular in Korea?

She is, but admittedly not as much as she is in other countries.

The Korean music industry is quite conservative when it comes to accepting foreign culture, and no song sung by an artist from outside of Korea has ever sat atop domestic music charts, namely Melon, Genie Music or Bugs. In fact, Le Sserafim’s “Perfect Night” (2023) made headlines for taking the No. 1 spot on local music charts as the only English-lyric song to do so.

The concert film “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” (2023) also failed to sell out tickets at local theaters, peaking at 37 percent of all designated tickets for the film, according to the Korea Box Office Information System (Kobis).

Taylor Swift at the ″Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour″ concert movie world premiere at AMC The Grove in Los Angeles, California in October 2023. [AFP/YONHAP]

The fact that Swift calls herself a “storyteller” is also seen to be a contributing factor, because the cultural disparity between U.S. listeners and Korean listeners means that the whole cultural background and narrative surrounding the singer as a triumphant woman loses its resonance in the Korean market.

“It’s true that Taylor Swift’s songs are a little different from the other pop stars that Korean people typically like, such as Benson Boone or Charlie Puth,” pop music critic Kim Do-heon said.

“It’s not strange to see the same artist thrive in one place and not in the other, which is also the case for some K-pop acts as well. But there is also the possibility that Korean fans just haven’t had the opportunity to unite and show their power as a fandom. If she had come to Jamsil [this time] and put on four concerts, then there is no way that the tickets wouldn't have sold out within mere seconds.”

A picture of the Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul on Jan. 14 [NEWS1]

What’s being done about it?

Sorry, Swifties — not much.

Two much-anticipated music venues in the works — the Seoul Arena in northern Seoul’s Changdong neighborhood put forward by Kakao, and Goyang’s CJ Live City planned by CJ — have been unable to continue with construction either due to a lack of funds or conflict with the regional government.

CJ Live City began construction in October 2021 and was set to finish this year, but it stopped after finishing only about 17 percent of the process due to rising costs, the Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) notifying that it cannot supply power to the region and the Gyeonggi Provincial Office refusing to accept the revised blueprint from CJ.

Kakao hasn’t even started construction on Seoul Arena, which was initially set to take place in December last year, because the company couldn’t afford the rising costs amid high interest rates and the company laying low under the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s scrutiny. It was planned for completion in 2027.

A blueprint image of Seoul Arena, initially planned for completion in 2027 [KAKAO]
A blueprint image of CJ Live City, which began construction in 2021 but has halted the project due to dispute with the regional government [CJ LIVE CITY]

The music industry as a whole has been demanding the government take more action toward alleviating the bottleneck.

“It’s not just the foreign acts that can’t come to Korea — Korean singers are also being forced out of Seoul and even out of the country,” Mciak’s Ko said, citing boy band Seventeen’s upcoming “Follow Again” encore concerts that only take place twice in Korea but four times in Japan, in May.

The band is set to celebrate its anniversary on May 26 at the Nissan Stadium in Japan, garnering complaints from Korean fans.

“The government has to step in and incentivize sports venues to open up to music concerts and also help artists use venues outside of Seoul more often,” Ko said. “This could lead to a healthier cycle in regional tourism and also help artists find a way of holding more concerts inside Korea.”