Well, hello there – long time no see! In last week’s Let’s Get Physical: K-pop Fans and The Physical Album Phenomenon – Part 1 – aka part 1 of this series – we discovered what physical albums were exactly, and why K-pop physicals stood out in particular. And now, it’s time we talk about why fans actually buy them.
In Part 1, we discussed that the majority of K-pop fans don’t actually use CDs, so we wondered – why do they purchase physical albums? As I was eager to answer this question, I launched a survey on social media asking fans of the South Korean genre to explain to me the reasons behind their purchases, and here are the answers I received…
Pretty and Expensive
Unsurprisingly, the main reason behind the purchase of K-pop physicals as indicated by respondents (80%) was “I think the content inside (photobooks, photocards, posters, etc) is pretty / visually appealing”. Why is this not surprising? Well, as we covered in last week’s article, K-pop physicals are pretty darn nice to look at – so, it doesn’t come as a shock that people want to have them for the aesthetics of it all!
What did actually surprise me was how many people indicated they buy K-pop physicals for collection purposes, be it photocards or the albums themselves – either option was selected by 35% of respondents. Even though I already knew there were plenty of collectors out there, the statistics still caught me slightly off guard, since K-pop albums are not exactly cheap… actually, they are quite the spendy thing!
Simpler (= Western) physical albums can already round up to €15+ a piece, but when you factor in the added expenditure of photobooks, photocards, posters, stickers, and so on… you can imagine that K-pop physicals will cost you a bit more. With an average between €25 and €55, they definitely fall on the more expensive end of the spectrum. And on top of that, there are also harsh shipping fees, which are usually pretty steep for those outside South Korea (more often than not, they are as much as the album…).
Not to mention, K-pop physicals face a major scarcity issue. That is, they are hard to get a hold of after the preorder period ends, because the amount of albums in stock is reflective of the preorder numbers. Thus, if you did not preorder, you are not sure to find a copy after the official drop, which forces you to make the purchase in a limited time window. And adding fuel to the fire, there’s the peculiarity of K-pop physicals increasing in monetary value after the official release of the record. Meaning that even if you’re lucky enough to find a copy, the price will probably be inflated. As one respondent put it, “Buying K-pop albums feels like a chase and race”.
That’s why the fact that “I cannot afford it financially” being the #1 chosen response (61%) for respondents who do not buy physicals did not surprise me in the slightest. Not everyone has 70 bucks to drop on a K-pop album, and that is okay!
The Usefulness of the Useless
Another option that I knew was going to be a popular choice among non-buyers was “I do not have any use for them / I do not care about them”, which was chosen by 50% of the cohort.
Given their price and utility (or lack thereof), K-pop physicals can be categorized as luxury goods purchasable for hedonic consumption, which is not something everyone enjoys. If you are not really sure what that means, worry not – I’ll give you a SparkNotes explanation of what that entails. To put it simply, hedonic consumption refers to the usage of products in order to spark emotional arousal in oneself, rather than to fulfill primary needs (which is referred to as utilitarian consumption). Hence, it is something used to describe the purchase of luxury goods (i.e., products that are not essential but are highly desired).
As the utility of K-pop physical albums doesn’t really go beyond making the owner happy, they check all the boxes for luxury items. Thus, they are not worth the money for people who are not willing to spend that much on something with no practical use. As one respondent bluntly put it, “[K-pop physicals] are just an overpriced decoration”.
Pride and Parasocial
The second most popular reason (50%) for buying physical copies was “I want to support the artist and increase their sales”, which is yet another unsurprising result.
Parasocial attachments (i.e., one-sided relationships between fans and media personalities) are a widespread phenomenon within K-pop fandoms, and it’s common for fans to feel a sense of pride and/or fulfillment whenever their favorite artists reach commendable achievements. Ergo, it’s not unusual for fans to believe their duties as supporters extend to contributing to the artist’s paycheck by buying anything they put out.
The inside (the music) is the same, but the outside is different, and that makes it worth a few more euros in the eyes of fans.
Knowing this, K-pop companies capitalize heavily on these parasocial interactions by maximizing the amount of content offered and producing different design versions of the same album. The inside (the music) is the same, but the outside is different, and that makes it worth a few more euros in the eyes of fans. And the higher the sales are, the higher the artist will place on music charts, which is the goal of both companies and the idols’ admirers.
Companies want their acts to score a high spot on music charts for obvious reasons (more fame and revenue for themselves), and fans’ reasoning is not that much different… Actually, it is not at all different. Fans want their favorite artists to have more fame and revenue not only because they think the idols deserve it, but also so they can have bragging rights on social media.
Many fans see accomplishments of their favorite celebrities as an extension of their own, and I have long known that this phenomenon is particularly strong within K-pop fandoms. And that’s why it’s a custom among fans of the genre to bulk buy thousands of copies of an album, in order to boost the artist’s final sale numbers.
As one respondent commented, a shortcoming on the idol’s part is “embarrassing [for their] fans”. Being a K-pop enthusiast with an active presence on social media, that remark did not faze me at all.
K-pop Albums Go Green
Unfortunately, bulk buying has quite the drawbacks. Not only does it call into question the validity of K-pop acts’ album sales (are those 1M albums going to 1M different people, or just the same 100k?), but it also has strong environmental and social negative impacts (which was indicated as a concern by 30% of respondents).
First of all, the fact that so many units are brought en masse makes you wonder, where do the extra copies go? The answer is both nice and disturbing – they get donated to orphanages.
That seems nice in theory, but many Korean NGOs who work with orphanages have complained about it at length, pointing out how the donations are actually useless to children in those establishments. “What you’re doing is not donating, you’re dumping your garbage on us,” said a spokesperson of an organization, and that “these so-called donations [do not] come with good intentions”. Chilling words, if I may add.
Moreover, manufacturing so many albums has quite the sizable ecological footprint, and when you take into account that a large portion of the copies will go to waste, that just seems ridiculous.
Nevertheless, there are some K-pop companies which took this into account, and attempted initiatives to make their sales greener. Several artists have announced their physical albums will be manufactured with recycled materials, and some are even going as far as trying to eliminate them almost altogether, in order to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.
For instance, boy group VICTON launched an initiative for their comeback in Jan 2022 called a “platform album”, which offers fans the opportunity to purchase a digital version of the record, where you will only be mailed the photocard and be emailed a download code for the songs. This is a brilliant idea, as photocards usually are the most valued and desired element of the physical contents, and this way the environmental impact won’t be as large. Fans are happy, idols are happy, and the planet is happy – a win for everyone!
The Road Ahead
So, what is the future of K-pop physical albums? Will people keep buying, or will sales start to plummet?
Well, I think it’s safe to say that sales will not go down anytime soon, at least according to my survey. Despite many respondents stating they have environmental concerns, or criticizing bulk buying and how physicals are used by companies in their ploys to manipulate fans, 75% said they will continue (or will start) purchasing physical copies in the future.
To quote one respondent, there is a lot of “inner-fandom shaming that goes on whenever you don’t own any albums”. And that’s not helped by companies actively exploiting this form of mob mentality via the release of different physical versions of the same record.
Furthermore, the notion that buying physical albums is part of your “duties” as a fan is still going strong among K-pop aficionados. To quote one respondent, there is a lot of “inner-fandom shaming that goes on whenever you don’t own any albums”. And that’s not helped by companies actively exploiting this form of mob mentality via the release of different physical versions of the same record.
Just as it’s not likely for fans to stop mass buying, odds are K-pop companies will not stop mass producing. After all, we’re talking about giant corporations here – the choice between ethics and money is an easy one for them, and we all know which option they will ultimately pick.
It is a vicious cycle, one which neither companies nor fans are likely to exit in the foreseeable future. It’s just like that song goes – they just made a million and they’re STILL not satisfied. But how many more albums will it take for everyone to be satisfied?
Edited by: Yili Char