Here’s a little fun trivia for you – what do physical albums, Blockbuster and dinosaurs have in common? Answer – they are all extinct. With the emergence of MP3 players, smartphones and online streaming services, tangible versions of music have sunk into oblivion by now, becoming but a nostalgic memory for those over 20. But despite that overall decline, physical sales of Korean music have been skyrocketing for quite a while… but why is that? Why are K-pop fans still buying physical albums? Let’s find out!
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that you probably know what physical albums are, but if anyone is unsure, let me quickly put your mind at ease. Physicals are the material format of an album – they are sold by a retailer to a consumer, who then becomes the sole owner. In short, they are what you would commonly call CDs.
Why would you spend €15+ to buy only one album, when for a much smaller monthly fee you can have access to millions of records?
I know what you must be thinking – ‘Grandma alert! No one uses CDs anymore!’. And yes, that is indeed true! With the advent of the digital era and the takeover of streaming services, the vast majority of people have switched to listening to music in online formats, rather than with CDs. After all, why would you spend €15+ to buy only one album, when for a much smaller monthly fee you can have access to millions of records? And that’s not even touching upon the influence of piracy (where you can have all that music for free), or how CDs have become so obsolete, tech companies no longer include space for them in laptops… Simply put, by now physical albums have become a thing of the past.
But while that is true, we have seen a strange turn of events in the past decade with K-pop albums. Whereas the sales of physical Western titles have been plummeting globally at an annualized rate of over 10% since 2010, K-pop physical sales have been on the rise since 2013, when boy group EXO managed to sell 1M units. Afterwards, K-pop physical sales began steadily increasing, both in South Korea and on a global scale. So much so that it is now almost a given that a K-pop artist will become a million-seller sooner or later.
Albeit being an impressive achievement, I think it can’t help but make you wonder why. I mean, it’s not like K-pop fans don’t listen to music mainly on streaming services just like everybody else these days, so why are they buying physical albums?
After racking my brain trying to figure it out, I finally got an epiphany last week – why don’t I simply ask them? That is, why don’t I directly ask K-pop fans why or why not they choose to purchase physical albums? And that’s exactly what I did.
I launched a survey on social media within an online community of K-pop fans, and quickly received a few hundred responses. Very few participants owned no albums at all, as most of the respondents had between 20 and 40 units, and many even surpassed the 100 mark! Some of the results I got were to be expected, while some were rather surprising to me. But I now have a better understanding as to why so many people buy albums, and why so many others do not.
But before we dive into the survey’s findings, let’s talk about what exactly makes K-pop albums so special…
K-pop albums – more than just music
The K-pop industry is best known for many things – complex choreographies, fun and uplifting beats, and charismatic variety content, just to name a few. But what truly makes the industry stand out from its music peers is the constant impeccable attention to visuals.
Between fashionable and avant-garde-esque styling, and music videos and live performances that could put blockbusters to shame, the visual aspect is placed on the same level of importance as music in K-pop. Thus, it should come as no surprise that even the way the music is packaged and distributed is meticulously cared for.
Whereas physical albums by western artists usually consist of just a CD in a jewel case and (maybe) a lyric booklet, K-pop acts take the traditional conceptualization of physicals and move it on the next level (pun intended). CDs and lyric booklets are still there, but they are accompanied by photobooks (containing all photos used for the album’s concept and promotions), random photocards (i.e., a hard card with a picture of an idol on the front), stickers, posters, and even innovative goodies sometimes.
Moreover, K-pop albums can come in many different shapes and forms, foregoing the old jewel case format. They can vary from intricate classics like f(x)’s mockup design of a VHS tape for Pink Tape (pictured below), or EXO’s comic book-inspired The War: The Power Of Music, to more minimalistic designs like BTS’s Love Yourself trilogy (which even received a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package in 2019).
Opening a K-pop album is not just an act – it’s an experience.
Not only does this help the artist stand out more from the masses, it also ensures fans actually enjoy themselves while unboxing their favorite albums. Opening a K-pop album is not just an act – it’s an experience. Fans get to have fun during the unboxing, discovering all the details and hidden features in the packaging, and finding out which random photocard they received. It’s even become a trend for fans to film themselves while unboxing, and then upload their reaction on YouTube, where the videos can even receive millions of views.
K-pop albums are where creativity meets commerciality – they are the product of a tug-of-war between being art and being a commodity. They have to be fun and creative, but must also be usable and trendy enough for fans to think they are worth the money. And most of all, they have to be so visually appealing they can transcend the music they accompany. The power of a K-pop album lies in the fact that it can make people want to possess it without listening to (or even liking) the music it contains.
In fact, buying an album and actually using it are two separate activities for K-pop fans, and generally they are not consequential. In my survey, only 40% of respondents indicated they actually use the CDs after buying them, with many specifying they use them only when listening on online streaming platforms is not a viable option (e.g., if their car does not have an auxiliary port).
But then, why do K-pop fans purchase physical albums? And why do they not?
Let’s discover it together in “Let’s Get Physical: K-pop Fans and The Physical Album Phenomenon – Part 2” next week!
Cover: Sofia Alejandra
Edited by: Yili Char