G-Dragon's 'Kwon Ji Yong' USB Release Opens Debate About What Makes an Album

Dominique Charriau/WireImage
G-Dragon attends the Chanel show as part of Paris Fashion Week Haute-Couture Spring/Summer 2015 on Jan. 27, 2015 in Paris, France. 

While G-Dragon's Kwon Ji Yong made a major debut on the Billboard 200 last week, the album's physical release has found a bit of a snag on its album charts at home. As Billboard previously reported, the five-track release is currently considered ineligible for South Korea's domestic Gaon Chart due to its USB flash drive format that links out to song downloads rather than actually containing the music, per chart operator the Korean Music Content Industry Association (KMCIA).

The issue has drawn debate from fans and industry executives, with the BIGBANG leader himself commenting on the issue, writing, "Isn't the most important thing for music a good melody that will linger on the ears, mouths and minds of people for a long time and the lyrics that can touch people and make them laugh and cry?" The issue goes further as G-Dragon's rankings will be affected on Korean music-chart programs where top-selling artists all vie for the coveted honor of being named the week's top release. 

Notably, a USB-only release would be considered eligible on the Billboard charts with American sales of G-Dragon's Kwon Ji Yong album -- in all its forms, whether it be the physical USB or digital -- eligible to count on the album charts, as long as the sales are reported to Nielsen Music.

KMCIA has defended their decision based on South Korean copyright law that sees an album as a physical object with music. When one puts the flash drive into their device, a folder containing a hyperlink leads the consumer to a Website featuring three pages: one with the individual song downloads, one with photos and the last with videos including music videos and exclusive, behind-the-scenes footage of the album photo shoot.

The issue ultimately opens-up a larger debate of what does count as an album today. Does an "album sale" ultimately change when it leads the consumer to a Website to download its individual tracks instead of a physical disc that seamlessly plays all the music? Or is simply the act of buying an artist's physical music product -- regardless of how the songs are presented -- what makes it a purchase with impact? And who's to decide what is and is not impactful? They're all interesting questions. 

While the Gaon chart does not incorporate streaming or individual track sales in its album-sales counts like the Billboard 200, singles rankings do with Kwon Ji Yong's lead cut "Untitled, 2014" already giving GD his latest No. 1 on Gaon Digital Chart and proving the record's music is, in fact, massively popular. But album charts are also considered a major marker of a record's success for those choosing to support the artist's full body of work instead of just the single, which helps explain the controversy over the decision. Furthermore, high physical album sales for a K-pop act indicates substantial national popularity with only select acts having album sales worth bragging about when the numbers are revealed. With music so widely and much more easily available via streaming and YouTube, not to mention the competitive music programs also counting listening statistics, are fans even really listening to the music on the physical CDs or does it merely represent an important step and trinket in fandom culture?

It's possible that G-Dragon will be an unfortunate victim of South Korean chart history and that similarly created USB flash drive albums or other alternative formats will eventually be counted. GD's record label YG Entertainment called the decision "a structural problem," saying the charts were "holding on to the old way of thinking and not being able to accept the changes that are happening right now." Times change quickly with technology and with the Internet very possibly creating an entirely new format or an alternative listening method comes into play, that forces charts teams to rethink their policies once again.

The Billboard 200 is less than three years into its makeover where it began incorporating streams and track sales to determine the most popular albums in America. Comparatively, the digital success of "Untitled, 2014" and the other four album tracks debuting in the Top 20 of the Digital Chart make it clear that Kwon Ji Yong would have been a massive accomplishment on Korea's albums charts even if the USB was not counted. Still, it's impossible to say the K-pop icon hasn't had a huge victory with the album -- not only for its global chart performance, but as a creative, soul-exploring opus. Yet, for now, Gaon's decision stands with this week's Album Chart seeing no sign of Kwon Ji Yong in the Top 100 as Seventeen's AI1 rises to take back to No. 1 after spending last week at No. 3.