Deep Dive

Why K-Pop Fans Still Buy CDs (Even When They Can't Play Them)

BTS
BTS Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

Thanks to collectible cards, handwritten letters, striking design and variant covers, K-pop fans are snapping up millions of physical CDs — even when they have no means to play them

In 2018, BTS’ Love Yourself: Tear became the first-ever South Korean album to garner a Grammy Award nomination. But it wasn’t the LP’s musical offerings that drew the Recording Academy’s attention. Love Yourself: Tear was recognized in the best recording package category. Though St. Vincent’s Masseduction took home the trophy, Tear’s nomination was a nod to the creativity and craftsmanship being poured into the design and content of K-pop albums.

As more than a dozen K-pop acts, including BTS, EXO, Blackpink and SuperM, have landed on the Billboard 200 since the first, BoA, charted in 2009, the albums released in the South Korean music market are drawing as much interest for their design as for the songs on them.

In one of the last markets where physical sales of music remain strong, K-pop album packaging relies on sumptuous photography, elaborate graphic design and variant covers to sell CDs.

South Korea’s music industry saw physical-format revenue grow almost 29% in 2018, the second year in a row that the country reported the largest increase in physical revenue worldwide. Just over 40% of South Korea’s total music revenue of $599.9 million were physical, according to the global music industry organization IFPI.

The appeal of K-pop collectibles is one reason why, says David Price, IFPI’s director of insight and analysis. In addition to variant covers, K-pop albums usually contain a variety of extra goodies, such as collectible photo or metallic-looking holographic-foil cards, posters, stickers and even copies of handwritten letters by members of an act. It’s not unusual for 50 different collectible cards to be produced for an album release, and fans will often buy multiple copies of a CD in hopes of collecting the entire set or finding rare cards. (Secondary markets on eBay, Facebook and Twitter also exist where fans buy and trade these album extras.)

“Fans don’t buy albums to listen to the music; they don’t even have CD players,” says Jiyoon Lee, the head of Seoul-based creative studio XXX, which has made albums and other content for K-pop groups like EXO, BTS, TXT and LOONA. “So, the albums have to be something special, something that fans want to collect.” Lee says demand for inventive, visually appealing K-pop album packaging has grown steadily since she opened her studio in 2011.

The imagery incorporated into the design enhances the creative narrative of each K-pop release, says SM Entertainment CEO Chris Lee. “Each album comes out with different merchandise, and we consider this an opportunity for us to express the storytelling that we couldn’t really include in the music or the music video,” he says.

Lottery-style marketing strategies that spur fans to buy hundreds of albums to improve their chances of winning tickets to band meet-and-greets are also contributing to an increasing number of K-pop albums passing the million sales mark. EXO has released five albums since 2013 that have sold over 1 million copies each. Wanna One saw 1x1=1 (To Be One) sell over 1 million copies during the group’s brief existence from mid-2017 to the start of 2019. BTS, the undeniable kings of modern-day album sales, moved over 3.3 million copies of 2019’s Map of the Soul: Persona, which became the best-selling South Korean album of all time, and the group’s February album release, Map of the Soul: 7, has since surpassed those sales.

K-pop isn’t the only genre selling multiple versions of a single album, of course. Artists like Taylor Swift are doing the same thing in the United States. When her 2019 album, Lover, was released, fans could purchase a deluxe physical version, sold exclusively in Target stores, that featured a journal written by Swift. The special edition helped Lover rack up the biggest sales week of 2019 in the United States for an album, selling around 450,000 physical copies on its first day of release (Aug. 23) and 679,000 physical albums in its first week, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.

But U.S. artists offering special physical editions of their albums is not nearly as widespread a practice as it is in the K-pop world. And fans of these American acts are more apt to stream the music than buy a CD or vinyl album, let alone hundreds of them.

“To the fans, it’s not just an issue of buying music,” says Bernie Cho, the head of DFSB Kollective, a Korean music export agency. “You’re showing your loyalty.” And that loyalty helps an album chart higher.

Though the use of concert ticket/album bundles to boost an album’s chart performance is rare in the Asian market, it does occasionally happen when K-pop albums are marketed stateside. (Billboard requires that the price of an album be at least $3.49 for it to be counted toward chart position.) Last year, SuperM released eight variants of its debut EP, The 1st Mini Album, and offered more than 60 merchandise/album bundles and a concert ticket/album sale redemption offer for the group’s North American tour. In 2018, BTS released four editions of Love Yourself: Answer and marketed a concert ticket/album sale redemption offer for the group’s sold-out October show at Citi Field in Flushing, N.Y. Both albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

XXX’s Lee says that lately, her studio customers are asking for smaller, more uniformly sized collectible releases compared with the more creative shapes and sizes of previous releases. K-pop stars are putting out a lot of content every year, she explains, and the companies behind these acts are concerned that consumers will buy less when the products are larger and harder to organize and display.

Lee predicts that the CD itself may one day entirely disappear as streaming makes further inroads. If that happens, she sees K-pop albums giving way to what she calls a “concept book” that forgoes a CD for other promotional and collectible content.

As long as fan demand continues, physical copies of K-pop albums won’t be phased out anytime soon. “It has to do with good old-fashioned moneymaking,” says DFSB’s Cho. “The margins on physical CDs have been and will continue to be very healthy.”

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