A little over two months ago, the world didn’t even know about K-pop group SuperM. Yet this week the seven-piece band turned heads when it landed a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 with its first-ever LP, The 1st Mini Album, driven almost entirely by album sales.
It’s a stunning achievement for the project, which was only just announced in August as a partnership between Korean label giant SM Entertainment and Capitol Music Group (and distributed by Caroline). And it’s no fluke. In the first major attempt to push a K-pop act foremost in the U.S. market, the labels pulled out all the winning marketing stops from both sides of the Pacific, creating an East-meets-West promotional super-campaign befitting these so-called “Avengers of K-pop,” which brings together members of established acts SHINee, EXO, NCT 127 and WayV.
Since collectible physical packages of albums have proven so popular among K-pop fans in Korea, SM and Capitol offered eight different CD variations — one cover for each of the seven members, along with a group edition. Plus, more than 60 merchandise/album bundles were available to purchase through their official web stores.
SuperM’s upcoming 10-date North American arena tour, launching Nov. 11, also includes a concert ticket/album sale redemption offer, where a CD copy of the album was bundled into the purchase price of the ticket. Customers could choose to redeem the album and have it mailed to them, but only those redeemed albums could count towards the charts. But given the fervency of K-pop fans, it’s safe to assume these albums were redeemed at above-average rates.
When the album was released on Oct. 4, SuperM celebrated by hosting a week-long, wildly popular pop-up shop in Los Angeles during street week, right next to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where fans could purchase the CD. The same week, SuperM held hyper-efficient album signings at record stores in the Los Angeles area, where only one band member signed each customer’s CD to avoid bottlenecking — instead of having the entire group sign a disc.
Meanwhile, SuperM’s super fans proved incredibly savvy at boosting their band up the charts. While Nielsen Music and Billboard‘s charts only reflect U.S. purchases, chatter on social media was pervasive with ways they might help game the system from all around the world. Ultimately, Nielsen Music and Billboard have systems in place against fans or labels rigging chart performance, but the scheming alone shows remarkable dedication to supporting the group. Online retailers, including SM Entertainment’s own SuperM storefront, tapped into this by mentioning in item descriptions that sales would be counted for the Billboard charts — a fair practice that targets fans commitment to the cause, so long as only U.S. sales are reported for the Billboard charts, data that is scrutinized by Nielsen Music and Billboard.
“SuperM fans bought the mini album in numbers because it was their way of expressing their fandom and support of the band,” says MIDiA Research managing director Mark Mulligan. “Both K-pop and Japanese idol artists have been doing this kind of thing for years in their domestic markets, to such an extent that physical revenues are growing strongly in South Korea, driven by young K-pop fans.”
The combination of these promotional strategies worked. The 1st Mini Album, which is composed of only five original tracks (plus instrumental versions of two of those songs), started with 168,000 units earned in the week ending Oct. 10 in the U.S., of which an astonishing 98% or 164,000 were in album sales, according to Nielsen Music. (The Billboard 200 chart ranks the most popular albums of the week in the U.S. based on multi-metric consumption as measured in equivalent album units. Units are comprised of traditional album sales, track equivalent albums and streaming equivalent albums.)
In doing so, SM Entertainment and Capitol Records have achieved success through physical format in a music landscape where streaming is hailed the golden ticket to charts success.
“Just when everyone tells you young people don’t listen to albums and they certainly don’t buy albums, a clever marketing team who knows how to appeal to a core fan base proves them wrong,” comments Russ Crupnick, managing partner at industry analysis firm MusicWatch.
The promotional master-plan could serve as a blueprint for monetizing fandom, a tactic born in K-pop but with the potential to work for other genres, too.
Capitol Records and Caroline declined to comment for this story.