K-pop’s CD problem isn’t going away any time soon

Albums collected by a community of K-pop fans created to reduce the environmental impact of the industry.  [KPOP 4 PLANET]
Albums collected by a community of K-pop fans created to reduce the environmental impact of the industry. [KPOP 4 PLANET]

Over the last year, K-pop’s biggest agencies have made a slew of environmental pledges to reduce emissions and embrace renewables. But take just the smallest step into the industry and it’s very clear to see that despite making all the right noises, K-pop agencies are doing very little to tackle the industry’s biggest problem: CDs.
 
Having been behind the curtain as an employee charged with handling translation at Korean artists’ fan events, this reporter has seen firsthand exactly how many CDs are still bought and how little the agencies are doing to discourage the use of the medium despite the obvious environmental impact.

The issue is not so many fans buying CDs themselves, but fans buying huge numbers of CDs for no reason other than to access events or to support the artist — to give them money or boost their position on the chart without actually making use of the product they buy.

Working at fan events, it is immediately clear just how popular K-pop stars are. The crowds of people that gather at events cannot be faulted for their passion, and when an artist finally does come on stage the sound of camera shutters is often overwhelming. 

That K-pop fans are this passionate shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, and it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that agencies can exploit that love and support to make money. Having glimpsed behind the curtain, it’s shocking to see how much money fans spend and how many albums they buy to even get to fan signing events.
 
For a fan signing event, the more albums fans buy, the higher the possibility of being invited. That’s why some fans buy 150 to 200 albums — or even more — to seize an opportunity to meet the singers in person. An album costs at least 10,000 won ($7.60), which leaves people spending at least 2 million won to buy 200 albums. 
 
Some albums cost as much as 50,000 won, depending on what items are packaged into the album.  
 
According to the music chart Circle Chart, the number of physical album sales is steeply increasing. Nearly 35 million physical albums were sold in the first half of this year, a 34.6 percent on-year jump. Considering that most people stream music these days, the result is astonishing.
 
Japan has a similar problem, with fans bulk buying albums, but there have been more visible efforts to reduce the number.
 
Japanese fans also need to buy a lot of albums to get into fan events, but unlike in Korea, only those selected for the events actually pay for the albums, while the others get refunded.
 
A new type of fan signing event intensifies the situation, making fans buy more albums.  
 
Before the pandemic, there used to be only one type of signing event — offline events where selected fans and celebrities gather in one area for a meet and greet. 
 
Online events were added during the pandemic due to social distancing rules. At those events, celebrities will make a video call to the selected fans, talking to them on the phone.
 
Although government restrictions on social distancing are lifted, both types continue to exist. For entertainment companies, it’s another opportunity to make fans buy more albums.
 
It’s not all about fan events. Even fans who are not interested in trying to make it onto those lists, the attraction of K-pop photo cards still boosts CD sales. Collecting photo cards is very popular among fans, making them spend huge amounts of money to try and get them all.  
 
Typically, one or two photo cards are randomly inserted into each album, with maybe a dozen cards available in total. Entertainment companies also release three or four versions of the album, with a different set of photo cards each time. 
 
This pushes fans to collect all the photo cards by buying more albums or trying to swap or change the ones they have. Online, photo cards are traded for as much as 1 million won per card.
 
Although it is easy to criticize the fans, it is hard to put the blame solely on them. The K-pop market itself uses the fan’s support as a marketing tool.
 
“I’m so disappointed with how the K-pop market treats fans as idiots,” said a fan of boy band Seventeen. “They provide photo cards in all kinds of merchandise and force us to buy them although the quality is terrifying. They are using the love and loyalty of fans only for their interest, not to benefit the artist nor the fans.”
 
Even if fan events and photo cards disappear, album shopping sprees might not. Album sales are heavily weighted when deciding which singer wins every week at music shows.
 
“The current music show ranking system should change,” said a fan of aespa. “Considering sales of albums as one of the significant criteria for a music show win will not make any improvement.”
 
“As the K-pop market is expanding, maybe the government should intervene in its overly competitive nature or at least the environmental issues that arise from it.”
 
While it’s true their money-making strategy makes it difficult for K-pop agencies and businesses to cut down on waste, they are trying to come up with ways to make CDs and merchandise with eco-friendly materials to reduce concerns about their environmental impact.
 
One recent attempt from the Korean Music Content Association was to change the name of its well-known K-pop ranking chart — the Gaon Chart — to Circle Chart to encourage agencies to participate in producing eco-friendly albums and merchandise while joining a campaign called the RE100. The association said in early July, as they changed the name, that it will make a clear standard on how albums should be released for the industry to be sustainable.
 
A fledgling sustainability movement in the K-pop industry is also underway. 

The Kihno Kits album app.  [SCREEN CAPTURE]
The Kihno Kits album app. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A new type of album has been made — the so-called Kihno Kits album. The method was implemented to lighten the album to create less waste. The only thing needed is a smartphone or any electronic device. If you set the kits next to the device, all the contents you can enjoy — music, music videos, and behind-the-scenes photos — are shown up on a separate application.

A similar measure was taken by the boy group Victon, who released an album that worked like a Kihno Kits album but looked like a photo card.

The latest albums of singers Winner, J-Hope, and SF9 were made of eco-friendly and recyclable materials.

BY STUDENT REPORTER HAN HYE-RI [kjd.kcampus@joongang.co.kr]