K-pop artists, like most musical acts, bring out physical albums for some of their releases, ranging from singles, to mini-albums (what Western artists would refer to as EPs) and full albums (LPs). They also have comebacks which are digital only, though they often do produce physical versions which go to radio stations or press. In a world where digital wins and streaming is one of the main ways people now listen to music, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was no place for physical releases any more. But in the world of K-pop, physical releases mean so much more than a jewel case collecting dust on a shelf, only pulled out when it’s its turn for a spin in the car CD player.
I would describe myself as “multi-fandom”, meaning I listen to a long list of K-pop artists, though mainly girl groups. My favourites include Dreamcatcher, Itzy, Blackpink and Everglow, though I listen to plenty more groups. There are a few boy groups that make it onto my regular playlist, such as BTS, Oneus and The Boyz.
I am also a collector, which, rather obviously, means I collect physical releases. As of now (April 25, 2020), I have a nice round 50 K-pop albums in my collection – some I’ve paid more than I’d like to admit for. While Western CDs sell for around £10, K-pop albums, in the UK, at least, can sell for up to £30 due to various import taxes and shipping costs involved for suppliers getting them from Korea. Out of print albums, naturally, sell for much more second hand and often don’t include everything the album originally came with. For a lot of people, K-pop collecting is somewhat of a sport. Buy new, wait, sell for huge profit. To me, that isn’t what being a fan is about. So I only buy albums or releases that I genuinely love.
But why, when I only use Spotify to listen to music, do I feel the need to shell out for physical CDs that I’m probably never going to listen to?
As a Western fan, I feel it’s one of the only ways I can support the artists I love. K-pop groups and singers don’t tour the UK anywhere near as often as Western artists, and it’s usually only globally popular acts that do come. For smaller groups from entertainment companies that aren’t as well known – or as well off – my chance of seeing them live in the UK is practically non-existent. Of course I can support them by streaming their music and watching the music videos, but buying the albums is one of the only ways I feel I am physically supporting them.
My purchases don’t count towards my favourite artists charting in the UK, but, depending on where I buy from, they do count towards the Korean Gaon charts.
They also don’t make me any more of a fan than people that can’t afford to buy the albums for themselves. But it makes me feel like I’m supporting the groups I follow, and it’s something I like to do.
On top of that, each and every album or release is completely different to each other. A transparent jewel case with a lyrics book and CD, they are not. Most of the time, anyway.
At the very least, most modern K-pop albums come with a CD and a photobook. The photobook contains pages and pages of high quality photos of the group or singer which are often not released outside of the physical albums.
Nowadays, most releases include at least one photocard too. Think of a photocard as the Pokemon cards of the K-pop world. Each physical release will come with a certain amount of cards, though it will be a fraction of those available. It’s completely random and adds an element of fun or surprise to opening the albums up, which I really enjoy. For some people, they’re nice little extras – for others, they are everything, and they aren’t happy until they have a full set.
For a recent example, take a look at Dreamcatcher’s Dystopia: The Tree of Language. Each album comes with four photocards. However there are six sets of six photocards, each with different themes, available. That means, for one album, there are 36 cards to collect, if you are so inclined, meaning even if two people bought the same album from the same shop at the same time, they would more than likely have different opening experiences.
Then there’s the actual number of versions of albums released. Using the above example again, Dystopia came in four versions – E, V, I, L. Each was a different colour on the outer package, but each came with a completely different photobook too. It adds to the collectability of the albums. Your collection isn’t complete unless you have all four versions. For other groups, though, it doesn’t stop at four. SuperM’s mini-album came in eight versions. They were slightly different though, as the albums came with the face of each member, or just the group’s logo, on the front, meaning fans could collect their favourite member. Twice’s Fancy You came in three versions and, when lined up, the spines made up the album’s logo. And for groups like Blackpink, release multiple versions is an obvious choice – a black version and a pink version. With that in mind, I actually have just 37 K-pop albums – the other 13 are just different versions of the same album.
There are other collectable inclusions too, such as the cover pages of the photobooks or lyric books. Itzy’s first physical release, It’z Icy, came in two versions, but there were also five different front pages – one for each member. Similarly, Twice’s Feel Special came in three versions, but there were nine versions of the lyrics book and nine versions of the CD plate – one for each member. Even Everglow’s debut release, Arrival of Everglow, had big potential for a lot of sales. There was just one version of the album, but there were six versions of the CD, each with a different member on.
So for completists, who have to have everything, collecting K-pop albums can feel incredibly rewarding. Luckily – for my bank account – I’m not so much of a completist. I collect all versions of an album for my favourite groups, though just the outside cover and not the front page variants like with Itzy’s releases, and do collect some of the photocard sets too. It makes me feel closer to the fandom, which is really important to me as a Western fan who can’t speak Korean and will rarely get a chance to experience my favourite groups in person. With collecting photocards, it gives me a way to interact with other fans. Using the Pokemon card analogy again, K-pop photocards are also often traded. I’ve connected with K-pop fans all over the world, trading cards so we can all collect our favourite members or groups.
Aside from the standard photobook and photocards, K-pop albums can include way more, like miniature cardboard standees of a random member, lenticular cards, separate lyric books and posters, to bookmarks, calendar cards, messages from members and special event tickets, K-pop releases are so much more than a CD in a cheap plastic case. They really are an experience that, admittedly, won’t mean much to people that aren’t fans. But it’s an experience I never had with buying a Lady Gaga or Katy Perry CD in my teens, with which I knew exactly what I’d be getting and it was for a purpose – I would listen to the CD and forget about the case.
My albums currently take up three shelves around my small London bedroom and I have other merchandise – stand-alone photobooks, seasonal collections, light sticks – dotted around too. I’ve also got a few posters on my walls. My collection takes the pride of place in my room and, on the most surface layer, adds some interesting visuals to an otherwise bland layout. They don’t just sit there either. Every now and again I’ll pick one of them up and flick through the photobook, look at the photocards, marvel at the packaging. Some of them really are stunning.
But they’re more than that – they’re serious business. Chinese Blackpink fans have already collected enough funds to buy more than 250,000 copies of their next comeback – and it hasn’t even been announced yet.
Fans buy stacks of albums too, and not just to complete the photocard collection. Some retailers offer extra incentives to buy from them, such as specific extra photocards or postcards. For example, MyMusicTaste had an exclusive set of photocards for Dreamcatcher’s Dystopia, with each album coming with two out of six members at random, meaning more reason to buy more copies from that specific retailer. KTown4U also had exclusive photocards for the album. Then, with MyMusicTaste, random customers would be chosen to receive incredibly rare promotional albums that were not for sale of previous releases. This encourages people to buy multiple copies – into the 100s in some cases – to increase their chance of winning the promo album. This is not uncommon. While some sellers offer the chance to win a promo single, others offer up the chance to get your hands on an exclusive, genuine, one-of-a-kind signed polaroid of a member of the group. Or customers may be chosen at random to gain access to a fan-sign event, at which they could get the chance to meet their favourite artist. Obviously, the more albums you buy, the more chance you have of being chosen.
There are a handful of British retailers of K-pop, though many have to charge a lot more than Korean sellers do. An album from a Korean seller on eBay might cost £15, while the same album from a UK-based seller might cost £25. Of course, for that £25 you also get much speedier delivery and easier communication if something goes wrong with the order. K-pop albums are also starting to be sold in British shops like HMV and even supermarkets that sell CDs. Of course, it’s usually only the very popular groups like BTS – sometimes literally only BTS – that are on the shelves, but it’s understandable. They need to be able to sell their stock.
It’s important, though. There is no better feeling than going into HMV and seeing K-pop representation in there. Yes, most of the time it’s a single shelving unit with five or six different albums available – but it’s a start. K-pop is often seen as a lesser music genre in the UK for whatever reason that may be, so it’s incredibly validating to see the music you listen to having a space in mainstream stores.
I think what it comes down to, is buying and collecting physical K-pop albums allows me to feel like I’m part of something. I have something tangible that I can show that proves that I am part of something. And that’s an incredibly rewarding feeling, that I think is exclusive to K-pop fans.