If you grew up with the rise of pop music, you probably shifted from cassettes to CDs that came in a cute translucent box with maybe the printed picture of the artist and, later on, a small book with the lyrics of the songs. While the rest of the world got one update, Korea got ten. The albums became an extension of the music video concept. They started to include photo books, and after Girls Generations, the first photocards came to light. The albums on their own were so artsy they had collective value. But the object of all fans’ desire were the precious photocards…
Nowadays, albums come in all shapes and sizes but they tend to include the CD, the photobook, one poster, and two or three photo cards. Depending on the album, group, and concept you can also get stickers, pins, postcards, polaroids, or even markers such as Seventeen’s Face The Sun albums. Western Artists, such as Beyoncé, have seen the K-pop albums’ strategy success and implemented it into their marketing strategy. Their albums no longer include just the CD and the lyrics, but also posters and exclusive pictures.
Indeed, K-pop has become a worldwide phenomenon. The news welcomed its impact with headings such as “COVID-19 couldn’t stop K-pop’s global rise” or “Hallyu to the world: the incredible rise of Korean culture”. However, in between all the environmentally concerned articles, we find the negative impact this industry has left on the environment. In this article, we will discover why K-pop is so wasteful and how music companies are reacting to this issue.
However, if the albums have collectible value, why are they causing such environmental impact?
Breaking K-pop album sales into pieces.
The success of Korean music can be reflected in album sales. In 2016, around ten point eight million copies were sold. In 2020, approximately sixty million. Nevertheless, these numbers do not reflect reality, as sixty million albums are not being sold to sixty million people. The truth is that fans purchase albums in huge amounts with no intention of keeping them.
As K-pop albums have been evolving in past years, now there are multiple versions of the same album. Not only do the albums per se have numerous versions, but so do the photocards (exclusive photos of K-pop idols). Keeping in mind that the PCs are randomly distributed with the albums, if a K-pop group has multiple members, fans have to buy multiple albums of each version in an attempt to get a photocard of their “bias” (favorite member).
Let me break it down a bit more! Enhypen, one of the newest male groups of BigHit, has seven members. If the album has only one version, fans will need to buy at least seven albums of that one version to get the photocard of their bias. However, as the photocards (“PCs”) come at random, they most likely end up with repeated ones. You may wonder why they do not simply exchange the repeated members or, in case of buying just one album, exchange their PCs with another fan. It turns out that sometimes the PCs are more expensive than the albums themselves; especially if your bias is one of the most popular among the members. With big groups, such as BTS, the price of one PC alone can skyrocket to 80 USD or more depending on the member and how exclusive it is. To sum it up, in the case of Enhypen, a fan will presumably have to buy at least seven albums if they are after their bias’ photocard.
This group’s last comeback sold their album with three main versions (but a total of seven versions). In total, ninety-eight PCs, which realistically means that the probability of a fan getting their bias’ photocards are low. This is one of the reasons fans who collect PCs buy albums in huge amounts. Some fans, after the massive purchases, start opening the albums looking for specific photo cards. If they find what they’re looking for, they might not open the rest of the albums and resell the unopened ones.
However, most commonly, all albums are opened, and the PCs are taken out. As a result, the person who bought them finds themselves with numerous albums they do not need and have to dispose of. This disposal has been called out on Twitter for being, usually, trashing the albums. This is where fans, like myself, benefit from K-pop album’s buyers, since fans usually give away the “unsealed albums” for free. In the last six months, I have managed to have almost a hundred K-pop albums in my possession, without spending a single won! Nonetheless, even if it is beneficial to me, this consumerism is still an issue, as most albums end up being taken by the trash truck.
But if you thought the issue ended up here, fasten your seat belts!
The albums come with photocards but if you buy from the pre-order before the comeback, you get additional limited PCs. And, of course, these limited edition ones are worth even more. So once again, fans need to buy during pre-order to get the mentioned benefits and usually buy in bigger amounts to resell the PCs and recover their inversion. Just a heads up: every Korean Official shop has different photo cards to increase their sales! It can be seen how the number of albums purchased doubled per official shop; and with it, the waste. Following the example of Enhypen, now fans will buy albums not only targeting the original ninety-eight PCs, but now per store, they will have seven or eight (if there is a group photo) more PCs they would want to collect.
One more reason to waste.
To end the photocard issue, we have the “Lucky Draws”. During the comeback promotions, there are special events called lucky draws that are based on the on-site purchase of albums. Per album you have bought you can push a wheel or press a button -depending on the event- to get random special edition PCs. These special edition PCs normally have one version per member and come at random, which sparked the name “lucky draw”. So, besides the pre-order purchases, collectors and fans in general will try to get these exclusive PCs to collect or resell as their price is usually higher than normal ones (especially overseas, where fans cannot participate in such events).
But why would any fan want so many albums besides for collecting the valuable photocards?
Korean idols hold, after the comeback, special events. The access to these events is based on a raffle that hugely depends on the number of albums you purchased. There are two types of events: Fan-calls and fansigns. The fan calls are international so the number of albums you need to buy to get in increases by a lot. The fansings require fewer albums but still, depending on which group you like, you will probably end up buying around twenty or four hundred. According to a friend, who is part of the Enhypen fandom, to enter the fan call for their last comeback, fans needed a minimum of four hundred fifty albums to enter the raffle. For the fansing, around two hundred eighty.
What is there to come?
In Korea, resellers can only sell sealed albums (those with the plastic still on), and if they want to make up a bit for their expenses they normally need to sell the PCs. Unsealed albums without inclusions (not only the PCs are taken out but also the posters, stickers, etc) can be sold abroad, but the shipping cost is bigger than the actual worth or the money that can be recovered. And therefore, these fans have only three options: donate them (not every organization accepts so many albums and there are certainly not enough organizations to accept donations from all these fans); give them away for free; or sadly, trash them.
K-pop companies have recently announced some changes in their albums saying they will start using recyclable materials. Big groups have become the image of sustainable development by being UN ambassadors, and yet their album sales practices are the most damaging ones. The majority of the proposals and active changes to tackle this issue are coming from less popular idol groups’ companies. Some of their options include: reducing the physical sales, using recycled paper or biodegradable materials on the albums, avoiding CDs as they are harder to recycle, increasing fans’ level of awareness, etc. However, they do not solve the main issue: if the PCs and the raffles keep their importance, and the purchase of huge amounts of albums is required to obtain the latter; the problem still remains. Especially when the groups with the most influence to solve K-pop’s overconsumption are the ones whose album sales cause the worst environmental damage. Online communities, as well as experts, have proposed targeting other areas of the production chain such as including solar panels, proposing environmental activities with the fans such as creating forests, and offering “digital” albums that once purchased will send you home the valuable PCs and will still count for the special events. Nevertheless, with these being just online proposals, this cycle of overconsumption and overproduction will most likely not end anytime soon.
Rocío Beteta Chinchón is Spanish and is double majoring in “International Security and Foreign Policy” and “Global Strategy and Management” at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies. What started as a passion for legal TV shows, took her to Law School, later on to her first master degree in Mediation and Conflict Resolution and currently, Yonsei. In her free time she enjoys volunteering and reading about more casual topics such as music, fantasy, history or psychology.
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