In a digital age, why are CD sales flourishing in Korea?

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In a digital age, why are CD sales flourishing in Korea?

K-pop CDs on display at record store Hot Tracks inside Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. [HALEY YANG]

K-pop CDs on display at record store Hot Tracks inside Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. [HALEY YANG]

 
With the advent of MP3 players, smartphones and online music streaming services, CD sales have steadily been declining on a global scale.  
 
But not in Korea. According to the “Hanteo Global K-Pop Report: 2021 Semi-annual Summary” released last month by Hanteo Global, which runs the album sales tracker Hanteo Chart, CD sales in the country increased 34.25 percent during the first half of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. In fact, Korea's CD sales have been consistently on the rise since 2016.
 
“Koreans mainly listen to music digitally like people in most other countries,” said Sim Se-na, Public Relations team leader at Hanteo Global. “But Korea’s music industry is quite unique in the sense that its physical CD market is also alive and well.”
 
Indeed, buying CDs and listening to them are two separate activities in Korea.  
 
Boy band Super Junior's CDs collected by Shin Yun-ji, a fan of the band who estimates that she owns between 100 to 200 CDs. [SHIN YUN-JI]

Boy band Super Junior's CDs collected by Shin Yun-ji, a fan of the band who estimates that she owns between 100 to 200 CDs. [SHIN YUN-JI]

 
“Before I got a smartphone, I used to buy two copies of each CD — one to actually listen to, and one to keep in my collection,” said Shin Yun-ji, a fan of boy band Super Junior who estimates that she owns between 100 to 200 copies of CDs from the band. “But now, I buy only for the sake of collecting.”
 
In the age of online streaming, why are CD buyers willing to pay from 10,000 won ($9) to over 30,000 won to own physical copies?
 
“K-pop fandoms have a strong notion that you are a ‘true fan’ only if you buy the physical CD,” Sim said. “When an artist releases an album, EP or single, fans think it’s their duty to help its success by purchasing physical copies to make it reach No.1 on music charts. That’s part of the fan activity.”
 
Hanteo’s statistics also show that this unique K-pop fandom culture is the fundamental driving force behind CD sales. According to the report, first-week sales made up 73 percent of total CD sales in Korea in 2020 and the first half of 2021, and that ratio is on the rise. First-week sales indicate the size and loyalty of a fandom because it means that fans bought the CD unconditionally and immediately upon its release.  
 
“As the K-pop fandom culture expanded its reach to foreign fans, they have now joined in on the effort and are demonstrating their buying power,” Sim added.  
 
Cho Eun-ran, a fan of boy bands NU’EST and Infinite who owns 36 CDs from the bands in total, said a large part of why she purchases them is to contribute to the artists’ success.
 
“First-week sales are a standard of an idol group’s popularity, and I don’t want my favorite artist to be perceived as ‘waning in popularity,’” she said. “As a fan, I see how hard members work. That makes me buy multiple copies of the same release because I want to help them succeed.”
 
K-pop idol groups' CDs come in custom-designed cases and with a myriad of merchandise such as posters, photobooks, photo cards and so on. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

K-pop idol groups' CDs come in custom-designed cases and with a myriad of merchandise such as posters, photobooks, photo cards and so on. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

An image showing the "components" of girl group Red Velvet's album "Perfect Velvet" (2017). [SCREEN CAPTURE]

An image showing the "components" of girl group Red Velvet's album "Perfect Velvet" (2017). [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
Collectors say although they buy for the sake of collecting, the full package of the CD is often worth the price. While most CDs in other countries come in standardized 15 centimeter-by-15 centimeter (6 inch-by-6 inch) square plastic cases, K-pop idols’ CDs come in custom-designed cases packed with merchandise.
 
“For 17,000 won, I got a CD, posters, a photobook, photo card and postcards,” said a fan of Mamamoo with the last name Hwang, who owns 19 CDs from the girl group. “It’s a great deal for the price. Mamamoo’s CD cases also have unity in size and design, so they look so aesthetically pleasing together on my bookshelf.”  
 
A collection of girl group Mamamoo's CDs belonging to a fan surnamed Hwang. [HWANG]

A collection of girl group Mamamoo's CDs belonging to a fan surnamed Hwang. [HWANG]

 
Other examples of a CD’s “components” include stickers and mini cardboard cut-outs of members.  
 
Many CDs also get creative with their components. In 2015, boy band VIXX raised eyebrows by including a mock slave contract of members in its album “Chained Up,” based on the lyrics of the title track about being a “slave to love.” 
 
In 2015, boy band VIXX included a mock slave contract of members in its album “Chained Up,” based on the lyrics of the title track about being a “slave to love.” [SCREEN CAPTURE]

In 2015, boy band VIXX included a mock slave contract of members in its album “Chained Up,” based on the lyrics of the title track about being a “slave to love.” [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
The original soundtrack album of the medical television series “Hospital Playlist” (2020) comes with a doctor’s ID card featuring the faces of the show’s lead actors.  
 
“Since agencies know how serious fans are about buying CDs, they put in a lot of effort to make the case and components beautiful and high-quality, so that they have collectible value,” Sim said.  
 
The cover of Super Junior’s latest album “The Renaissance” (2021) is made of intricately engraved faux velvet. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The cover of Super Junior’s latest album “The Renaissance” (2021) is made of intricately engraved faux velvet. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
The cover of Super Junior’s latest album “The Renaissance” (2021) is made of intricately engraved faux velvet.   
 
However, although the cover and components are a bonus, Shin admitted that she would still buy Super Junior’s CDs regardless.
 
“Super Junior’s Japanese CDs come in regular plastic cases without any components,” she said. “Yet the price is the same as Korean CDs. But I buy them anyway as a fan.”
 
As Shin said, the fundamental reason for purchasing CDs boils down to whether you consider yourself a fan of the act. Many agencies actively employ marketing strategies to appeal to dedicated fans in an attempt to boost sales. One tactic is meet-and-greets.  
 
A tweet by a fan lamenting that they failed to win a meet-and-greet invitation even after buying 210 albums. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A tweet by a fan lamenting that they failed to win a meet-and-greet invitation even after buying 210 albums. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
“One CD purchase comes with or digitally registers one raffle ticket for a meet-and-greet,” said Lee Sae-ryoung, a fan of singer IU and boy bands Highlight and BTS who owns 16 CDs. 
 
“The more CDs you buy, the higher the chance of winning an invitation to the meet-and-greet. Buying millions of wons worth of CDs is normalized among fans of extremely popular groups.”
 
Although meet-and-greets switched to online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of fans wanting to enter such raffles actually increased.
 
“When meet-and-greets were in person, they were mostly held in Seoul and fans in the provinces or abroad were unable to attend,” said Hwang. “So they didn’t bother buying dozens or hundreds of CDs hoping to win an invitation. Now, I see those fans buying more in hopes of attending the online event at least.”
 
Another infamous strategy is to randomize the components.  
 
Seven different versions of the cover of boy band NCT Dream's "Hot Sauce" (2021), featuring each member. Fans who order online cannot know which version they will get until they receive it. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Seven different versions of the cover of boy band NCT Dream's "Hot Sauce" (2021), featuring each member. Fans who order online cannot know which version they will get until they receive it. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
“For example, if there are nine members in a group, you don’t know which member’s photo card you’re going to get,” said Lee.  
 
Due to this, fans either have to keep purchasing until they get the member they want, or resort to trading on fan communities or second-hand marketplace sites. Photo cards that are especially in high demand, such as those of boy band BTS members, are listed for sale as hundreds of thousands of won per card.  
 
Oftentimes, an album, EP or single itself is released in several different versions, such as limited editions, with the same tracks but different cover designs or components. Sometimes a CD comes in different designs themed after each member, and which version a buyer receives is often also randomized.  
 
“Repackaged” albums, which see already-released albums re-released with a new cover design and additional tracks, are also common.  
 
"Hello Future" (2021) is the repackaged version of NCT Dream's "Hot Sauce." [SCREEN CAPTURE]

"Hello Future" (2021) is the repackaged version of NCT Dream's "Hot Sauce." [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
“Some fans are angered by excessive marketing tactics like these, but invested fans actually think the agency is being neglectful if they don’t use such tactics,” said Cho. “After all, both the agency and fandom share the common goal of putting the singer at No. 1.”
 
“Although some marketing ploys may seem excessive, all forms of marketing are designed to induce consumers to purchase, and CDs are no exception,” said Choi Kwang-ho, Secretary General of the Korea Music Content Association. “If the CDs don’t appeal to the fans in some way, they simply wouldn’t buy it. So we can’t say those marketing strategies are necessarily bad.”
 
However, some question how meaningful the number of CD sales is when it heavily relies on loyal fans buying multiple copies.
 
“Before Covid-19, I witnessed Chinese fans buy hundreds of copies on the spot,” Shin said. “And they still do via online. That really explains where all the CD sales come from. Although I’m okay with it as a fan, I admit that the numbers are inflated."
 
Boy band Oneus's album "Devil" (2021) was released in three different versions. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Boy band Oneus's album "Devil" (2021) was released in three different versions. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

 
“Some criticize that K-pop CD sales are inflated, and that the increase is only due to fans buying unconditionally in bulk,” said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun.
 
“But that’s old-school thinking. Nowadays, people spend money in a similar way in other parts of life as well; we keep buying from brands that we trust and fit our tastes. Fans also continue to buy from artists they trust and are loyal to, subscribing as consumers.  
 
“Today, the success of content is not a one-time event, but is judged based on how many fans it gathered who will continue to consume in the future. BTS did not succeed thanks to just one successful song, but because of a fandom that stays invested. That loyalty is what makes CD sales a steady industry. The expansion of loyal fandoms, especially on a global scale, is meaningful itself and doesn’t take away from the increase of CD sales.”

BY HALEY YANG [yang.hyunjoo@joongang.co.kr]
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