[NEWS IN FOCUS] K-pop finds a solution to its CD problem in the form of virtual albums
K-pop churns out a lot of CDs. The disks are favored by fans trying to boost their favorite groups and bands on the charts, and as the physical media often come with perks.
Overenthusiastic supporters will warehouse physical albums, skewing the numbers and creating a lot of waste.
Some K-pop agencies are looking for alternatives to CDs.
J-Hope, a member of BTS, released "Jack In The Box" as a digital album through the Weverse community app on July 29. Buyers were given a QR code that connects them to the music files and photographs.
Newly-debuted NewJeans also released a Weverse album when the "New Jeans" album was first available on Aug. 8. Two physical versions were also offered.
HYBE, which manages J-Hope and New Jeans said it established an environmental, social and governance (ESG) management committee on July 26. The company will offer more such digital albums in the future.
A local start-up has been helping smaller bands without their own fan apps to join the trend.
Founded in 2019, Nemoz Lab sends a credit-card sized album package to buyers containing a code that connects people to the digital music files on the Nemoz app. Related content, such as pictures and virtual reality (VR) offering, are available in the digital package.
So far, artists such as TRI.BE, Just B, MCND, Blitzers, Lee Bo-ram and Sunye have released Nemoz albums.
Neither recyclable nor easy to discard, physical albums have been considered an environmental nuisance in recent years. Despite having yielded their original purpose to online streaming services, physical album sales have been on the rise due to the growth of the K-pop market.
According to local market tracker Circle Chart, 35 million copies of physical albums were sold by top 400 releases during the first half of this year, 34.6 percent more than the same period last year.
The sales aren't from people trying to listen to music. K-pop fans buy albums to show support for their stars, collect the photo cards that come within the package and, most importantly, to sign up for the meet-and-greet events that need a receipt for the album purchase to apply.
Some people take the receipt, then "donate" the albums to charity or orphanages, leading these organizations to post notifications politely asking fans not to do so.
Discarding the CDs isn't the answer, they are almost impossible to recycle and give off harmful gas when incinerated instead. A CD is made of polycarbonate plastic and aluminum.
"I spent 5 million won [$3,733] on albums this year so that I could get a ticket to the meet-and-greet," said a woman in her 30s who wished to keep her name and her favorite band anonymous. "I know it's not good for the environment, but I have no choice if I want to see my favorite group in person."
Other efforts include using more environmentally-friendly materials for albums, such as biodegradable plastic and paper. JYP Entertainment, home to bands Twice and Stray Kids, joined the RE100 initiative, a global campaign to replace all electricity generated by fossil fuels with renewable energy by 2050, the first in the K-pop industry.
Music charts are also embracing this change, by counting digital albums into the album sales records.
In 2017, singer G-Dragon of boy band Big Bang challenged the physical album hegemony by releasing his album "Kwon Ji Yong" in a USB flash drive instead of a CD. The Korea Music Content Industry Association stated that it will not be calculated in his album sales but instead counted as digital sales and tallied in the digital and downloaded song charts.
Following complaints from fans and criticism from experts, Gaon Chart — which recently rebranded itself as Circle Chart — changed its regulation in December 2017 to count digital albums as album sales, not digital downloads.
"Similar technologies have actually been around for years, but they've become much cheaper and advanced and will allow us to make similar new attempts in the industry," said Jeon Su-jin, CEO of Nemoz Lab.
"These new types of albums are not only more environmentally-friendly, but they also help heighten the user experience for music listeners."
The latest trend that began last year is with non-fungible tokens (NFT). Musicians have been releasing NFTs of songs or singles over the past couple of years, but artists are now seeking to expand the idea to whole albums.
Kings of Leon became the first band to release an NFT album in March last year with "When You See Yourself." It was the first case in which a whole album was sold in NFT format, not just a single song.
British band Muse will release its NFT album "Will of the People" on Aug. 26. It will be eligible for the UK Official Charts, which recently changed its tallying standards to include NFTs last April.
"Positive changes have been taking place in the K-pop scene, but things like digital albums are being treated as one-off events," said Lee Da-yeon, a campaigner at KPOP4PLANET, an alliance of K-pop fans pushing for environmental awareness in the industry.
"Digital albums should become a permanent option. K-pop can lead the way, because it has the power to spread the good influence around the world."
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]