Overloaded by content, value of club memberships put into question

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Overloaded by content, value of club memberships put into question

IU fans queue in front of the exclusive Uaena Zone specifically for fan club members at the singer's ″Golden Hour″ concert. [YONHAP]

IU fans queue in front of the exclusive Uaena Zone specifically for fan club members at the singer's ″Golden Hour″ concert. [YONHAP]

In an age where K-pop stars talk directly with fans through Instagram and hold live sessions on YouTube, the value of paid fan club memberships is becoming less clear.
Generally speaking, fan clubs are just that: a group of fans supporting certain singers, celebrities, sports players or other popular figures, used interchangeably with fandoms or fan bases. But in K-pop technical terms, fan clubs refer to organizations formed and operated by the agencies of K-pop idols, membership for which must be paid annually.
A prime example is ARMY — the official fan club of the boy band BTS. While the name itself was voted for by the fans, the fan club is run by the band’s agency BigHit Music. The same annual membership fees go for girl group Blackpink’s fan club Blink — named and operated by the agency YG Entertainment —, girl group Twice’s fan club Once, boy band Stray Kids’ fan club Stay and so on.
To outsiders, anyone who likes BTS to some degree is often referred as being an ARMY. But actual, registered ARMY who sign up for the official fan club receive a range of benefits, from a welcome package with the group’s merchandise to pre-reservation privileges for concerts or other events.
Fan club membership card for the boy band BTS [WEVERSE]

Fan club membership card for the boy band BTS [WEVERSE]

Memberships cost around 30,000 won ($23) a year but vary depending on the group.
Now, well past the early K-pop days in the late 1990s when the only means by which fans could communicate with stars or get the scoop on celebrities’ schedules was through the official fan club website, the plethora of communicative tools has inevitably led to the diminished role of the once-necessary means of consumption.
But in an age where fans can go on Weverse or DearU bubble to directly send messages and receive replies, visit stars’ Instagram accounts to see their pictures or read hand-written letters, watch content uploaded to YouTube or videos shot by other fans on Twitter, how much of the 30,000 won membership is actually paying off?
The one and only tool
Fan clubs carried great significance until as recently as the late 2010s as the one and only tool for keeping up with celebrities.
The current concept of K-pop fan clubs was paved by SM Entertainment — one of the largest K-pop agencies even to this day — and the agency’s boy band H.O.T. debuted in 1996.
Fan club members of the boy band H.O.T. at its fan meet-and-greet in 1999 [JOONGANG ILBO]

Fan club members of the boy band H.O.T. at its fan meet-and-greet in 1999 [JOONGANG ILBO]

Club H.O.T., the boy band’s official fan club, is considered to be the genesis of agency-organized fan clubs, complete with paid memberships and perks. SM Entertainment gave important notices to fans through the club, organized major events and gave fans a chance to feel close to the stars.
The primal membership — where fans physically have had to visit a bank to pay the fee — came with white balloons and raincoats, a part of the cheering equipment for fans that doubles as something that gives a sense of belonging to the group. Members also queued separately from non-member fans and were given special access to the group’s performances. The membership also came with online fan forum, or "cafe," access, providing a place for fans to communicate with fellow members, the agency and the idols themselves.
Club H.O.T.’s presence was so tangible that the Ministry of Education banned students from leaving school early to go to concerts, and the Seoul city government extended the operation hours for its subways so that people could get home after an event.
The rivalry between fandoms, especially with boy band Sechskies’ fandom D.S.F (renamed to Yellowkies in 2016), also started around this time. It has since become standard practice for K-pop agencies to have and manage fan clubs for their groups.
Still signing up
The fan club culture remains more or less the same as of 2023.
For example, singer IU’s Official 5th Fanclub Uaena had a signup period of two weeks, from Jan. 24 to Feb. 6, 2022, with a 35,000 won membership valid until Feb. 6 of this year. Fans who signed up received a fan club kit, which included a tabletop clock, nametags, photocards, photobooks and, of course, a membership card.
The membership card gave fans a special status on the artists’ official online fan cafe, made them eligible for monthly fan lotteries and allowed them to buy tickets to her first post-pandemic concert in 2022 before non-members. When the fifth fan club subscription expired, recruitment for the singer’s sixth official fan club opened for another two weeks, starting Feb. 13, with similar benefits.
Fan club kit provided with singer IU's fan club subscription [EDAM ENTERTAINMENT]

Fan club kit provided with singer IU's fan club subscription [EDAM ENTERTAINMENT]

Some agencies have attempted to differentiate their memberships.
Fan clubs of artists signed to HYBE — including boy bands BTS and Tomorrow X Together and girl group Le Sserafim — have transitioned to digital-based memberships where fans no longer get a fan club kit by default and removed the limited-time sign-up periods. In the case of BTS, anyone can buy its yearly ARMY membership at the base price of 25,000 won, with no tangible products provided. To that, subscribers can choose to add on a basic physical kit for an extra 15,000 won, or the extra special merch pack for 175,000 won with four limited edition merch boxes, ranging from a picnic set to a Bluetooth speaker.
Many fundamentals and perks remain the same. The special access to performances also stays, such as how members of Stray Kids’ fan club Stay were able to sign up to watch the boy band’s performance during its album release and were also given weekly opportunities to view MBC’s “Show! Music Core” when Lee Know co-hosted the program from 2021.

Fan club members are also usually provided early access to concert tickets, sometimes even at a discounted price.
For example, girl group IVE’s first mini concert “The Prom Queens,” held last February, offered paid fan club members a 10,000-won discount and the ability to purchase tickets prior to general admissions. As tickets sold out moments within the opening of general ticket sales, having a fan club membership could make all the difference.
Fan club memebership card for the girl group IVE [STARSHIP ENTERTAINMENT]

Fan club memebership card for the girl group IVE [STARSHIP ENTERTAINMENT]

One of the many tools
The idea of a loyal, core fandom that spends money is the same, but the biggest difference is that fan clubs are not so crucial for fans anymore.
To some, paid fan club memberships may serve as nothing more than memorabilia. Special access to music show performances only works when fans are dedicated enough to queue as early as 3 a.m. on a Friday in Seoul. Concerts, too — fan club members are not given free tickets; the membership merely widens the opportunity.
The value of these memberships diminishes even further for fans abroad. To international K-pop fans, the aforementioned benefits of special and or early access only mean something if the fans themselves visit Korea or their idols embark on a world tour.
Fan club welcome kit provided to the fans who joined the girl group IVE's fan club membership [STARSHIP ENTERTAINMENT]

Fan club welcome kit provided to the fans who joined the girl group IVE's fan club membership [STARSHIP ENTERTAINMENT]

Mike, a fan of the girl group IVE living in the United States, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that he subscribed to the membership mostly to show support.
“I bought [the fan club membership] because I felt like I had to as a fan,” Mike said. He added that he “would’ve probably kept my fan club [package] sealed if it wasn’t for the concert. I think it’s only worth [the money] because I ended up attending the concert.”
He explained that he only opened the package because he planned to attend the girl group’s concert in Korea and that the membership gave him not only a discount and early access to the tickets, but extra gifts on-site.
Another inescapable fact about fan club subscriptions is that not much is actually guaranteed, even if fans are required to pay for the membership in advance, making it difficult to gauge whether the investment will be worth the money.
For example, girl group Rocket Punch released three albums and held just one fan meet-and-greet throughout its three generations of membership subscription periods, while fans of boy band Golden Child had to see member Lee Dae-yeol leave for his mandatory military service in February 2022, followed by member Y’s planned enlistment starting this month.
Perhaps the unluckiest case goes to Buddy, fans of the girl group GFriend, as the group abruptly announced in May 2021 that they will no longer be active, meaning that fans’ already bought-and-active fan club memberships were rendered effectively useless. Members were offered a 110 percent refund for their memberships in Weverse Shop points — though GFriend fans had nothing much to buy — before switching to a cash refund after backlash from fans and the general public.
“As popular music industry marketing targets largely unspecified or random individuals, the existence of a fan club means that they now have a specified target to market to — a safety net by which the agency can promote and maintain its artists,” said music critic Lim Jin-mo.
“I think there are fundamental problems with fan clubs that are organized by agencies. […] While there could be many positives, there are a lot of downsides to paid fan clubs as well.”
“Everything now requires money, you know, there’s nothing that’s free. In that sense, I think it is fair to say that the classical concept of fan clubs — where you are really supporting the artists you like — doesn’t exist anymore […] and agencies and even artists are using the fan clubs for their benefit,” he added.
The enemy within
But the biggest competitor of paid fan club subscriptions nowadays is the endless variety of free and paid products and services available to fans.
This includes official videos and viral fan-made videos on YouTube and TikTok, photos uploaded by the idol themselves on Instagram and hour-long livestream sessions hosted on now-discontinued V Live, Weverse, YouTube and Instagram live.
Agencies themselves are trying to entice fans with different merch, ranging from light sticks — a tool fans wave at performances to show support, much like the different colored balloons used in the '90s — to pajamas designed by a member of the idol group.
There now are ‘private messaging’ subscription services such as DearU bubble and Weverse, which are advertised as an experience of chatting with your favorite idol. To fans of the older K-pop artists, this might sound similar to the voice mailbox services launched in the '90s, by which fans were able to listen to pre-recorded voices of idols, which critic Kim Zakka credited as “the birth of the subscription services that continue to this today.”
An example screenshot of an artist supposedly talking with a fan on the chat service from DearU bubble [SCREEN CAPTURE]

An example screenshot of an artist supposedly talking with a fan on the chat service from DearU bubble [SCREEN CAPTURE]

“From a business perspective, [official paid] fan clubs were a tool for the agencies to lock in its core fandoms back in the days when the exclusive benefits from fan clubs were the only [official] way that fans could show their support,” music critic Kim Zakka explained.
“This doesn’t mean that the importance of fans decreased in the industry — if anything, the importance and the influence of core fandoms have never been higher for idols.”
In fact, K-pop agencies do not disclose the number or statistical data of official fan club members like they did in the past. But they do keep internal data of key figures in order to market and promote their stars to the appropriate audience.
The narrower the target, the better the outcome will be, theoretically. And with the help of not only data from fan club activities but also other fan community apps and services, K-pop companies have a plethora of data on which to base their business.
“Entertainment companies make money by selling various kinds of merchandise, and fandoms are what enable them to do that. In general, I think it is inevitable that this [fan-agency relationship] is a seller-buyer relationship after all,” said Prof. Kim Soo-Ah from Seoul National University.
“The process of selling various idol-related merchandise may also make its fans feel uneasy or dissatisfied. With the business extending to non-music related categories like games or doll plushies, some fans may think it is over-commercialization.”
Fans who’ve bought into the fan club memberships are very much aware of the business side of things.
“Attending music show performances and concerts are practically only possible when you have a fan club membership. I went to both days of aespa’s concert, and I will renew it because of these benefits,” a 28-year-old fan of girl group aespa surnamed Rim said.  
“But I do feel like the agency is doing just the bare minimum — I wish the membership offered more, like extra benefits and exclusive goods or services,” she added.
“I believe fan clubs should be pure — it should remain within the classical definition of supporting your favorite artist sentimentally and emotionally,” said the music critic Lim.

BY CHO YONG-JUN [cho.yongjun1@joongang.co.kr]
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