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[K-pop’s dilemma] Can K-pop break free from ‘fandom’ model?

K-pop should search for ways to gain sustainability, say experts

May 9, 2024 - 14:44 By Lee Jung-youn
Fans visit the BTS pop-up store "Monochrome" in Seongdong-gu, Seoul on April 26. (Yonhap)

A longtime fan of K-pop, Lee Eun-soo, 25, has been buying albums, streaming music and purchasing K-pop merchandise, all part of what it means to be a loyal K-pop fan.

Although she is still a big fan of K-pop, she is skeptical about the K-pop industry's sustainability, pointing out that agencies place too many financial demands on fans. “Fans have to pay money endlessly to show love and agencies know how to squeeze money out of them,” she said.

K-pop's global success is undeniable, yet it remains a niche culture, sustaining itself on small but fervent fans. The industry's reliance on a limited number of fans for profit has raised concerns over the years about the long-term viability of the industry.

Excessive spending

The distorted structure of K-pop can also be found in its record-breaking album sales figures. While most people have moved to streaming services from physical albums, the K-pop album market is overheated.

Seventeen set a record last year by surpassing cumulative yearly album sales of 16 million copies. Their album "Seventeenth Heaven," dropped in October last year, sold 5.09 million copies within the first week of its release, according to Hanteo, a domestic music chart, achieving an all-time highest sales record.

While K-pop groups' expansion into the international market may have contributed to the remarkable increase in album sales, industry experts note that such a feat is largely reliant on fans' repeat purchases.

"Seventeen produced the best-selling album worldwide in 2023, but they don't hold such high rankings on Spotify, the world's largest music streaming platform. This shows that the actual consumption of K-pop does not necessarily correlate with album sales," said culture critic Lim Hee-yun.

Through strategies such as placing random photo cards of artists inside the albums which entice fans to buy multiple albums for the card they want, entertainment companies foster overconsumption.

Piles of Seventeen albums were found dumped on the streets of Shibuya, Tokyo, on April 30, underscoring the wasteful side of K-pop's commercial success. Someone who purchased hundreds of albums had discarded the albums, taking only the merchandise inside.

Fans wait in line to enter the BTS pop-up store, "Monochrome," in Seongdong-gu, Seoul on April 26. (Yonhap)

Tilted relationship

Experts note that overreliance on a specific group of consumers is undermining K-pop, bringing several side effects – diminished credibility of K-pop, invasion of celebrities' privacy and excessive emotional labor by K-pop stars.

In launching the K-pop category last year, Billboard Music Awards excluded duplicate downloads of the same track from the chart tally, recognizing only one download per week.

The new rule, apparently aimed at minimizing the influence of fandom's mass streaming and purchases, reveals how the global music industry views fandom's collective actions and purchases as demonstrative of fans' loyalty rather than their musical merit, said Kim Hun-sik, a culture critic.

Selling excessive intimacy between fans and stars is another danger point. "Weverse," "Bubble," "Fromm" and similar private message platforms with idol members have seen rapid growth in recent years. Fans eager to communicate with their idols have criticized some artists for infrequent communication, and concerns have been raised about artists being compelled to participate in paid interactions. In the new profit-generating plan, idols are exposed to excessive emotional labor, said Lim.

With the excessive intimacy, some fans cross the boundary by intruding into celebrities' private lives. For instance, Karina of Aespa faced backlash after confirming her relationship with actor Lee Jae-wook, which eventually led to her releasing a handwritten apology. The couple broke up less than a month later.

"We're in a situation where both fans and artists are being exploited within a distorted business model. The problem lies in the business model, not in the singers or the contents," emphasized Kim.

Diverse business models needed

The irony is that this distorted structure of the K-pop industry has been both the driving force and the shadow of K-pop's growth so far.

The fan activities are appealing, said a K-pop fan in her early 20s. "Getting deeply immersed in supporting an artist, feeling a sense of belonging among fans and working together to raise the chart ranking are all part of the attraction."

Lim expressed hope that K-pop may attract different values without eliminating such activities. "Seeing thousands of albums being discarded might raise awareness about environmental issues, and attacks on idols for dating could prompt awareness of the issue of celebrity privacy, leading to pressure on agencies to address these issues. Fans can function as a correcting force," Lim said.

Kang Hye-won, a visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University’s culture and technology department, argued for diverse business models.

"Currently, almost every K-pop group focuses solely on creating a core fandom and extracting money out of them. Groups must diversify their approaches. Some may prioritize fan engagement, while others pursue mainstream appeal or focus on live performances.”

Kim agreed that K-pop's crisis lies in the business model. Agencies should stop exploiting fans, he said.

"It's time for qualitative growth rather than just expansion, and that ultimately depends on how agencies treat and engage with the fans. They need to stop viewing fans only as a means of profit. Only then can K-pop become sustainable."

This is the last in a series of three articles examining the current state of the K-pop industry. --Ed.