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K-Pop’s Mastery of Consumerism and Why Western Artists Should Take Notes, by Emma Rudkin

In the past ten years, K-pop, short for Korean pop music, has cemented itself in its own niche of American pop culture. From the booming popularity of Psy’s

“Gangnam Style” in 2012 to the modern sensationalism around BTS, K-pop has captivated American audiences — and wallets — for a good while now. And this is no mistake; it’s a testament to the effectiveness of the industry’s marketing and merchandising. As consumption-driven as America is, it’s almost shocking that more American artists haven’t adopted this optimized branding model. This advertising approach has proven very fruitful in the K-pop world. 

To properly articulate the innovation of the K-pop model of merchandising and marketing, it’s important to understand the Western markets in which K-pop products have found success. If you walk into any Target or Walmart, you’ll find a CDs and vinyls section. While these items are obsolete technologically for most people, there is still a market for the sale of tangible items.

At the end of the day, there is a certain satisfaction that comes with being able to hold your favorite album in your hands. Or, at least, that’s how most of us have been raised to feel in a hyper-consumerist environment that is a cornerstone of American culture; regardless of the reason why, the continued sale of these items poses the point that there is still a market for collector’s items without having a lofty collector’s edition price. 

If you were to buy a CD of the hottest new album you’ve fallen in love with, you’re most likely doing so for the novelty of it, not what’s inside the case. It’s just a CD version of the album you know and love, including some bonus tracks (if you’re lucky) and a tiny 15-some page booklet that doubles as the cover. These booklets contain a few pictures or lyrics to the songs you already know by heart. If you’re lucky, the booklets sometimes contain pictures and lyrics, but that’s it; this is all you’ll get with most, if not all, of the CDs on the rack at Target or Walmart.

The experience of the average American music consumer is impersonal, cookie-cutter and predictable. The medium has evolved very little in the past several decades and, frankly, has become stuck in its ways. However, this is not to say that these CDs and vinyls aren’t worth buying, but especially when compared to the innovation put into album merchandise in the K-pop industry, one can’t help but feel cheated by what little tangible digital media has to offer in America and Western music as a whole.

In the same aisle next to the CDs, you might notice thin boxes or book-shaped containers. It most likely has Hangul, the Korean alphabet, written on it, along with the English translation. While it might not follow the Western standard of plastic CD containers, believe it or not, those are albums. K-pop albums are packaged the way they are to accommodate the photobook inside rather than the CD. The covers are often highly stylized to match the aesthetic of the album. Interestingly, the album cover that appears on streaming platforms usually isn’t displayed on the album box. In other words, the display of the product is more than just a transparent shell to protect the album cover everyone’s already seen.

This style of merchandising breathes so much life into each album and project put forth by these K-pop groups and gives the consumer a more interactive experience. The box contains so much more than just the CD. As mentioned above, the photobook contains numerous pictures inspired by the album’s concept. Depending on the record label, these album boxes can also contain other novelty items inspired by the project. These novelty items can be stickers, posters, zines, and even photo cards of the different K-pop idols. In middle school, I remember my friend Jenna pulling out an entire binder of K-pop photo cards organized like a Pokemon card binder collection. It was there with her that I made the connection between K-pop merchandising and collectability.

There’s another layer of the collectible aspect of K-pop album merchandising when you consider the different versions of the albums sold. A prime example is BTS’s Love Yourself collection, which contains 12 overall parts stylized in three groups of four. Each album contains a CD and a photobook. The photobook contains a card of one of the seven members (introducing an element of surprise to each purchase to keep consumers wanting more) and some stickers. Each album is assigned a letter. The collection’s 12 total albums spell the title “Love Yourself.” The collection comes in three sets, and when assembling the four parts of the set, the white boxes spell “love,” the black boxes spell “your,” and the iridescent boxes spell “self.” 

As of June 2022, BTS had sold 5.61 million physical album copies in America, and this is nothing to scoff at, considering it’s a minor miracle every time somebody buys physical media supplemental to the digital media everybody already has access to. While the collecting nature of the merchandising model can be viewed as excessive and hyperconsumption, I see it as an overall symbiotic relationship. Consumers love supplemental content from artists and record labels, of course, love making money — both parties win this way. The K-pop industry has really met that desire while maintaining a profit, incentivizing its continuation in a way that the American music industry hasn’t tapped into yet. American artists adopting this model could benefit both American consumers and record labels alike — as much as my wallet might not like it. 

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