In this second installment of a series where I point out unsavoury things about the Korean entertainment industry, I talk about album sales, chart rankings, and how they milk the idol fandom of all their money.
Before I continue, I have to reiterate something: this series is called K-Pop, Where Not Everything Is As It Seems but I’ll most likely be talking about the Korean entertainment industry in general as well, instead of only focusing on the idol industry. When I do talk about the idol industry, I’ll also be referencing the J-idol industry which is significantly different compared to the K-idol industry. For today, however, the focus will indeed be on the K-idol industry – in particular how the companies operate and how they make money in relation to album sales and chart rankings.
(Spoiler alert: the idols don’t make a lot.)
First things first: the music industry and the idol industry are two very discrete things in South Korea. You can’t compare a solo musician like, say, John Park with an idol group like EXO and wonder why he’s not making as much bank or as popular as them. You might ask what’s the difference between a singer and an idol group: they release albums, they do live performances, they hold concerts if they can, they go on TV shows to promote themselves – it’s all the same things, so what’s the difference?
The difference is in the name: John Park is a singer. That’s what he markets himself as. He’s a singer-songwriter, and that’s all his name carries, entertainment-wise. EXO is an idol group – they’re more than just singers, rappers, dancers. They’re marketed as objects of adoration. They’re idols.
Some may object (ha) to my usage of the phrase objects of adoration, but that’s the sad case. For all it’s worth, the idol industry objectifies the artists to a reprehensible degree. The entire industry revolves around marketing the idols as some sort of untouchable figures of aesthetics, of beauty and grace and elegance and the objects of your sexual fantasies, and it achieves that by focusing on their image.
There’s a lot to be said about idols and their image. It’s different from a concept in that a concept (for an album or release) may influence their image, but they’re two different things altogether. An idol’s image is their face to the public – it’s the persona they put on for the cameras and their fans. If you think your idols behave exactly the way they do on screen and in V Live shows, you’re dead wrong. It’s an image. Your idols are playing an eternal show. They’re characters created by the company to feed your fantasies. In other words, they’re not real. What you see on Twitter and on TV shows and during concerts and fanmeets? That’s not real. There is no way of knowing the actual person behind the characters – behind the idols – and thus this persona, then, becomes your reality. How can it not? This fake persona is all you’ll ever know of your idols. That’s what you call an idol’s image.
In general, idols are untouchable. They’re so far removed from what we consider to be human, we stop applying basic human characteristics. They don’t get tired. They don’t feel lonely. They don’t have privacy worth protecting. Everything they do is public access, because they’re idols. They’re made for the public. It only makes sense that everything they do – including their private lives – is made accessible to the public as well. That’s how you get sasaeng fans who break into idols’ dorms and install surveillance cameras and stalk them everywhere they go – it’s the idea that fans are entitled to every single aspect of their idols. Even if we’re not talking about sasaeng fans, idols are still objectified by normal, casual fans who get into fandoms based solely on how beautiful or cute or adorable or handsome the idols are. When a group has positions for its members ranging from lead vocal to dancer to rapper to visual, you know there’s something wrong. Honestly, in what situation would a music act require visual as a position? When it was never about the music, that’s what.
It’s not the idol groups that don’t care about the music. It’s the companies, and the idols are bound to their companies. What the company says, goes. But that’s another topic altogether.
The point is, when idols are presented with an image – the sweet youngest member, the hilarious eldest duo who act like an old married couple, the sassy but also completely meme-worthy diva, take your goddamn pick – it’s what the fans lap up. It’s what the fans love, and what the fans are there for about 90% of the time. The fans aren’t there for the music, they’re there to support the characters the idols portray. When an idol tells them to stay loyal to the group and support them no matter what, the fans swoon because the character of their fantasies is relying on them and asking them for help. They swoon because it’s a fantasy made real, and they stream non-stop and download albums and buy hundreds of copies of a single album because in this fantasy, their idol winked at them and begged for their help with puppy-dog-eyes, and who could refuse that?
That’s how the industry milks fans of all their money. If it was about the music, what purpose would buying fifty copies of the same goddamn album achieve? Sure, I’d get an album because I’m a collector by nature, and I’d buy a digital copy because nobody uses a goddamn CD player when they’re on the go anymore, but other than that? I wouldn’t buy more than what I need. So why fifty copies?
Because idols hold fanmeets, and there are two ways to get into fanmeets: via lottery, and on a first-come-first-served basis. Both methods require purchasing albums, but unlike the latter where the first 100 or so to purchase an album at so-and-so store would receive a ticket to a fanmeet, the former requires one to purchase multiple albums. The idea is that one album constitutes one entry for the lottery, and to ensure your luck it’s better to stick your hand in the pot loads of times. For smaller groups, the number of albums to have a fighting chance of making it into a fanmeet is around 15-20, and even those chances are damned slim. For bigger groups like EXO and BTS (arguably the two biggest male groups right now), the number can go anywhere from 100 to 300 albums, maybe even more. I’ve heard stories of how an EXO-L bought 200 albums and was denied the fortune of making it into the fanmeet. 200 albums and they didn’t make it anyway. If that’s not brutal, I don’t know what is.
What’s so special about fanmeets? Fanmeets are where fans can get up close and personal with their favourite idols – insofar as a fifteen second interaction before you’re shuffled off the stage is up close and personal – and for most fans, this is a dream come true. It’s the chance for them to see the characters of their fantasies in real life, because the idols will undoubtedly continue to play the same character as their image dictates in fanmeets as well. It’s their fantasy made reality, and they’d give up their left kidney for that. Or buy hundreds of albums, at least.
This, then, is how the industry utilises the idols’ image to their profit. By selling that image and selling that chance for fans to interact with their created characters, they’re able to sell ridiculous amounts of albums because fans are desperate that way. Fans are enamoured by their idols – hell, that’s what the term idol entails anyway – and so they’ll pay anything to get the chance to hold their idols’ hands and hear a corny joke and be flirted with. So enamoured they’ll buy fifty albums for that chance – and if one person buys fifty albums, imagine how much bank the company’s making. A lot, I tell you.
That’s how the industry manipulates fans to contribute to physical sales. What about digital sales? That’s where the rankings come in place. The Gaon Music Chart tracks the sales both physical i.e. albums and digital i.e. streaming, with the latter based on online data from various Korean web-based music providers, the most popular of which is MelOn. More streams and downloads, higher ranking on charts. Fans are super hyped about getting their fave idols at the top of the charts that they will hold mass streaming parties (where loads of people stream the songs at the same time) just to increase their idols’ rankings. Again, high numbers of downloads and streams do not mean they’re popular among the general public, much like how the number of physical album sales is no indicator of an idol group’s popularity among the general public. It’s an indicator of the size and dedication of their fandom.
Contrary to popular belief, an idol’s group success on the digital rankings means jack shit. I’ve mentioned that the high numbers of downloads and streams doesn’t necessarily correlate with their general popularity outside their devoted fandom, but here’s the ultimate kicker – idols don’t make much money from streams and downloads either.
This is the reason why I stressed Korean before. BTS – and by extension their company – are making huge profits by selling their music on iTunes, taking into consideration their incredible popularity with overseas fans. But on MelOn? They’re making less money than they were when they were trainees, and that’s saying something. AsianJunkie puts it succinctly:
And when you consider that ‘status’ is built on dedicated fans streaming at all hours of the day, it really doesn’t mean much.
One thing that the regular music industry shares with the idol industry, however, is this: the biggest money-maker for them is tours and concerts. The idol industry has additional moolah from CF deals, but the game changer is still concerts and tours. That’s their biggest source of revenue, not album sales.
There is also another way for companies to rob you of your money, apart from making you buy fifty albums and spend all your money streaming and downloading songs on MelOn. What’s that, you ask?
It’s merchandise. MERCHANDISE. It’s one thing to be putting out albums, but it’s another thing altogether to put out an album and then release the exact same album three months later with three additional songs and call it a repackage. See, with the way the industry is set up with supporting the idols on sales and music shows and rankings and all, the number of sales for the original album and the repackaged album will be identical – meaning, people will still buy the repackaged album in huge quantities even though all it has are like three new songs, two of which are most probably instrumentals (EXO, I’m looking at you). It’s a shitty tactic, because it doesn’t make sense. Why release two similar albums and call the other a repackage? It’s similar to a deluxe version of an album, but the difference being there’s not a lot of good bonus content to warrant it. With deluxe versions, you get maybe five or six new songs, live versions of hit singles maybe. It’s good content, and one I’d be glad to pay money for. One new song and two instrumentals are not.
We’re not even talking about concert merchandise. This is from 2014’s YG Family tour:
I know ₩30,000 is equivalent to around $25, which isn’t a bad price for a t-shirt at all, but in my currency it’s RM114. That’s a month’s worth of groceries for a damn t-shirt. Nope. Nope.
₩10,000 (or RM38, which can get me groceries for roughly a week) for a cotton bracelet. I refuse to partake in this blatant display of corrupt capitalism. Fuck that shit. I’d rather buy groceries that starve for a bracelet I can make with my own two hands.
No matter how much shit I talk about overpriced merchandise, however, it’s not my main concern. I don’t really care about people paying for overpriced merchandise. You do you!
What I do care about are things like Season’s Greetings. They’re basically little packages that companies put out in the spirit of the seasons, usually in winter. You see a lot of them popping up near Christmas, with almost every idol group putting out one each damn year. They usually have things like DVDs, planners, calendars, photocards, photobooks if you’re particularly lucky, little knick-knacks like keychains and stickers. Guess how much these sell for?
About $100, give or take.
Another more ridiculous variant are summer packages. So far I only know BTS that releases their Summer Packages on a yearly basis, but other idols may do the same too. Let me know if you know any. Last year’s summer package from BTS had a photobook, a DVD, two mini posters, a PVC zipperbag, an inflatable beach ball, two sheets of tattoo stickers, and one charm accessory. That also retailed at around $100, give or take several tens of dollars. That’s not even including the various other DVDs and photobooks and whatnot these companies put out that have nothing to do with their idols’ music and instead capitalises more on the fans’ infatuation with their idols’ image.
It’s not the price that bothers me. It’s the obvious fact that because this is the idol industry, they’re literally selling their idols’ image. I wouldn’t be bothered if the idol industry is nothing but that, but the fact that they’re also claiming to have music as their priority irks me. If it’s about the music, why all the unnecessary fanservice? Here’s why: it’s all for that $$$. It’s disheartening and I think more than a little unfair for idols who are truly in the business because they love performing, because they love music – it’s unfair for them because in the end, all that hard work and effort and passion will be put on the backburner to make room for aegyo and flirting with fans at fanmeets and concerts.
Do fans care? No, they lap it all up. They’ll pay all they can, because this is supporting their idols and no price is too high. But what does it matter in the end? The companies make bank, the fans are happy, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Well, except the idols.
Next part: objectification and how the idol industry is possibly one of the most disturbing showbiz categories available.