In a world of Greta Thunbergs and Extinction Rebellions, talking about sustainability in Kpop can seem almost kitsch.
But it’s a topic that falls in line with wider questions about buying culture, peer pressure, and materialism that are all tangled up in the glitter of ‘supporting your faves’.
Album buying forms a significant part of the Kpop culture. Within that, it’s hard not to question the environmental impact of shipping and plastic in the quest of gaining what is, by now, a mostly defunct way of listening to music.
It seems strange to say that fans should be wary of buying when Kpop artists, as a general rule, are crafted and marketed for the sole purpose of selling. Their music, their art, their dynamism would be moot, their agencies tell us, if we don’t put our money where our mouths are.
In itself, this isn’t problematic. Artists should get paid for their contributions (although the usual profit split overwhelmingly undercuts idols no matter how far up the food chain they may be). The issue is the growing trend of this attitude being perpetuated by fans in big and small ways.
Of course, this can be read as symptomatic of a larger “online” problem—where your every choice, from what you eat to the political party you follow, is scrutinised and dissected. But I think that in Kpop, the answer is much simpler: it’s a vehicle for competition.
As a fellow fan, I live by an unwavering principle: I buy what I want in a quantity that satisfies my entertainment needs, nothing more, nothing less.
But we’ve all heard the stories and seen the video clips of sumptuous, plentiful merchandise collections; display cabinets careening to the side with the weight of hundreds of albums; particularly dedicated fans hopping from plane to plane to follow a world tour.
Spending money is so tied up how we, as fans, experience Kpop. We are consumers, after all. This dynamic is sharpened even further when fans absorb rivalries between groups.
In this case, this bleeds over to how much time you dedicate—whether that’s voting, using hashtags, or streaming videos.
The prevalence of buying physical albums reached its zenith when, with the first full-length album, EXO revived the physical market at such a pace and magnitude not really seen in the industry. It reached a fever pitch, when BTS showed equal prowess with the ability to sell.
These days, the idea of buying albums is synonymous with supporting and being a fan. It leaves the fans who can’t or don’t want to buy albums in the lurch, at best, and at the mercy of targeted call-outs at worst.
The best and most recent example of this is SM Entertainment’s SuperM group, comprised of SHINee’s Taemin, EXO’s Baekhyun and Kai, NCT’s Taeyong and Mark, and NCT/WayV’s Ten and Lucas.
Almost immediately, there was sharp backlash from EXO-Ls, who protested EXO’s inclusion in a group branded by some as a quick, thoughtless cash-grab.
However, their decision to boycott the album was met with offence by other fans. Offence that, as fans, they weren’t willing to buy albums of a group they never signed up to support—that they should support just because their idols happened to be in the line-up.
To be a fan, does someone have to have bought the entire discography (even if they are not in love with it all?). In the same vein, how and when have we, as a collective, allowed others to define and categorise something so personal as being a fan.
In SuperM’s case, those who have been boycotting or simply not engaging with the group at all have been accused of being bad, unloyal, unsupportive fans.
It’s a special blend of guilt-tripping and incentivisation – but it serves its purpose. Notably, in absorbing the rivalries, the same fans seem to absorb the ‘victories’ too.
The crux of it
Pressuring others to spend money blindly (instead of thoughtfully) will result in the shared satisfaction of higher group sales.
Throughout group promotional cycles, there are album fundraisers, unboxing videos, and limited editions all geared towards buying more and more albums. It’s not even if you buy, but rather how much.
Yet Kpop promotional cycles are short, averaging two to three times a year (compared to high profile Western equivalents who release one album every couple of years). There’s no consideration here for how much money fans are spending just support this hobby.
The few who do call this out are met with empty platitudes (e.g. that they can save £1 a week for months, or that they can refrain from buying something else in order to afford this) without consideration for the financial viability of this for some.
That £20 could be all someone has for a week, it can buy a few weeks of gas/electricity, or it could just be money that they’d rather spend elsewhere.
Fans don’t have to buy albums. They can and should be able to without unwarranted scrutiny. But it certainly doesn’t impact how much they love an idol or the music they make; how much you’re willing to spend shouldn’t be the defining marker of a fan.
It’s too easy to say ‘don’t listen to the pressures of other fans’, particularly as Kpop has a particular number of young, impressionable fans.
But the best remedies start at home. Check yourself: are you buying because you want to or because you feel the need to?
Best of all, take the Marie Kondo test. If it brings you joy, take a mindful approach to your buying—whether you can afford it, have space for it, and yes, think about the sustainability of it too. In the end, your money is yours to spend as you see fit.
If doesn’t bring you joy? Chuck the habit, you’ll find much more relief in your newfound freedom.