When I was just a newbie K-pop fan, I would drive over an hour to Koreatown almost exclusively for Music Plaza, the K-pop CD store located inside of Koreatown Plaza on Western Ave. That’s because local retail stores like Target and Walmart didn’t sell K-pop CDs. This was almost ten years ago, when CD sales in America were well into their gradual decline. Now domestic CD sales are the lowest they’ve been in almost 30 years, so although K-pop consumption in America is soaring, big retail stores still don’t sell a wide selection of K-pop albums. But if you walked into K-town Music Plaza today, you’d see that they’re thriving with K-pop fans from all over SoCal coming in to drop hundreds of dollars on their favorite artists’ latest CDs. But why are there so many patrons if most of them don’t even have a CD player?
The thing is, the CD doesn’t actually need to be played. The actual compact disc that comes with a K-pop album is just a symbol of the music, a representation of something you could access more easily via streaming. It would feel special to pop it into a CD player and listen to the songs in order, sure, but that’s not the reason fans are rushing to spend precious dollars on these albums. Seasoned fans are spending their money to feel a connection with their favorite idols, and to contribute to a specific moment in that artist’s career. The important aspects of K-pop CDs are the physical album itself, all the benefits that come with it, and the implications of buying the album. It’s not quite merchandise and it’s not exactly a separate collectible, but it’s the representation of the artist’s comeback that shows you supported them.
ATEEZ – ZERO : FEVER, Pt. 2 album versions A VER., DIARY VER., and Z VER. © Choice Music LA
These days, K-pop albums typically come with way more than just the CD itself: photo cards, photo books, lyric pages, stickers, polaroid pictures, posters, tiny cardboard cutouts, etc. Most K-pop albums come with photo cards (wallet-sized pictures of the idols) that are randomized, so you’d have to buy more than five albums if you wanted to get all of the members’ photo cards in a five-person group, (or trade with other fans)! Albums also usually come in different versions, which means different versions of the same album will have different photobooks and even more photo card options.
BLACKPINK THE ALBUM album details © blackpinkupdate.com
But the physical album goods aren’t the only benefits. Sometimes buying the album from a specific store is your key to getting into a video call event, where you can essentially FaceTime your idol for the price of buying their album. Although usually, your chances of being picked as a winner are increased if you buy in bulk. Increasingly, albums come with all sorts of different kinds of digital components, like QR codes for apps where you can listen to the album, see extra images, or experience AR components.
Even more impressively, fans know that buying from certain stores guarantees that their purchase will be reflected on music charts like Billboard or Hanteo. Buying a K-pop CD is like voting for your favorite group to win a competition, except the competition is the real-life recognition in the music industry. When fandoms organize and share information about which stores to buy from and when, they can really make a difference for their idols on the charts. For instance, ARMY is known for their incredible power to organize, and in 2020, a Forbes article acknowledged that BTS “has sold more traditional albums than any other artist this year, and the runner-up isn’t even close.”
So it turns out looking at the declining trend of US CD sales doesn’t really give us the full picture when it comes to K-pop. In fact, CD sales in Korea have actually been rising since 2016. The whole eco-system of K-pop album sales isn’t affected by the lack of CD players or the dominance of streaming services. Koreatown K-pop CD stores know this well, and I’m sure they’ll be able to survive and thrive though whatever hurdles the American music industry has to battle thanks to their understanding of American K-pop fans’ needs.