Can "smart" albums replace K-pop CDs going forward?
Whether these cutting-edge albums ― which utilize digital technologies like near-field communication (NFC) or QR codes to play music instead of a physical disc ― will go mainstream is one of the questions on the lips of K-pop industry insiders.
In an era where digital technology reigns supreme, the K-pop industry is facing a paradox as CD sales have been soaring over the past few years. They reached a new high of 80 million last year, jumping more than 25 percent from 2021, according to local sales tracker, Circle Chart. The best-selling album was "Proof" by the Grammy-nominated boy band BTS, which sold 3.48 million copies. Trailing behind was "Maxident" by Stray Kids that racked up 3.17 million copies.
All of this would have been impossible without ardent K-pop fans, who bulk buy albums in order to boost an artist's sales, collect different photo cards featuring their favorite stars and get more receipts that can then be exchanged for "coupons" for fan events.
However, the environmental impact of these physical albums is raising concerns. After obtaining what they want, most fans simply dispose of the albums, which eventually become plastic waste that pollutes the planet further.
This is why KPOP4PLANET, a fan-driven climate action platform, is advocating for the adoption of smart albums that create less waste while having all the other features that fans look for in physical albums. Established in 2021, the platform has been demanding that K-pop labels join the global initiative to combat climate change by reducing the production of plastic albums.
"Korean entertainment companies are undergoing a positive shift these days by releasing digital or smart albums, although it remains to be seen whether they will make consistent efforts to go green," activist Lee Da-yeon from KPOP4PLANET told The Korea Times.
"As far as we know, boy band VICTON was one of the first K-pop acts to put out a digital album. J-hope of K-pop juggernaut BTS and boy group NCT also made similar attempts, but it seems most K-pop labels still mass-produce plastic albums. So we hope they add a ‘greener option' for fans, so that they can choose the number of albums they actually want to receive after purchasing them."
As Lee pointed out, VICTON made headlines last January for releasing its album, "Chronograph," without the medium of CDs, prompting fans to use a QR code to listen to the group's music on a mobile application. J-hope's first solo release, "Jack in the Box" (2022), also did not come in the CD format and only offered a QR code, which could be used on the fan community platform, Weverse.
On the other hand, NCT DREAM, a sub-unit of NCT, unleashed its December release "Candy" in the form of a "KiT Album," or innovative music album that plays on smart devices.
Made by album production company, Muzlive, the album is shaped like a key ring and utilizes the more advanced version of NFC technology, which enables fans to appreciate music, see their stars' photos and enjoy their videos with smartphones.
"We sold 6 million KiT Albums this year," Isaac Ree, head of marketing at Muzlive, said. "This figure is approximately 300 times higher than that of 2017 ― the first year we launched this album."
According to Ree, the KiT Album is an enhanced version of a "Kino Album" created by the company in 2014. Believing that streaming platforms would not completely replace physical albums, Muzlive invented a new type of digital album for those who do not have any CD players. Thanks to its automated production process, the company produces about 5 million KiT Albums every year and its clients include A-list stars like Snoop Dogg and Jason Mraz.
"People just have to connect their KiT Albums to their smart devices to use them," Ree explained. "They can get access to a range of digital content while interacting with other fans on a community platform we provide. We can also prevent unauthorized reproduction of the content with our encrypted communication protocols. The album demand has been rising, and we think it will continue to increase."
However, the adoption of smart albums faces a significant hurdle, experts say. Numerous music charts at home and abroad do not equate them to plastic albums, so most of them ― except for KiT Albums ― do not count as sales.
"Whether we should count one smart album as the equivalent of one physical album has not been decided," Lee Gyu-tag, an associate professor of cultural studies at George Mason University Korea, told The Korea Times.
"Many global charts including Billboard in the U.S. use different criteria to measure the actual popularity of albums and songs and they apply different album-equivalent units to streaming and downloads. It seems a similar approach can be taken for smart albums."
But a growing number of charts have decided to count the sales of smart albums, as evidenced by the cases of Circle and Hanteo in Korea and the Official Charts in the U.K. and Japan's Oricon. Billboard is reportedly also reviewing the issue.
Professor Lee believes that the K-pop industry can set a precedent, given that it is a leader in the field of digital albums.
"Smart albums are not frequently seen in other parts of the world," he pointed out. "Listeners in other countries usually buy CDs to appreciate music, but in the case of K-pop fans, that is not the sole reason for bulk-buying. CDs are more like merchandise than just a medium for music for them."
Smart albums are likely to rev up their presence in the music scene, but it is unlikely to trigger the end of CDs, he added.
"The two may coexist," he said. "There are people who still want to own CDs, just like those who still love buying LPs. However, for CDs to survive, their producers may have to devise ways to differentiate them."