K-pop Should Stop Exploiting Fans for Profit

It is a widely held belief among Korean cultural experts that entertainment companies should broaden their business strategies instead of solely depending on exploiting their fans.

As a devoted K-pop enthusiast, Lee Eun Soo (25, South Korea) has been a loyal buyer of albums, avid supporter of online music, and frequent purchaser of idol-themed merchandise including light sticks, posters, t-shirts, and keychains. Despite her unwavering passion for K-pop, Lee has doubts about the industry’s long-term viability, citing the excessive financial demands placed on fans by companies. She believes that management companies are well aware of how to capitalize on fans’ love and continuously extract money from them.

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Despite its undeniable global success, K-pop relies heavily on a small yet devoted fanbase. This dependence on a limited number of fans to generate profits has raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of the industry, as reported by the Korea Herald.

Excessive Spending

The unbalanced arrangement of the K-pop industry can be observed through its record-breaking album sales. Despite the majority of people transitioning to online music streaming platforms, the physical album market for K-pop continues to thrive. This was exemplified in 2023 when the boy group Seventeen broke the record for selling 16 million albums. According to the Hanteo Chart, their mini-album “Seventeenth Heaven”sold 5.09 million copies in its first week of release in October, making it the highest selling album in K-pop history.

Despite the considerable rise in album sales due to the global expansion of K-pop groups, industry experts highlight that these accomplishments are largely reliant on the continuous purchases of fans. Cultural critic Lim Hee-yun points out that although Seventeen’s album was the top-selling globally in 2023, their rankings on Spotify, the largest streaming platform, did not remain as high. This demonstrates that the actual consumption of K-pop may not always align with album sales.

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By implementing tactics such as featuring different member photos in every album and encouraging fans to purchase multiple copies in order to collect all the photos of their favorite members, the entertainment industry has perpetuated excessive consumerism. This was evident on April 30 in Shibuya, Tokyo, where numerous discarded Seventeen albums were discovered, highlighting the wasteful nature of the K-pop commercial sector. Some fans even buy hundreds of albums solely for the photos, only to dispose of them afterwards.

Dealing with Unbalanced Relationships

According to experts, the excessive dependence on a particular group of consumers is undermining K-pop’s strength, resulting in negative consequences such as a decrease in its credibility, invasion of celebrities’ privacy, and excessive workload for K-pop stars. In 2023, when the Billboard Music Awards added a K-pop category, they implemented a new rule that excludes multiple downloads of the same song from the charts and only counts one download per week. This change was made to reduce the impact of bulk album purchases and view-count manipulation by fandoms, indicating that the global music industry sees these actions as indications of fan loyalty rather than the true value of the music. Cultural critic Kim Hun-sik elaborates on this new rule, stating that its purpose is to counter the

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One troubling issue is the heightened level of intimacy being promoted between fans and celebrities. The emergence of platforms such as Weverse, Bubble, and Fromm has led to a surge in private messaging between fans and idols. This has sparked criticism from some fans who feel that artists are not engaging enough on these platforms, leading to worries about idols being coerced into paid interactions. In the opinion of critic Lim Hee-yun, idols face immense psychological strain as a result of these expectations.

This level of intimacy has resulted in certain fans overstepping boundaries and intruding into the personal lives of celebrities. For example, Aespa’s Karina faced criticism after publicly announcing her romantic involvement with actor Lee Jae-wook. She later shared a handwritten apology letter, but the relationship ended within a month. Critic Kim Hun-sik stresses that the root of the problem lies in the distorted business model that exploits both fans and artists, rather than the singers or their content itself.

Importance of Diverse Business Models

Paradoxically, this distorted system has played both a pivotal role and a dark shadow in the growth of K-pop. A 20-something K-pop enthusiast finds fan activities to be incredibly captivating, stating, “The sense of involvement with supporting an artist, the feeling of camaraderie among fans, and collaborating to boost rankings for idols are all alluring aspects.”Critic Lim Hee-yun hopes that K-pop can incorporate other values while still preserving these activities. “Seeing countless discarded albums could raise awareness about environmental concerns, and backlash against idols dating could raise awareness about celebrity privacy rights, putting pressure on companies to address these issues. Fans can serve as a catalyst for change,”Lim suggests.

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According to Kang Hye-won, a visiting professor at the Department of Culture and Technology in Sungkyunkwan University, K-pop groups should consider implementing diversified business strategies. Instead of solely relying on building a dedicated fan base for profits, she suggests that groups explore alternative approaches such as prioritizing fan engagement or emphasizing live performances.

According to cultural critic Kim Hun-sik, the root of K-pop’s crisis lies in its business model. He asserts that companies must cease exploiting fans and instead focus on qualitative growth rather than simply expanding in size. This can only be achieved by changing the way fans are treated and interacted with, as they should not be seen solely as a means for profit. By making these changes, K-pop can become a sustainable industry.

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