We’ve heard it before, fans buying multiple copies of an artist’s album to try and get them higher up in the rankings. Fans desperate to get their hands on a limited edition album copy. Somebody bemoaning their inability to shell out a hefty three-digit sum of money to secure a spot closer to their bias at the upcoming K-pop concert. And right when you’ve landed your copy of so-and-so’s latest album, it turns out that they’re pushing out a concert DVD the next second, or perhaps a photobook. Do you buy it? What if you don’t have enough money? Does not buying it make you a bad fan? Do you have to buy everything your favourites put out to qualify as good? Or is there another dimension to this question?

Let’s face it: the entertainment industry is still very much a business environment. Right from the beginning, entertainment companies set out to make money, just like every other person in the workforce; what sets them apart in this instance, is that they chose to do it by selling music. Of course, having music alone just wasn’t going to cut it — consumers want to know the source of any artistic creation, they wanted a person, an artist, somebody to admire. And somewhere along the line, some girl and boy groups surfaced in the Korean music scene and made it big — bigger than anybody had expected. We know the story from there, those who got into the game first certainly had an advantage, looking at the success of the likes of Big Bang and SNSD. Today, the industry is almost completely saturated with idols and the techniques that companies are employing to get their group’s name out there are rapidly evolving. Once, it was just simple, put out a song, a music video and perform on a show. Now, it is a mad rush to put out teasers, to drop names not only for debuts, but before an album release. And why do these entertainment companies go to such great lengths to promote their artists? For the profits, of course. As the environment changes, one will obviously have to adapt in order to achieve consistency or an increase in sales, be they digital or physical in terms of albums, or perhaps the profit may come in through some other means.

And we, the fans, are obviously the consumers.

As fans of an artist, it’s almost a given that we would buy their releases. The digital music scene of K-pop is a strong one; however, this strength comes at a price — or perhaps, a lack thereof. Many Korean digital music sites are in competition with one another, leading to the lowering of many tracks’ prices. While this may ease the spread of music due to the lower prices, it also cuts the profits that the artists get. And as we’re talking K-pop, the money that is raked in would most likely be distributed to those who participated in the creation of the music. Producers, composers, lyricists — you name it, all those who participated in the process of creating the glamorous package we are so accustomed to need to be paid. What remains would be given to the artist, and in the case of groups, that small amount that remains would have to be split — perhaps in five, or seven, or more. Of course, higher digital sales will lead to a larger amount of profit, but it no doubt leaves something to be desired. As a counter for this, as well as taking advantage of the recent increase in a more global interest in K-pop, entertainment companies have been making efforts to make the releases available worldwide via iTunes which also have higher prices, meaning an increased profit margin.

Of course, digital sales alone aren’t enough. Physical sales also have their significance in the market and if we’re talking ‘glamorous packaging’ that’s where physical copies of an album come in. Buying a song or an album digitally does have its perks, it’s cheaper, it’s more convenient. However, a digitally bought album or song doesn’t come with its glamorous packaging which K-pop goes to great lengths to generate in physical copies of albums.

So what exactly is the significance of all of the above?

It’s undeniable, a fanbase funds the artist they support. The fans are the consumers who buy the albums — but many fans will also face the dilemma: to buy, or not to buy? There are many reasons hindering our decisions, some simply don’t have the money to spare; international fans too, generally have increased prices to deal with, especially in the case of physical albums which will also have an added cost of shipping. Many international fans too, are younger and may not be able to easily purchase an album online without parental knowledge — and let’s face it, not all parents are very supportive of buying their kids K-pop CDs. Faced with such problems, what’s more, one may come to question: why bother buying? We can just download the files off the great, free pool of knowledge and what else called the internet. Why buy and ‘waste’ our hard-earned money ?

As outlined earlier, K-pop is a business. Entertainment companies will manage their artists according to how well they sold with their past release(s) because that is their main source of income. High sales figures will of course, boost their supported group into higher ranks in the K-pop scene. High sales figures also mean the continued life of a group. Given the nature of its production, profits are also more difficult to obtain (this also being a reason for why so many Korean acts make the jump to Japan).

So yes, fans need to buy the releases made by their favourite artists in order to ensure continued activities and investments (on the company’s part), but what they buy and how much they buy in order to qualify as ‘good’ is a blurry line to draw. It’s fine for one to go all out and purchase everything on an artist’s discography, but not to purchase at all by choice is the part where we’ll have to raise eyebrows and draw question marks. Indeed, we can download most releases and it’s these digital files that were are most likely to be listening to on a regular basis, contrary to a disc which will require a CD player of some kind. However, by downloading illegally, we are depriving the artist(s) of pay which will keep them afloat. Of course, the amount of money in somebody’s pockets comes into question — if a fan has financial difficulties in terms of shelling out (give or take) $30 for an album, then we can’t possibly expect them to indulge in their favourites without going down the unofficial route. However, if one does have the means to support their favourite artist financially, it is in everybody’s best interests to do so, even if it’s buying the song off iTunes for a few dollars.

But what if you don’t like the song? What if there’s that album which really failed to meet your expectations? That disappointment you really don’t want to spend money on and would probably only replay twice and never touch again?

Many fans will still buy the album, although there is plenty reason for one to stay well away from the album, not only as it’s a wise financial decision, but also because it is informative for those who released that album. If an album sells less, those who put it out can make an educated decision regarding why that was the case: why wasn’t it chart-topping? Maybe it would lead to an improvement in artistic direction, an improvement in marketing — and higher sales would of course, logically follow. However, K-pop is fast-paced. Especially for idols, the market is saturated, there just isn’t enough space for everyone, let alone time. For every group, it’s a race to get to the top, gain the nation’s love and approval; low sales figures aren’t the ticket to that, everybody knows that, including the fans. What’s more, given the competitive nature of K-pop, fans will do all that is in their power to push their favourite artist to the top.

If that means buying a poor-quality release in a frenzy to boost the sales figures, then so be it. Meanwhile, fans will complain on internet forums and social networking sites, bemoaning the poor quality of that album. Indeed, buying is important in order to keep your favourite artist afloat, but perhaps this comes at the expense of quality. So let’s put forward the question: is this obsessive and overly-competitive fan culture degrading the quality of the music that is K-pop? One can look at the accessories that K-pop has, the clean-cut and engaging performances, the hilarious variety shows and of course, those scandals — and think that K-pop isn’t about the music. But it is still the song which brought a group to vast popularity, not their outfits. Still, it is the song that makes a listener remember, not necessarily the face. Maybe K-pop has a strong visual aspect to it, but the music cannot be forgotten, and at the end of the day, it’s the fans (and their bank accounts) who determine the course that K-pop takes.