For some, it’s the ability to connect with the artist, and directly respond to the lyricism of the music. Others look for a body of work that is able to tell a story, a theme that helps it to hang together, stellar production, a soulful voice, beautiful compositions or addictive beats. Or maybe they need to be moved by it either emotionally, spiritually or intellectually. Better yet, a combination of all of these attributes may be the selling point, as it would give an experience of what I would describe as an internal awakening, that takes over you when you hear a song for the first time, and it is able to turn your entire world upside down.
Whatever grabs your attention, we can all agree that for an album to resonate with an individual as a good album — something they can listen to on repeat again and again — there should be a subjective personal attachment to it. But when an album is able to resonate with a multitude of people, it’s a sign that the artist has been able to use their medium to connect with the masses on some kind of level, who in turn have been able to appreciate the work released and can thus instantaneously push the artist’s popularity in the industry straight to the top.
It’s simple really: the more people who enjoy your music, the more albums you will sell as an artist. The more albums you sell, the more interest you gather by media publications and the general public, which leads to trophies through award shows. All of this gives the artist reputability, brings in additional income for themselves and their companies, as well as provides further opportunities through doors that probably were not open to them before. It’s an indicator of success in the industry and is the goal for many musical artists all over the world. Therefore, it can be said that the volume of album sales are generally a good degree of measure of the popularity of an artist and the consumer demand for their body of work. Or, at least, that is how it used to be.
If you look at the history of the South Korean music industry, you will find that that the best selling album of all time is Mis-Encounter by Kim Gun-mo, released twenty years ago in 1995 selling 3.3 million copies. In fact all of the top ten highest selling albums in K-chart history are those released between the period of 1992-2001, a time when the music scene was undergoing vigorous changes, being moulded to move into a brand new direction and was really starting to take off in popularity.
Unsurprisingly, this list is made up by the likes of H.O.T, Jo Sung-mo and g.o.d, with the females that join their ranks including names such as Uhm Jung-hwa, S.E.S, Boa and Fin.K.L. Throw some Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey into the mix, and we reach a collective group of individuals whose music defined the ’90s era and shaped popular culture into what it is today. This was a time when all of these artists were at the height of their popularity. Everyone was listening to them, and they were easily able to sell records in their thousands and be graced with that ever elusive legendary status.
However, fast forward into the 2010s, and these acts are barely mentioned on any musical chart, show or media publications. Now, of course, most of these groups have broken up or are inactive — though some can still kill it on stage a la queen Boa — so they’re not mentioned. But those acts who are constantly mentioned, who have all the popularity, who reign the charts, who all the cool kids listen to — they’re not breaking any records with the number of albums that they are selling. In fact, the only group to break a million album sales after twelve long years was Exo with their album first full length album XOXO released in 2013, and that was with the help of the repackaged album. Aside from that, the veterans still own the list of best selling albums of all time. The number of albums sold by artists has been steadily declining over the past few years, and it is now difficult to find albums that can shift more than 200,000 physical copies.
But this doesn’t mean that artists or groups nowadays aren’t as popular. No no no. In fact, I would argue the complete opposite. You just need to take a glimpse at the amount of obsessive fan behaviour that is omnipresent for modern idol groups to realise how much they are in demand. Instead, what has happened over time is that the industry has moved away from album sales as an indicator of success and popularity and evolved toward other measures that are in line with modern society and everything that comes with it. And this is a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen just in Korea, but all over the globe. The coming of the digital age is often blamed as the reason behind the demise of album sales. Unless they are die-hard fans trying to support their favourite performers, why would consumers pay to purchase an album they can get for free at the click of a button?
And, to an extent, this is the case. Technological advancements have allowed for people all over the world to download illegally as a widespread prevailing practise, when twenty years ago it was much more difficult to do so, as well as socially unacceptable to a degree. But when it comes to South Korea, I would argue that there is more to it than just that. You see back in the good old days, an album typically consisted of ten to sixteen songs, and each album also tended to be very genre specific. For example, Jo Sung-mo reigned the charts as a nation favourite ballad singer, so his albums were comprised of all ballad tracks such as the 2000 Let Me Love record.
An artist would usually promote the lead single and then maybe another further two tracks to follow up. The rest of the content would be used as fillers that ended up sounding very similar to each other because the nature of albums was to remain genre specific and inevitably ended up becoming a repetitious endeavour for the listener. This eventually fell out of line with the changing dynamics of K-pop at the time, whereas now it’s much easier to come across albums that are comprised of a variety of sounds. It began to make more sense to just purchase the singles they liked rather than the full album in its entirety with one song they enjoyed and the rest as fillers, a practise which, coupled with piracy, eventually led to a slump in physical album sales. So when in 1994 it was easy to hit the million mark, in 2014 the highest selling album reported by the Gaon charts is again by the ever popular Exo with 385,047 copies of Overdose.
To combat this decline in physical sales, around the 2005 mark, the music industry witnessed the arrival of digital sales. Suddenly, it became devastatingly easier to purchase the full length album, where in some cases it became commonplace for albums to only be available for purchase online. As an extremely cost effective method for companies, the idea was pushed forward to a point where nowadays virtually all entertainment companies have the work of their artists readily available online through many websites, awaiting purchase.
It created the opportunity for artists to access a wider demographic and is now arguably seen as a more appropriate method of identifying which artists are trending and who is rising or declining in popularity. This is because in this day and age the majority of the population chooses to buy music digitally because it’s faster, they are able to preview songs and albums before they commit to buying, and it is much much cheaper. Digital platforms also allow those groups who are relatively unknown to gain more exposure from non-fans and provides a more balanced act between artists and contributed greatly to a rise in purchasing and getting sales back on track.
But, most importantly, a unique concept that has been fronted in the K-music industry for many years now is the concept of the mini-album. Mini-albums are exactly what they say they are, shorter versions of albums which typically tend to contain around four to eight tracks. They have become so conventional in the industry that it is now normal for a group to debut with a mini album and to not release a full length until a few years. B.A.P, for instance, released a steady stream of mini albums for the first two years of debut, before releasing their first full length, First Sensibility, in 2014.
As a general occurrence, one song is usually promoted from said mini album and the rest, if not original songs, are remixes or remakes. In terms of cost, it makes much more sense for companies to operate this way since it’s cheaper to produce shorter albums, and they are also able to release at least two mini albums a year so artist are able to maintain a steady output and maximise exposure. More people will be willing to buy albums because of their length and diversity, especially if the lead single sets a good tone for the rest of the tracks. And then, when a full length is released, hopefully more people are aware of the type of music they produce and will be willing to hand over the cash.
However, the issue with this is that so much content is being released. The amount of staggering diversification that has been seen in the market is a poignant reminder of just how difficult of a time it is to be a fan of K-pop. When there are so many groups saturating the market each with various releases of their own, it’s difficult for fans to keep up with their favourite groups, especially when a large part of fans is made up of poor high school students who consequently find themselves unable to allocate their resources efficiently.
In the almost tear-jerking scenario where one may find themselves having to choose between their two favourite groups, especially if companies are going head to head like what we saw last year between SNSD and 2NE1, someone will lose out. This multiplied onto a larger scale means compromises may have to be made and a significant impact had on sales. But this is admittedly a more extreme case.
The concept of an album and its importance has changed quite a lot in the journey of K-pop evolution. Although it has been difficult in achieving the same number of sales the veterans were reaching all those years ago, it seems like an almost impossible feat since it doesn’t look like the illegal downloading is going to stop any time soon. For now, it seems K-pop will be sticking with the idea of mini albums for the foreseeable future, digital sales will continue to champion the market, and Exo fans will continue to try and get album sales back where they’re meant to be.