K-pop Should Stop Exploiting Fans for Profit

Many Korean cultural experts believe that entertainment companies should diversify their business models rather than solely relying on fan exploitation.

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As a long-time K-pop fan, Lee Eun Soo (25, South Korea) has purchased albums, supported online music, and bought various idol-related products such as light sticks, posters, t-shirts, and keychains. Despite her unwavering love for K-pop, Lee is skeptical about the industry’s sustainability, pointing out that companies place excessive financial demands on fans. “Fans have to continuously spend money to show their love, and management companies know how to extract money from them,” she says.

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While the global success of K-pop is undeniable, it currently survives largely due to a small but dedicated fanbase. The industry’s reliance on a limited number of fans to generate profits has raised concerns about K-pop’s long-term viability, according to the Korea Herald.

Excessive Spending

The skewed structure of K-pop is evident in record-breaking album sales. Despite most people shifting to online music streaming services, the physical album market in K-pop remains vibrant. In 2023, the boy group Seventeen set a record by selling 16 million albums. According to Hanteo Chart, their mini-album “Seventeenth Heaven” sold 5.09 million copies in the first week of its release in October, achieving the highest sales ever.

Although the international expansion of K-pop groups has contributed to a significant increase in album sales, industry experts note that these achievements largely depend on fans’ repeated purchases. “Seventeen had the best-selling album globally in 2023, but they did not maintain such high rankings on Spotify, the world’s largest streaming platform. This shows that actual K-pop consumption does not necessarily correlate with album sales,” says cultural critic Lim Hee-yun.

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With strategies like including random member photos in each album, enticing fans to buy multiple copies to collect photos of their favorite members, entertainment companies have promoted excessive consumption. On April 30, heaps of Seventeen albums were found discarded on the streets of Shibuya, Tokyo, reflecting the wastefulness within the K-pop commercial industry. Some fans purchase hundreds of copies just for the photos inside, discarding the albums afterward.

Unbalanced Relationship

Experts argue that over-reliance on a specific group of consumers is weakening K-pop, causing side effects like diminishing its credibility, invading celebrities’ privacy, and overworking K-pop stars. When the Billboard Music Awards introduced the K-pop category in 2023, they excluded duplicate downloads of the same song from the charts, only counting one download per week. Cultural critic Kim Hun-sik explains that this new rule aims to minimize the impact of bulk album purchases and view-count farming within fandoms, showing that the global music industry views these actions as expressions of fan loyalty rather than the music’s actual value.

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Another dangerous aspect is the excessive intimacy sold between fans and stars. Platforms like Weverse, Bubble, and Fromm, which facilitate private messaging between fans and idols, have grown rapidly in recent years. Some fans criticize artists for not interacting frequently on these platforms, raising concerns about idols being forced into paid interactions. According to critic Lim Hee-yun, idols are under immense mental pressure due to these demands.

This excessive intimacy has also led some fans to cross boundaries into celebrities’ private lives. For instance, Aespa’s Karina faced backlash after confirming her relationship with actor Lee Jae-wook, eventually posting a handwritten apology letter. The couple broke up less than a month later. “We are in a situation where both fans and artists are being exploited in a distorted business model. The issue lies in the business model, not the singers or the content,” emphasizes critic Kim Hun-sik.

Need for Diverse Business Models

Ironically, this distorted structure has been both a driving force and a shadow over K-pop’s development. A K-pop fan in her 20s finds fan activities highly engaging, saying, “Immersing in supporting an artist, the sense of belonging among fans, and working together to boost rankings for idols are all appealing aspects.” Critic Lim Hee-yun hopes that K-pop can embrace other values without eliminating such activities. “Seeing thousands of discarded albums might raise awareness of environmental issues, and backlash against idol dating can increase awareness of celebrity privacy rights, pressuring companies to address these issues. Fans can act as a force for change,” Lim suggests.

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Kang Hye-won, a visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University’s Department of Culture and Technology, argues for diversified business models: “Currently, most K-pop groups focus on creating a core fandom and profiting from them. Groups should diversify their approaches, such as prioritizing fan engagement or focusing on live performances.”

Cultural critic Kim Hun-sik agrees that K-pop’s crisis stems from its business model. He argues that companies should stop exploiting fans. “It’s time for qualitative growth, not just scale expansion, which ultimately depends on how companies treat and interact with fans. They need to stop viewing fans merely as profit tools. Only then can K-pop become sustainable.”