In a digital world, K-pop fandom keeps physical albums alive
Selling a million albums is no simple task in this digital age of streaming and YouTube — but not for K-pop, where girl groups, boy bands and solo singers alike make selling a million copies look easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.
K-pop’s most loyal fans have been famed for opening up their wallets when it comes to buying physical albums of their favorite artists, even though they don’t actually need the CDs to listen to the music. A million album sales were typically considered a major barometer to a strong fandom, but a sudden surge in 2023 may have tripled or even quadrupled that number, testing the dedication of the fans.
In 2023 alone, 29 albums by K-pop acts sold over a million copies within just a week of release, according to sales tracker Hanteo Chart. Among them, five albums sold two million, two albums sold three million, another two albums shifted four million and one album actually sold more than five million albums — all within a week of release.
Among this year’s top-selling K-pop acts, 20 groups and their bestselling albums have been chosen to vie for the Album of the Year category at the upcoming Golden Disc Awards.
The 38th Golden Disc Awards, organized by the JoongAng Group to honor Korean artists and their achievements, will be held on Jan. 6 at the Jakarta International Stadium (JIS) in Indonesia. Twenty acts were nominated in the Digital Song of the Year and Album of the Year categories, while 10 artists are up for the Rookie Artist of the Year award.
The K-pop acts that have been chosen are: (G)I-DLE, aespa, Agust D (or Suga of boy band BTS), Ateez, Enhypen, EXO, ITZY, IVE, Jungkook of BTS, Le Sserafim, NCT, NCT 127, NCT Dream, NMIXX, Seventeen, Stray Kids, Tomorrow X Together, Treasure, Twice and ZeroBaseOne.
Boy bands once again proved strong, taking 14 of the 20 roster — twice as much as the seven nominated girl groups.
Million seller baby
Out of the 20 nominees, 14 acts sold over a million copies of their albums within just a week of their release.
A jaw-dropping 5.09 million copies were sold by Seventeen’s 11th EP “Seventeenth Heaven” released in October, breaking the all-time K-pop album sales record. The band had already sold over 10 million copies of albums from January to early October, bringing the total to over 16 million copies with “Seventeenth Heaven.”
Stray Kids’ “5-STAR” sold 4.62 million copies within a month when it was released on June 2, while NCT Dream sold 3.65 million copies of “ISTJ” in July. Jungkook hit 2.43 million sales of his first official album “Golden” within a week of release in early November, the highest for a solo K-pop artist in history. Tomorrow X Together chased closely behind with 2.25 million copies of “The Name Chapter: Freefall” sold in a week of release in October.
Nine acts sold a million copies of the album within a month: 1.82 million copies of ZeroBaseOne’s debut album “Youth In the Shade” in July; 1.70 million copies of aespa’s “My World” in May; 1.63 million copies of NCT 127’s “Fact Check” in October; 1.60 million copies of IVE’s “IVE MINE” in October; 1.56 million copies of EXO’s “Exist” in July; 1.52 million copies of Ateez’s “The World EP.2: Outlaw” in June; 1.32 million copies of Enhypen’s “Dark Blood” in May; Suga, who went by his alter-stage name Agust D for his album “D-DAY” that sold 1.28 million copies in April; 1.26 million copies of Le Sserafim’s “Unforgiven” in May; and 1.16 million copies of (G)I-DLE’s “I feel” in May.
HYBE vs. Kakao
Ever since early 2023, two conglomerates have had their horns tightly locked with each other in the battle of the brightest stars: HYBE and Kakao.
HYBE blew up to become the largest agency in K-pop with the help of its megaband BTS, but Kakao, a tech company famed for its KakaoTalk chat app and other online services, has also been seeking to grow its presence in the entertainment scene by buying smaller K-pop agencies and production houses in recent years.
The two companies came face to face in February when they tried to buy a controlling stake of one of the oldest and largest agency, SM Entertainment, resulting in a series of legal accusations made against each other in order to win the public sentiment. Kakao won at the end, successfully buying a 40 percent share of the company founded by Lee Soo-man.
HYBE and Kakao shook hands and promised to cooperate instead of bicker, but it has been a silent competition between their best artists since.
Among the top 20 contenders for the Best Album of the Year award, six acts are from the HYBE umbrella — Agust D, Jungkook, Enhypen, Le Sserafim, Seventeen and Tomorrow X Together — while six are from the Kakao family — aespa, EXO, NCT, NCT 127, alongside NCT Dream from SM Entertainment and IVE from Starship Entertainment, which are both owned by Kakao.
JYP Entertainment, also a major K-pop powerhouse, proved strong with four names on the list: ITZY, NMIXX, Stray Kids and Twice. YG Entertainment only named boy band Treasure on the list of nominees, with its girl group Blackpink not releasing any new album this year and new girl group BabyMonster debuting at a later date than initially announced.
ZeroBaseOne, which was put together by CJ ENM’s cable channel Mnet’s audition program, and Cube Entertainment’s (G)I-DLE came from companies that are listed on the local bourse Kospi. The only band that came from a non-listed smaller agency was boy band Ateez.
A new generation
The oldies are certainly the goodies, but K-pop is always being flooded with new bands that seek to become the next star. This year was especially bustling with the so-called fourth and fifth generation K-pop groups that have been leading a new wave in the local scene in recent years.
The fourth-generation groups — think big names such as NewJeans, Le Sserafim, aespa, IVE, Tomorrow X Together, Enhypen and more — were born right before or during the Covid-19 pandemic, leading a new chapter in Korean pop music defined by online concerts, short-form videos and virtual tours amid the pandemic.
While there is no rock-solid demarcation for each generation, the consensus in the industry has assigned each decade, starting from the 1990s, to a generation. So generally speaking, the four generations of K-pop artists were divided into those that debuted in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s.
The fifth generation unfolded, quite literally, when Mnet's audition program “Boys Planet” labeled the resulting boy band ZeroBaseOne as a “5th Generation K-pop Boy Group,” and other bands have followed suit since.
Out of the 20 acts vying for the Album of the Year, 13 bands are classified as fourth-generation — including (G)I-DLE, aespa, Ateez, Enhypen, ITZY, IVE, Le Sserafim, NMIXX, Stray Kids, Treasure and Tomorrow X Together — and ZeroBaseOne debuted just in 2023.
The “oldest” band, so to say, is EXO, which debuted in 2012 and members of BTS who debuted in 2013. Girl group Twice debuted in 2015 and the NCT umbrella was put forward in 2016.
Twenty of 2023
The Golden Disc Awards celebrates songs and albums released between mid-November of the previous year and early November of the current year. Rookies are chosen from the pool of bands who debuted during the same period based on their album sales and online song streams.
The Album of the Year category is essentially a competition of who has the largest and the strongest fan base, since it's largely fans who spend money on physical CDs in this digital era. Digital Song of the Year, on the other hand, is measured purely by the number of streams, and thus celebrates songs that were most widely received and loved by the general public over the course of the year.
Fans can take part by voting for the Most Popular Artist award, which is divided into Most Popular Female Artist and Most Popular Male Artist categories, using Favorite, a new fan platform created in collaboration with streaming platform Bugs and the JoongAng Group. Voting for the Most Popular Artist award closes on Dec. 27.
Separately, Celeb Confirmed, an entertainment news and community platform run by the JoongAng Group’s English newspaper arm, Korea JoongAng Daily, is offering free tickets to the ceremony packaged with a one-day accommodation in Jakarta. The event runs until Dec. 24. Guidelines on how to participate can be found in Celeb Confirmed's community section.
To find out more about the 38th Golden Disc Awards, visit Celeb Confirmed
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]