Sydney, Australia (CNN Philippines Life) — One Saturday morning in September 2019, Jac, 22, booked a last-minute flight to Korea. Her favorite K-pop group Seventeen was going to have a fan signing event for their album “An Ode.” Jac has been following K-pop since she was in high school, and her hobby had seen her visit Seoul multiple times a year. Convinced that this event might be the last for this comeback, the impulse-buy was easy to make. Fan signing events give listeners a chance to meet their idols in a raffle-type promo with entries derived from how many albums are bought. Some fans will buy 10-20 albums at a time to get a higher chance at winning, but others, shares Jac, can buy up to hundreds just to meet their idols.
Jac was determined. She spent one night in Seoul to buy the albums, and then lugged suitcases home full of it the following day. On Monday, they drew the winners, and Jac was lucky. Later that week on a Friday, she hopped on a plane and flew out to Korea again.
The way that K-pop fans show devotion and support for their idols comes in many forms, but the strongest testament is the price that fans are willing to pay. From music albums to concert tickets, to photocards, to the products their idols are endorsing — loving K-pop is easy to brush off as just an expensive hobby and a swaggering expression of tribalism, but often overlooked is the meaningful social and cultural value that comes with the commitment.
The cost of a meet cute with an idol
When Blackpink visited Manila in June 2019, the e-commerce platform Shopee sponsored a similar event but perhaps miscalculated the fandom’s buying power. Shopee announced that 568 fans would have a chance to meet and greet the all-girl group if they spent over ₱4,000 on the shopping site. Of these, the top 40 spenders would get signed autographs.
Dean was one of the fans who rushed to the opportunity. She logged onto Shopee and added to her cart: two iPhones, one Samsung phone, and one Huawei phone. When her final bill totalled to ₱280,000, she was confident she would make the cut.
But when the list of winners was published, Dean’s name wasn’t on the list. A bit stupefied, she went online and found she wasn’t alone. Other shoppers alleged that Shopee had changed its mechanics halfway through the promo period, leaving buyers who had spent much more outlisted by some who spent less, though Shopee denies this and attests it was a system error. Moreover, the list of winners published by the company was reportedly unupdated, as some 119 fans who were awarded tickets were shocked to later be notified that their tickets were rescinded. They were uninvited, and some ticket holders who showed up anyway were barred from the event.
Dean, like other fans, felt duped. “I called Shopee's customer service to report the matter, but they didn't know about it. Either way, all efforts for clarifications were in vain,” she shares. Fans are reported to have lodged complaints with the Department of Trade and Industry, who endeavored to investigate the issue. Shopee later on made a statement that they would fully refund all 119 wrongly awarded.
When K-pop group NCT launched “NCT 2020- Resonance Part 1” in early October this year, Lorraine, 22, bought 60 albums through an online website in Korea. “I bought 60 because I thought this was probably going to be a war between me and other K-pop fans globally (Laughs). All these experiences make me feel bad sometimes for spending so much, to be honest,” says Lorraine, who spent ₱51,000 on the album haul. “But at the end of the day, I always think about it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience." She didn’t get a slot at the fan meet, but Lorraine is not so disheartened. "Sadly, I didn't win, it really depends on your luck. On the brighter side, I get to collect most of the photocards I wanted for this album, or I get to sell them at the same price I got it for,” says Lorraine.
Photocards are little collectibles found inside music albums or sold in official events with the portraits of different band members. They are distributed in limited edition and always at random, so collecting them is like the sweepstakes, a little bit like coming across Willie Wonka’s Golden Ticket: the more you buy the more chances you have of winning, or you’re just very lucky. “As a collector, you would really want to complete your favorite member’s photocards,” explains Lorraine. “Some of these cards are really rare finds, so you'll be forced to buy so much just to get or complete your bias' photocards.”
Jac adds, “It’s really fulfilling to complete the cards, even if it’s impossible to complete everything because some items only release one or two versions.” Her most special photocard is a signed polaroid of Hoshi from Seventeen. It cost her ₱6,000.
Besides merchandise, other expenses are spent on concerts and travelling. Some fans gather and hold fundraising events, a crowdfunding initiative to support various fan-driven projects. One example is the BTS fan-based fundraiser who gathered $1 million to donate to the Black Lives Matter movement. Other fandoms held donation drives to help the Australian bushfires in 2019. Fandoms also raise funds to buy public advertising space to profess their love for their idols, or pool money to buy gifts when it is their idol’s birthday. K-pop fandoms have also mobilized their members for donation drives to help the victims of the recent typhoons in the Philippines.
While money makes the K-pop world go round, fans like Jac, Dean, and Lorraine are careful to talk about their expensive hobby. Like most fans, they create separate online identities to differentiate from their lives offline. Twitter accounts known as “stan accounts” (referencing Eminem’s song “Stan” about an overzealous fan) are made under pseudonyms so they can openly express their obsessions online without interrupting their normal lives. They keep confidential their real names, age, and occupation — in fear of getting bashed, but also because the nature of digital fandoms allows for this creation of multiple selves.
While it’s hard to grasp that women in their early 20s are equipped with such disposable income, Jac, Lorraine, and Dean acknowledge that this kind of splurging is not typical. Lorraine, for example, is unburdened from paying rent because she lives with her family. “Since I'm staying home, I get to save up a lot for future events. I try to limit myself to spending ₱6,000 a max a month, but if there are events and such, I go all out with my salary,” she shares.
On the other hand, Chel, 23, who needs to account for living expenses for working in Manila, says she’s more conscious about budgeting. “If I know that the band I am following is going to have a comeback soon, then I’m really going to put aside money for that month in order to splurge,” she says. When the group Ikon visited Manila a few years back, Chel put aside ₱20,000 for the concert and merchandise. “When you become a fan you don’t really think so much of the cost,” she says. “You just feel like you’ve contributed to the growth of the group.” Although now older and with a better comprehension of spending habits, she says she still remembers being 13 years old and feeling left out when she didn’t have the income to spend. “I would get jealous because there’s this feeling of being left out when everyone gets to go to a concert but you can’t afford it. But that’s why it’s important to remember that if you can’t spend money on all of these things, there are a lot of other ways to become a fan.” At the end of the day, Chel deduces, being a fan is really about an outpouring of support. “The goal of all fans is to make the group as popular as possible, that’s it.”
Jac emphasizes as well, “If you can't buy anything, it doesn't mean you're any less of a fan. Because there are really a lot of people who are fans but don’t collect. It’s really all about supporting,” says Jac, “It just so happens that there are people [like me] who show support by buying their merchandise.”
The merchandise machinery
For context, scholars pinpoint K-pop’s capitalist machinery with South Korea’s history. The 1990s marked many changes for the country. The deregulation of travel in 1989 led to a travel boom in the mid-90s, exposing locals to foreign culture and propelling the natural flow and exchange of pop cultural products. According to Suk-Young Kim in the book “K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance,” the phenomenon and globalization of the K-pop we know today has roots in this sudden interest to consume world trends.
But at the same time, a mismanagement of economic policies led to the gravity of South Korea’s condition during the 1997 economic crisis. As a result, the country turned to its film, television, and music industries to become one of the engines to rebuild its economy — a machine geared towards generating profit. This paved the way for the Korean wave that trickled into East Asia, the beginning ripples of a phenomenon that we recognize today. Today, we see some of its global effects: Forbes reported that BTS contributed to South Korea's GDP in 2019, accounting for US$4.65 billion.
But for fans, consuming K-pop yields indescribable rewards. Serena M. Vaswani, an instructor at the Department of Communication of Ateneo De Manila University whose research focuses on fandoms, turns to the existing literature to explain the phenomenon. “One way to understand the inclination of fans to spend so much money on merchandise is to see it as an expression of loyalty,” she says.
More than just an audience, fandoms have become an integral part of the K-pop ecosystem. “Our efforts and the money that we spend is because we want them [K-pop idols] to have a happy life.”
Vaswani explains: researcher Benjamin Woo, in his article "A Pragmatics of Things: Materiality and Constraint in Fan Practices” says that fans relate to objects with rich and complex meanings through material expression. “Buying or collecting merchandise, for example, are ways by which fans form their sense of identity and articulate their belonging to a community. At the most immediate level, purchasing or collecting merchandise allows fans to practice their fandom,” expounds Vaswani.
This is why it’s important to see these acts of consumption at more than just face value. “Oftentimes, the idea of fans investing both emotionally and financially in merchandise is framed as a shallow exercise in commodity culture,” Vaswani adds. “However, as some fan studies scholars have noted, this kind of framing ignores the will and purposefulness of fans when they choose to acquire these objects. It is important to recognize that beyond economic value, fans appreciate the cultural and social value of this merchandise more.” She notes that scholar Lincoln Geraghty asserted that when it comes to fans and merchandise: “it’s not about the items themselves, rather it’s about the stories fans share about these items in their fan community — its history, how it came about, how they came to acquire it, what it is, what it could be.”
Vaswani posits that the interactions fans have with objects hold power in the stories they are able to tell through the merchandise. “I would venture to say that the fan practice of acquiring and telling stories around merchandise imbues these objects with an enduring life, as they are launched into infinite circuits of meaning with every story that is told.”
Just as fandoms willingly spend on the K-pop industry, it is also because the K-pop industry gives and gives in return; they constantly keep fans at the edge of their seats: they are consistent with releases or comebacks, never disappointing with performances and production value. But also, perhaps K-pop also contributes to a sense of self, of purposefulness, for fans, something beyond admiration. More than just an audience, fandoms have become an integral part of the K-pop ecosystem. Chel ruminates over this, explaining, “Our efforts and the money that we spend is because we want them [K-pop idols] to have a happy life,” she articulates slowly. “It’s because they go through so much — training takes five to 10 years, they give up studying to do this, and when they finally debut, you just want them to have the best. They represent this determination to become successful in life, and that’s also an inspiration for everyone. When you see their drive to succeed, ’yun ’yung pinaghahawakan namin as fans.”