The world of K-pop merch is evolving—from photocards to more tangible pieces, it’s now possible to show fan support in new ways.
The featured image in this article is a photo card of Do Kyungsoo, known as D.O., an actor, and one of the main vocalists in the nine-membered Korean-Chinese Idol group, EXO. A K-pop photo card, for the uninitiated, is, as it sounds, a card-sized photo of a K-pop idol group, or one of its members. They come in an album, and the reseller market is a burgeoning industry, much like sports trading cards, or Pokémon cards.
This particular photo card is so wanted, that I have watched YouTube videos of fans buying box loads of the album it came with (2017’s Universe) just to get it. Rumor has it that this is the least printed card out of that album (and its presence varies by location), so if a fan were to buy the album today, the chances of getting D.O.’s photo card are slim to none. You could pull the rest of the members from that album (including my favorite, Chanyeol), but D.O’s? A miracle.
What makes a photo card popular? A few things: the member’s popularity (D.O. has one of the most devoted fan bases within EXO, and due to his acting skill he is also beloved by the Korean general public), and its rarity. It is also the humor in the card itself: it’s of his beautiful, shiny forehead, hair shaved back not because he was off serving his military service (that happened in 2019), but because he was filming Swing Kids, where he played a tap-dancing North Korean soldier (you should watch it). Generally, how cute the member on the card is, explains its popularity.
Another way to get a photo card is through the reseller market. A quick search on the Internet showed me its availability on eBay for $200, and that last week one sold for $120 with 10 bids. There are also Twitter resellers, of varying trustworthiness. In the world of photo cards and K-Pop merchandise, it can be a dog-eat-dog atmosphere.
A friend, Pia, tells me that while she isn’t ready to join bidding wars (“I don’t think I’m ready to spend so much on a single item,”), she knows people who have. “They said it was pretty intense and the offers escalate so quickly, especially for hardcore collectors who are so willing to spend for the merch,” she says. Pia’s favorite group (in K-pop speak, this is known as “ult” as in, ultimate) is the 23-member (yes, 23) group NCT, and her favorite members (the word for this is “bias”) are Jeong Jaehyun, from the NCT subgroup NCT 127 and Qian Kun and Xiao Dejun (known as Xiao Jun) from the Chinese arm of the organization, WayV (there is really no good way of explaining NCT without making them seem like the mafia).
Of those three (in fact, out of the entire 23-member operation) Jaehyun tends to have the most wanted photo cards, making him part of the so-called Kilabot line (a name given by local collectors and re-sellers): “Basically they’re the one’s who are usually priced higher by resellers because they are “in demand” (not my words) and some people would resell them for ridiculous prices because they’re very sought after even if the album is still in print,” she says (it goes without saying that Pia, and a lot of other collectors are not happy with this situation). “I have Jaehyun’s SM Rookies photo card, and it’s his first one, so it means a lot to me.”
Binders full of idols
This whole thing had me thinking, when did K-pop merch hunting and photo card collecting get this crazy? Twitter says it started with Girls Generation, but as a fan of the group, I don’t remember this aura of competitiveness when I first got into the fandom, more than ten years ago. I suppose due to the pre-Twitter fandom era, you could, like me, be largely sheltered from the admittedly spicier goings-on.
I mostly bought my albums during a layover at South Korea’s Incheon airport, when I would fly to the United States for university, or back home. On a student’s allowance, I couldn’t afford more than one album, so all I wanted was to pull a favorite member’s photo card. The idea of a sought-after, rare card was unknown to me. For the most part, I was lucky: Ok Taecyeon from 2PM and Cho Kyuhyun from Super Junior were my favorite members out of their groups, and I once pulled theirs from their respective albums.
I stored these cards in my wallet, where they took pride of place. My American friends would ask, “Is this your boyfriend?” and because these were the days when K-Pop was very much a niche world, I would give a coy smile. It’s not like anyone knew the difference.
Today, keeping them in your wallet seems crazy. If Mitt Romney talked about having “binders full of women” in response to pay equity and job applications when he was Governor of Massachusetts during the 2012 US Presidential Elections, the average, photo card hunting K-pop fan will have binders full of idols.
When I told people I used to just keep them in my wallet they thought I was crazy. A wallet doesn’t protect much. Bea, another friend (she ults EXO, and her bias is Kim Junmyeon, aka Suho) says “I store my photo cards in a small binder complete with plastic sleeves and pockets so they won’t tear and create dents. I don’t necessarily display them since they’re quite many. (Pia wanted to know if I wanted photos of all her binders, because “I have four. It’s a disease!”).
Bea got into collecting in 2020 when Suho had his solo debut. “I had it in my head that I HAVE to have his album and merch. I like the thrill of having to open your sealed albums and not knowing what photo cards/inclusions you’re going to pull,” she says. As a relatively new PC collector, she shares that her collection isn’t the biggest. “I only have 40 all in all that I’ve collected and only 8 of those are from CDs/albums I bought. The rest were individually bought from different stores and sellers, even from friends!”
Bea and I have the same experience of toting around a photo of your bias and enjoying it. “It’s like having a piece of your favorite idol. Or having a small photo of your favorite idol that you can bring anywhere around,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t get why I’m so into it myself but that certain level of the thrill of possibly pulling your bias in an album gives me so much happiness. You literally will not know what and who you’re going to get which makes it very exciting.”
For other fans, they enjoy focusing on merch beyond the photo cards. This includes the physical CDs, photo books, brand collaborations light sticks (which you bring to the concert and wave around in the air), and most thrillingly to me, socks. Socks can be found in the dozen in Korean street markets, and I once had a couple of 2PM pairs.
Andie is one of those people. Andie’s favorite group is BTS (unless you have been living under a rock, BTS needs no explaination) and her favorite member is “Jungkookie, the best, cutest ever,” (Jeon Jungkook) says she doesn’t seek out photo cards other than the ones that come with the CDs. Instead, her realm of collecting has to do with product endorsements, such as the one with Fila. “I’ve spent around 30k, including for online concerts. I don’t spend crazy money, at least not yet! I told myself I would save all that money for a real-life concert one day,” she says. Her first purchase was the light stick, known as the Army Bomb (BTS’s devoted cohort of fans are called Army). “I like buying merch because I feel like it’s a way of supporting them. It also gives me a sense of belonging in the fandom when I can buy the latest merch I like.”
For Andie, collecting is just like any hobby. “We all have or put a special meaning behind the things we do and why we do them. For me, I think what drew me into the BTS fandom was the content I watched,” she says. “They just seemed so genuine and passionate in their craft. Also, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t partly (or fully) because they’re super cute. They’re just all so chaotic! They bring so many good vibes.”
Fellow Army Ariel, whose favorite member is J-Hope (real name Jung Hoseok) says that for her, it’s showing her support for the group.
“Having their albums is like a flex that you contributed to their next award or probably one of the doorknobs in their new office building. Once you get into the fandom, you cannot deny how much BTS loves ARMY and you see it through the lyrics of their songs, the way they connect to us in our fan club, and the way they talk about us in interviews and shows,” she says. “And because they can’t hear all of our voices when we express our love back to them, we show it through charting their songs in music awards, selling out their merch, and doing fun projects for their birthdays and other milestones.”
When Ariel first got into the group in 2018, she was only shopping for things that matched what she liked. Today, it has shifted to all things related to them.
“I buy their official merch such as albums, lightsticks, and DVDs to show my love and support for the group. I also buy from other brands that collaborate with them like Line Friends’ BT21, FILA, Vice Cosmetics, Samsung,” she says. “And the craziest, as I would consider, is buying the same outfits they wear on their shows, interviews, or to the airport. One of the running jokes my friends would tell me is to go buy stuff to just make sure my seven boys are well fed or to make sure they have pretty clothes to wear during concerts because, of course, we know they benefit from the sales.”
Ariel shares that her experiences in bidding have been largely positive, in part because it was for a charitable cause held by the Happee Hour podcast, to raise funds for tablets and laptops for students affected by the study-from-home situation.
“Despite my slow internet connection, the experience was very positive because my friends kept cheering on me in the comments section and no matter how high the amount already was, nobody was bashing because it was for charity,” she says. She ended up with signed posters from the Wings Tour and The Red Bullet Tour. She tells me she doesn’t keep track of her expenses. “I honestly don’t keep track of my expenses, because my love for BTS is priceless…and I just don’t account for them because I don’t want to scare my parents if they find out I have this very obsessive behavior,” she says, laughing.
K-Pop merch as NFTs?
What is the future of collecting K-pop merch? According to Max (favorite group Seventeen, favorite member Wonwoo), “As long as physical K-Pop idols exist, photo cards will exist.” Max and her boyfriend (a Twice fan) started buying albums together, which led to collecting photo cards. You could say that the couple that collects together stays together.
Like most internet reactions to Kpop, there has been a derisory tone when it comes to merch collecting. Most people are worried about the burgeoning prices, while others find blatant consumerism ridiculous. There is also a sense of gender-bias, whereas we wouldn’t think different of men who splurge on cars or watches. Most people I talked to mentioned that both sides should be responsible: the bidders and those organizing the bids.
This is easier said than done in the local market because the trends in Korea tend to dictate which pieces of merchandise are more highly desired. “I’m just going to say that I hope in the future photo cards will be more reasonably priced and no one will take advantage of the fact that some buyers are willing to spend more for certain members,” says Pia.
The rise of NFTs in art trading had me thinking that perhaps this will be the next realm of Kpop photo cards. You can’t get hold of physical cards? Owning the jpeg will be the next best thing, considering that K-Pop is increasingly digital.
I was not wrong in my prediction: a few weeks ago, JYP Entertainment (home to 2PM, Twice, Stray Kids, and Itzy) announced that they were entering into a partnership with Dunamu, the company behind Upbit, South Korea’s number one digital asset exchange. This collaboration is the beginning of a platform that will produce and expand NFT-related digital K-pop content.
What one Big 3 company does, the others eventually end up doing, so I do not doubt that when SM joins the game, I might finally get to own at least part that D.O. forehead photo card.