The global music industry may be facing a slow down in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, but K-pop physical album sales are hotter than ever in 2020. At a time when only the most dedicated fans are spending money on hard copies of music, fans of South Korea-based acts are earning big, with 2020 witnessing over five albums selling over 1 million copies each, and one by BTS with over 4 million recorded sales.
Earlier this year, South Korea’s Gaon Chart – which reports accumulated sales and streams – revealed immense growth in album sales despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with albums from BTS, NCT 127, Baekhyun, and Seventeen each selling millions of copies. October, historically one of the busiest months for K-pop releases as artists aim for end-of-year hits, is expected to add several to this increasingly less elusive club: The month has already witnessed the arrival of high-profile albums by BLACKPINK (The Album, which debuted at No. 2 on the US Billboard 200 and repotedly sold over 1 million in pre-orders ) and NCT 2020 (NCT 2020 : RESONANCE Pt. 1, which also reportedly sold over 1.12 million copies in pre-orders), and highly-anticipated albums from the likes of Seventeen, TWICE, LOONA, and Tomorrow X Together forthcoming.
Over the past decade since Gaon started tracking sales, K-pop artists have increasingly seen occasionally top acts, like BTS and EXO, sell multiple million-selling albums, and prior to it occasionally South Korean albums, especially in the ‘90s, sold over 1 million copies. But 2020 is the first year in the era of digital streaming platforms (DSPs) to witness the trickle of physical sales turn into a true deluge, as fan buying power has increasingly grown over the first three quarters of 2020 across individual fandoms within K-pop spaces, with fandom engagement at an all time high in regards to sales and numerous artists gaining the nickname of “million sellers.”
Companies, seemingly at least partially in an attempt to recoup lost income from the lack of live events, have pushed not only online concert events but also album sales; with artists’ social media accounts pushing for fans to spend, with some artists, such as SuperM, even using text messages to engage with fans, ostensibly to push for better sales. Along with a generally heightened state of competition, in part likely because fans hope to help their favorite stars top music charts across the globe, the lack of live concert events that fans may otherwise spend funds on COVID-anxiety-reducing retail therapy may also explain the burst of K-pop album sales in 2020.
Accessibility has also increased in recent years, with K-pop album distribution becoming far more available, making the merch-like music items much easier for fans to purchase. In the U.S. particularly, local distributers and exclusives at major retailers such as Target
The current state of things makes it unclear what the future will be, and whether the current environment where multiple fandoms are able to support, sustainably, millions of albums’ sales. K-pop is considered to be one element of hallyu, or the South Korean wave of popular entertainment that has swept across the globe, and it’s likely that we’re seeing the upswing, or a peaking, of the current wave with these immense sales. Whether this wave of sales is sustained has yet to be seen, but for the moment, at a time when music industries across the globe are flailing, the K-pop industry and its fan-consumers continue to show their buying power.
This article has been updated to rectify a typo. NCT 2020’s album reportedly pre–sold 1.12 million copies, not 1.2.