What's Most Important in K-pop Fandom
I’ve met K-pop fans quite often because of my job. This was in the early 2000s, so I think it's been around 20 years. At that time, the word idols was a more common expression than K-pop, and fandom was also expressed as idol fandom. You might think fans' tendencies and behavior patterns may have changed a lot over the past 20 years, but in fact, they haven't changed much.
The idol fandom in the early 2000s was heavily influenced by the 90s fan clubs, to be more precise, the Seo Taiji and Boys fan club, the ‘Seo Taiji Memorial Club’. The Seo Taiji Memorial Club was created after Seo Taiji and Boys retired, and it was registered as a civic group in Seoul, which is not common. They were active in two main areas, one was to receive expert evaluations of Seo Taiji's music (mainly for foreign critics/media), and the other was to contribute to the improvement of the community by raising social awareness (to break the power relationship and lip-sync controversy between the music and broadcasting industry at the time).
Idol fans in the 2000s acted similarly. After 2004, when the music market started in earnest, their goal was charting. That was how to get experts and media interested in ‘music’ rather than ‘fandom size’ or ‘album sales’. At the same time, they made donations to underprivileged neighbors and environmental groups in the name of the artist. This was to get idol groups considered as a sort of ‘social community’. This type of activity continues to this day. In other words, the social perception of idols (and fandoms) has not changed much from 20 years ago. Fandoms streaming and doing universal good deeds is a kind of receiving of recognition. The goal was a measure to counter the prejudice that ‘idol music is insignificant’.
However, as we pass 2010, the K-pop fandom changed more dramatically. Twitter and YouTube became media supporting ‘stanning’, and ‘love’ and ‘nurture’ became important keywords in the fandom. This trend became popular around 2015. Starting with the <Produce> series that made the term ‘national producer’ popular, the scope of ‘stanning’ and ‘fandom’ has expanded. BTS' 'Army' created a peak, and the <Miss Trot> series expanded its meaning dramatically. Now, ‘stanning’ has gradually become a universal hobby, not a subculture of a specific generation, at least in Korea.
Now, 'fandom' is important in almost every industry. In a situation where new generations, global markets, and pandemics mingle with each other, fandom has emerged as a business solution in almost all areas including manufacturing, service, distribution, and F&B. Who are the fans, why do they spend money, how are fans are created…
Fans look like 'consumers who spend money irrationally on things they like'. If a fan is defined in this way, there will be things like a plan to put idol photocards in ramen and sell them. Of course, sales will also increase. However, does this kind of event really satisfy the fandom? Nobody knows. This is because what is important here is the sales, not the fans.
If you consider the mindset of the fans, it looks different. How would you feel if your favorite group made an ad for ramen and sold it with a photo card? You might be happy that they did a commercial, but the photocard can be complicated. Without being understood or evaluated for music or activities, artists were used just as advertising models, especially as a means of attracting fandom 20 years ago. It will feel like an idol's music is being ignored and insulted by the media, critics, and experts.
This eventually made ‘streaming’ a part of fan culture. So, the ‘fan culture’ that we are unfamiliar with is actually the result of the accumulation of a very extensive history and context. When we don't understand their mindset, we focus only on chart results or sales. Many tools are used for that. But, as many experts have already said, in business, numbers are important, but so is the mindset.
We need to understand the mindset of the fans. This is the most important aspect when thinking about fandom from a business point of view. What fans really want can be made into a product considering this. So what do fans really want? That is the sustainable growth of artists. When you look at the fandom business from the perspective of the sustainable growth of artists, things will look different. What is important to the fans is that the artist continues their musical activities, and in the process, they receive a good evaluation as an artist. As a result, or as part of the process, it includes performing well in the global market, being mentioned as a notable musician or artist in popular media, an agency being listed, or becoming an advertising model. The important thing is that fans spend time and money on the sustainable growth of artists.
In this sense, ‘stanning’ is more diverse. When a new song is released or a new activity is held, fans actively promote it through SNS. It is also common to speak up on global issues such as the climate crisis, gender diversity, alternative energy, and war, or to become a shareholder by buying stock in an agency. In particular, K-pop ETFs create opportunities for overseas fans to invest in Korean entertainment companies. In that sense, it can be a starting point for fan activities on a global scale. Fans in 2022 do not want to just be consumers, but they also want to be producers that participate. That is how they contribute to the 'sustainable growth of artists'.
This brings us back to a question: What are fans? To me, fans are people who are ready to spend time and money on something they like. Don't get me wrong. Fans are not the ones who unconditionally spend money on artists. They need a story and context. Whether a fan or an artist, they do not want their existence to be materialized and objectified. So what is important here is the message. And this message comes from the mindset. Fandom business is an area where it is virtually impossible to create a singular special event. The planners have no choice but to focus on creating and maintaining opportunities for the fandom to gather. | Cha Woo-Jin