K-Pop is Making the Box Set the New Vinyl
How the genre is reimagining album packaging in the era of streaming
While K-Pop, Korean Pop, has only recently entered the Western mainstream in the last few years, the genre’s origins point back to the 1950s, when Rock n’ Roll was first influencing the world. Enter The Kim Sisters, a Korean family trio that was born out of the necessity to financially survive during The Korean War, singing English phonetically to US troops overseas. In 1959, they were brought to Las Vegas and garnered success selling out residencies at multiple hotels and appearing on the Ed Sullivan show a total of 22 times. Not unlike many groups at the time, like the Supremes and Beatles, they dressed alike in impeccable fashion with choreographed dance moves, trends that K-Pop has adopted today.
In the 90s, K-Pop groups Seo Taiji and Boys, and H.O.T rose to fame with their American-influenced hip-hop and pop styles. H.O.T was also the first group made up of formally trained pop stars, a mainstay of modern K-Pop, see agencies like SM Entertainment and YG that offer training programs.
Fast forward twenty years and the number of K-Pop groups has quadrupled, thanks to social media and its vast global reach. The first bands that come to mind are BTS and BLACKPINK, with TOMORROW X TOGETHER and SEVENTEEN not far behind. But being a fan of these groups goes far beyond just listening to their music, it means being involved in the world they’ve created as well.
Upon entering the appropriately named Korean Books & K-Pop Music store in New York City’s Korea Town on 32nd St, I was introduced to an entirely new form of album art that I hadn’t been aware of. What looked like a row of books on your normal bookshelf, actually stood dozens of deluxe box sets, that are actually not deluxe to the average K-Pop fan, but part of a normal release.
Within each box, fans will find the CD of the title single or album, but the real allure is the exclusive original content that’s included, which ranges from posters to trading cards, lyric books, stickers, polaroids, etc. The list goes on. The box sets retail from $25 - $35, comparable to a new vinyl. Ahead of the release, fans can watch their peers or favorite group unbox the set, a popular YouTube trend. The solo CD cases on the shelf almost look laughable next to their box set counterpart.
The idea of the deluxe album release and the box set came to popularity in the 80s, when labels needed to make bands still financially relevant in a capitalist music industry, especially after members had passed or the group had broken up. In 1985, Bob Dylan released Biograph, a 5 vinyl LP compilation box set of unreleased tracks with a 36-page accompanying booklet. The album was an attempt to resolidify his name, and it worked, both artistically and financially. In 2018, the 50th anniversary of The Beatles White Album resulted in a 4 LP reissue with an accompanying booklet and poster.
K-Pop has successfully taken the “retrospective” out of the box set and made it the per-norm for releases. When looking at artists like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, who sit right next to BTS in popularity, you can find box sets that offer the same exclusive accoutrements. But they are labeled deluxe, and Billie’s ‘Happier Than Ever’ Super Deluxe Box Set sits at a hefty $100, not as inclusive as the average K-Pop set.
It’s also interesting to note, that the digital single covers of BTS, BLACKPINK, and other K-Pop groups are mainly illustrations and or graphics. The absence of their faces on the covers, unlike Billie and Olivia, invites fans to explore the groups further by getting to know them through a box set. It begs to ask in a world where streaming services have robbed musicians of their main source of income if deluxe versions could be their saving grace.
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