Trends in the world of K-pop idol fandom often emerge from the devoted fan community. While some trends enjoy fleeting popularity and fade quickly, others endure and transform into a cultural phenomenon among fan clubs.
One such trend currently making waves in fan clubs is the “photocard.” This term, derived from “photo card,” refers to artist photos presented in the form of card-sized prints, typically around 5.5x8.5 centimeters or similar in size to a credit card. “Photocards,” as they are commonly known within fan circles, are usually included as collectibles with album purchases, often distributed randomly. This adds an element of excitement, as fans open their albums in anticipation of discovering whether their favorite artist's photo is enclosed. Consequently, photocards have gained immense popularity among fan clubs, emerging as a sought-after item that rivals the appeal of the artists’ albums themselves.
The tradition of including photocards in albums gained momentum over the past few years, starting around 2010 with Girls’ Generation’s (SNSD) album “Oh!” released by SM Entertainment. What initially seemed like a trend has evolved into a hallmark feature of K-pop fan culture.
Over the past decade since the introduction of the first photocards, these collectibles have undergone continuous development and diversified into various types. These include album-included cards, limited-edition cards, signature cards, and separately sold cards. While primarily a marketing strategy by companies and music labels to boost album sales, the popularity of photocards and the collector culture within fan clubs have led to the emergence of a new phenomenon and culture known as “card trading.”
Card trading is an activity within fan communities where fans exchange or purchase photocards if they didn't receive the preferred card in their album or desire a different artist’s card. This process typically takes place through online platforms like Twitter or Instagram, facilitating exchanges and purchases among fans.
Why is card trading immensely popular within fan club communities?
According to some segment of fan club members, they say that they don’t need to spend more money buying additional albums just to chance upon the cards they want. “Some cards are highly limited, like those produced for special occasions. The chance of obtaining our desired card through random album purchases is minimal. We have to resort to card deals and trades to acquire the cards we want without having to buy extra albums.” They liken card trading to general shopping for desired items, with the added allure that card trading is in vogue. Each time a new album is released by an artist, especially those with a sizable member count, card exchanges flourish. Fans hunt for cards featuring their favorite artists, and this pursuit is particularly intense for highly popular artists.
The culture stemming from photocards encompasses more than just card trading. It includes card decoration, collecting, and even the formation of smaller social communities for exchanging, conversing, and providing card-related advice.
As these cards became a hot commodity, a phenomenon of album hoarding emerged. In South Korea, album hoarding for card trading has become a norm among fan clubs. Recently, a large number of albums were found discarded near the exit of the Hongdae subway station. These albums were opened and the cards removed, leaving only empty albums with CDs and photobooks. Once this was shared on social media, it sparked a significant trend. Korean fan clubs voiced their opinions on the value of albums, highlighting the actual worth of these albums and stressing that supporting artists should prioritize respecting and valuing their artistic work more than merchandise like cards driven by marketing mechanisms.
Even though the phenomenon of album hoarding for card trading hasn’t yet emerged in Thailand like it has in South Korea, the popularity of cards still holds influence within fan clubs.
Upon questioning some Thai fan clubs about the cultural aspects of cards in Thailand, many believe that the desire or purchasing power of Thai fan clubs is not lesser than that of other nationalities. However, the difficulty in acquiring albums or cards within Thailand is more pronounced, making intermediaries who buy and sell cards hold significant negotiation power. This has led to inflated card prices, with some cards reaching five figures. This issue is seen by many as a problem within the Thai fan club culture.
“Beyond the price aspect, we believe that many Thais hold a certain perception of the term “cards” that deviates from its intended essence. Some fan club members view cards as sacred treasures not to be blemished in any way, going so far as to use a flashlight to scrutinize cards for imperfections during trading. We understand that some cards are remarkably expensive, yet at times, cards aren’t flawlessly produced straight from the factory. As a dedicated fan club member, I frequently buy albums, purchase cards, and engage in trading. But one thing I consistently remind myself is that, in the end, a card is just a piece of paper. Its enduring value actually lies within us, the fans.” – another viewpoint from a Thai fan club member, further illuminating the cultural dynamics of cards within the realm of fandom.
“I think it varies from person to person. Some view cards as lucky charms, encased and adorned beautifully, carrying them everywhere. Others see them as representations of the artist. Whenever we feel tired or down, just looking at the picture of our favorite artist can uplift our spirits.”
Did you ever think about how the addition of photo cards has actually changed what it's like to be a fan club member?
“Absolutely, yes. It’s clear that whenever we end up spending more on a card than on the actual album, it makes us realize that being a fan club member nowadays is a whole different ballgame compared to the past. We’ve been into K-Pop since the early days, when there wasn’t this abundance of merchandise like there is now. Back then, finding joy in the music and replaying music videos was what brought us happiness. Nowadays, artists’ merchandise are not just limited to cards and we buy them because they’re adorable. This changed our focus because We’re more wrapped up in hunting down and snagging the artist’s merch, sometimes even more so than truly engaging with the artist’s actual creations.”
If we go back around ten years, to a time when tracking artists’ work wasn’t as easy as it is today, you’d notice that buying an artist’s album primarily for listening to their music was the big thing for most fan clubs. But as time rolled on, the ways and means of supporting artists expanded. It reached a point where being a fan club member and supporting an artist’s music didn’t necessarily mean you had to keep buying albums. Fans could now download or back their favorite artist's tracks through various online platforms.
As the landscape of album sales underwent changes, producers had to get creative with new strategies to get album purchases rolling again. That’s where the significance of photo cards came in. Seeing how much fan clubs loved the cards that came with albums, producers started rolling out cards for every occasion, answering the fan clubs’ call. Eventually, fan clubs might even start questioning whether this culture around the cards still truly supports the artists or whether it’s more about endorsing the card manufacturers and producers behind the scenes.