Mega-popular K-pop boys BTS are bringing their live show to Wembley in June - and CDs for their Army of London fans to buy on the night. But why are physical albums so popular and well-designed in K-pop? Find out the answers with K-pop's expert designers Studio XXX, who've designed some of the group's best albums.
K-pop sensation BTS have been breaking records all over the shop, but overlooked was the fact that one of their physical records got the boy band group their first ever Grammy nod earlier this year.
BTS' nomination for Best Recording Package not only highlighted the sleekly minimal design work by Husky Fox for the Love Yourself: Tear album, but also was a nice reminder of the importance of the visual in K-pop, as nailed over the years by South Korea's Studio XXX (who we talk to below in this feature).
K-pop ♡s Pop Art
Eye-popping videos aside, the Korean music idol scene has had a long relationship with the art and illustration scene. Alien world-maker Sangho Bang (who we interviewed last year) has been behind a sleeve for an NCT 127 CD; Sehee Chae (who we've also interviewed) has meanwhile done track-by-track illustrations for Oh My Girl, and awesome photo-collagist Pretty Linez has come to define the look for Humming Urban Stereo.
Girl group Red Velvet meanwhile have had tour promos done by both Ram Han and the outsider-esque Sungmo Kang (below). Don't forget also how the BTS boys have not one but two(!) official webcomics to their name, one of which features the idols fighting alien parasites. Not kidding.
Art then is key to K-pop, and so is design - especially when it comes to the packaging of idol albums and EPs. Whereas in the West physical music is probably most profitable these days in the format of collectable and reissue vinyl, CDs have continued to remain a big drawn for Far East consumers (and to the Western K-pop fans who import or buy the discs at shows, as many will no doubt be doing at the June BTS gigs this weekend).
While a Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese or Japanese indie band will starve just as much as their British or American counterparts, in the pop game CDs remain big due to the elaborate packaging that make them must-buys for fans.
Fandoms are the audience
"In the K-pop market, CDs are made just for the fans. They don’t buy it to listen; most of them don’t even have CD players," explains Ji-yoon Lee, founder of the Seoul-based Studio XXX.
Founded in 2007, the studio has been branding the look for K-pop's countless boy bands and girl groups for over a decade, defining album identities for 2010s faves like BTS and Loona, the latter who you may know from their 2018 collaboration with the mighty Grimes. They've also been behind the packaging from K-pop's first big wave of popularity, designing for the likes of Shinhwa and more.
"Back in 2007, we made CDs for a much wider range of audiences," Lee tells me. "The biggest change has been the target consumer, as CDs we design now are usually just for fans of certain artists. They buy CDs to have a book of pictures and to collect artists’ merchandise, like photo cards."
"Fans really appreciate how much extra effort goes into the packaging," agrees Patrick St. Michel, a Tokyo-based writer who's covered K-pop for the likes of The Atlantic and Pitchfork, and who's had front row seats for the change of guard between Japan and Korea as East Asia's most prominent popular music hub. He's also long covered the Japanese alternative scene on his site Make Believe Melodies, so if one person knows their Japanese juke beats à la Foodman from censor-baiting retro K-pop pastiches - and even retro Japanese pop projects by solo Korean idols going full Plastic Love - it's Patrick.
"K-pop groups create really intricate packaging, with every release looking different from the last," he tells me via email. "These don't look like average CDs or records, but rather like their own special items that look great. You get all kinds of elaborate boxes and extras fit into the box.
"J-pop isn't quite as ambitious with the actual physical packaging, as many of the big releases simply come out in typical CD cases," he continues, suggesting that as Japanese audiences have yet to latch onto digital music in the way Korean audiences have, there's less of a fight on for their affections.
"It's like back in the '90s when CDs by Backstreet Boys or Spice Girls were relatively straightforward packages - a jewel case with a paper insert and then the CD itself. It was much easier to get people to buy physical media back then, but now we need a little extra incentive to buy physical albums. K-pop - and some J-pop - does a good job providing that."
Packaging is everything, CD or no CD
It's Korean-based studios like XXX who are responsible for capturing the attention of these audiences so strongly, and Lee tells me this comes down to viewing the album more as a product package rather than a music one.
"They are more like another example of merchandise for the fans," Lee writes. "It can be a photo book or a box set of postcards. I prefer picture books as they look neat while still containing lots of photographs. To be honest I actually like the classic jewel case the most, but most clients don’t let us do it because fans always want more stuff in the albums.
"Anything is possible as long as there is photographs of the artists and extra things for the fans included, plus the CD," she continues.
"Actually, the package doesn’t even have to have a CD. It can be anything as long as it contains music - G-Dragons' flash drive from 2017 is a good example of this."
That G-Dragon USB is a good indicator of Patrick's belief that K-pop is ahead of the curve when it comes to packaging. "J-pop in general has stuck to the basic dimensions and form of whatever the format is," he says. "K-pop used to be that way too, but before the real boom in 'Hallyu' or the 'Korean Wave' started they began mixing it up, as that era coincided with the rise of digital music."
Listen to the labels
Almost every album from an idol group comes with a new concept. Just like when Taylor Swift went from country singer to cheery stadium star all the way across to vengeful ninja, a K-pop group's debut or comeback release comes defined by a new look (but not necessarily a brand new sound).
Girls Generation for example famously switched from ballads to something with more swagger in 2013, while predecessors Wonder Girls changed from Perfect-All-Kill pop to French touch a few years prior. A most interesting example is Lim Kim, who's swung from catchy R'n'B into the harsh sonics popular with the likes of Taiwan's Meuko! Meuko! and Aïsha Devi (not kidding).
While sometimes the artists themselves have an influence on the final design, it's usually the record companies who set the album identity brief to Studio XXX.
"They usually send us music and a rough guide first. Like ‘We want this album identity to be sensual,' or 'We want an old school hip-hop vibe.'
We then suggest several design drafts, and the label picks one."
Type is key
If you think designing for K-pop is all about pretty graphics and nice colour schemes, think again. Typography is also a crucial component, something most evident in BTS' releases. The lettering for Love Yourself: Tear is pretty much the only thing to look at across all variants of the album, and the heart motif also included has the look of a handwritten scrawl.
Their other EPs and albums also have interesting excursions in type, especially those designed by Lee and Studio XXX. The text speak of O!RUL82? (below) reminds one of Julian House's concept for Primal Scream's XTRMNTR, and the characters adorning The Most Beautiful Moment in Life EPs are actually Chinese letters, not Korean.
"The Wong Kar-wai movie was renamed In the Mood for Love for English-speaking audiences but The Most Beautiful Moment in Life is its original name in Hong Kong and Korea. The film was very popular in Korea so Korean fans could easily connect the tone and mood of the album with the film. As it's a very famous Hong Kong movie, everybody could tell the Chinese we used (below) was a reference to it."
"We consider typography as one of the most important things in our design, especially when it functions," Lee concludes.
While K-pop CDs may now be in picture book format, Lee says this may not be the standard K-pop album format forever.
"In the future CD jewel cases may be popular again with fans, or vinyl," she says, referring to the popular LP version of G-Dragon's Coup D'Etat.
"It could also be a digital format or something we haven't even imagined yet. People in this field are always looking for new things that no one has tried yet," Lee concludes.