Would you buy a single by an artist you knew nothing about and hadn’t heard a note of music from? That some people would is a gamble JYP Entertainment took last month when the company released a “blind package” for its new girl group, who won’t make their debut until February 2022.
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The concept of the release was ambitious – provide fans with no information about the group behind it, give everyone just 10 days to pre-order it and tease its release with trailers making heavy use of words like “limited” and “extraordinary” to get the world’s love of unique collectables ticking. The release won’t go into production again when the group debut, so a small window of time in July was your only chance to get hold of the CD (at a reasonable price, at least), which will also come with a photo book, photo card, poster, premium membership card and more.
More than 60,000 snapped up a copy – in comparison to the 77,000 units sold by ITZY, the last K-pop girl group to debut under the agency, in the first week for their first physical release ‘It’z Icy’. Sure, the sales numbers between the two might be similar, but ITZY had also made their debut with the smash hit ‘Dalla Dalla’ in the months prior and – presumably – built up a large fan base.
JYP’s strategy here might have been risky, but it had one thing it could rely on – modern society’s intrinsic FOMO. If you didn’t get a copy last month then you’re out of luck. But what if this single becomes a K-pop classic? What if the new girl group become your ult faves? How will it make us feel not being part of an exclusive, elite club that did put their faith in this release?
The success of the “blind package” reflects some sections of the K-pop fandom’s attitude to albums. With their array of photo cards and extra goodies, they become less like vessels to listen to the music (how many people actually own a CD player in 2021?) and more of a collectable to add to shelves of memorabilia. Who can blame them? K-pop releases are often so beautifully designed, they feel like an investment in a physical product that you can pore over compared to the western industry’s standard jewel case packages. Although K-pop is the antithesis of the stereotype of an old, white, male record collector – bright! flashy! fun! – its fans could be the modern version of those musos who hunt out every iteration of a record to add to their collection.
Shifting so many copies of a single that you know precious little about is truly something that could only be achieved in K-pop. Imagine Polydor, for example, trying to get people in the UK to take a chance on a physical release by an artist that had yet to be unveiled with music that had yet to be heard? It would tank completely, regardless of whether the musician behind the project went on to be the next Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran. Even with big fanbases, world-renowned reputations and a deep knowledge of what an artist’s music sounds like, acts struggle to sell as many as 60,000 physical copies – Foo Fighters, one of the biggest bands in the world, only moved 31,450 CD and vinyl units of their latest album ‘Medicine At Midnight’ in its first week of release in the UK.
Taking a chance on JYP’s “blind package” also says a lot about the high esteem in which fans hold the label’s legacy. No matter what you think of how the company treats its artists or founder and namesake Mr Park Jin-young himself, this agency brought us iconic acts like Wonder Girls and Miss A, and more recent titans of K-pop TWICE and ITZY. Given that reputation, it’s no wonder so many people snapped up the mysterious new release – imagine how valuable a super limited one-off single would become if the new girl group achieved anything near the same as their sunbaes (seniors in Korean).
Unless the music is absolutely terrible, it’s almost a given that next year’s rookies will be successful, thanks to something fans like to call “big three privilege”. Even if the songs do suck, their status as JYP signees could still push them forward thanks to the label’s perceived power and prestige within the industry. That will win them valuable promotion, slots on music shows and space in the attention spans of curious listeners.
Despite the success of the “blind package”, it seems unlikely that this will become a common trend. Smaller agencies don’t have the same privilege and pull to make such a release a secure strategy and would bring in unnecessary risk that could do more damage than good. Other big labels might try their hand at it once or twice, but the novelty of not knowing what you’re getting will soon wear off and, depending on how JYP’s new girl group go down, there could be a backlash to the idea if fans aren’t satisfied with the end results. And if this did become the norm, that reliable old FOMO would no longer be a guaranteed money-spinner.