Collecting merchandise is part of the fan experience when it comes to following a musical artist. As fans, we buy the artist’s CDs, we attend their concerts, and we spend our hard-earned money to support them. It is, of course, no different with Girls’ Generation. SONEs around the world constantly do their part to support the girls, and it certainly shows when their CD pre-orders dominate the charts and their concerts sell out within minutes. But as the popularity of Girls’ Generation grows around the world, so too does the cost of accumulating the merchandise (both official and unofficial) that we crave as well as the serious questions that go with this increased cost.
Initially, there was little official content to purchase beyond the CDs themselves. But as time wore on and the girls began to cement their status as one of Korea’s top musical artists, the amount of merchandise available began to multiply to the point it has reached today. The categories of collectible merchandise has grown immensely to include calendars (both large wall-types and small desk-types), coffee mugs, fans, buttons, posters, and photobooks. Posters in particular have become something of an expensive addiction for me. Nowadays, different posters can be found for most of the album concepts, and there are even posters related to advertisements and CFs. At the opposite end of the spectrum on the size scale are Star Cards. Despite the relatively low cost of a single pack, the collectible aspect of the cards makes it nearly impossible for a SONE to be satisfied with buying just one pack. I’ve personally witnessed how the the desire to collect Star Cards can impact a SONE’s wallet, having seen people with large three-inch binders full of cards.
Perhaps the most expensive pieces of merchandise are the different album editions. The standard practice now is that when Girls’ Generation releases a new single or album, they come out with different editions, each with its own unique bonus items. There are those of us who have reached the point where we simply buy all the editions except the standard one because we want the different extras that are included. Despite how much we love collecting them, the most frustrating bonus item is the random photocard, as we end up spending extra money on a limited edition without even knowing which card is inside. When you consider that some of the most dedicated collectors actually buy multiple copies of those limited editions in the hopes that they’ll get a photocard of each girl, the monetary cost is staggering.
Ultimately, though, all of this merchandise can be viewed with a simple perspective: we are officially supporting the girls. But now, more and more fanmade content is becoming available for purchase. This fanmade merchandise varies in nearly the same fashion as the official merchandise, with items like desk calendars, wall scrolls, DVDs, clothing, and photobooks being sold. This is where the line truly begins to become blurry and the ethical questions start to arise. From a purely superficial standpoint, the fanmade content very rarely matches the level of quality of the official merchandise. The images usually are not as crisp, and the physical build quality is often not at the same level. I’ve bought a number of unofficial items myself, and while I like them, I can see the difference. Only a select few photobooks and DVDs have reached a level of polish that rivals official merchandise.
Certain serious ethical questions start to raised when we talk about those few unique unofficial items that have an extremely high level of quality. As fans, we crave the super high-quality photos and fancams that are taken by these unofficial sources and fansites. While we can freely download the digital images and view the fancams on YouTube, once these images are put into print form (or the videos put onto DVDs) and sold for money, a line is crossed and it goes from free fan service to profit-seeking business. Rather than a stark black-and-white right or wrong perspective, this kind of action falls into a gray area. It’s a double-edged sword that we as fans have to deal with. Do we see this as simply more beautiful items to own that show how much we love the girls, or do we view this as pure greed on the part of the sellers?
I’m a business owner myself, so I’m always looking for ways to improve my business and make more money. It’s not a matter of greed, but rather a measure of success. If my business is making more money, it means that we’re successful. I try to run my business in an honest manner, because that’s simply the way I do things, and I believe in doing things the right way. I’m not going to point to these fansites selling unofficial merchandise and say that they are running a dishonest business. If I see a way to make more profit for my business and people are happy with the product I’m selling, I don’t see a problem at all.
But the question has to be raised: are we as fans being taken advantage of? As a fan, it’s difficult to avoid that initial feeling of “I have to have this” anytime a new product is announced. We want to collect everything we possibly can, but the simple truth is that many SONEs around the world are students who do not have large amounts of spending money. As a result, many such students end up putting forth a directed effort to save money to buy both official and unofficial products. Couple that with the SONEs who do have the money to spend, and one can see how fansites and other unofficial sellers looked upon us and saw a potential market for drawing in profits.
Just as important is the question of whether or not Girls’ Generation itself is being taken advantage of. From a business standpoint, there are really only two ways for the girls to make money at this point in time: with their music, and with their image. Until the day they retire as singers, those two are their bread and butter. In a sense, any unofficial or unlicensed merchandise such as a photobook or a DVD is attempting to use their image to make a profit, except none of the money goes to the girls themselves, unlike with official products. As one of Korea’s top musical artists, I’m confident that the members of Girls’ Generation have comfortable financial situations and don’t really need any cut of the profits from unofficial merchandise. But what if the unofficial market becomes large enough that it’s no longer just a fraction of 0.01% (I would venture to guess that it’s very small right now) of the total money made by using their image? If the profits that the unofficial market rakes in even manages to reach 1% of the total profits from all merchandise that utilizes the girls’ images, that’s incredibly significant. This kind of market share isn’t all that difficult to imagine, as reports have recently surfaced of an unofficial seller earning $18,000 USD selling idol merchandise and eBay transactions of Korean entertainment goods exploding by 167% in the past year alone.
The amount of money that is made by the girls, their management, and anyone else involved is sure to continue to skyrocket. But as their popularity grows through Asia and the rest of the world, more and more people will want a slice of the pie. While many who try to cash in on the girls’ success will do so in a friendly and honest manner, it’s important to remember as fans that not every hand that reaches into the cookie jar will be clean. As more products bearing the Girls’ Generation name become available to purchase, one thing is for certain: the collections of items owned by SONEs will continue to grow, and their wallets will continue to shrink.