The infinite pricelessness of free K-pop fan labor

AKA "What’s the dollar amount of free fan labor?"

Between this newsletter and my TikToks, you may have noticed that I’m doing a lot of predominantly free* labor nowadays while working off-stage on some projects I can’t announce yet, plus a few occasional pieces for outlets that pay**. This isn’t a bad thing, and it’s not even a brand new experience for me, as I got my start in the blogosphere as a college student before I was even remotely conscious that this was a career I would pursue. But it is a moment of introspection that has made me wonder about the larger way we talk about the value and worth of non-for-pay labor in pop culture fan spaces, as that is arguably the most powerful thing propelling careers, especially when it comes to K-pop.

While ruminating on this topic, I asked my audience on Twitter about what fan labor people partake in, and, unsurprisingly, there was a wide array of responses.

Being a fan translator, fansite organizer, or group order manager - ie buying albums and/or merchandise in bulk and distributing them to others -, hosting cupsleeve events for birthdays or other events, running fan accounts and/or blogs, creating art, hosting podcasts, hanging posters to promote concerts or other events, running sub-platforms on major sites like r/kpop or Genius Korea, organizing events for concerts… These were just the responses from a handful of people.

Picture of Hong Kong cafe decked out with NCT Renjun birthday merch
I took this picture at an Hong Kong cafe back in 2021 for a story I was writing for the SCMP. At that moment, it was decked out to celebrate the birthday of NCT and NCT Dream’s Renjun, but almost every day is booked out to celebrate some K-pop act or another.

Other things, like fan-paid-for ad campaigns, social media campaigns or creating fan merchandise, went unmentioned, but also are commonplace.

Though it can be broadly defined, I think fan labor is at its simplest any and everything fans partake in beyond the constraints of quote-unquote typical engagement with artists and content. Take from that what you will, interpret it however you’d like.

To a few people who responded to me, participating actively in fan labor was, or overtime became, too much.

“I left that life behind me. It was like coming home from a full-time job to do another full-time job,” wrote one individual, a feeling others echoed, talking about how they either paired down their own efforts, or else they were stressed seeing the efforts of others doing fan labor.

For like half a second, I really wanted to reach out to some data analysts for this newsletter and try to put down a price on how many millions are “spent” a year annually, either literally in currency or in energy and effort, by fans. That seems impossible to calculate just because of the immense scale of things. We are literally talking about priceless amounts of unpaid work that fans have normalized and are undertaking, all as outpourings of their passion.

But I can’t help but think, as someone who works in a historically underpaid industry, that it’s a gross injustice. When I decided to write K-pop news stories for a blog when I was in college, it was something I more or less enjoyed*** but it was someone taking advantage of happily partaken fan labor.  (I am contemplating writing a piece about journalism’s relationship with K-pop, but that’s for another day…) When K-pop fans organize guerilla marketing campaigns, it’s happily partaken fan labor that benefits commercial entities and stars. When group order managers (aka GOMs) buy albums in bulk and ship them to others, they’re facilitating purchases that, yes, bring happiness, but also bring a lot of money to entertainment companies and distributors.

Obviously, fans are doing this as a labor of love. But it’s still labor, and I just think about how much these unpaid practices have added value to the industry as an outpouring of fan love and affection for this entity that is K-pop, which gives so much value to each and every fan who engages with it. There is just so much value here going unregistered and rather unacknowledged, at least publicly, from an industry perspective at large, beyond artists expressing gratitude to their fans and companies, both K-pop and other related ones, trying to sort out how to monetize these sort of things.

conversation from her private life: "What should you do when reality is messed-up?" "Fangirling." "Right, fangirling."
Her Private Life is a 2019 Kdrama that is pretty on the nose at times about how much time, energy, and money fans can, and often will, put into their activities.

The scale of it all is just something that I’ve been thinking about a lately, especially after 2022’s constant refrain that people just don’t want to work anymore and are resigning en masse (from being overworked at underpaid jobs, the horror!!!!!). But the truth is that humans need to be busy, and people will work for things, whether it’s a salary and/or for love K-pop fan labor is the former, but its worth is truly unfathomable, and just something I’m thinking about a lot lately.

I’m not of the mindset that everything needs to be monetized, or that being in productivity mode 100% of the time is healthy. I don’t want anyone to walk away from this thinking that I want people to be paid for their fan labor, whatever it is. But I feel like it’s important at the very least for professionals to recognize it and acknowledge it constantly, which is why I’m spending some time on this newsletter, briefly. Music industries across the world are propelled by audiences, and K-pop fan labor is one of the most important, often times unrecognized, facets of that propeller.

If you have any thoughts about this or any of my newsletters, please feel free to leave a comment, or check out the chat I host on the Substack app!

*Thank you to the people who have pledged! My aim is to always make the main posts free, but I have paid tiers for forthcoming content, including edits/rewrites of older pieces of mine, as well as getting to choose a topic you’d like to read a post from me about.

**Pay your writers! More than you want to, or HR wants you to budget for. They deserve it!

***There was drama and abuse. I’ll talk about it another time. Don’t take advantage of free labor if you run a free website.

What I’ve been working on

For Variety, I spoke with j-hope of BTS about his new song on the street with J. Cole. This interview really was full of insight from the star about his musicality and career thus far, and what the future will bring now that he announced he’ll be enlisting soon and thus taking a break from the spotlight. I’m really happy with it, to be honest, which isn’t something I always think about interviews.

For Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, I spoke with NewJeans and some industry folks about their rise, trying to capture how they’re doing what they’re doing to become rising pop icons. This wasn’t a full-length feature like the j-hope one, but more of a reported trend piece, so I feel like people didn’t really see it but if you’re a fan of NewJeans, I hope you enjoy!

I’ve also continued to post on Tiktok (@tamartoks) about the SM-Kakao-Hybe situation, which seems to have a way forward so I’m starting to brainstorm some other TikTok content.

Listening to

It’s been a while since I shared a rec, so I hope you all check out Purple Kiss’s Sweet Juice. Since I’ve started hanging out on Tiktok, my feed was determined to get me addicted, and it worked! Purple Kiss are from the same company as Mamamoo and, like that quartet, are carving out a distinct musical place for themselves with a great discography, and a rather macabre overall concept that I kind of love.

If you’re looking for some music podcasts, I really enjoy Pop Pantheon, which I was featured on last year to discuss BTS. There was a the recent discussion about poptimism that made me contemplate what “kpotimism” may be doing to the narrative, and if, at all, it’s different than the criticisms of poptimism laid out in the episode. Maybe another newsletter idea…?

Reading now

Shawn Reynaldo’s" “The Blame Game, and Why Journalists Always Seem to Lose It” arrived in my inbox just as I was feeling pretty crummy about audience engagement, and it provided some catharsis.

Less pessimistic… I’ll often see articles from college newspapers about K-pop and related topics appear in my Google Alerts, and I always like to click through to see the perspective of burgeoning writers. In a recent edition of Tuft student Odessa Gaines’ K-Weekly column, titled “There’s no shame in liking K-Pop,” I was struck by the writer’s experiencing disdain from peers in middle school back in 2015, not because it’s so terrible (which it is) but because it’s the same thing that so many of us have experienced during our own school years. (Mind you, I graduated college in 2014!) You think as you get older that things are different for other generations, but sadly some experiences are timeless. It’s rather inspiring to see that Gaines can now declare that there’s no shame in liking K-pop in a university press, so I wanted to share.

Food for thought

Speaking of fan behavior going above and beyond… In the past few weeks, several K-pop stars have expressed how unhappy they are with overzealous fans who have overstepped so exponentially as to break into homes and follow them around. This has historically been par for the course, but I recently read Rin Usami’s Idol, Burning, which starts off with the narrator’s favorite J-pop idol allegedly punching a fan, and the two situations - one factual, one fictional - stuck with me just for how rare it is for idols to ever actually engage with fan behavior beyond the positive, even though they are constantly facing bad behavior that the industry has allowed for decades.

K-pop stars are constantly crowded at airports, their personal boundaries are overstepped, they can’t even do livestreams without having to ask people to stop calling them. I’ve argued before that enough is enough and that K-pop companies actually need to do something to protect stars, but it’s been going on for ages this way. I doubt anything is actually going to change soon, so I think it’s sad but important for artists to remind fans that there is such a thing as being too overzealous, and that stalking of any sorts is indeed a bad thing. Turn that energy to harmless, helpful fan labor, everyone!