Are K-pop photocards the new NBA cards?

K-pop fans are trading and selling photocards of their K-pop idols on Twitter, Shopee, Carousell and other buying sites. It’s a whole economy in itself.

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24-year-old Kat T. collects cards as a hobby. Over video call, she explains the significance of “toploaders” and “sleeving” while showing off a shelf filled with three-ring binders. “They're kind of everywhere. I don't have space anymore,” she says, motioning to the different merchandise strewn around her room.

The lingo Kat uses isn’t foreign to avid card collectors and hobbyists — these bits of knowledge are necessary to keep precious acquisitions, whether it be a 1985 Prism Jewel Sticker Michael Jordan card or 1999 Pokemon 1st Edition Venusaur, in mint condition.

But the images that peek out of the (acid-free) sleeves don’t display a NBA rookie mid-dunk or a rare Pokemon in fighting stance. Printed on these cards are selfies of beautiful men, doing a variety of poses for the camera. Behold: the K-pop photocard.

With resale values from anywhere between ₱300 to ₱70,000 (and higher), these cards featuring images of K-pop idols have become mainstays in contemporary K-pop merchandise packages. And even though photocards are free inclusions, the market for buying, selling, and trading has grown exponentially in a similar trajectory to NBA cards since the start of the pandemic.

In 2010's, some K-pop companies offered ‘Star Cards’, or trading cards that came in foil packs similar to NBA booster packs. Photo by JL JAVIER

Of rookie bets and K-pop biases

For UP Diliman Associate Professor Erik Paolo Capistrano, the two niche collector markets have a lot in common because they are personality-based. “If you think about it, NBA trading cards contain photos of players on court or posing in a studio — similar to K-pop idol photos performing on stage, preparing for a music video or album jacket shoot,” he says.

Value-wise, NBA cards are priced based on a number of factors, including the card company that produced it, the finish of the card, the player's stats, the popularity of their team, and rarity. Similarly, K-pop photocard (also called PCs or pocas in fan circles and buy and sell Twitter) values depend on the different finishes and shapes, popularity of the group and each individual member, the number of versions of the album, and the number of cards printed (among others).

As a long-time Girls Generation fan and former NBA card collector, Capistrano even recalls a time in the 2010s when some K-pop companies offered ‘Star Cards’, or trading cards that came in foil packs similar to NBA booster packs. While not as common these days, this kind of merch system introduced fans to the more serious aspects of card trading, like the concepts of base cards vs. rare cards and completing a set.

We can trace back the modern day iteration of the photocard to 2010, when SM Entertainment began inserting them into albums (TVXQ’s 2007 Japanese EP "Summer" was the first to have these inclusions, while Girls Generation’s 2010 album "Oh" was the first Korean album to have them). The rationale behind this was simple: insert one random card featuring a unique image of one member of the group in each album copy, and fans will buy multiple copies to get the card of the member they want.

Appearance-wise, official K-pop photocards are special to fans because they have images of the idols that aren’t officially released anywhere else. The typical glossy album card depicts the K-pop idol/s posing as if taking a phone selfie (‘selca’, in Korean terms), which many fans find more candid and intimate than the professionally shot photos included in the album photobooks. But there are some idols who are known for their quirky poses, like in the case of EXO D.O.’s highly coveted ‘noo’ [forehead] PC, or his fellow member Chanyeol’s honey mask PC. Sometimes, coveted cards don’t even have the idol’s face (see: Stray Kids "In Life" set where their backs are turned on the back side of the card, and Red Velvet Irene’s shadow PC).

Philippine K-pop Convention co-founder Kring Kim remembers how it was unheard of to buy merch in 2005, during the first Hallyu boom in the Philippines. She takes a minute trying to remember when her peers started collecting official merch, “I think it was only in 2010-2012 that it became easier for Filipinos to buy albums locally because it was made available through different stores and online selling.”

But even then, trading activities were small-scale and limited to trading on the carpeted floors of convention halls and behind the closed doors of fan gatherings. “There were very few commercial transactions made between fans — they mostly just traded with one another, or bought online through merchants or through eBay,” says Capistrano.

In the earlier days, the average fan saw photocards as fun surprises that would make unboxing their experience more exciting. For a time, it was more common to see them use these cards as an accessory and a source of pride — if they didn’t put them back in the album packaging, they were showing them off in clear phone cases or leaving them inside their wallets.

Fans would put their prized photocards inside clear phone cases or leave them in their wallets. Screenshot from TWITTER

Becoming “papel slaves”

Being a K-pop fan can be expensive because of the sheer amount of paid content and merch available. But combine collecting culture with the passion of K-pop fans to support their favorite idols and you get a formula that’s unlike anything else.

As Kim and Capistrano note, merch is one of the more tangible and direct ways for fans to support their favorite K-pop stars. It’s a very real reason for Kat, who started her collection out of a desire to support her idols by helping them rank in music charts and awards shows (as physical sales were also counted in the criteria for ranking), helping them be more successful. “But now it became my stress relief in a way,” she adds of a hobby she now likens to therapy.

In 2020, K-pop physical album sales reached new heights (BTS’ "Map of the Soul: 7" ended the year with a record-breaking 4,376,975 units sold) amidst a slowdown in the global music industry, and the figures only continue to grow as K-pop companies continue to improve merch quality. While 2020 saw an influx of new members in NBA buy and sell groups, so too did K-pop BNS (buy and sell) Twitter and K-pop group-specific Facebook marketplaces.

Kat is part of the rapidly growing community of ‘papel slaves’ — photocard collectors and traders who take PC collecting a notch more seriously than other fans. In the past year, they’ve emerged as a larger sub-segment of the ‘merch collector’ type of K-pop fan.

As a Hallyu fan since 2010, Kat’s amassed over 3,000 official album photocards, regular photocards, postcards, and other cardstock-based merch inclusions of groups like Seventeen, NCT, Twice, and ITZY. Since taking the hobby seriously in 2018, she’s divided her collection into three main categories: There’s one dedicated to her ultimate bias (Seventeen’s Woozi), one solely for her ultimate group (Seventeen), and one for her biases from other groups.

A card collecting template for Seventeen member Woozi. These templates are made by fans so they can keep track of which cards they still have to collect or trade. Photo courtesy of respondent

With improvements in e-commerce, door to door courier delivery services and the popularity of unboxing videos and online sellers offering group orders to save up on shipping fees, these days it’s much easier for fans to communicate with other collectors, solidifying PC collecting as a more mainstream hobby in the K-pop fan sphere.

It’s this boom that Gab, a popular TikTok creator, witnessed firsthand last year. Gab began posting TikToks under the username @chickensutock after only a few months of becoming a stan of BTS. Her first viral one — a short clip of her unboxing and handwashing an unofficial BTS rap line t-shirt set to the song “UGH!” — gained 10,000 views in an hour. “At that time I didn't know that was even possible for someone who had like 10 followers,” she recalls. “I just used Tiktok to edit the video so I could post it on my [Instagram] stories. When I checked my phone again, my notifications were blowing up with people asking where I got the shirt that was gifted to me.”

Since then, she’s posted over 400 videos of her fan journey, a mix of spazzing over her favorite idols and recent merch and photocard acquisitions. She also designs her own binder dividers, which she uses as a fun way to separate her themed pages.

Kat compares the satisfaction of ‘pulling’ the member you want or completing a set to a shot of serotonin. “I guess it’s like [when] you're playing a game and you achieve a goal or finish a quest. Like ‘+1 achievement’ because it feels like you’re leveling up!”

When I ask her to show me her most prized cards, she panics for a bit (“Sorry, my mind is going into overdrive! I could show you, like, 50”) before resurfacing with two top-of-mind picks — “Ode to You” in Japan Limited DVD cards of Seventen members Woozi (her ultimate bias) and Mingyu in goofy headpieces. Both cost between ¥3,000 to ¥3,700 (around ₱1,300 to ₱1600), and were separately acquired on the Japanese e-commerce marketplace Mercari. She laughs as she tells me why she picked the two, “I totally just went ‘what’s the cutest card?’ but I can think of better ones if you give me time to flip through my binder.”

Like Kat and Gab, 26-year-old basketball fan Gio has shelves stacked with card binders. The Laker fan points out that veteran NBA card collectors usually start out with similar motivations as present-day K-pop stans. “It was competitive back then, yes, but you can tell that people were collecting because they liked a player or grew up idolizing them,” he observes.

Gio’s most prized card? A 2005 autographed card of his favorite player, the late Kobe Bryant, which he bought at ₱15,000. He brings up a sentimental reason to justify the purchase—- “It was one of his autos [autographed card] from another card company and it was more or less made during the time when my fandom was solidified, around the time of peak Kobe.”

An autographed Kobe Bryant card from Gio's collection. Photo courtesy of respondent.

Building the photocard economy

In the Philippines, the K-pop buy and sell (BNS) community is strongest on Twitter, but transactions also take place on Carousell, Instagram, Shopee, and Facebook. The more serious buyers and local resellers purchase directly from individual sellers on eBay, Bunjang (for Korea), and Mercari (for Japan).

Completing a photocard “wishlist” means you need to know the lingo for search terms and tags. The more common local ones include WTB/WTS/WTT (willing to buy/sell/trade) and LFS/LFB (looking for seller/buyer). They’ve also adapted a number of Filipino terms, like “lapag” to describe a rollout of new listings, or “tingi” for listings of separate items that usually come as a set.

Individuals make up a large chunk of the photocard BNS market, but now even group order managers (GOMs), or small online shops that would open “group orders” for new K-pop releases who were already abundant prior to the pandemic photocard boom, have gotten in on the trend.

22-year-old BTS fan and long-time collector Reign sells photocards and merch on her Twitter account @ChimduShop. “I thought na bakit hindi na lang ako mag-sell para maka-help ako with my fellow ARMYs [BTS fans] kasi may friend ako who handles a Korean address,” she says. For Reign, selling small items like photocards and generating customer feedback from these sales was a convenient way for her shop to gain credibility.

Originally a Big Bang fan who would get merch shipped from Korea regularly, she got into selling last year after discovering that many would immediately avail of the extra cards she would post for sale on Twitter.

Reign observes that nowadays, photocards are often considered more valuable than the albums themselves. Search for a K-pop album on Shopee, and you’ll find unsealed albums (albums usually without photocards or other inclusions or both) listed for a quarter of the original price, simply because the sellers only bought extra copies with the hope of pulling their biases.

Fans would get multiple copies of albums and resell their extra copies ("unsealed albums") without the photocards and other inclusions at a lower value. Screenshot from SHOPEE

When asked why this is so, she points to the influx of collectors. “You can see if may mag po-post na PH seller or collector, super dami nagaagawan to “mine” (dibs) the item so nagkakaubusan. That's why naghihikayat sila na magtaas ng price.”

This sudden price hike is similar to what Gio’s observed in NBA BNS spaces (usually on Facebook), except that newbies who enter do so with the intention of investing rather than collecting for a hobby.

For both fan communities, veteran collectors tend to be wary of newer, inexperienced members, who tend to “drive the price up and make the margins smaller.” Reign points to the practice of overpricing/valuing certain cards as one thing she hates. “Pag in-production pa yung item/album, it shouldn't be [up for] bidding or ‘quote your own price’ because that will encourage others to raise their prices,” she says. To avoid this, she advises that people do their research before getting into the hobby.

In K-pop BNS, card valuation depends mostly on the international market, but experience is really important to make sure you’re not getting scammed. Reign notes that prices for BTS merch have gone significantly higher since their Grammy nomination was announced. The group’s album photocards that used to cost 300 now start at ₱500.

In February, a ₱70,000 tweet listing of a Special Yearbook card featuring Jaehyun from the group NCT made rounds on Twitter for its outrageous pricing.

An expensive NCT photocard sparked a debate on stan circles on Twitter due to its price. Screenshot from TWITTER

Seasoned collectors backed the shop’s pricing, arguing that the card was “super rare” (there were only a rumored 500 cards per member printed), and Jaehyun is part of NCT 2020’s ‘“kilabot” line (a term of endearment fans use to describe some of the more popular members of the 23-person group). This didn’t stop K-pop BNS Twitter from sharing their hot takes, with some criticizing the shop for pricing the card that way and buyers for enabling prices to go that high. Others argued that we should “let people do what they want with their hard-earned money.”

Despite these controversies, Kat’s found joy in the community she’s become a part of along the way. “Aside from the friends I’ve made on BNS Twitter, I've gotten a lot of people into collecting as well. That's my pride and joy,” she says fondly.

Gab likes how collecting provides a sense of connection and camaraderie, citing how as a creative, she’s gotten to expand her usual pool of friends through PC collecting — her mutuals now include med students, bankers, SEO and tech specialists, teachers, engineers and more. “It's a colorfully diverse world and it never fails to make my heart soft whenever we'd bond over this shared hobby of collecting photocards,” she says. “To think, maybe our paths wouldn't have crossed at all if it weren't for BTS' music uniting us.”

The future of the PC market

The practice of collecting NBA cards is way more established, so it’s understandable for the stakes in the game to be higher. Because K-pop photocard collecting is a relatively new market, it is still firmly on hobby territory rather than an investment or a guarantee for financial security.

There are a couple of cases of collectors and fans turning to K-pop BNS marketplaces to sell their prized collections due to hardships caused by the pandemic, but for the most part many do not see it as a primary source for income. This is the case for Reign, who still sees Chimdu Shop as a side gig to fund her own merch expenses instead of a substitute for her 9 to 5 job as an HR representative.

As with any emerging collector market, rapid growth both here and abroad suggests that fans are already looking at the future value of their collections. Kat points to the popularity of Twitter threads and YouTube videos on how to protect your cards as one indication of this, as well as the current market value of individual cards.

A complete NCT 2020 Special Yearbook card collection. Photo from FACEBOOK

Even non-merch collector stans are aware that the market is lucrative. And though initially meant as jokes, comments like “WTT bahay at lupa namin” for NCT Special Yearbook photocards only go to show how the general public is aware of their value.

Regardless of value, Gab, Reign, and Gio all have the same advice for collectors: as much as possible, try not to stress over collecting or think of it as a competition. For them, the joy that collecting these cards brings in these uncertain times should be enough.

Kat's photocard binders. Photo courtesy of respondent

Gazing at her binders, Kat recalls a recent instance where she sat down to appraise her cards for fun. “I added up how much they could cost if I sold them all. I think I can buy a car if I sold everything now," she says of her acquisitions. “Photocards may also be an investment, but that's if you think of them as monetary value rather than happiness. I personally wouldn’t want to get rid of them all."