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Friday, 31 January 2014

An unscientific look at K-Pop through album covers

While this Singapore nerd only started listening to Korean pop music (K-Pop) in the last five years, it is also the period where there's a huge explosion in the music scene with new acts mushrooming every other day and each one trying to drown out (pun intended) the competition.

Hence I thought it would be a fun exercise to look at the different styles used on the covers for albums, mini-albums, repackaged albums and singles through the years. I know there are rabid K-Pop fans out there who will tear me to pieces for writing anything remotely negative about their idols. Therefore my unbiased analysis revolves strictly on the merits of the covers and not on the popularity of the songs/singers/music labels.

Fans may argue that album/single cover art matters little since they will lap up whatever their idols release, regardless of how the cover looks. But one should also note that the cover visuals represent the act's branding and how their music labels are marketing them to cement their image.
It is ironic that in the digital era where legal/illegal downloads far surpass physical CD album sales, album covers play an even more critical role than before. You may chuck your CD cases aside after you pop the CD into your hi-fi, but for listeners on computers or mobile devices, the album cover will always be there on your playlist.

I don't claim to be an expert in K-Pop and I don't expect everyone to agree with my analysis. I'm just someone who enjoys listening and following the Korean music scene.  Read my full analysis below.

Big groups - Standing in line

Groups with enough members to make up a basketball or volleyball team have the numeric strength for music labels to play up but the labels also face the danger of bruising the egos of any members should anyone feel they are not prominent enough on the cover. As a result - pretty boring covers without much room to manoeuvre for the record labels. Pretty for the fans, but boring for the casual observers.

Girls' Generation

Super Junior

Nine Muses

Groups with more people than that? Then don't bother

What if your group is a whopping soccer team like the up-and-coming 12-member boyband EXO where it is near impossible to squeeze even just the head-shots? You go without featuring anyone and create an enigma instead, inviting people to learn more about the group.  (But they also went wrong for one cover. See below)


Those who have made it - No visuals required

For those acts who have been around and achieved  a certain status and following, they would rather let their music do the talking. Because by now, the world will know who they are, even without seeing their lovely mugs.

Big Bang

Brown Eyed Girls

 Mugshots - For pretty faces only

More for solo singers who have armies of adoring fans partly due to their gorgeous looks, the normal half-body shot would not do for them as the fans would want something more up close and personal - the macro mugshot look that fills almost the entire album cover.
Lee Seung Gi




Mugshots - it gets crowded easily

Due to size limitation, I'll reckon that the maximum faces one can put on a CD cover is four for best visual impact. Anything above that will only make the cover art tacky and meaningless in showing the band members. Squeezing 12 mugshots regardless of how pretty/handsome they are, is just plain ugly.

Miss A

Super Junior-M
Girls' Generation

Colour schemes - 'Cute' to 'Dark'

Both male and female acts would most often started out in the 'cute' phase and gradually turn to the 'dark side' as they mature. Once you turn to the 'dark side' there is no turning back since the arrow is one-directional. Meaning, it is almost unheard of for a 'dark' act to do a 'cute' album. The fans simply wouldn't allow that to happen!

Colour schemes - Cute and smiling

 'Cute' acts or acts doing a 'cute' concept album would do well to stick to light, pastel colours and they have to put on their best sunshine smiles. 'Cute' male acts can use all whites and pastels, but would never touch pink. Fuchsia perhaps, but never pink.




Hello Venus



Colour schemes - entire colour spectrum

There are graphic designers who will run riot with the colour palette and put the entire spectrum on the cover for a full rainbow assault. For a group called Rainbow, no prize for guessing the number of colours they used. Attention-grabbing and cheesy is a fine line to walk.


Big Bang & 2NE1

Wonder Girls




Using pop images and manga visuals will immediately convey a sense of playfulness and naughtiness. In almost all cases, only those acts doing 'cute' concept albums can pull this off successfully. However if a 'dark' act wants to dabble in this, then it would have to be in darker tones and feature macho images like a skull.
Girls' Generation



Big Bang

Colour schemes - Dark and unsmiling 

Conversely, those acts doing a 'dark' concept album would send the right message making the cover as gloomy as possible, giving the cool heaven-may-care look for the camera. You wouldn't go wrong with black-and-white as the default mood to use.



After School


Sex sells

Who are we kidding? Of course sex sells with the girls showing their endless long legs to hook those nerds like me, while the boybands will show their biceps and abs to swoon the teenage girls.

After School


Girls' Generation




Sex sells - special mention - Gain

Gain (from Brown Eyed Girls) is fast becoming the sex siren of K-Pop with her come-hither image and expletive-named album. I'm giving her credit for having the guts to push the envelope.




In conclusion

From the numerous styles of cover art as seen above, I hope I am able to illustrate the equally wide ranging music genres K-Pop has to offer. In many cases, a well-established act would dabble in different music genres throughout their careers and boast the appropriate album covers to match. As you can see, I focused my piece solely on album covers and did not take into account the marketing concept of each album which may invariably feature a unique box set that includes a making-of DVD, coffee-table book, postcards, little trinkets and toys. And not forgetting the 'multiple covers' bait featuring individual members in the group, aiming right at their hardcore fans with deep pockets.

Having said that, I focused my research mainly on the mainstream commercial scene dominated by the few big music labels like SM, YG, Cube, LOEN and JYP, and didn't take into account the Korean indie music acts that don't feel it necessary to 'play the game' and are contended just churning out good music for their niche fan base.

One particular example is indie acoustic jazz band Urban Zakapa who adopted a no-fuss approach in naming their albums, similar to what American rock band Chicago has done.

Thank you for your time. Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed researching and writing this. Next time when you see a new K-Pop album cover, just think of the number of  hours the art department has spent to get the concept from the drawing board to market, and the number of bosses they have to go through to get the final OK. If it is well-received by fans, the music labels can heave a sigh of relief. If it is slammed, they better hope it becomes so bad that it is good and turns into a cult favourite.

If you are interested to read about my musings on Korean Wave and K-Pop, please read my other post here: http://winstonchongsingapore.blogspot.sg/2014/01/musings-on-korean-wave-k-pop.html

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