This month, VICE is doubling down on all things K-pop and Korean music, featuring articles and videos on music, fandom, and celebrity.
Sometime in January, Filipino high school student Natasha Sy, 17, posted a listing to a Philippines-based buy-and-sell (BNS) Facebook group dedicated to one of her favorite K-pop bands. As its name suggests, the NCT Merchandise Group is an online venue for trading, selling, and finding merchandise related to the boy group NCT.
Posted as a favor for her aunt, Sy’s listing was priced at 6.5 million Philippine pesos (roughly $126,805) and came with two photos: one of the front yard of a house, and another with three cards bearing selfies of the NCT sub-unit WayV’s members, Hendery and Yangyang.
The accompanying caption was standard for this sort of BNS group, beginning with the selling tags required of anyone who posts: “WTS LFB PH” or acronyms meaning “want to sell,” “looking for buyer,” and “Philippines.” It also contained all the other details you would normally see in a home listing (fully furnished, four bedrooms, two storeys). But the next line is what caught the attention of many of the group’s over 30,000 members: “Hendery Kickback PCs + Yangyang Resonance Past with free house and lot!”
What stood out was her phrasing—the house and lot were meant to come “free” with the photocards, and not the other way around.
K-pop fan Natasha Sy posted a house and lot as a “freebie” with photocards bearing the images of WayV’s Yangyang and Hendery. Photo: Courtesy of Natasha Sy
The photocards on Natasha Sy's listing. Photo: Courtesy of Natasha Sy
The “PCs” in this caption refers to K-pop photocards, also known as pcs and pocas in K-pop merchandise spaces. While well-designed K-pop albums are considered collectibles in themselves and the reason fans are known to be big spenders when it comes to merchandise, the photocard is one of the most popular K-pop merch items to collect. These special cards typically have unreleased selfies or pictures of K-pop group members printed on them and are inserted into merchandise packages, the most common being music albums and video CDs, or in some cases, given out at fan events or as pre-order benefits.
Photocards are inserted at random into otherwise uniform album packages and other merchandise, so buyers never know what they’re going to get. Their inclusion in albums is seen by many as a strategy employed by K-pop companies to sell more copies, thus helping the artist chart higher. South Korea is one of the only music markets in the world where physical CD sales are on the rise.
Similar to how an NBA card collector buys multiple packs of cards hoping to find the one they want, K-pop fans get a thrill from buying multiple copies of the same album for the chance to “pull” their favorite member’s photo. This, of course, can be a bit much, so they turn to other ways like trading and buying photocards from other fans to complete their collections. This is where online communities, like the NCT Merchandise Group, come in.
Some cards from Natasha Sy’s collection, featuring members of NCT, ENHYPEN, and STAYC. Photo: Courtesy of Natasha Sy
Like many K-pop stans who’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of photocard collecting, Sy began “seriously collecting” photocards in 2021. Though she had been a K-pop stan since 2017, being stuck at home and seeing more of her offline and online friends post about their collections on social media drew her in. When asked when they started collecting, many new collectors would point to the COVID-19 pandemic, when people went looking for stuff to do while stuck at home.
In posting her wares, Sy said she was more into it for the signal boost than actually closing sales. “I figured I’m killing two birds with one stone if I posted my ‘bentables’ (things for sale) as well as [my aunt]’s ‘bentables’ together,” she told VICE.
While the house-and-lot was eventually sold to someone outside the NCT fan group, Sy’s listing illustrates the thriving community of photocard collectors.
At a combined worth of under $10, the market value of Sy’s Hendery and Yangyang photocards was far from the market price of her supposed house-and-lot “freebie.” But the post is a tongue-in-cheek example of how outrageous photocard prices can get on the secondhand market.
Buying a K-pop photocard through a reseller would normally set you back anywhere from $5 to upwards of $1,000 depending on a variety of factors, including condition, location, group, member popularity, and type (based on the kind of package or event it was pulled from).
Since these cards are meant to be free inclusions, prices are usually dictated by the Korean and Japanese online markets such as Bunjang and Mercari, where the card collecting culture originated. But it also partly depends on the demand and member preferences of the fans of a particular country.
While the practice is the strongest in Japan and South Korea, Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are also strong collector bases, and each country has its own BNS culture. Twitter is a popular platform for collectors in Asia, while Instagram is common in the United States and United Kingdom. Fans also transact on e-commerce and secondhand marketplaces like Mercari, Bunjang, Carousell, Shopee, eBay, and Xianyu.
Value-wise, the image on the card also matters a lot—selfie cards are all the rage, but more unique cards, like a photo of Red Velvet member Irene’s shadow from their ReVe Festival: Day 2 mini-album, or LOONA member Hyunjin holding a hash brown from their 12:00 EP are even more coveted.
For fourth generation groups whose albums have multiple photocards, each card may sell for around $4 exclusive of shipping fees, said Taylor, 26, a UK-based accountant with an extensive photocard collection that spans various eras and girl groups. He asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his privacy. Taylor has been a K-pop stan since 2012, when he discovered the group Girls’ Generation, and is the longtime merch collector and trader behind the Instagram account @kpop_cds.
Some of Taylor’s LOONA photocard binders. Photo: Courtesy: Taylor
“For older groups—even if the albums are still in print—I find they can either be quite cheap or expensive. I guess this has to do with the seller… thinking they’ll price it low since it’s older and maybe not many people are looking for it or… [the] seller realizing there aren’t many for sale [and then] putting up the price,” he added.
Overpricing is common in K-pop fandoms today, as some sellers jack up the prices of the biggest stars’ cards. This happens a lot with groups with many members, whose collectors have less chances of pulling the cards they want.
“Everyone says ‘It’s just a piece of printed paper, you shouldn’t spend hundreds of dollars just for one,’ which I agree with to some extent,” said Brad Chong, 20, a fan of multiple groups who runs the YouTube channel 8raddy.
While overpricing is frowned upon, he says it’s really down to demand surpassing supply.
“Unfortunately, just like everything else in the world, people want things, and how rare it is or how high in demand it is would get people to jack up the price, since there are people willing to pay that price.”
A photo of some of multi-stan Brad Chong’s binders and spreads featuring his bias, NCT’s Mark Lee, and BLACKPINK’s Jennie. Photo: Courtesy of Brad Chong
Fans say they’re aware that K-pop companies are cashing in.
Caitlin, a fan who creates photocard templates (collector guides that show all the possible cards one can “pull” from certain albums) under the account @oopsyhyuck, said she’s noticed K-pop companies adding photocards to all merch items they release, including clothing and accessories. She asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her privacy. Some, she added, have started releasing very limited cards that go for higher prices on the secondhand market.
“They only print 10 cards per member,” she said of one group’s recent release. Similarly, she’s noticed that some companies add more photocards with each album.
Photocards from the company SM Entertainment, like these two from Red Velvet’s Rookie and Russian Roulette albums, used to have “Not for sale” written at the back. Photo: Courtesy of Gaby Gloria
Photocards from groups under SM Entertainment used to have “Not for sale” written at the back, but there are cards from 2017 onwards that don’t bear that anymore. In one of the behind-the-scenes videos for her 2021 mini-album Like Water, Red Velvet member Wendy showed fans how the cards are printed and inserted into albums, even bringing her own selfies to be printed and inserted in limited versions of the album. And at a recent face-to-face event in South Korea, the boy group Pentagon traded photocards with their fans.
On the other end of the spectrum, boy group VICTON recently chose to go for a more environmentally conscious route. For a limited time, those who ordered Chronograph would only be mailed the photocard and sent a code for the digital album.
Pocas and fan communities
At its core, photocard collecting as a hobby has always been rooted in community and fan spirit, most felt at on-ground events like concerts and fan meetings. Filipino SEVENTEEN and SHINee fan Cessi Treñas, 26, recalls how the atmosphere at a K-pop venue in South Korea was always so charged with energy because of their merch culture. There, it’s normal to see fans congregating to trade their cards.
Recalling a 2019 SEVENTEEN fan meeting in South Korea, she said she stood outside the venue and saw fans exchanging lucky draw photocards, special cards made of PVC that were given out during the event.
“You lined up at a booth, and you’d get two random photocards. They give it to you face down, so you check your cards after getting out of the line,” she said. “You can hear people yelling, ‘I have this member! Looking for this member!’ It's still something that I look back on fondly.”
A group of fans trading photocards at a K-pop convention in Manila, Philippines in 2019. Photo: Gabriela Serrano
The pandemic forced many collectors to take the trade online, and international fans followed suit. Until recently, the world of collecting, and collector lingo like “stem cuts” (to tell if a card is authentic), “binders,” and “sleeving” (for storing cards) were mostly traded among only the more serious merchandise collectors, but recent developments have pushed the hobby to the mainstream.
Taylor attributes the sudden interest to social media. “Many collectors post photos of their completed card sets on Instagram, or film binder flip-through videos that are uploaded to YouTube.”
Chong, the YouTuber, makes videos documenting how he organizes his collection of SEVENTEEN, NCT, and TWICE photocards.
A quick search of common tags like #WTS and #WTB along with a K-pop group’s name reveals how they generate plenty of new posts every hour. On TikTok, #photocard already has over a billion views, and has spawned a number of offshoots—a scroll-through shows the subcultures that have sprung from the hobby, with collectors decorating toploaders with cute stickers, packaging trades securely and creatively, and unboxing their recent purchases.
Assorted NCT Haechan photocards from Grace’s collection. Photo: Courtesy of Grace
Jae, 19, began collecting photocards bearing the images of her “biases” (favorite members) in NCT and ENHYPEN in 2020. She wished to go only by her first name for privacy. A university student in Indonesia, Jae initially planned on buying one photocard of NCT’s Jaehyun, a popular member whose photocards are often in high demand. Obtaining one card led to another, and soon Jae was caught up in K-pop photocard BNS. She now has over 350 cards in her collection, purchased from sellers around the world.
“Last time I calculated, I spent $11,400 on all my photocard collection,” she told VICE.
Jae documents her precious acquisitions on TikTok, under the account name @preciousjh17. She never buys overpriced cards, she insists, adding she was just lucky she got a lot of her rarer cards below market price. Her most prized card is a Halloween Jaehyun SSM card, which could only be won by playing the mobile beat game SuperStar SMTOWN. She bought it for almost $610. Asked why it’s her favorite and why she thinks it’s worth the price, Jae said: “There are [probably] only 30 in the world… and Jaehyun is so handsome.”
A rare card bearing the photo of NCT member Jaehyun, whose photocards have a reputation to be quite pricey. Photo courtesy: Jae
Jae’s drive to collect is a feeling many others have described. In the photocard community, they call it a “spark,” a gut feeling of wanting a card so much and imagining the joy holding it would bring.
But beyond the quick serotonin boost and the satisfaction from completing a set, most collectors cite the friends they’ve made and a sense of belonging as their motivation for collecting—photocard BNS entails a lot of interaction with other fans.
Caitlin said creating photocard templates for different K-pop groups at the request of her followers has helped her expand her music library.
“I actually fell for SEVENTEEN, The Boyz, and STAYC while making their templates, since I watched a lot of their content to learn about the different members, so I wouldn’t get their photocards mixed up.”
Grace, a university student in the U.S., said photocard collecting became an alternative to participating on K-pop stan Twitter. It also helped her develop a new skill.
“I lived in China during that time and photocard trading actually helped me practice my Chinese.”
Ash, a student from Malaysia, said she remains a collector “for the overall community.” She chose to go by her nickname for privacy purposes.
“I've met a few nice people along the way and it’s fun to talk about our collection,” she said.
“I think being part of such a vast community and the aspect of owning and working on a collection that would never end is what’s really appealing, and to be a part of something so fun and different is what intrigues people,” said Chong, who has witnessed this firsthand as a YouTuber and also while working at KPOP Republic, a store in California.
“I mean, we’re all here for the same reason, which is to support our favorite artists and to fulfill our desire to complete our collection, while escaping reality for a bit with this moment of happiness from getting a new album or pulling a photocard.”