But instead of recognition in one of the big four categories, the septet (composed of RM, Suga, Jin, J-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook) got a nod for one that doesn’t usually get much attention: best recording package (other nominees include Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, St. Vincent’s MassEducation, The Chairman’s The Offering, and Foxhole’s Well Kept Thing). But the significance of this honor shouldn’t be dismissed. It acknowledges BTS’ meticulously designed Love Yourself: Tear album as an extension of their artistry and illuminates a vital but seldom talked-about tradition in the Korean music industry: album art.
The Grammys' website describes the nominees for best recording package as those honored for the “album cover, graphic arts, and photography” of their work. Most who are familiar with Love Yourself: Tear might not know what it looks like, even though it earned the No.1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart (unprecedented for a South Korean group) in May of 2018.
While album art is a medium that’s largely lost and deemed archaic in the U.S., in Korea (as well as Japan, among others) it’s alive and thriving — and has kept CD sales a critical market force.
Love Yourself: Tear is the second installment in BTS’ Love Yourself trilogy, a three-part series that chronicles a journey towards self-love and acceptance. Tear is the second and the darkest chapter. The album package, made by Seoul-based design firm HuskyFox (Co-Founder and Creative Director Lee Doohee will receive the Grammy if they win), echoes the LP's somber and contemplative mood. “An album design must organically unite various elements such as the artist’s image and worldview,” Lee said in an interview with Yonhap News. “As BTS’ albums contain a robust storyline, it especially is not an easy task.”
The color palette is muted black and greys, decorated with a delicately drawn holographic line that connects if all four versions of the album are placed side-by-side. They also connect to the two other records in the series.
That’s right, there are four versions of Tear: “Y”, “O”, “U”, and “R.,” but doesn’t mean four different jewel case inserts. Every album version has its own palette and theme, with different books of photos (“O” shows the band members sprawled out in black and white; “R” features them in simple denim outfits), liner notes that reveal clues about releases to come, figurines, and posters. And as a bonus, a picture of one of the seven members is placed at random in each album, adding a surprise element to each unboxing.
“When singers [in the U.S.] drop an album, the core content is the songs that are contained in the album,” Dr. Hye Jin Lee, a clinical assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism whose research concerns cultural meanings of pop culture, tells Refinery29. “But in K-pop, which is so visually-oriented, it's about the concept. It's about the total package, including the visuals. So, for the album, it's not just about the music — it's about conveying the ideas and interpretation of the songs and the intention of the artists as well.”
The relationship between BTS and ARMY (their fans) helped propel the group to collect accolades worldwide, including the Social Artist Award at the Billboard Music Awards for the last two years, Favorite Social Artist at the AMAs, and Best Boy Band at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in 2018. These, of course, on top of the many they've received for their music at home in Korea. Their albums are carefully crafted thank-yous. “You’re giving the fans a way to specifically support their artists," Jenna Gibson, a doctorate student studying Political Science at the University of Chicago and a Korea columnist at The Diplomat, tells Refinery29. “It’s a physical reminder of your existence in the fandom and your support.”
The beautifully packaged albums are also a big business. Offering different versions of the album makes each a collector’s item. Tear has four versions (each cost about $28 on Amazon), but K-pop group NCT’s latest repackaged album Regulate offers ten different versions of the album with different members on the cover. The random photo cards placed inside add an extra incentive to buy more. Cube Entertainment’s Art Director explained that the idea to include an ID-type photo in their band Pentagon's album was based “on the idea of friends or lovers exchanging and keeping intimate photos in their wallets.”
To put this all in perspective, CD sales were down nearly 20% in the U.S. last year. Tear, released in May, was one of the U.S.’s best-selling physical albums in the first half of 2018. In Korea, the market is up year over year, and of 20 million albums sold in 2018, Tear accounted for about 2 million, or 10%.
In Korea and Japan, albums are frequently used as a lottery ticket to get into a "fansign" — a meet and greet. For some, this might sound similar to Taylor Swift’s Reputation Tour, which rewarded fans who bought her album, streamed her music videos and interacted with her online offerings with early access to concert tickets. But comparing these marketing strategies underestimates the reciprocated loyalty that is the beating heart of K-pop fandom.
“The relationship between [fans and] Korean celebrities is very different than that of celebrities in the States,” says Dr. Lee. “Fans have a more nurturing and familial stance towards their idols. They feel like they need to do more than buy [albums] to support them. They don't mind doing extra work or free labor for their artists. That's why they buy 20-30 albums and they don't mind giving them out for free if it would help promote the artists that they love.”
That kind of fan connection isn't exactly unique to Korea; American football fans and European soccer fans go to similar lengths (buying merchandise, tickets, cable subscriptions) to support their favorite teams. But Gibson does offer that Korea’s small size has a lot to do with this tight-knit bond.
“Korea is so small and [K-pop events] take place in or around Seoul, so being a part of a fandom is literally closer to being in a community than it is in international fandoms," Gibson says. "Having the light sticks, having tickets to concerts — those things are very physical reminders of your place within this community, and a way to weed out people who aren’t doing their share to support.”
Since the fans are ready to spend, the artists need to make something worth collecting. In the case of Tear, this means a trove of artwork and hidden meanings for ARMY to suss out within the pages of the liner notes. Girl group F(x)’s 2013 album Pink Tape was packaged to look like a pink VHS tape, and SHINee’s 1 of 1 followed suit as a cassette tape in 2016. Rapper and Big Bang leader G-Dragon adorned his 2009 solo album Heartbreaker with a striking mold of his head. With so many Korean groups emerging every year (over 20 in 2018 alone), it’s important to stand out any way you can. Just ask Grammy-nominated BTS.