K-pop photo cards have been a hot topic as of late with major media reports drawing the spotlight to the sometimes steep prices fans may pay to build a collection. If you're a seasoned K-pop fan, you already know how this goes, but if you're a newbie to photo cards who discovered the fantastic world of K-pop during the lockdown or you're just a casual follower of news trying to make sense of things, here's our best effort to answer some of your questions.
Here's why K-pop photo cards can get expensive
Before we discuss pricing, let's dial back. Collectibles of any kind tend to make a dent in wallets as quantity comes into play, and photo cards are no exception. We'll talk about where you get them, how they even became a thing, and why the community thrives without the need for outsider approval.
What are photo cards?
It might be difficult to explain to people outside of the K-pop circle, but photo cards, or abbreviated in the community as PC or poca, are essentially photos of K-pop idols printed on paper or cards.
Much like Pokémon cards, basketball cards, and other game cards, people may find a certain rush in collecting K-pop photo cards-the only difference is instead of fictional creatures and sports icons, fans collect pretty pictures of performers they admire or look up to.
Official photo cards are released by the labels or companies handling K-pop groups or members. They're all priced differently, and yes, fans can also simply take pictures of their favorite idols and print them on nice paper with a pretty finish instead of buying. Though not official, they are still photo cards and fans find enjoyment in displaying them, printing them out, and even giving them out to friends who are also into K-pop.
Where do photo cards even come from?
There was a time before photocard collecting became this behemoth of a hobby and community. K-pop boy group TVXQ was the first K-pop group to include photo cards in albums with their 2007 Japanese album Summer, but it was Girls' Generation, or abbreviated in Korean as SNSD, who popularized photo cards in Korean release albums with their 2010 album Oh!. The rest is history. Their fans, SONEs, would purchase an album and each one came with a random photo card of a member. They wouldn't know whose photocard they got until they opened the plastic and unboxed the album.
Fast forward to today and the most common and accessible photo cards are wedged in albums released when a group drops new music. photo cards pulled or drawn, much like a lottery by a buyer (i.e. a fan) depending on the company, the number of members, and the type of inclusions in the albums. This strategy not only gave fans something to look forward to with every release, but it also encouraged them to buy more albums in hopes of getting their favorite member or collecting them all.
For groups that make comebacks often, there will be more to collect over time. For groups with more members, prices can stack for fans collecting everyone. For companies or manufacturers including more than one photocard per album, prices may go lower since you get more with each album. Randomness compels fans to collect and seek out their desired photocard, but sometimes companies provide full sets. While less of a challenge to collect, it's equally fun to have.
Companies can also choose to release photo cards for preorder periods to get fans to buy albums. Official pre-order benefits, lucky draws, and raffles usually drop a random member and how much you spend to get the item dictates the photocard's value or resale price. If you want to collect your bias or favorite member, you might have to do some buying or trading as you won't get them every single time. Music stores and e-commerce platforms may also offer limited photo cards to attract fans to buy from their shops.
Why the craze?
From the outside looking in, it's a little tricky to understand collecting in general. Basketball or baseball cards are a prized possession, while rare limited-run game cards make card collectors of a different kind feel alive. It's exactly the same for K-pop photo cards.
Fans love all members of the group equally, but there's usually a bias per group, and they'd want to have the photo card of the person they like best. For some collectors, they go the distance to collect every single member. Regardless of which member or group is collected, the randomness of photocard distribution gives fans a rush, while the curation of a collection gives collectors a sense of completion or purpose, as no two collections are ever the same and everyone goes at their own pace.
Collectors have existed since the 2010s but forced isolation at home during the pandemic pushed people to seek comforts from the digital world to fill up their time. It was easy to fall in love with K-pop through a screen, along with all the merchandise it dangled before you. An influx of collectors in the 2020s only further strengthened the community and expanded its reach.
Perhaps what binds K-pop collectors together is the sense of connection and belonging that manifests in the strong presence of the buy-and-sell community online. Aside from consuming music and performances as fans, physical items and merchandise shared with like-minded individuals foster friendships, making the whole experience more exhilarating and fulfilling.
While companies usually release photo cards related to music, they also do so to accompany other merch or in partnership with brands the K-pop group is affiliated with, again to generate more buzz or to boost sales.
If the group has official clothing merchandise, their companies may include a photocard to go along with it as a freebie. photo cards don't always have to be solo either-sometimes members can take group selfies, in duos, or in units.
Let's say your faves are ambassadors for a makeup and skincare line. The cosmetics company may choose to release photo cards you can acquire with every purchase of a product. These aren't released by the group's label, but it's still official as the K-pop group and its members promote the items sold by that company.
Your fave scored a cover and a spread for a local magazine? The publisher can also release photo cards specific to that issue. The same goes for food items a K-pop group or member promotes-if the company wants to treat the fans or attract more buyers, they can get a random photo card with every bag of chips or cookies.
Keep in mind that like album photo cards, lucky draws, and other official paper from the label, these photo cards may also be released at random. Some companies may offer them as sets, but pulling them at random is also likely.
What determines rarity and price?
As stated above, photocard prices are driven by many factors and vary from group to group. Official photocard prices can range anywhere from P25 up to the thousands for the extremely rare ones.
It also depends on the photocard's type and physical attributes: selfie photo cards may not be priced the same as photos of members taken from afar, and bigger photo cards that go beyond the generic ID size are priced accordingly, too. Some members who are notorious for taking meme-like photos can jack up prices, or the occasional use of a prop in the photo can fuel demand.
Overall physical quality also determines the price. Scratched photo cards are priced lower than mint-condition cards that fetch heftier payments.
The market price is volatile as it is driven by interest, time, the development of a group's career, and even the label's financial situation. Album photocard prices generally stay consistent, unless albums—and their accompanying photo cards—go out of print. Disbanded group photo cards may also retail for higher prices as they're rarer and the fandom may have dwindled out over the years, meaning fewer people to keep its respective buy-and-sell community alive.
For merchandise photo cards both official and third-party, it largely depends on the price of the item you need to buy to get the photo card. The more expensive the jacket or skincare item, the higher the price of the photo card. Once the group releases new merch or partners with a new brand, the older photo cards may get more expensive as more people move on to newer releases, though this isn't always the case.
And of course, companies can print a limited number of photo cards and randomly distribute them in albums shipped globally. A fictional example: Only 300 photo cards of each member of an eight-man K-pop group are printed and slotted randomly into albums. That's 2,400 photo cards, so only 2,400 fans can have them. If you really wanted one, you would need to buy dozens, even hundreds of albums.
If you don't pull the one you want and happen to see someone else selling it at a jacked-up price, they may be doing so in an effort to recoup the money they spent buying multiple albums to try and pull that rare card.
Alternatively, companies may choose to distribute limited edition photo cards to fans who were lucky enough to be chosen to attend a music show broadcast, variety show filming, or live event. Individual photo cards or sets are extremely rare, so the price would be up there compared to album photo cards.
The final answer: Are all photo cards expensive?
No, not all K-pop photo cards are that expensive. And if they were, only the truly hardcore collectors would have the money and headspace to accommodate in their possession. Fans come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their collections. Not every photocard you see will be worth thousands. Ultimately, it's not the price that determines a photocard's true worth—it's the preference, sentimental value, and personal story of fans and fandoms that make it more than just paper.