K-pop Fans Have a New Nemesis

Young, progressive listeners are making a stink about carbon-torching NFTs. But will greener versions be enough to get them on board?

A pixelated image of an NFT with flames in the background
Soomin Jung

K-pop is made to be listened to. But it’s also made to be watched. When a group releases a song, it’s just one part of a package that typically includes a visually arresting music video and several live performances of complex dance choreography paired with inventive outfits and hairstyles. The best-looking members of groups are literally known as “visuals” in the industry.

Here in the United States, BTS is the best-known K-pop group, but it is just one group among dozens of artists and groups, each with its own sound and look, including emo rock, city pop, and tracks that mix hip-hop with traditional Korean elements. All different types of groups have been able to maintain relatively high physical-album sales in the era of digital streaming by focusing on what buyers can see. Albums have become collectibles, available in multiple editions and packaged with posters, books, and an assortment of “photocards”—glossy, roughly business-card-size images of the performers that many fans collect and trade.

So it’s no surprise that pretty much all of the major music labels in South Korea have announced plans to sell “non-fungible tokens,” or NFTs, in recent months. If fans will spend $3,213 on a single photocard of BTS’s Jungkook—an image you can easily look at online—then why wouldn’t they shell out to own digital images of their idols on the blockchain?

And yet, when K-pop labels made their NFT launches public earlier this year, the response from many fans was brutal. They pushed back hard against the plans, citing the climate impact of NFTs. Many labels are finding ways to pivot to greener NFTs, but will that be enough to get K-pop fans on board? NFTs already have a market among crypto true believers, and labels might not be able to convince fans that these creations are for them too.

The technology behind NFTs has been around for a while, but interest in them has exploded this year. In October, an NFT of a cartoon ape wearing a propeller hat sold for $3.4 million. But what do NFT buyers actually get? They’re digital images, so owners can’t touch them. Nor are they the only person who can see them. NFTs are just as likely to circulate on the web as any other image, and nothing is stopping anyone from downloading a copy. Buyers don’t even hold the copyright of the image, which would allow them to control its reproduction and make money off its display or reprinting. Instead, what makes an NFT an NFT is how its “ownership” is recorded: in an immutable blockchain ledger–the same ledgers that are the basis for cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether. When buyers resell their NFTs—ideally for much more than they paid for them—that transaction is also recorded on the same ledger.

The problem is how these ledgers protect themselves from potential bad actors. The process used by most blockchains requires warehouses full of computers to crunch so many numbers that it sucks up an incredible amount of energy. A single ether transaction uses as much energy as an American household does in a week. With more than 1 million transactions a day, the platform, Ethereum, has a networkwide carbon footprint comparable to that of Norway. Ethereum hopes to transition sometime next year to a completely new method for verifying transactions that would slash the energy required, but that hasn’t happened yet.

This steep environmental cost has made NFTs the villain du jour of international K-pop stans, who have a history of channeling their progressive political views into creative digital activism. In April, when a management company representing the group A.C.E. announced plans to release NFTs, the group’s fandom, which is called Choice, pushed back immediately and aggressively. Fans sent out tweet after tweet hammering NFTs. “Essentially NFTs are a giant environment-destroying pyramid scheme,” one fan account, @ChoicewithACE, tweeted as part of a thread that has more than 1,000 retweets. And fans emailed A.C.E.’s label directly, asking for the NFT plans to be scrapped.

Choice “pulled together in under 24 hours to go from knowing next to nothing about NFTs to knowing more than enough to take a stand,” says @seolarlove, a 24-year-old A.C.E. fan in Australia who asked to be identified by their Twitter username since they are openly trans only online.

Similar outrage followed in early November when the music label Hybe announced plans to partner with the fintech company Dunamu and market NFTs to fans of its groups, which include BTS, Seventeen, and Tomorrow X Together. Many BTS fans, known collectively as ARMY, threatened to boycott the company and immediately spun up hashtags such as #ARMYsAgainstNFT, noting that BTS members had called climate change “an important problem” in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Labels are listening. After the fan pushback, plans for A.C.E. NFTs were abandoned. Hybe is responding in a different way, taking its NFTs to newer, more sustainable blockchain networks. “We are aware that there are concerns around environmental impact and it’s definitely on the top of the list,” Helen Mo, a spokesperson for Dunamu, said in an email. The NFTs will run on the company’s own blockchain, Luniverse; Nicole Kim, Luniverse’s Green NFT Lead, claims that transactions on the network will use only a “negligible” amount of energy and will be 1 million times more efficient than those on Ethereum right now.

It’s not just Hybe. All the major K-pop labels seem to be choosing “climate friendly” platforms for their NFTs. JYP, home to the groups Twice and Stray Kids, is reportedly also working with Dunamu, and so is YG Entertainment. Meanwhile, SM Entertainment, which represents some of K-pop’s most popular acts, including my own personal favorite, SHINee, is reportedly considering NFTs on the relatively environmentally friendly Solana blockchain, which says its transactions use less energy than “two Google searches.”

But will that be enough for the community to embrace NFTs? Of course, not all K-pop fans are against NFTs, and if they come with perks such as tickets to concerts or autograph signings, a critical mass of them might feel sorely tempted. Fans might also give in if NFT sales ever become integrated into measures of artists’ success, such as chart rankings or end-of-the-year awards. “The K-pop industry has led fans to believe that it is the fans’ responsibility to push and promote their idols’ new albums or activities,” says Areum Jeong, a humanities professor at Sichuan University–Pittsburgh Institute and an expert in K-pop fandom. Stans might buy not to invest or even to collect but to support their favorite idol’s career.

But labels have more than just environmental concerns to overcome to get fans on board. When I spoke with @seolarlove, they called NFTs “entirely flawed,” citing scammers who steal others’ art to sell as NFTs. At the moment, NFTs are mostly bought and sold by investors who are looking for something to spend their cryptocurrency on. In that world, they are cool and fun. But to outsiders, K-pop fans or not, they can seem like a symptom of unregulated digital capitalism, expensive baubles for crypto bros—or just plain ugly.

The technologist Laurie Voss likens NFTs to rare Beanie Babies—valuable only because they’ve been made artificially scarce and marketed to collectors. “NFTs are that, but we don’t even have to go to the trouble of stuffing beans into a bag or printing a photo on a card,” he says. “We just say, ‘Go pay.’” Voss adds that the practice of “wash trading”—selling an NFT back and forth between different accounts owned by the same individual to create the impression of rising value—is everywhere in the industry.

When fans wrote emails protesting the plan to market A.C.E. NFTs in the spring, one template circulating online called out the risks of investing in intangible art. “Choosing to encourage fan activity via a crypto exchange platform that is marketed as a way to connect with A.C.E. could lead many young teenage fans to participate without understanding the market or the risks,” it read.

If NFTs become greener and if they are marketed as collectibles rather than investments, there’s not really much difference between buying one and paying for a game item or a new avatar for your online profile, says Anil Dash, the CEO of the software company Glitch, who was involved in creating some of the early implementations of NFT-style technology. But at this point, the bigger impediment that NFTs face is their association with the libertarian politics and bro culture of many crypto enthusiasts. Hating on NFTs is really about “social alignment,” Dash told me. “There is a culture war happening here.” Even a carbon-neutral NFT can’t fix that.

“The thing about kpop nfts is that I don’t think fans were ever going to buy them to begin with?” one fan tweeted last month. “I feel like we’re not their target with this but instead it’s those crypto creeps that are already into that stuff.” “Kpop nfts this is my villain origin story,” posted another.

K-pop Twitter recently erupted in scorn and disappointment when Qian Kun, a member of the group WayV (a group that sings primarily in Mandarin but is managed by Seoul-based SM Entertainment), bought an NFT. Most of the disapproving tweets cited the climate impact—though many did focus on fans’ disgust that the idol had revealed himself to be an “nft crypto finance bro.” “Hope kun shares a pic of the nft art he now owns so i can save it for free and use as profile pic while he paid who knows how many dollars and [wasted] enough electricity to power a house for two weeks,” one tweeted. Another fan wrote,  “NFT enjoyers are cringe.”

If and when NFTs’ environmental problems are addressed, the skepticism toward the technology seems poised to live on. And that’s not a great sign for NFTs as a whole. In a market where the item being bought and sold is almost pure vibes, whether the general public likes the vibes matters a lot.