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K-pop NFTs are here, but I’m not convinced they’re worth it

I have really tried hard to ignore non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Reading discussion of them online makes me cringe. And interest in unpleasant images of apes, robots, and blobs makes me question people’s sanity, as do the astronomical prices paid for this kind of nonsense, and the community’s general dismissal of the negative impact NFTs have on the environment.

Then one of my favorite K-pop singers released a series of NFTs through fandom-focused site KLKTN, thrusting the tokens into my everyday conversation. It was fine when NFTs were left to crypto enthusiasts and lovers of ugly JPEGs, all gambling like they were in Vegas, but this wasn’t the same. I had been forced into paying attention, so I decided to find out if there’s any real value in owning an NFT targeted at a particular segment of fandom.

Heavily engaged

There’s something quite unpleasant about NFTs being pushed toward heavily engaged fandoms, in this case K-pop idols, where buying exclusive goods is considered part of the deal. To me, and I suspect many others, the conversation around NFTs seems to center on money. How much they are purchased for, how much are supposedly “worth,” and the profit made upon resale. Idol NFTs just look like a get-rich-quick cash grab from cynical corporations with no real interest in the artist.

Kang Hyewon NFT from KLKTN.
Kang Hyewon NFT from KLKTN.

Idol fans spend a lot of money on merchandise and more. From concert tickets, albums, and photo books, to online or in-person meet-and-greets. Supporting your favorite artist is a pricey endeavor. The introduction of an NFT could push savvy fans into wanting to know more, but this could also lead them to wade through the often impenetrable language used in the discussion of NFTs online, where separating the cringe-making bluster from actual facts is nigh-on impossible.

I wanted to get past this, so I purchased some collectible NFTs released by singer Kang Hyewon from KLKTN to see what the fuss was all about, and spoke to the team about what makes these collectibles different from other NFTs. Their answers were enlightening, but did they convince me NFTs have a place in any fandom?

Connecting fans to artists

KLKTN started out in mid-2021 and specifically targets K-pop, anime, and Japanese culture fandoms. In an email exchange, Digital Trends spoke to Chief Technology Officer and co-founder Fabiano Soriani, Chief Business Officer Hannah Cho, and art and legal adviser Yayoi Shionoiri about its approach to NFTs.

“We think that fandom platforms are far from achieving the full potential of engagement with the technologies out there. We are interested in how the technology of NFTs can change that landscape,” the team wrote in response to my question about how KLKTN is different from the world of regular NFTs. “Every artist we’ve worked with and his or her fan base has been completely unique. We work with the artists to create something we think will speak to their fans. We have been quite experimental.”

KLKTN is excited to announce our next artist, #KangHyeWon! To celebrate her new album, Kang HyeWon is partnering with #KLKTN to create unique digital experiences and #nfts to give back to her fans.
Be the first to know when it drops! https://t.co/KVaGPWpIGl#강혜원 #hyewon pic.twitter.com/XHmg1CpOZC

— KLKTNofficial (@KLKTNofficial) December 21, 2021

What did I buy, and did it seem experimental? I purchased a “Moment,” which is a collection of three video files limited to 2,500 editions. The main videos show Hyewon delivering a message to the camera, and the third is an animation of her signature. It cost $2. The NFT lives on KLKTN’s website, where it can be viewed or downloaded on to my computer.

Unfortunately, viewing the three files is unsatisfying. The first video is a short preview of the main video, therefore pointless, and as cute as Hyewon’s signature is, I don’t need to see it more than once or twice. It doesn’t feel experimental, unless you take experimental to mean beta.

Why would you want to buy one?

If owning one of KLKTN’s Moments is a bit disappointing, and you have no interest in apes or wildly overpriced digital art, why would anyone want to embrace NFTs at all? I asked the team, and Sobriani answered first.

“I have lived in four countries, plus moved within cities a couple of times, and every time I move, there are things that don’t fit the bag or don’t make the move and get lost,” he said “I’ve had a collection of keychains, stones, trading cards, LEGO, all gone by now. Also, I’m not a materialistic person, my most valued possessions are photos and videos, certificates, NFTs, and social accounts. All those live on the cloud and I never lose them. Digital items are perfect for me.”

Cho was more philosophical in her response.

“Is something physical more real or valuable than something that’s held in a digital format? To me, they’re simply different media,” Cho said. “Like watercolor versus photography. One form of media is not necessarily more valuable than the other. The value comes from the content, context, and personal preference. A physical photo might be dear to one, but a 15-second video might be more valuable to another. We are used to the idea of buying an officially released photocard of Kang HyeWon when we could just as easily print the photo ourselves. If we want to buy an officially released video of Kang HyeWon instead of screen-grabbing it, we can buy it as an NFT. That’s the power of NFT. It authenticates digital files.”

Viewing an NFT as just another collectible, and one that doesn’t occupy any physical space, is an interesting point. As mentioned earlier, an engaged fan will likely buy quite a lot of merchandise, so not adding yet more actual stuff to the pile while still supporting your favorite celebrity is quite attractive.

However, due to the lackluster experience of viewing the KLKTN files on the desktop (it’s a little better on mobile) currently being far less enticing than flicking through a real-world photo collection, it’s one I’d be unlikely to repeat. However, the team does say it’s redesigning the website at the moment, so this may change in the future.

What about the future?

The question then becomes, what happens to an NFT in the future? This is the great unknown, because while the fate of my real photo card is almost solely in my hands, the NFT’s future is more dependent on other forces. What happens if KLKTN shuts down?

An NFT collection screen in KLKTN.
An NFT collection screen in KLKTN.

“We are taking steps to try and ensure that our NFTs and platform are future-proof,” the team told Digital Trends. “We have placed the assets on the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), and we also hope to partner with existing marketplaces that operate on [the Flow blockchain] to assure interoperability so that our NFTs will always hold their value.”

Does this mean I actually own the NFT? After all, it appears to the uninitiated to simply be a file stored on the internet, which I “own” in the same way I own the image I downloaded from Kang Hyewon’s account on social messaging app Bubble. The team at KLKTN called the question of ownership “fundamental to the understanding of NFTs” and explained it this way:

“From a conceptual perspective, an NFT is the digital ledger entry that points to a specific digital object and its current owner.  Now, the NFT will generally include a unique resource indicator that points to the digital object, and the combination of the NFT with the associated digital object seems to be what people think of when they refer to a NFT.  What makes owning a NFT so special is that your NFT is uniquely connected to you and your wallet – even though it may be minted and issued in a larger edition (with other copies owned by other people), and you may not necessarily have the exclusive copyright to the associated digital object, the token you have is specifically and uniquely yours and, in that way, a one-of-one.”

Owning a special item is always going to be attractive to all dedicated fans, so there is certainly appeal to this. Except unlike a physical special item, perhaps with a signature, you really have to go looking for what makes your NFT uniquely yours. And when you have to explain what makes the NFT special, it’s quite underwhelming, compared to the obvious uniqueness of a signed photo, for example. KLKTN registers its NFT’s on the Flow blockchain, which it claims is 99.9% more efficient than other blockchains ,to help alleviate some of the environmental concerns over NFTs.

Will I make money?

Search social media for NFT talk and you’re almost certain to find someone who has flipped a hideous NFT for thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Who doesn’t want to make easy money? The temptation will be there to buy a collectible NFT with the hope, or even expectation, that you will quickly sell it on to someone else for more than you paid. Apart from this not being the point of buying idol merchandise, what does KLKTN say about its NFT’s possibly rising in value?

In a tweet to me, Sobriani said: “At KLKTN we’re trying out all different ways that the fans can get something as directly from their artists as possible versus speculation we see on other markets,” suggesting it’s more heavily focused on pleasing the fandom than engaging with speculators.

In my email conversation, the team said: “KLKTN NFTs are designed as a direct-as-possible connection between the artist and the fan. Maybe you watch a Moment and would like to keep it, while another one you wouldn’t mind sharing with someone who joins after the sale concluded. Ownership and provenance are really the coolest property of NFTs on blockchain, and we’ll fully support fans being able to trade moments, special editions, or anything they want to.”

The KLKTN website has a Marketplace link, but it’s currently not operational, and despite Sobriani’s initial message indicating it wasn’t heavily focused on trading, this and the wording in the team’s email response suggest otherwise. Yes, people (not just speculators) make money from NFTs, but it’s not easy or common, so don’t expect to become wealthy from your Hyewon NFT.

Am I an NFT convert?

I set out to see if I could find value in NFTs as a fandom-orientated collectible. There definitely is, and KLKTN makes a good case for them. I appreciate it’s working closely with the artists to generate exactly the kind of collectible fans want to see, and my Kang Hyewon Moments are polished and, as much as it pains me to admit it, quite special to see.

This is what @hyemu_official's 'new year' message NFT from @KLKTNofficial looks like.

(Story and interview on K-pop fandom NFTs coming from me this weekend)#HYEWON #KANGHYEWON #강혜원 #NFT pic.twitter.com/cKB4Gp6KtV

— Andy Boxall (@AndyBoxall) January 13, 2022

However, it’s no more or less special than any other collectible, which don’t come with any additional worries over ownership and the future-proofing of your collection. Then there’s the clunky viewing system, which doesn’t inspire you to view your NFTs very often or to buy more. Then there’s still the whiff of shameless cash-in about it all. There is potential for all this to change in the future, but at the moment, there’s an extremely limited appeal for fans in NFTs.

I’m also pleased I didn’t spend any more than $2 on one, which, considering the laughable prices on OpenSea — an NFT marketplace where you could spend $4,200 on a picture of a car or $3,360 on a picture of a cartoon dog — actually makes KLKTN’s video-based NFTs look like astonishing value. They’re not, though. I spent money on something I’ve looked at a handful of times, and could conceivably forget I even own. If you’re expecting your K-pop NFT to offer anything other than the knowledge that online somewhere, your name is attached to a receipt marking you out as the owner of a video, then you’ll be disappointed.

If you’re a hardcore buyer of K-pop merchandise, and wonder if NFTs will give you the same level of satisfaction as a photobook or limited-edition album, consider this: I noticed that if I purchased all three special-edition Kang Hyewon NFTs from KLKTN, I’d have a chance of winning one of 10 signed Polaroid photos. I almost clicked the Buy Now button for the NFTs just so I could perhaps win the Polaroid, which I think tells you everything you need to know about whether K-pop NFTs captured my interest in the same way as a physical piece of merchandise.

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