|Hundreds of youth pack M2, a popular dance club in Hongdae, on Club Day, which falls on the last Friday of every month.|
When Yoo Baek-yeol opened M.I in 1995, Seoul’s youth hotbed of Hongdae was in the midst of an explosion of individualism and musical creativity.
Artist groups that had long persisted in the area - in no small part due to the prestigious art department at Hongik University - combined with rock music’s resistant spirit and techno’s energy to form an exceptional artistic atmosphere.
The scene started in the 1980s and came into its own in the early 1990s as people with their own cultural tastes started crowding into dank Hongdae dance and live music clubs, breaking from the mainstream to form their own sub-cultures.
“Hongdae is where different desires and new appetites converge. The indie music created here is expressive enough to reflect the spirit of the times,” said Lee Sang-eun, a Hongdae singer-songwriter for past two decades.
Hongdae’s booming music scene was indebted to the sizzling economy in the 1970s and 1980s, a lift on the ban on foreign travel, an increasing number of students studying abroad and the end of the military regime. In particular, students who had sought education abroad were returning with foreign-inspired musical interests. Naturally, there was a massive influx of foreign pop culture into Korea. Korean youth exploded with a torrent of creativity and expression.
By 1995, the live music and dance scene was flourishing in the Hongdae area. Clubs ranging from Sangsudo, to M.I, Joker Red, Hodge Podge, Underground, Hooper and Matmata opened their doors. Yoo himself launched M.I, which later became the now-popular M2 after its merger with Matmata in 2004.
The seemingly insatiable appetite for rock, punk and dance continued through 1999 with the opening of Freebird, Jammers, Rolling Stones, Spangle, Coda, Master Plan, Feedback, Playhouse and Slugger.
Today, the scene is representative of Korea’s underground youth culture, but it is also central to the country’s music industry. Although small in scale, some of the country’s top pop stars had their start in Hongdae venues.
On the last Friday of October, JoongAng Sunday reporters visited the area.
Dozens of clubs blasted electronic, cranked rock and served booze to thousands of clubbers on what is known here as Club Day - which falls on the last Friday of every month. Over 10,000 people move freely among 22 or so venues in Hongdae and the neighboring Sinchon. For a fee of 15,000 won ($12.70), partygoers’ Club Day bracelets get them access to each bar with no additional cover fees.
When the club FF - short for Funky Funky - was visited by JoongAng Sunday reporters at 10:40 p.m. that night, the four-member rock band Achim was in the middle of their set. Some 100 people filled the basement nightclub, hopping to the music as the band pounced around the stage.
Over at the jazz club Evans, the audience was listening to singer-songwriter Strange Curtain play guitar and sing with drum rhythms, saxophone and piano. When three people from the audience joined Strange Curtain on stage to play the tambourine and triangle, the hall became intoxicated with shouts and laughter.
It is hard to define the music at Club Day. Most of it is music you can dance to, such as electronic, but there are venues that host live bands, such as FF and DGBD. Then there is the venue Ska 2 and the aforementioned jazz club Evans.
The first Club Day was held in March 2001 and the next - the 115th - will be held Nov. 26.
The exposure that the monthly event has brought to the Hongdae area has been a boon for young musical talent here.
According to Lim Jin-mo, a pop music critic, Hongdae artists try to experiment with their music, whereas Korea’s mainstream musicians are controlled by big agencies and are mostly averse to originality and the kind of risk-taking that generally leads to both good (but sometimes bad) music.
Indie bands such as Crying Nut, Chang Kiha & The Faces and No Brain honed their skills in the Hongdae-Sinchon area before making it big in the pop-culture scene over the past decade.
Jang Jae-in is another such artist.
The 19-year-old hit the big time after competing on the television reality show “Superstar K” recently, but not before scraping it out in Hongdae clubs.
“Hongdae has solidified my ability as a singer. Since the music I pursue doesn’t really match the taste of the general audience, I knocked on the doors of Hongdae venues. I was preparing step by step,” Jang said. She has performed most weekends at clubs such as Freebird and Ta since last February.
Sung Gi-wan, 43, a member of the band Line No. 3 Butterfly, has been a veteran of the scene for the past two decades.
“Hongdae is a space where artists and their following grow naturally. However big you are - like SM Entertainment - you can’t possibly abruptly advance into Hongdae,” he said.
At midnight, we were guided to another side of Hongdae culture. Some 300 people lined up in front of M2. Inside the club, over 1,000 people hopped in sequence to electronic music.
Yoo, M2’s owner, said that Hongdae’s subcultures are setting Korea’s national pop-culture trends. “The K-pop trend has always followed in the footsteps of Hongdae - from the dance music boom in the 1990s to the techno boom in the 2000s.”
Even late into the night at 2:30 a.m., the hip hop club nb2 reminded the reporters of Seoul Station in the middle of rush hour.
It’s not only popular with Korean youth. The area has been popular for years with foreign tourists eager to see a sexier side of Korea. “I have been to a lot of clubs in Europe, but Hongdae is the only place that has so many clubs and clubbers, even out on the street,” said David, a 26-year-old German who asked to go by his first name only.
Ko Geon-hyeok, 29, of the band Chang Kiha & The Faces from the label Bungabunga Records, explained how obscure bands advance into the mainstream from Hongdae’s hip venues.
“When you make a debut in Hongdae, you take the stage on Tuesday and Wednesday at first. If you get popular enough, you get weekend stages. Then a lot of other clubs begin to ask you to perform,” he said. Chang Kiha & The Faces performed for a year at clubs in Hongdae. Their retro-style music was well-received by the audience from the beginning.
The band became popular after they made it to network TV. But in most cases, bands that rise in Hongdae and Sinchon are consumed there. A very small number are able to make the leap from small stage venues to big stage concert halls. The times they are a-changin’
As the club scene matured in the 2000s, the venues got bigger. According to Jang Yang-suk, general affairs manager at Club Culture Association, economies of scale pushed owners to open bigger and bigger clubs. The bigger the size, Jang said, the more visitors can be attracted for profitable weekend nights, making money-losing weeknights more bearable.
But bigger clubs put the squeeze on smaller ones.
Club Day was in part an answer to that problem. Since earnings from Club Day are divided by participating venues, the smaller of them find it an opportunity to redeem normally modest revenue, while bigger establishments get involved because it attracts huge crowds to the area and showcases their venues to new customers. “Club Day is an event that is meant to help all clubs in Hongdae survive together,” said Jang.
Yoo, meanwhile, says that the music had evolved with the times.
“The role of deejays had been confined to simply changing records between songs before the emergence of dance clubs in Hongdae. Then deejays began mixing the music. When I first opened my club, I mostly played electronic music, but the feedback from the audience wasn’t that good,” he said.
Yoo has been witness to the clubs that have prospered and faltered in Hongdae from the start.
“In the beginning of the 1980s, the Hongdae area had a few night clubs, which were different from the clubs of today. New wave and disco were in vogue at the time, and I started deejaying at a club named Chrystal in Jongno, central Seoul.
“My career in Hongdae started as I moved to a night club in the basement of Seogyo Hotel in the mid-1980s,” he recalled.
The heyday of Hongdae, according to the club owner, has only just arrived.
“Now, numerous transformations are taking place within the genre. In order to survive in Hongdae, you need to always come up with something new. You never know who will bring up what. That’s what it is like here.
“The energy of Hongdae comes from its clubs. The heyday of this district has only just arrived as the clubbing population contributes to expanding the commercial area,” said Yoo.
By Lim Hyun-wook [firstname.lastname@example.org]