90 minutes to TV fame for Korea’s musicians

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90 minutes to TV fame for Korea’s musicians

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With the sounds of acoustic guitars and drums filling a small television studio, the spectators sat so close to the stage that they could see the drops of sweat on the foreheads of the musicians. When the performers talked about their lives, the audience shot back bursts of laughter. At first glance, it’s only a typical television music program, but its restrained format does something few shows can: It transmits the vibe between the audience and performers that carries on for 90 minutes every weekend.
The show is “Space Gonggam” on the Korea Educational Broadcasting System. EBS calls the program, somewhat grandly, an experiment in “bringing high culture to the public and upgrading pop culture to high culture.” Every Saturday and Sunday, a full concert by single performers or groups is aired with minimal editing and few commercial interruptions.
The show is recorded at 7:30 p.m. every weekday. Performers take advantage of their 90 minutes to demonstrate how their music has progressed ― playing early pieces and new ones ― and discuss the ups and downs of their musical careers. Given that many musicians would kill for a chance to play one song on television, an hour and a half can provide more exposure for a performer than he might otherwise have in his entire career.
The cameras do not move. There is no emcee. The taping starts at 7:30 p.m. and continues without interruptions. The show’s title, “Gonggam,” means empathy, an apt description of the energy that shoots between audience and performer. “We had so much freedom in everything, including how songs were performed and how the concert progressed,” said Joo Sang-kyun, the lead singer of the heavy-metal band Black Hole, which performed last week.
Performers are also encouraged to participate in the editing for shows to be aired on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
“Our goal is to have as little interference as possible,” said Kim Hyung-joon, a producer of the program. “The more interference there is, the worse it is for music.”
The programming is done by a team of producers, music and stage directors, outside music critics and advisors who keep one genre from dominating the show. This system of multiple inputs is also designed to prevent record labels from bribing producers to promote albums.
In the beginning, the producers were worried that they wouldn’t be able to find a sufficient number of talented musicians to fill the schedule every weekday. Not to worry: The list of musicians who have appeared on the program is a roster of legendary musicians and hot new stars, including Lee Jeong-seon, Kim Chang-wan, Kim Soo-chul, Han Young-ae, Ahn Chi-hwan, Jaurim, Shin Young-ok, Bob James, Maxim, David Lanz, Harvey Mason, Dave Grusin, Yuki Kuramoto and Terumasa Hino.
“The only standards on this stage are good music, genuine music and innovative music,” said Kim Jun-seong, the program’s chief producer.
Even more noteworthy is that the program has tried to provide exposure for lesser-known and less commercial musicians and musical genres. That stress is possible because EBS is not as dependent on ratings as are commercial networks; its programming is intended mostly for educational purposes.
“Few television stations have a music program aimed at the public interest rather than commercial motives,” Kim Hyung-joon said. “Most broadcasters are busy pursuing higher ratings and developing programs for teenagers.”
As a result, the range of television music programs is increasingly narrow and there were few opportunities for talented alternative musicians to appear on television, Mr. Kim said. One way the program breaks from the standard youth-oriented pop-culture format is that it does not include dance performances and bans lip-synching.
“No matter what other channel you turn to, there are always the same music and the same musicians,” said Ha Jong-wook, a music critic and one of the advisors on the program. “[Space Gonggam] provides audiences with opportunities to meet and communicate with musicians who are talented but not as well-represented in the mainstream media.”
Over the last two years, the type of music played in the concerts consists mainly of crossover or fusion (35 percent), jazz (30 percent), Korean traditional music, folk, rock and pop (10 percent), modern classical or experimental music (5 percent) and others (10 percent).
There is never a shortage of audience members. When the Korean band Jaurim performed, over 9,700 people applied for the 151 seats available, a rate of 75 to one. On average, a person requesting a ticket has only a 10-percent chance of getting one. The show has so far staged 508 concerts, in front of a combined studio audience of 81,000 people, none of whom paid to attend.
Though other programs have tried to offer regular live concerts by single performers, few lasted more than a season.
“Space Gonggam is one of few programs to highlight the music of a single performer or group without doing it commercially,” Mr. Joo of Black Hole said.
Even if non-mainstream performers have a chance to appear on television, most music programs only allow them to play a few songs ― often the songs people have already heard ― and the talking is done by emcees, not musicians.
“Musicians say they want to show their music from beginning to end, and that they don’t want to see their intentions misrepresented,” Mr. Kim said.
Knowing the benefits of having the stage alone, musicians have been willing to perform on the Space Gonggam stage without receiving hefty performance fees.
Even internationally renowned musicians have agreed to perform on the show for far less money than they would normally receive in more established venues. Some foreign musicians have agreed to squeeze in the time during their stay to perform on the program before performing elsewhere in Korea.
Before selecting musicians for the program, the producers and advisers research different albums and sit in on performances to check if the candidates are qualified to give a live concert on the Space Gonggam stage. Mr. Kim said this was one of the most difficult parts of managing the program, due to the time and effort required to preview every musician or group’s concerts.
Speaking of that accomplishment, Mr. Kim said, “No concert halls were able to independently manage programming for such a long time, as opposed to renting out performance space to outside organizers.”


by Limb Jae-un

For the performance schedule and a seat reservation, visit www.ebs-space.co.kr.
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