[Seoul Lounge] Giving local musicians their due

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[Seoul Lounge] Giving local musicians their due

I am something of a music geek. I started playing the guitar at age 10, and by the age of 14, I was in possession of a ridiculous mop of shoulder-length hair that irritated my mother and schoolteachers to no end. They had a point, though: It looked stupid - at least, on me - and, unfortunately, girls tended to agree with them.

The hair is now short and sensible, and I don’t practice guitar anywhere near as much as I should. So these days I live vicariously, through the rock ‘n’ roll of others. Since I live in Korea, Hongdae is the place where I indulge, when I have the time.

The music scene in Hongdae is typically labelled as indie or even underground - which I think is almost definable in the Korean context as music made by artistically sincere people who write their own songs, play their own instruments and do not necessarily dance. In the past year or two, musicians from the scene have started making inroads into mainstream culture, but they still lack the respect they deserve.

When Western bands visit, it is a different story. A Radiohead concert in Korea would command very high ticket prices, and sell out easily. This is despite the fact that they probably wouldn’t play “Creep,” their one song that everyone in Korea knows. They would most likely play a set full of their more experimental, and frankly, not-as-good, later work. But all the same, they would fly out of Incheon plenty richer.

Isn’t it sad that no Korean indie musicians can attain such status, even in their own country? Why is it that thousands of people would lay out over 100,000 won ($87) each to see a foreign band, but would not bother paying 10,000 won to see a great local band? It isn’t as though there is a lack of talent. And ironically, whenever I go and see Korean indie shows, there are always plenty of foreign faces in the crowd.

The cost of legal MP3 downloads from local artists in Korea is very instructive. At an average price of just 60 won, Korean songs might as well be given away free of charge. Not so far away - in Japan, in fact - a download costs well over 2,000 won. Internationally, a range of about 1,000 won to 1,500 won seems to be the norm. These are, of course, market-set prices. Whatever the faults of the industry, they are ultimately a reflection of public choice. It seems to me that Korea views its own music as cheap and inferior to that of international artists.

In an era when the media and the government are constantly making a fuss about K-pop and exaggerating its cultural value, this seems especially paradoxical. Even K-pop itself, despite its mainstream popularity, is not very lucrative: The real money comes from turning the group into a brand, hawking them out to advertisers, charging appearance fees and engaging in crossover marketing, among others. The music itself is devalued.

One of my favorite-ever interviewees was the fountainhead of Korean rock, Shin Joong-hyun. In our meeting, he lamented that young people in Korea never really heard proper live music, and just seem to think that music comes from MP3 players. The difference is vast, of course: Just listening to MP3s is “lightweight,” he says. Going to see a band play live or even going to a shop and buying a record or a CD, is an experience, one that I, like millions of others, cherished in my youth. Downloading a song for 60 won just doesn’t have the same emotional resonance.

It also encourages a culture where music is seen as being disposable. One can buy a song for 60 won today, and forget about it next week. A song that came out two years ago is considered old, and therefore not worth listening to. So in the case of Shin Joong-hyun, when I tell friends of a similar age why I think he is so fantastic, they find it strange. Of course, a large part of that is because I’m not Korean, and am thus not expected to know who he is. But the remark usually follows that his music is “old music.” Throw in a mention of his collaborators, Kim Choo-ja, Park In-soo, or Kim Jung-mi, and they think I am insane. But these are all great singers.

Eric Clapton is also “old,” and not as good as Shin Joong-hyun. But the next time he comes to Korea, he’ll sell out a big arena and be treated as visiting royalty. So why not respect Korean music culture the same way?

* The author is the Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor

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