Indie music venue Powwow in Itaewon to shut down
Powwow is a not-for-profit music space that focuses on Korean independent music. What little profit it makes from the shows is funneled back into the venue and used to pay bands. Despite a year of shows, the group anticipates it will close within a month.
It was started by a partnership of five people in July last year but things quickly turned sour as financial difficulties and differences in future ambitions for the venue drove them apart.
“I saw an offer from [music promoter] Sean Maylone. He said ‘There’s a music venue closing down, does anybody want this? Is anybody interested?’?” Alex Ameter, one of the founding partners, told Korea JoongAng Daily.
“I debated with myself for a long time. It was a lot of money but when was I ever going to have a chance to own and help run a music venue in a major city again?”
Ameter, Maylone, Maylone’s girlfriend Hyejin Seo, and two others partnered to create the venue that they saw as a chance to contribute to the arts and expand the burgeoning live music scene outside of Hongdae, rather than a mere money-making opportunity.
“It can sound naive and artsy but I really do believe in the music scene and I want to do anything I can to support it,” Ameter said.
The venue was initially a success with Maylone’s booking company SuperColorSuper lining up bands such as PS I Love You and Beat Culture. In September, Ameter took over organizing a lot of the shows, booking predominantly smaller Korean artists that Ameter was personally a fan of.
“Maybe it was an amateur [way] to do it [like that], but it was how I wanted to run it. It’s not my job, it’s a pastime .?.?. it’s a hobby. If I’m going to a show every weekend that I’m running, I might as well enjoy the music. I don’t want to go to a bunch of shows where I don’t like the music,” Ameter said.
If the shows didn’t earn enough money to cover the costs of running the gig and paying the band then Ameter would dip into his own pockets to top it off.
“I believe: they performed, they came to our venue and we owed them a certain amount of money,” Ameter said.
Around this time the relationship between the partners reached a critical point. A clash of personalities and ambitions for the venue combined with the financial stress led to an irreparable rift in the group.
Ameter and two other partners, Donny Sim and Kiseok Seo, bought Maylone and Hyejin out of the partnership and took full control of the venue. But when they transferred ownership it became apparent it would be impossible to renew the alcohol license.
“When we went to the office they said it was not legal for us to sell alcohol, which we had been doing. We had set up a bar and we had money from alcohol sales,” Ameter said. “We were surviving pretty well but, as soon as that happened and the name changed over, they said ‘we don’t know how you got the license because, actually, it’s illegal.’?”
Since October, Powwow has been run as a dry venue having a two-fold effect: the loss of revenue from alcohol sales and a turn-off for patrons keen to drink with shows. The losses increased and Ameter coughed up even more money to counter the business’s losses.
Ameter continued to book smaller bands that he thought deserved the exposure rather than headline acts that would draw large crowds. “Our entire income was based on the door so booking small bands wasn’t good for our bottom line. But it was a choice we made,” Ameter said.
The venue continued to run but the financial stress and the changing personal circumstances of the partners has spelled the end for the venue.
“Ninety percent of the stress comes from the financial burden on us. If a band cancels or gets sick, that sort of thing, it’s frustrating. We have to issue a statement so that’s stressful, but it’s nothing in comparison with the financial stress. [The former] is stress I can deal with .?.?. the stress of running a venue. But [the latter] is the stress of running a business that doesn’t make any money,” Ameter said.
Now the venue is closing in a month with the details of the final closing show to be decided, and Ameter is focusing on his next project ? a proposed music festival on an island in the Han River, called Rock-do.
He and Kiseok see the venue as a learning experience with lessons for any future business they might set up.
“[If I could do it over,] I wouldn’t set myself up for failure from the beginning. Being in this location and having no alcohol license, the hurdles we had to overcome to break even or be profitable were gigantic,” Ameter said.
But both are proud of Powwow and see it as a part of who they are.
“How many people can say they owned a venue?,” Kiseok said. “I will always be proud of that experience.”
BY ALISTAIR WALSH CONTRIBUTING WRITER [firstname.lastname@example.org]