Indie music hub suffers from urban renewal : Rising rents and changing tastes push out live venues

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Indie music hub suffers from urban renewal : Rising rents and changing tastes push out live venues


Club FF remains one of the last vestiges of hope for bands and their fans in the rapidly changing Hongdae indie scene. [CHUNG JIN-HONG]

Under the dim lights of a sparsely filled club on Friday evening were four young men with guitars slung low stand on stage to the sound of awkward coughs and stereo feedback. The band members looked at each other, nervous and sweaty with hands shaking in anticipation. When the show began, nobody in the crowd even knew the name of the band that played that night. When their set was over, the huffing and puffing of the musicians on stage mirrored the adrenaline coursing through the veins of the audience. They took a moment to comprehend the situation, due partly to their still ringing eardrums, before exploding in applause. Raw and uncontrolled, the scene was the epitome of a great indie rock show that many have flocked to the university neighborhood of Hongdae in western Seoul for over the decades.

But, recent years have been devastating for independent musicians. Some of the most influential live clubs that were responsible for growing the famous Hongdae indie scene have closed their doors, while some say that the scene has died.

Club Ta, where musicians such as 10 cm and Jang Jane first auditioned for a chance to perform on stage, closed last October after more than a decade. One year earlier, live music venue Salon Badabie closed its doors as well. Otherwise referred to as incubators for indie bands, these clubs were some of the most often visited locations for fans of the scene and go-to spots for musicians hoping for their big break. Reportedly, Club Ta’s monthly rent was raised to 7 million won ($6,060) within ten years before deciding to close up shop.

“There’s really nowhere left for us to go,” said guitarist Do Joong-mo of indie rock band Magna Fall. Do is one of many guitarists that turned to teaching lessons in order to earn an income while juggling band activities on the side. “Nowadays, indie musicians can only rely on one or two clubs to play a show. There are even rumors that more clubs are going to be closing in the future.”

As the local music industry continues to be dominated by mainstream K-pop, not only have independent artists found it difficult to sustain themselves with music, but the once-thriving Hongdae indie scene may be coming to an end for good.


Top: Indie band The Head gives a chilling performance at a weekly concert held at Club FF. Bottom: The area around Club Ta is now quiet after closing in October. [CHUNG JIN-HONG]

Cultural hub of Hongdae and gentrification

The university neighborhood of Hongdae is one of the hottest spots in Seoul thanks to its unique cultural reputation. Straying away from the more traditional Korean culture commonly associated with areas like Gwanghwamun, Hongdae has long been the center of creative youth culture. At night, streets are littered with buskers performing to large crowds while artists and musicians gather in their respective hubs and spend time with their peers.

The rapid gentrification of Hongdae, however, with renovated residential and commercial areas and higher real estate prices forcing out home and business owners, has concerned artists and residents since the early 2000s.

“I remember when my friends and I used to come to Hongdae to appreciate art and music,” said a former Hongik University student in his late thirties. “However, it's become much harder to find the same spark. It seems everything is being replaced by franchises.”

The rapid development was due in part to the increasing number of tourists heading to Hongdae, which has led to the Mapo District Office, which has jurisdiction over the neighborhood, making plans to designate the area as a special tourist zone, making way for casinos and driving up the already sky-high rents for live clubs.

“The special tourism zone would be the finishing blow from gentrification,” said a speaker at a meeting held on Oct. 19 at the live club Rolling Hall, who criticized the move from the district. Indie label CEOs, producers, writers, musicians, club owners, and promoters participated the debate.

“It seems the goal of Mapo district is only to industrialize the area for reinvestment purposes. Perhaps they are feeling inferior since it wasn’t their direction that made it possible for Hongdae to become a mecca for the arts, but rather the acts of the artists themselves.”

A producer from an indie label further commented on the current state of the area, saying, “In the past, at least 150 to 300 people visited our performances whenever our label held a show. But nobody comes to visit anymore. When we asked them why, they answered that Hongdae has become too dirty. Everyone is so caught up in the money that it just isn’t the way it used to be.”

Protests organized by a group called Mapo Sightseeing on Facebook were held across the area late last year with a banner reading “Rents soaring, arts culture collapsing. This is not Hongdae!”

The group succeeded in fending off the designation, although temporarily, as recent moves by the district office were the latest in an ongoing effort to further develop the area.

“At the end of our five year contract with the land owner, the building [will go under] a renovation, which is why we are closing our business,” said the owner of live club Channel 1969, which will be the latest club to fall victim to rising rent costs. “Although we looked into other areas, the deposit, monthly rent, and potential repair costs meant that it is too difficult in our current situation. These are the facts.”


The birth of popular rock bands are rooted in the now-dying Hongdae indie scene. From left to right: No Brain, Crying Nut, YNot, and Vodka Rain. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Changing music trends

The main source of income for live clubs, according to Kim, the owner of FB Soul House, is renting out the venues during the weekend to university students or a casual gathering of hobbyists to hold amateur performances for family and friends. Rent prices range from 500,000 won per night to 1 million won at the more sought-after venues.

“It’s difficult to continue the business by just relying on indie bands,” said Kim. “It’s thanks to venues being rented out by university clubs that we can keep doing what we love.”

The music being performed on stage, however, has been much more of a concern to club owners, who think musical creativity is being lost for the sake of mainstream popularity. The songs performed by hobbyists and casual musicians reflect the current musical trends.

“Kids these days just like to play mainstream pop music,” said Kim. “I guess that’s what’s popular.”

The relationship between indie music and mainstream pop has always sat on opposite ends of the spectrum.

However, with the birth of popular audition programs such as Superstar K and K-pop star, suddenly there was a much higher possibility for indie acts to hit the mainstream, which is why artists have slowly but surely shifted towards a pop sound.

For Jeon Sang-kyu, former owner of the now defunct Club Ta and frontman for rock band YNot, it was the reason he chose to close down his club.

“It wasn’t because of the high rent,” said a close associate of Jeon. “Rather, he was growing bored of the new music being played at the club in general.”

The club owner, who used to make up the monthly rent personally with money he made from his band activities, said he never made a profit in the ten years of operating his venue, according to an article in the Chosun Ilbo last October.

Relatedly, the marketability of indie acts has not gone unnoticed by major labels either, as bands such as Hyukoh, 10cm, and Kiha and the Faces have all had success on the charts against competition from mainstream artists. Hyukoh in particular signed with YG Entertainment’s new subsidiary indie label HighGrnd in 2015.

Additionally, the major record label Loen Entertainment announced last June of their establishment of Munhwain, an indie label which combined three existing companies: D Ocean Music, Musicabal and Evans Music.

The announcement also came with the news of the signing of ten popular indie acts, including the singer Oohyo.

“We plan on reinvigorating the local record industry through the use of indie music,” said the company.

Hong Gyeong-min, the manager of Club FF, however, shared a different idea regarding the matter.

“I think the scene is what matters most,” he said. “Just 4-5 years ago, there was much bigger interest in rock and live band music. But now, whenever you turn on the TV, you hear so much hip-hop from shows like ‘Show Me the Money,’ which is why people are leaving to go listen to that music instead. The scene has changed.”

The hip-hop music trend is indeed growing. While the most recent audition program for bands called “Top Band 3” on KBS2 was only able to reach a 2.7 percent viewership rating for a show on a major network station, the cable channel Mnet’s “Show Me the Money 5” not only was a huge hit, but songs from contestants on the show also topped the charts.

“Of course, rising rent does play a large factor” he said. “But overall, customers that used to love rock and indie music have left.”

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