Indie music returns to its seaside roots
“Right now, Busan is the new starting point [for indie musicians], where everything gets reorganized from its core,” said vocalist Jang Hyun-jung from Busan-based indie band Ann.
A boom in Busan-based albums
The quality of these albums, not only their quantity, also is worth taking note of. In addition to a vast number of records produced by rookie singers, there are some that were put together by veteran singers with more than 10 years’ experience on local stages.
These Busan-imbued albums demonstrate the rough-and-tough image of the city’s people through their lyrics and also mention specific location names and foods that only people from the region would recognize.
Members of punk band Yello Loko, who primarily perform in the southern Korean city, infuse a strong local dialect into their lyrics and are not afraid to swear and shout on stage. Another Busan-based artist, Kim Il-doo, pinpoints a specific village bus number in his song “If You Love Me.” And the headstrong style of confessing love to a woman in lyrics and melody describes the typical type of Busan-raised men we often see in movies and dramas.
A new way of using space
In Busan’s eastern area, there is a neighborhood called Millak-dong, which is famous for incubating many amateur musicians in its various studios, bars and small-scale festivals.
Last year, an indie training center opened inside Millak Subway Station. The space is used by about 30 bands as part of the Busan Cultural Foundation’s support project to nurture the artistic talents of youth.
When one of these bands wants to release an album, they can receive financial support from the program.
So far, six albums have been released off the back of the scheme. By the end of the year the foundation plans to support at least 10 bands in total.
A spate of live music clubs has added to the burgeoning scene in Busan, particularly in the fun-filled Pusan National University neighborhood.
Music fans can hop around some of the district’s venues with the purchase of one ticket through a club-tour program held every last Saturday of the month.
Tickets are available on site as well as through interpark.com, which provides a discount price.
Performers ranging from professional bands to university students make their way to the seashore when the sun goes down and play their rhythms to a handful of people. They usually sing until dawn.
“Gwangalli accepts only about four to five teams a day, and they have to apply in advance to the district’s borough office to get a permission,” said Choi Jin-woo, 23, the leader of vocal team Sound Palette, who held a performance on June 25 at the beach.
“In peak season, it’s hard to even get a reservation.”
Due to this, musicians gather on social media to form an alliance, and perform on university campuses and in subway stations. The local government is also helping them gain more opportunities, too.
“Galmegi Republic” returns
Busan in the 1980s and 1990s was considered a mecca of heavy metal and hard-rock music. As the city is only two hours away from Japan by ship, Western music could flow more easily into Busan. The wildness of the music genre also coincided with the regional characteristic of being raw and unpolished, which allowed it to prosper there.
In the late ’90s, the trend moved on from rock to indie music.
Recognizable bands like Pia, Every Single Day and Rainy Sun all have their roots in Busan, and by forming an alliance called “Galmegi Republic,” (galmegi means seagull in Korean) in the late ’90s, they entered the competitive Seoul music business.
The bands were so successful that it created rumors of Busan-based bands getting automatically picked up by agencies once they headed to Seoul.
But Busan’s fame did not last long as Hongdae in Seoul soon became the hub of Korean indie music. By the 2000s, the port city that was once well known for generating talented musicians one after another, had lost its status.
Yet artists are no longer mesmerized by the glamor of Seoul. After seeing senior musicians fail tremendously in the capital, people no longer dream of performing on its stages. What matters most for them now is how long they can do what they love, rather than where they do it.
“I have seen older singers from Busan go to Seoul and have a hard time making ends meet,” said drummer Lee Gwang-hyuk.
“They either return to Busan or just disappear unnoticed. We don’t want to make a lot of money through music. We just want to do the music we love for a long period of time. And in order to achieve that, I think it is right to build a foundation here, where we were raised.”
Naturally, as more artists decided to cultivate music in their hometown instead of going to the bigger city, the local music scene started to burst with authenticity.
Singers Kim Tae-choon and Kim Il-doo, who paved the way by gaining nationwide popularity with their Busan-themed songs, is one of the most noticeable examples.
Film director Bang Ho-jung, who made a documentary about the recent music boom in Busan, says the city’s musicians don’t care about what other people think of their sounds but stubbornly preserve their own style.
“If you just see Britain and the United States, they have very strongly colored local music,” said Bang.
“Critics say that music from Busan is being considered as a substitute for Korea’s overly standardized music.”
There are also environmental factors that have given an extra boost to the independent music industry in the city. Thanks to the KTX train service, people can now move from one side of the country to another within a day. Also, the development of social networks and YouTube has made promoting music a lot easier.
Vocalist Bae Jin-soo of Busan band Guamegi said that his band usually performs locally but has no problem traveling around the country on a tour. And, once in a while, they even head to Japan to perform, which takes just two hours by ship.
“Since a long time ago, Busan artists have actively interacted with Fukuoka, Japan,” said Bae.
“I think that Busan has a lot of potential to act as a base for international exchange.”
What’s in it for the future?
Despite all the promising prospects, it is too soon to say that musicians from Busan have achieved it all. The last task these artists have on their hands is to attract more of an audience.
For a lot of people out there who don’t know that this type of music scene exists in Busan, professional public relations is mandatory. And extra manpower is needed to plan enticing concerts more meticulously.
When looking at effective examples from overseas, Japan and the United States already have booming local music industries. In Japan, they even have idol groups that only perform in specific regions. Without a doubt, these kinds of factors are what makes the nation’s cultural assets more affluent than ever.
Jang Hyun-jung, who works as a cultural director in Busan, said that when she traveled to Los Angeles, she saw an ideal example of what Korea’s local music industry should be like.
“[When I was in Los Angeles,] world-famous band the Red Hot Chili Peppers was putting up posters for their concerts by themselves, getting around the village on their own motorcycles,” said Jang.
“Even though they are famous enough to have a world tour, they were not letting go of their own identity and roots. It was really impressive to see them perform in front of just dozens of people at a small club in their hometown. I hope Busan will be like that in the future.”
BY KIM HYO-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]