I wrote a 1600 word rant about the Korean indie music scene spurned from my thoughts coming from a comment made on Seoulbeats‘ Chat Box recap of KCON LA 2016. When reading it over, I realized that posting it in the original form would likely get me banned from talking in public about Korean music.
Rather than lose the main points, I’m making a post that’s simpler to digest. Anything in quotes is a copy/paste from the original article. Maybe I’ll post the original at some point in the future. Keep in mind, these are my personal thoughts and opinions.
Seoulbeats Comment: I was called “pessimistic” by a writer about the Korean indie scene. This was his impression from the Uncovering Korean Indie Panel at KCON LA 2016. Seoulbeats did realize that my background with Korean indie music is different from most people. (Thanks for the link!)
My Point: He’s right. I am pessimistic. Because I’m friends with many bands and heard stories and experiences as a musician in South Korea and touring the United States.
Why I’m Pessimistic
“Could be because I’m old.”
“I’ve been writing about Korean music in some form since 2008 or 2009.”
“Let’s also consider that blogs about Korean music, Kpop specifically, have a short online life. While some sites have become click-bait wonderlands, many smaller fan-driven blogs exist for a time and then the people behind them start posting less and eventually these sites stagnate. That’s the cycle of interest. That’s why South Korea spends so much money pushing Hallyu internationally. It has to replenish the fans that leave. All the respect to South Korea for knowing the business side of exporting entertainment.”
“Surface level comprehension of Korean independent music annoys me. Even if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of bands, that means you know of a lot of bands. But do you know anything other than the genre of music they play, the number of members, or how many releases they have?”
My Point: I’ve seen sites come and go. South Korea is focused on specific content exports. Bands are not products, they are people.
Why My Experience Is Different
“The second being that I am friends with a lot of bands. In 2012 former Yellow Monsters/current Jambinai touring drummer Jae Hyuk Choi said that a lot of Korean bands knew about the site (didn’t know who I was) and couldn’t believe that someone outside of South Korea was writing about indie music.”
“I started writing about Korean music as a way to connect with my heritage through an interest.”
“I also never subscribed to the necessity of distance between myself, being the reporter/editor, and bands, subject matter, like I would when I was a video game or tech journalist. Their struggles are part of the history of the scene and it’s something that needs to be understood. Some big media have covered Korean indie music in the past, but what kind of story can you get in a five or ten minute video? Only one that fits the time limit.”
My Point: I met bands and become friends with them. I’m Korean. The site introduces bands and facilitates discovery. Mainstream media have an angle they need to present.
Why Korean Indie Music Isn’t Popular For Tours In The United States
“Another problem with tours is that acts branded solely as “Korean” music aren’t very marketable outside of certain cities.”
“If you’ve watched the United States visa issues over the past couple years for artists, you might have noticed its gotten a hell of a lot more difficult.”
“It’s not cheap to apply and it takes forever.”
“Part of the paperwork that helps approval is media coverage. So when you see a bunch of interviews or news going out for these bands coming, now you know why.”
“Also, this is a slight annoyance from other sites, an interview is only “exclusive” if you’re the only site to publish it.”
My Point: Majority of people won’t go to a strictly “Korean” music show. I’ve seen it personally many times. Visa issues are a constant. Money is always an issue. “Exclusive” interviews are generally bullshit.
Why Touring The United States Might Not Be Worth It
“Another issue is that for some of tours, bands don’t get paid. That’s right. They don’t make any money from playing. While their flight and hotel are usually paid for, their trip is essentially an expense. For bands, merchandise sales can make these trips worth it. So next time you’re watching bands in the US, buy something from them. The band genuinely appreciate it.”
“Sometimes I see people lament that Kpop artists aren’t playing near where they live, but considering the touring costs have to be balanced by ticket sales, you have to put the odds of breaking even by selling tickets where they will possibly sell. And I mean sell, not sell out.”
My Point: South Korean Government usually funds tours, but bands don’t get paid for appearances. Buy merch. Kpop shows are designed to maximize profit not fan experience.
Bands Don’t Make Money Digitally
“From what I see, at least through Bandcamp, there is a small conversion of someone reading a review to buying the music from the artist. Interviews also include social media and digital purchases when possible. But generally it doesn’t lead to a person buying the music which is unfortunate.”
“Now with streaming services, musicians may see even less money because it’s a payment based off per play. So rather than a dollar a song for the track, the band will make a percent of a cent as the song is played.”
“Here’s a real honest question: do you buy music or do you just stream it? Which do you consider is really supporting the band?”
My Point: Buy music from Bandcamp to directly support artists. Stream on repeat. Support artists with your money.
Bands Really Don’t Make Money Digitally In South Korea
“South Korean music portals are bullshit.”
“So while pop singles can do really well because of the massive amount of interest, independent artists are kind of screwed. But given the options, they don’t really have a choice.”
“Now that Apple Music is available in South Korea, maybe things will change to benefit indie artists more.”
My Point: Business model is shit. Indie bands have limited options. Apple Music could be good.
Festivals Are Still A Business
“to bring these bands to South Korea, these companies have to put up a lot of money. So after the big international headliners, the remaining money goes to local bands.”
“As an example, if out of the budget 80% goes to international bands, 20% would go to local indie bands”
My Point: It costs a lot of money to entice big acts to play in South Korea. Local artists split the leftovers.
Korean Indie Music In Korean Dramas
“The bottom line is that a small Korean band has no leverage against an entertainment company. Terms are likely never going to be in favor of the band.”
If you really want to see Korean independent music grow as a form of entertainment outside of South Korea, it’s going to come down to money and interest. The more international media covers bands and artists (and I mean actually research, not just post a YouTube video), the South Korean government will see worth in putting up more money for bands. Like I mentioned in the KCON LA panel, the biggest thing will always be the balance between money spent and money earned.
Support the bands by buying their music especially if they’re on Bandcamp. When shows are announced, go to them. Tell your friends. Get them to go. Show support on social media. Raise the awareness of Korean independent music so there’s a reason for mainstream media to get an interest, rather than only during tour season.
Think about it in these terms. What kind of content do mainstream sites cover about Korean music? Why? Pageviews lead to ad impressions lead to revenue.
Remember there’s a feature where you can ask questions directly: Starting A New Feature Called Answered By Korean Indie