Electronic music is one of the lesser known components of Korean music. It wasn’t until I discovered the label Young, Gifted & Wack that my eyes were opened to the many seasoned, unique musicians that inhabit the genre.
Young, Gifted & Wack has helped to bring light to several fantastic electronic musicians, such as First Aid, LOBOTOMY, 75A, Saram12Saram, and Sima Kim, to name a few. The label’s caliber of work is extremely high and not to mention hip. I got the chance to interview HAVAQQUQ, the owner of the label. He discusses a variety of topics knowledgeably and in great depth, such as his values and role as a label owner and the electronic music scene in Korea,
What made you decide to create your own label?
I was always doing things in the periphery of the scene. I worked as a manager for a band, a programmer of a festival, and even wrote for a music magazine. My main gig was writing, and I did project planning at an IT company and some SNS marketing work. (I still have these jobs to support myself and my company, Young, Gifted & Wack.) I felt like I could create a label different from preexisting ones with my love for music, my experiences in the field, and my strengths. Coincidentally, my good friend LOBOTOMY was preparing for an album at the time. I suggested we work together.
Are you a musician yourself?
I do make music and I’ve released a a few of my works. If ideas pop into my head I put down rough sketches. But I don’t do music as a career. I’m busy enough with operating a label. Don’t you think I would be more of a help to humanity by supporting talented artists as opposed to making music with my lack of talent? I don’t know how Young, Gifted & Wack label artists feel, but I always see myself as the “third member” of each label artist.
Unlike band music where you play together and exchange ideas and get audience feedback through live performances, electronic music is made through a lonely process. My experience in making music helps me give specific feedback to their music. The timing of spinning the cutoff filter is a little fast on this track, the stereo image needs to be wider, things like that. Isn’t it like what a member of a band does in some aspect?
What was the process of starting the Young, Gifted, and Wack like?
The Young label was established to make Lobotomy’s Lemon album. The problem was that that album wasn’t finished after the label was established. It still hasn’t been finished. In the beginning, it was more of a media channel than a label. Overseas labels like Mad Decent operating media channels to introduce new music and influence the music scene impressed me. I didn’t think releasing Lobotomy’s new album in Korea right away would garner much attention. I didn’t want it to become like other albums. I interviewed a couple musicians working in the same vein and in a similar place, and released a free sampler with their music.
I wanted to discover new artists, so I organized a remix competition of Danpyunsun and MukimukiManmansu’s music. At the time, there weren’t media channels like this so we had a lot of responses — one of them was the Re:Born project, in which we reinterpreted the music from the 1st generation of electronic music artists from the 90’s. It was a suggestion from the now nonexistent Seoul Electronic City, and I think it was around then that we started to be recognized as an electronic music label. My preferences had also been leaning towards electronic music rather than band music, and I felt like it would be good to solidify our direction as an electronic music label because there weren’t any at the time.
What would you identify as the purpose of Young, Gifted & Wack?
It’s not a very romantic answer, but the answer would be survival. Young, Gifted & Wack helps sustain other musicians, and the musicians help sustained Young, Gifted & Wack.
The music and media industry is changing every second and the power of capital is growing stronger. The size of the electronic music scene isn’t big enough to support itself. At the beginning, my goal was to expand the scene through direct involvement and activity. If the scene grew, my friends and I would get things to do. In a way, my goal now has become smaller than my goal then. The number of musicians I work with has grown, and I have to make sure that they can continue working on their music without losing pride in their work. Although our goals have gotten smaller, I feel like we could send out a positive signal to the scene if we survive.
How do you find new artists to add to the label?
Sometime in our early days, we organized all of the electronic music albums released in Korea two years ago and posted it to our website. I follow the SoundCloud profiles of all the electronic musicians working in Korea and listen to all of the albums. I need to keep up with the flow of the scene, not just to find new artists but to fulfill my responsibility as an organizer of Amfair, an electronic music fair. I get to evaluate artists from diverse perspectives, and if I find one that I feel like would be good to work with, I make an offer.
Even if it’s not a direct offer with the label, it could be participating in a show I’m organizing or connecting them with work. I just want the artists that I like to keep making music, regardless of my label. Sometimes this creates trust and leads to more collaboration down the road. I get a lot of demos, but they rarely lead to actual collaboration. It’s more of a personal preference thing rather than a skill thing.
Electronic music is a rapidly growing musical niche in South Korea, and Young, Gifted and Wack has played an important role in enriching the genre. How have you seen Korean electronic music grow over time, and how would you like to see it continue to grow throughout the years?
It can seem like that from the outside. The number of producers has certainly gone up. I don’t know if the number of consumers has risen, though. It seems like it’s become more approachable, but it would be difficult to say that this is a unique phenomenon within the electronic music genre.
I want to say that we were the appropriate role instead of an important role. If something had changed drastically I could say that we played a important role, but not a lot has changed yet. There are certain things that you have to do if you’re an underground scene, but the Korean electronic scene is so new that we don’t have a lot of these things. We observed what people in the band scene did and brought them over to the electronic scene.
It seems like electronic music is just considered “fun” music in Korea. Large-scale events are all EDM-related, and the most popular electronic music in Korea is Idiotape and Glen Check, which are both in the dance music category. Live performances are increasingly becoming the center of the worldwide music industry. Idiotape and Glen Check fulfill the masses’ wants to have fun at a concert venue.
I feel like the public takes all other kinds of music to be too hard. Unlike band music, where a person can think about the audio and the visuals in a directly connected way, electronic music has little to show in a live performance. It’s the same way for overseas electronic music scenes, but I think the difference is whether an audience who is still satisfied exists or not. There are very few people in Korea that are satisfied by a performance with purely electronic music. It is a positive thing that teams doing diverse types of music are popping up despite this. I hope they can continue to do music.
Are there any unique factors to the Korean electronic music scene that you think make it stand out from other electronic music scenes around the world?
A lot of the current pop music has roots in Anglo-American culture. In the case of Korea, we didn’t have concurrent exposure to this kind of music due to the political atmosphere and military dictatorship. There were a few who listened to music on American army bases and produced amazing results, but most people were oppressed by the government and couldn’t pursue music freely. Korea started to follow the world’s timeline with the 88 Seoul Olympics and the lifting of the ban of overseas travel in 89.
In the 90’s, music that imitated foreign music without a proper understanding of its context started popping up, and this is where K-pop has its roots. I feel like the reason K-pop is viewed amiably by foreigners is the aesthetic of this lack of understanding of context. And so, this kind brand of our music is surpassing foreign music by a long shot. Maybe it’s because of Korea’s geography, being close to being an island, but we’re generally unaccepting of things that are different from us.
The market for albums within Korea is all but decimated. There’s no meaning to album sales, except for big companies with huge fan bases like SM. In its place, however, a streaming service (for a fixed monthly fee) was able to take root faster than any other country. However, because of the profit structure and the characteristics of a streaming service, this can’t guarantee a manageable income. Also because of the fixed monthly fee, the profit is skewed towards artists in the top 10.
Another thing that we can’t leave out when discussing the Korean music industry is the noraebang (karaoke) industry. Noraebangs are usually places where groups of people go and sing songs that will lift up the group’s atmosphere. Songs that people don’t know and songs that require a lot of skill are not preferred. Korea has a singing based culture. ‘I am a Singer,’ ‘Masked Singer’ are programs that emerged from this narrative.
In addition, after the rise of local self-governing structures, local governments started coming up with events to positively influence elections. These events are usually free (to be more precise, they are operated with the taxes from the local citizens). Busan, which is the second largest city, has a free rock festival. These events are very important markets on the scene. In a market where albums have no sales and streaming doesn’t get artists money, most indie artists make a living on these events. Events are different from shows. Events aren’t planned based on the music.
In the event market, fame gets you a high guarantee. That’s why professional musicians go on TV shows like Show Me the Money or Unpretty Rapstar. Events are catered towards making people have fun. Musicians who do well in the events circuit are people that are famous and make people enjoy themselves. Also, people who are used to free events aren’t used to paying for concerts.
To summarize, the Korean music scene isn’t really relevant with the context or flow of the global music market. It emphasizes singing skill over sound, it’s hard to make money off of music and the main source of income is the event scene where fame and “fun” music is emphasized. The Korean electronic music scene could not be further from this. In its essence, it’s a genre that emphasizes flow and sound over singing skill, and is not favored in events. The biggest characteristic of the Korean electronic music scene is that the number of people wanting to pursue this kind of music is increasing in spite of all of these things.
How has the label changed over time?
In the beginning, media took up a lot of the focus. We had a lot less artists working with us back then. It was also the reason we conducted the RE:BORN project and Amfair. Now we have a lot more artists with us. That’s because of my personal hopes to work with certain artists, but also because we don’t have a lot of electronic music labels. With the increased workload that comes with the expanded label, the media side (even though it’s important) has been pretty much abandoned.
The business model also changed drastically. In the beginning, making a good album was the primary goal. My folder organization system for the Young label is still based on this catalogue-first approach. Now, I’m thinking more artist first than album first. We have to do management and marketing based on the artist and the music that the artist makes. It’s not like it was the complete opposite at the beginning, but this became bigger because of the status quo of the market. Overall, a lot more things to take care of and think about, more tiring than before. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I do the work alone.
Have you ever thought of making your label more international, or collaborating with more international artists?
We made a joke on April Fool’s Day this year that we had merged with WARP Records. Surprisingly, there were people who thought this was real and sent congratulatory messages. I thought the Young label was being overestimated. Temporary collaborations won’t have much meaning. There needs to be continuous collaboration, but we’re too lacking to pursue that kind of thing.
It’s hard enough trying to get noticeable results in Korea, and Korea’s basically an island so we’re severely lacking in network infrastructure with other countries. I think Korean Indie is doing a lot in such a situation. If you guys don’t think so, I hope you do now 🙂
For some of our readers in Korea or that may go to Korea, what are some of the prime regions, clubs, or venues to experience electronic music?
All of the infrastructure of culture is concentrated in Seoul. Just come to Seoul. Seoul is a city that has parties and concerts on weekdays, not just weekends. Although self-serving pleasure is a large part of it. I recommend a club called Cakeshop. It’s the club that cares the most about music in Korea.
What are some Korean indie groups of bands outside of Young, Gifted and Wack that you might recommend to the readers?
There are a lot of artists to recommend, but right now the hot button issue in Korea is anti-feminism and feminism so I want to recommend female artists. YUKARI, KIRARA, Saebyeok, Miiin. All are artists that pursue individual music and are expressing rare sensibilities.
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