In a market dominated by K-pop idols hailing from music moguls like S.M. Entertainment, YG Family and JYP Entertainment, independent music holds onto a very small fraction of the industry.
Sequestered in the clubs of Hongdae, indie music earned a smidgen of limelight in its 90`s infancy before fading into the background. Then, late last year, it experienced a renaissance of sorts.
A series of noteworthy artists, including the currently popular "Chang Kiha and the faces," shifted to the forefront.
Their sound, unique yet homegrown, hit airwaves across the nation. Dorked out or dressed down, wielding instruments instead of snap dance moves, indie acts reached out to a wider audience via television and radio.
Predictions of indie`s move into the mainstream circuit proliferated. In the din of the press, artists continued to create and record independently, building off 10-plus years of indie history.
Wary of waning media attention yet hopeful of change, the indie music scene stands poised on the brink of a potential revival.
Indie on the rise
Polaroids of independent artists take up a wall of editor-in-chief Kim Min-jung`s office. Creator of the webzine, "Editor Kim`s Indie Stories," and assistant director to the culture planning group Sang Sang Gong Jang, the 30-year old indie buff churns out pieces from her perch in Hongdae.
After studying jazz, she joined the group in 2002, started covering the indie scene and established her webzine in 2003.
Kim keeps over 13,000 members updated on the latest in indie news, concerts and artists. A hard copy version is slated to hit presses soon.
Surrounded by stacks of CDs, Kim sits down to clue The Korea Herald in on the history of the nation`s indie music scene.
"They say the indie scene started in the mid-90s," Kim begins. "There were no clubs before then, you see."
The introduction of clubs initiated an influx of bands. Punk rock took over circa 1997, says Kim.
According to indie artist Hahn Vad, music from America, Nirvana`s Kurt Cobain in particular, served as inspiration for fledgling indie bands.
"That was when indie music received a lot of attention, until the year 2000," Kim explained, before charting the scene`s rapid slide into relative obscurity.
Why the sudden loss of interest?
Indie band "cheezstereo" vocalist-cum-guitarist Lee Dong-hoon and bassist Choi Young-hugh attribute the scene`s fizzle to a lack of diversity and drop in quality.
"Following the first boom in the indie scene, just about anyone and everyone - even those without skills or an indie mindset - jumped in and flooded audiences with low quality performances" bassist Choi draws his own conclusions. "Audiences, turned off, left the scene."
"Like Young-hugh said, identical punk rock and modern rock teams rushed in," Lee added.
The scene went underground. In a stretch that lasted nearly eight years, independent artists quietly multiplied, diversified and experimented, maintaining a precarious foothold in the music industry.
Towards the end of 2008, according to Kim, indie music finally exploded back onto the music scene, with the limelight turning to indie artists Chang Kiha and the faces and Yozoh.
"Frankly speaking, it is about time that people got sick of listening to mass-produced pop music," Kim breaks it down, attributing the revival of interest to the timely intersection of a demand for good music, the development of the internet and independent music.
Here at the cusp of what may or may not be an indie renaissance, around 30 live clubs and, based on statistics gathered a couple of years ago, around 600 to 700 active indie bands populate Hongdae, says Kim.
Living under a stereotype that categorizes them as impoverished amateurs, the 600-something independent musicians, in reality, defy categorization.
The Korea Herald tracked down several noteworthy acts, emerging and established, to get a peek of the scene from the inside.
Pulling on a couple of cigarettes, post-rehearsal, pre-performance, two-man indie band Goonamguayeoridingstella sit in the wings. In the clang and clamor of acts prepping for the Korean Music Awards Charity Concert, 29-year old Joh Woong and 27-year old Eem Byoung-hak relate their history.
"We go way back," vocalist-programmer-guitarist Joh, decked out in a corduroy jacket and thick glasses, refers to fellow bassist-programmer Eem, who he has known for 13 years.
After sharing a living space together, running a pub together, it only seemed natural that they form a band together. The duo, in the words of their label manager Kwon Yong-jin, are "hot right now."
Boasting a sound that is hard to pinpoint - part-folk, part-electro, part-disco - Joh and Eem manage to combine poignant vocals with tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and are a favorite of indie label BGBG Records president Go Geon-hyeok.
In a piece titled "Korean Language" off their first album, "We Are Clean," Joh and Eem layer dreamy guitar chords over a light danceable beat. In a keening voice, Joh sings: "I look at your eyes and talk, suddenly, I/ know how to speak what language am I speaking/ Korean I know I/ am speaking Korean/ Gagyaguhgyuhgogyeogoogyoogeugee."
He subsides into gibberish.
In "Unfortunate Romance," slow, echoing vocals and blowsy guitars etch out lingering passions before briskly transitioning into an old school disco beat.
"We have a tone, neither depressing, nor upbeat, in the middle," Joh neatly encapsulates his band`s sound in one sentence.
Why the long name?
"Goo can mean old, nine or gooey," Joh elaborates. "Nam guayeo" means man and woman in Korean. Stella, according to Joh, is a car, most likely the Hyundai Stellar, that both his father and Eem`s mother drove.
"In elementary school, I liked the songs my dad played me in the car."
In a small studio apartment near Hongdae, indie artist Cha Hyo-sun composes music for her band Trampauline with a computer, sampler and synthesizer. Cha samples her synth-electro song "Monsoon," off her first album. Her cat Bori swishes back and forth before taking up a spot on top of her fridge.
An English teacher, Cha puts her language skills to good use.
All her songs are in English.
In "Teresa" she sings "I just can`t tell how far / we can carry on / when sex is sex flesh is flesh" to soft guitar chords that back her sweet vocals.
"I started making songs on my own four years ago," the 32-year old musician explained. "Just being an average joe was boring."
Having recently signed on with prominent indie label Pastel Music, Cha is prepping for her second album.
Despite her use of English lyrics, Cha stresses the importance of localization in the indie scene.
"I don`t believe there are many artists in the indie scene who do their own thing."
Hahn Vad is one of the few, then, who does his own thing. As one-man band amature amplifier, the 35-year old film buff-turned-musician garnered press for his wigs and skirts and for inviting audiences to throw onions at him.
"It is exciting when they (the onions) hit you," he laughs.
Folding his act, due to marriage and the passing of his father, Hahn Vad turned his attention to his digital one-man band Yamagata Tweakster - instigated by the purchase of a Macintosh PowerBook and a dance music-making program - to his folk one-man band Nune-Piro and to his role as a bassist in the four-member punk band Stretching Journey.
For someone so active, it comes as a bit of a surprise when one discovers that Hahn picked up a guitar because he wanted to make music for his films.
But while Hahn`s first love may be his films, he harbors a wealth of knowledge and a boatload of opinions when it comes to independent music.
"In Busan or Daegu or Jeonju, there are plenty of musicians, chandelier-like musicians," Hahn expressed his frustration at the concentration of independent music in Hongdae, revealing that Daegu, his hometown, even has its own sound, one that he calls "hard and somewhat dark."
Hahn, on the other hand, seems to have received little influence from his hometown. While his lyrics may border on depressing every now and then, they are often backed by a danceable beat and seem pretty much angst-free.
His outlook on the current indie scene is relatively upbeat also.
"Right now I think a motif is emerging from within us," he elaborated, contrasting it to the 90`s when independent artists received inspiration from American alternative and grunge music.
Hahn has also been witness to the increasing globalization of the Korean indie market, not solely via the internet, but in Seoul itself. According to Hahn, at a concert held in mid-May two-third`s of the audience were foreigners.
"I was surprised," he said. "I felt it for sure, then. Wow, the scene itself is gradually becoming more open, to foreigners."
To Hahn`s chagrin, however, indie music seems to be crossing over to pop, in his opinion.
Not one to be discouraged, Hahn is busy working on his fourth album as the late amature amplifier, which will include his potent "Four Seasons Weeper" a unique fusing of strong back beats to spacey vocals and a folk guitar sound.
The only band to be signed onto the tight indie label BGBG Records of Chang Kiha fame that did not hang out with the label`s founders in college - to elaborate the label was a natural outcropping of a group of Seoul National University kids with shared interests - "cheezstereo" are hard at work on their first full-length album.
Boasting an electro-free sound, the three-man band possesses an old school vibe, something that conjures Beatles and disco all at once, something you want to bop to.
Guitarist and vocalist Lee Dong-hoon leads the pack, with drummer Ha Seung-woo and bassist Choi Young-hugh in tow.
Until recently leader Lee worked at Starbucks, while bassist Choi currently works at a convenience store.
"There is a bit of profit coming from music sales and whatnot but it isn`t as much as what you get part-time, right?" Lee turns to Choi.
"Just, like, pocket money." Choi answers.
Despite the low profits, Lee remains optimistic.
"If you are suited up with your own distinctive and good sound and music, then I think opportunities will come knocking, I think that, without a doubt, a time to shine will come," the 29-year old vocalist states with conviction.
When asked if he really believes that an opportunity will present itself, he pauses, mulls over it a bit before replying: "Just how far can we really go even if we continue to make our own music, good music? One ends up worrying about that a lot. But I want to stay hopeful, because if I look at it in a cold and objective light then, to be honest, one really can`t do music."
Indie going mainstream?
Has the time come for indie to go mainstream?
Two indie labels and a record store president give us their answers.
Oft considered the quintessential example of an independent label who made it big, Pastel Music shot to fame by working on soundtracks for hit dramas like "Coffee Prince," "Sikgaek" and "New Heart" and also for music placements on TV commercials.
"We see the future of indie in a positive light. ... TV appearances have increased for all indie artists," Pastel Music CEO Lee Eung-min says.
Pastel Music marketing team manager Yoon Eun-hee also sees a movement that stretches beyond Hongdae, "There are (indie) performances elsewhere in the city and people go. ... Musicians are the focus."
With approximately 30 independent artists under its label, including the woman of the moment Yozoh, Pastel Music stands at the crossroads that separate independent music from the mainstream.
"Naturally, we are the middle, intermediaries," CEO Lee states.
"I don`t think there are major boundaries between indie and major (artists)," Lee elaborates. "The boundaries are more blurred."
At the opposite end of the spectrum stands the small yet well known label BGBG Records. Formed by a group of college buddies and manned by eight employees, BGBG currently houses seven acts, including Chang Kiha and the faces.
BGBG president Go Geon-hyeok takes a more cautious stance toward the recent surge of interest.
"When I saw articles on Chang Kiha my mouth dropped," said Go via e-mail.
"In truth, the part that the media is interested is not the point at which indie music is most active but just an exposed portion of it, for example Chang Kiha and the faces," Go stated.
Go, however, does see certain changes in the indie scene. He sees a gradual movement away from clubs, with several labels exposing their musicians to concert halls.
"Rather than saying that indie music is going mainstream, I think it is more accurate to say that a part of the masses are going indie," Go defined his take on the current situation.
Hyang Music CD shop president Kim Kun-hill, however, believes that Korea has yet to see an indie star.
Having set up shop in Sinchon in 1991, Kim boasts a separate category for Korean indie music on his website.
"(Indie labels) used to get used but now they have wised up," says Kim, "These days as part of marketing they go out on TV, on radio, and do concerts. They are going in various directions and spreading it out evenly. And they help each other a lot now."
Yet Kim sees a disparity in recognition, "Because no matter how often you say that indie has become revitalized, there are a lot of friends who sell under a 100 and then friends who sell 3,000 or 5,000 (albums)."
"If they bring it, I will sell it no matter what," Kim expresses his support for independent music. "Because those friends want to do music ... so if they want to do music, they need an album. Then someone needs to sell those albums. Then those friends will continue to perform."
Editor Kim`s Indie Stories: cafe.daum.net/Indiestory
Goonamguayeoridingstella: www.cavare.co.kr, club.cyworld.com/ goonamguayeoridingstella
Trampauline: myspace.com/ trampauline
Hahn Vad: myspace.com/ yamagatatweaksterNunepiro, club.cyworld.com/am-am, cafe.daum. net/amatureamp
cheezstereo, BGBG Records: www.bgbg.co.kr
Pastel Music: www.pastelmusic. com
Hyang Music: www.hmusic.co.kr, (02) 334-0283
By Jean Oh