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(Yonhap Feature) Hardships of being an indie musician in Korea
By Niels Footman
Contributing Writer
SEOUL, Dec. 10 (Yonhap) - When singer Song Eun-jie made a shock admission about her life as a musician in Korea, it was sadly unsurprising to people familiar with Korea's indie scene. "I'm 30 and I make around 600,000 won (US$520) a month, which leaves me just enough to buy a little make-up. My parents say I should get married, or tell me to find a proper job," she said.

   Speaking in a cable TV documentary in January about Sogyumo Acacia Band, for whom she is the lead singer, Song provided a stark reminder that however vibrant Korea's TV shows and pop culture have become in recent years, life for the country's indie musicians remains extremely onerous.

   Nor was hers the only tale of hardship among Korea's indie musicians to make news this year. Following the death of Lee Jin-won, the singer with indie band Moonlight Nymph, from a heart attack in early November, stories soon emerged of the serious financial difficulties he had reportedly faced toward the end of his life.

   Within days, rumors were circulating on short-message social network service Twitter that Lee had even received the meager royalties for online use of his songs in a virtual currency called dotori, used on Korea's Cyworld social networking site.

   Cyworld's parent company, SK Communications, swiftly denied the allegations. But the fact that they were so readily believed, and so widely retweeted, spoke volumes.

   Paradoxically, however, in some ways the indie scene in Korea has never had it so good. Practically non-existent through the country's decades of dictatorship and seclusion, Korea's indie scene began stuttering to life in the mid-1990s as the country opened up, became wealthier and gained increasing exposure to foreign culture.

   In the space of a few years, a series of live venues and bands sprang up in the Hongdae area surrounding Hongik University in western Seoul, which remains Korea's indie epicenter to this day.

   "Compared with 10 years ago, the changes in opportunities (for indie musicians) can look somewhat positive," says Lee Gi-yong, lead singer with indie stalwarts Huckleberry Finn, who released their first album in 1998.

   "There are many more big rock festivals these days … there is much more home recording and use of the internet and social networking has spread enormously. For these reasons, musicians don't have to go through music agencies, and they have a better chance of becoming famous through their creativity and ideas," he said.

  
Though it hasn't always been easy being in an indie band, Huckleberry Finn singer Lee Gi-yong (left) is pursuing the career he always dreamed of. (Photo courtesy of Yescom Entertainment)


Indeed, in July of this year, Korea's Asia Today newspaper felt sufficiently convinced to publish a story called "the renaissance of Korean indie," which cited the growing interest in indie through talent shows and the TV show Space Gonggam on EBS, a cable channel.

   But for Lee Hyun-song, vocalist with up-and-coming indie band The Koxx, shows like Space Gonggam are a drop of exposure in an ocean of media indifference.

   "There are some shows on cable that introduce indie bands, but I think the position of indie in TV is generally very low," he says. "I think the problem is that all Korean media are simply dominated by K-pop and idols."

   On this point, Mark Russell, a cultural critic and author of Pop Goes Korea, agrees.

   "I think the big difference in Korea (compared with other music markets) is the huge emphasis on teen pop music. Not everyone likes pop, and not everyone is a teenager, which means there are several large music markets that are basically untapped," Russell said.

   "Korea has a huge amount of creativity and energy in its music scene. The problem is that the whole structure is undernourished," he added.

   However much Korean music may have grown in popularity in the last 10 to 15 years, this lack of resourcing remains a massive burden on the industry and, particularly, on the musicians themselves.

   In an age of collapsing CD sales, indie bands are lucky to sell even a few thousand copies of their albums. And this problem has been enormously exacerbated by the thorny issue of downloads, even in the instances they are legally obtained.

   According to a recent media report, of the 500 won big music sites usually charge for a song download, just 200 won makes it to the performer and his or her label once fees and copyright charges have been deducted.

   Making matters even worse, most online music comes not through downloading individual songs, but from monthly subscriptions for streaming sites. For this, indie bands can see as little as 50 won, or less, per song.

   "The system for distributing revenue from downloads is very irrational from the musicians' point of view," says Lee Gi-yong. "We are extremely unhappy with a system we see as 'the bear dances on the stage, but the money goes elsewhere.'"

   Nor, despite the increasing number of large rock festivals, does income from live performances offer much support.

   "Musicians make most of their money from shows, but few of them make enough for it to even be worthy of the name 'income from performances,'" says Lee Gi-yong.

   Unsurprisingly, such low incomes make it very difficult for indie performers to survive on music alone. Some, such as members of The Koxx, take side-jobs as session musicians or music teachers. Others open their own businesses; Lee Gi-yong himself now runs a popular bar in the Hongdae area.

  
Up-and-coming indie band The Koxx, with lead singer Lee Hyun-song on the far left.(Photo courtesy of The Koxx)


Given these difficulties and the inherent instability of being an indie musician in Korea, the obvious question is, why do it?

   "It was my dream from when I was young, so it's been like a fantasy but it's also made me very disenchanted with real life," says Lee Gi-yong. "The hardest time was around the period when I realized I couldn't escape from this fantasy. In my case, I accepted everything around the time we made our second album, so I feel much more content these days."

   "At first, (our families) worried a lot about our making music," says Lee Hyun-song from The Koxx, "but now they think it's good and some of our friends are even quite jealous!"

   "We just want to play the music we like to lots of people. We want to get a lot of love in Korea, and to get proper recognition overseas as well," he added.

   nielsfootman@gmail.com
(END)