Some time ago, Julyssa over at YAM Magazine reached out to the editors of Korean Indie to have the concept of Korean indie music explained. I’m better at producing drafts than actual posts so I’ve been sitting on my answer for quite a while, but we’ll start introducing a bit of hip-hop on the site tomorrow so I figured it was about time I share my thoughts on the subject. As with indie music in general, there are a number of ways to define what constitutes Korean indie music and even among just the three of us at Korean Indie we’re not always in agreement but here it goes anyway.
First of all we have the concept of ‘indie’, or independent music, as such which is often subject to debate on its own. Traditionally the term ‘independent label’ was used to describe labels that were not associated with any of the major labels. Today one could argue that there are four or possibly just three major labels in the world, which explains why a writer of The Guardian’s music blog would call SM Entertainment an indie record label even though the mere thought of Girls’ Generation making indie music could be considered a joke to just about anyone that has ever listened to them. Nowadays many consider a label to be ‘indie’ if it releases music that isn’t considered mainstream.
So we have the independent labels that more or less by definition release ‘indie music’. But then we also have the term ‘indie’ to use in conjunction with various genre names to point out that the sound isn’t quite the same as what you’d hear from anyone making a similar kind of music in the mainstream. There’s the ‘indie pop’ and ‘indie rock’, ‘indietronica’ and a ton of more or less innovatively named related genres. During the 00s ‘indie’ pretty much took over the role of ‘alternative’ in the 90s although there is not complete overlap in the music styles which they cover. In the past many have argued that being signed to an indie label means you’ll also have an indie sound due to lack of production budget and whatnot, but with today’s affordable yet high quality home studio software that can hardly be considered the case anymore.
But enough about indie in general. How does this translate to the world of contemporary Korean music? If you’re familiar with K-Pop you know that the Korean music industry resembles a traditional industry with virtual idol factories and songs and idols alike produced to perfection. To many this is the only form of Korean music they will ever know, and having been a K-Pop fan for half of my life I’m sure not one to blame those that prefer the glossy and strangely addictive world of K-Pop over just about anything else. There are also many record companies that have yet to see any return on their investments, but with stardom for their trainees as a goal they can still be considered part of the K-Pop industry. Then of course there’s also the world of trot music–Korean adult pop, if you like–and all the veteran singers that while unknown to a young international audience are still stars in their own right.
Beyond all of this Korea hosts a wide range of labels releasing everything from the avant garde experimental to the blackest death metal, from mellow folk music to danceable electronica, from hardcore hip-hop to the sweetest pop. And there’s a plethora of musicians releasing their music all by themselves, whether by choice or because they simply haven’t found the right label yet. The work of these labels and musicians is what we strive to cover over at Korean Indie and what I personally refer to when I talk about Korean indie music.
A hardcore punk band may not make music considered indie rock, but they can still be considered indie in the sense of not being part of the K-Pop machinery. 10cm while now remarkably successful self-released their debut EP and still maintain the same sensibilities they had before all the buzz started. Since their participation in Superstar K3 Busker Busker are now under CJ&E management, but they too remain true to their original style and still write their own music. And somebody like Park Jiyoon, who made herself a name as an idol many years ago, can in a sense too be considered indie having turned around completely and now working primarily with musicians that can often be seen carrying their own guitar down the streets in Hongdae, Seoul’s foremost indie music district.
All may not agree with me. I know a number of people in the scene would be hard-pressed to consider musicians tied to Happy Robot or Pastel Music–two of the biggest Hongdae labels–indie even though they’re behind much of the indie pop released in Korea over the last few years.
Talking about indie music in Korea it’s not so much about sound or even mainstream vs. underground as it is about idol vs. non-idol. You have to be the judge of whether to consider a Korean artist indie or not, but of course you could always find somebody to disagree with you.