By Kim Hoo-ran
Because of all the cooking involved, the days leading up to Seollal are filled with growing anxiety and dread. I am sure I am not alone in feeling this way. So it was with a sense of weariness that I started making galbijjim, or braised short ribs, after the dinner table had been cleared on the eve of Lunar New Year’s Day.
This year, however, there was one consolation: The prospect of streaming hours of Korean indie music on YouTube while cooking. This year’s annual celebration marking the birthday of rocker Han Kyung-rock was held online under the title “2021 Kyungrockjeol in the House.” In any other year, Kyungrockjeol, one of the top three festivals in Hongdae, would have been a beer-filled affair where indie bands perform to rowdy audiences that grew more drunk with each performance.
For years now, I had secretly wanted to attend one of these festivals. But I had stayed away for a good reason -- someone in her 50s who does not drink would stick out like a sore thumb among the screaming, headbanging crowd. And now, coronavirus be damned, I finally had a chance to take part, even if virtually.
And listening to music that was neither K-pop nor trot and chopping veggies to the beat of a punk band was loads of fun. Every once in a while, when a tune caught my attention, I would stop stirring the pot and look up to check who was on. Whether I was jumping around with a wooden spoon in my hand, I shall not say.
As soon I got up the following morning to resume cooking, I turned to YouTube to see if the show was still going on. It had ended only a few minutes earlier after showing 83 artists from home and abroad for some 18 hours non-stop.
Between acts, rocker Han walked the empty, forlorn streets of once bustling Hongdae. For years, the area had been a place where budding musicians, with guitars on their backs, walked from gig to gig. The venues that were once packed with enthusiastic crowds seeking new sounds now stood desolate.
During the pandemic that has left nothing unscathed, numerous indie music venues, including large, well-known ones with decades of history, vanished overnight, unable to continue as various stages of social distancing schemes forced them to shut down for extended periods.
Smaller ones, with less overhead costs, struggle to stay open, scheduling performances that often end up being canceled as the number of coronavirus cases rises. Bereft of venues to perform at, artists are without a way to make a living.
Virtual performances are often suggested as an alternative to live performances, with K-pop idol bands’ hugely successful livestream concerts that attract global fans cited as a path to follow. That is an example of how an adversity is turned into an opportunity, it is said.
However, the conditions are vastly different for indie musicians, who are without the resources to livestream high-quality productions. A glittering stage with hundreds of screens showing fans from around the world eagerly wielding glow sticks could not be farther from the realities of the indie music scene.
The artists performing at “Kyungrockjeol in the House” recorded their acts in cramped rooms and studios without sophisticated sound equipment or glitzy backdrop. Han acknowledged many sponsors who provided equipment and instruments free of charge, without whose help the online festival would not have been possible.
The government has pledged to support artists but that help has been slow in coming. For indie musicians, in particular, such support seems out of reach due to the requirements that must be met in applying for assistance. Without speedy action, the indie music scene in Korea will die a slow death.
Diversity enriches a nation’s cultural life and it is time that we pay greater attention to making sure that vibrant creative spirit thrives in in all cultural sectors.
Kim Hoo-ran is the culture desk editor at The Korea Herald. -- Ed.