“Steppin out” into Hongdae
Updated: May 5, 2020
Last Saturday we arrived in Seoul after a 16-hour direct flight from Detroit. Fourteen hours ahead of our Michigan time zone, it is a bit odd to check in back home and realize it’s in fact yesterday? Settling in for the semester it has been a week of opening bank accounts, swapping out sim cards and learning how to put out the trash.
Past the mundane we have been exploring our new neighborhood of Hongdae (홍대). Located in the area next to Hongik University, where I will be teaching, Hongdae is actually an abbreviation of Hongik and Daehakgyo (meaning university). Hongdae is used to describe both the neighborhood and the University. The perfect pairing in that the excellence in formal arts education at Hongik has led, in part, to a vibrant often pulsing underground music and art scene that first took off in the early 90’s.
Korean indie, as in the US, originally referred to independently produced music with fewer commercial trappings and support. Seen here in South Korea by many as the counterbalance to the highly produced K-Pop bands; Korean indie is often described as having a grittier sound and message originally filtered mostly through punk and rock stylings. Developed after the June Democracy Uprising of 1987, the movement soon took root right here in Hongdae taking full advantage of cheap real estate and eager young audiences. Originally clubs like Spot and Drug (also a music label) helped launch bands including Crying Nut, and Sister’s Barbershop.
But after the Asian financial crisis of 1997 many sectors of the Korean economy struggled including the Korean indie music scene here in Hongdae. Combined with the development of digital music and the ability to pirate songs rather than purchase CD sales waned and many young rockers pivoted to other careers. Later in the mid 2000’s Hongdae saw a surge in real estate interest and much of the area now suffers from gentrification, pricing out most up and coming artists leaving the area with an East Village meets Bath and Body Works vibe.
Although Hongdae continues to be home to some underground clubs, it is hard to tell whether these venues are hosting the next wave of indie bands, or offering nostalgic experiences for their original aging audiences. Using a broader definition of “indie” Korean culture observers differ in describing the second wave of Korean indie bands, mostly because of additional resources offered to these alternative music groups. Are bands like Kiha & the Face, Broccoli, You too? or Jambinai (photo above) less boot strap operations and more commercial enterprises, because of expanded opportunities to perform in concerts and festivals backed by large corporations?
In any case, the sound of these new indie bands appears more laid-back acoustic than angry young punk. Our apartment is right in the middle of it all, and once I get a handle on this jetlag and can stay awake past 8pm I’ll be able to report first hand on this next wave of Korean indie, well at least whoever’s playing in my new neighborhood.
Thanks for listening.