Trials & tribulations of SuperColorSuper
When Sean Maylone brought over U.S. dance-punk band Liars to Korea he thought he’d made a big score. Well-regarded in independent music circles, the band was sure to generate a lot of hype. They showed up thinking they’d be performing in front of thousands of rabid Korean fans, but when someone made a phone call and reported them without the correct visa to perform, they sat in their hotel room for days, unable to play.
The Korea Media Rating Board, which approves of foreign content — and was responsible for the age restriction on the Lady Gaga show — canceled their tours and told SuperColorSuper if they put it on they were breaking the law.
Since they had already paid for the venue, Maylone cobbled together a last-minute show with a couple of local bands and DJs, but it was a considerable financial blow for Maylone and his small but dedicated team of indie music promoters at SuperColorSuper.
“When Liars collapsed there was a huge outpouring of support. Right now we are facing a similar situation, where people have attention on us, since the announcement of the possible close (of SCS),” Maylone said.
Since June of 2009, Maylone, the founder and head organizer of SCS, has been trying to fill a long empty void — international acts for affordable prices — not only in Seoul, but across Korea.
With the help of Violet Her, who handles the Korean end of the operation, and up to 100 volunteers that act as a street team, SCS has put on shows in Seoul, Daegu, Busan, Cheonan, Gwangju and Daejeon.
Maylone, 30, grew up in California, close to Sacramento. In a telephone interview with Groove Korea he spoke about West Coast venues he admired, like Portland, Oregon’s Holocene, a small space well known for putting on cutting-edge shows.
Holocene is the kind of venue where people go to concerts without knowing who the band is first, trusting the taste of the venue. “You look at their calendar and there are good bands every night of the week,” Maylone said.
That’s what Maylone has been trying to build with SCS. They’ve put on roughly 40 bands with a lot of indie cred, including Xiu Xiu, Dan Deacon and Mogwai, and SCS has been trying to turn people on to new music based on their upcoming show list.
Maylone mentioned the tastemaker website Pitchfork and the way it can make or break a band.
“We’re trying to build up that reputation,” he said.
In May they’re putting on shows by indie stalwarts Blonde Redhead and Asobi Seksu.
International cities like Berlin, New York and Tokyo have a constant influx of bands from around the world.
“We wanted to make Seoul have that kind of scene,” Maylone said. He would like to see the city become a lifeline for music goers and a cultural hub.
It’s tough, when you’re dealing with a lot of unknowns. SCS flew over The King Khan and the BBQ Show only to see them fall apart in front of a crowd in Daegu. “It was really unprofessional,” Maylone said. “They had a fist fight on stage and broke up. ... It was stressful and chaotic, whiskey bottles thrown. I got caught in the middle of that and was super uncomfortable.”
Maylone’s team is small and they share much of the risk for the success or failure of each act.
“I don’t want it to be such a gamble,” Maylone said. “But when I lose my ability to take risks I’m going to have to stop doing shows.
“I feel bad for the people who work for me. I don’t mind wasting my own time, but almost half of the tours we lose money on.”
The challenge lies in bringing over international acts to a place that has long been a flyover city for bands playing East Asia. They stop in Japan and play cities in China, but rarely stop in Seoul on their tours.
Aside from what SCS does, the only hope for international music fans are the two festivals in the summer, Pentaport and Jisan Valley Rock Festival, which have shared bands with the Summersonic and Fuji Rock festivals in Japan, and infrequent, overpriced concerts put on by domestic promoters.
In January of 2012, Hyundai Card put on a sold-out show by the Irish folksinger Damien Rice for 165,000 won per ticket, which is a lot of money to see a guy and his guitar.
“I cannot for the life of me understand why they put the show on for that much money,” Maylone said. “That one was really cartoon-y.”
Maylone estimates domestic promoters are overpricing shows by 45-50 percent: “There’s marking it up, and then there’s gouging.”
New York indie-pop band Pains of Being Pure at Heart played a show put on by a Korean promoter in February for 75,000 won. “I saw the budget,” Maylone said. “I know the cost of putting on that band. It should have cost 45,000.” He says part of the reason the costs are so high is that the promoters don’t do a lot of shows, but they have large offices and staffs.
Typically, smaller, international acts that are popular in Korea achieve that popularity by landing a song on a drama or a film. Then they’re asked to come over and play a show with ticket prices at upwards of 90,000 won.
Maylone wants the prices to be closer to what he was used to paying in the United States, but balancing the ticket costs against fan turnout and the myriad of other costs can be a delicate art.
“Everything’s on a limited budget. The budget comes from people who buy tickets, so if you don’t get enough people, then you have a shortfall,” he said.
A lot of the costs come from flights and getting equipment over, which is why we’ve seen a lot of smaller acts and one-man shows. Once he gets the bands in, it’s easier to make up expenses by having the bands play multiple shows around Korea.
It costs about 2 million won to rent out a small club in Hongdae and about 10 million for AX Hall. Bigger bands need a lot of rented gear and often require specific equipment.
“We had to get a grand piano for CocoRosie,” Maylone said. “There were like seven guys carrying it in.”
If you pay to rent the venue, the promoter gets the door and the bar gets the alcohol sales. The simple answer to make the shows profitable is to get more people to come to the shows.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re talking about bringing in musicians that most Koreans have never heard of.
“We’ve been losing money,” Maylone said. “I’ve barely been able to pay my rent. I’ve been stressing about it way too much. If we don’t start making money we might have to shut down international shows.”
SCS put out an announcement in the middle of April, stating: “It’s almost certain we won’t make concerts with international bands any longer. We will make the tours for No Age, Blonde Redhead and Asobi Seksu as we’ve announced previously, but none after these. The reason for closing is low support from the public and local companies. There are not a lot of indie fans in South Korea in general. And still most indie/creative organizations, labels or bands do not support our project, which has been progressively advancing the scenes in Seoul and beyond more than any other before.”
The letter went on to say: “We’ve only gotten spiritual compensation out of this, we don’t make money, and extra income is committed to bringing more bands over or setting up artistic projects like Super Sketch or G’OLD. Making no money is fine. But with low support for our amazing spring line-up, it looks like we are even going to lose quite a lot of money.”
Even if SCS gets the bands over here, there might be other factors working against them. Maylone said they’ve had some moments of crisis, including two big cancellations.
There’s always the problem of getting bands interested in Korea. Though with the increasing popularity of K-pop and Korean films, it’s getting easier.
“If Das Racist has been here and then blogged about it, more bands will see it and come over. Obviously we’d love to keep bringing bands in,” Maylone said. “I wanted to do Animal Collective, Das Racist (again), Neon Indian, Atlas Sound, The National and a lot more. If our spring line-up can go well enough.”
“If we can wave the cool wand on Korea then the bands won’t be scared to play here. And if the bands want to come there needs to be someone like me to facilitate it. If we jump out the only people who will put on shows like this are the 88,000-won-a-show people.”
Their shows in May — possibly their last international concerts ever — include Blonde Redhead on May 4 and Asobi Seksu on May 12 and 13.
For ticket information, go to www.supercolorsuper.com.