When did 'indie' become a bad word?
In 2010, a friend and I stumbled onto a music festival in Jeonju where I&I Djangdan were playing. We should have known we weren’t in for a typical concert when the Korean band members rolled up in a Volkswagen bus and took the stage in dreadlocks.
They came out and said a few words in a practiced Jamaican accent then started the show. The first song began with the similar drums, bass and samples you would hear from a typical dubstep band.
Think of a more modern, less skeezy Sublime. But then came the pansori vocals, haunting, echoing over the track. The singer sounded like Janis Joplin’s ghost. More than anything it was something unique — something that could have only come from Korea.
We stood next to a ginkgo tree and watched a monk give way to the music completely, dancing happier than anyone else in the crowd, sweating in his robes, blissed-out.
I don’t know what happened to the band. They might have quit. They might still be flying under the radar. I checked their MySpace page and it said they haven’t logged in since November 2011. It said that right above where it read “Type of Label: Indie.”
What do people have against struggling artists? What satisfaction do people get from disparaging those with enough backbone and fortitude to persevere in the face of failure?
It seems a lot of people here have a skewed image of independent musicians. When they picture an indie musician they picture a small apartment with a stained ceiling that leaks. They picture empty ramen cups on the floor. They picture a starving musician pulling out his hair trying to write a hit.
I think that’s a pretty fair idea of how many people think of indie musicians.
This is a country where differences are generally not encouraged and success is measured on a scale made of capitalism. Given that when walking the streets you seem to hear the same 10 songs for months, it wouldn’t be out of line to say the music consumer habits here are extremely fad-driven.
So it makes sense that independent music has the deck stacked against it from the start.
In many other countries, independent musicians are seen to be fighting the good fight. Not signing with a corporate record labels equates to artistic integrity, to not selling out. People don’t want their bands to go corporate. Not because they don’t want them to succeed or make money, but because corporations are typically bad for art. It’s common wisdom that often when a band goes major label their work suffers. Ask any long-time Death Cab for Cutie or Modest Mouse fan.
In the United States, indie rock might imply boring to some, but it’s still where a lot of innovative, exciting music is made. Independent record labels like Jagjaguwar, Sub Pop, and Secretly Canadian are respected imprints that people trust far more than the Sonys and Columbias of the music industry.
Here it seems the general impression is that a DIY band playing small shows in Hongdae and putting their music out on the Internet is not winning. Indie means not making it.
We have it wrong. Independent musicians and artists are necessary for a culture to thrive and grow. A band often makes their most interesting work before they sign to a major label. There are exceptions to this, obviously, and Korean musicians would do well to stop listening to so much Radiohead.
I’m all in favor of artists learning form before they start experimenting with technique. But, by all means, experiment. It should be said that there is also an element to the music-making process that is noticeably absent, which would help with experimentation, but I don’t want to say anything that could get my visa revoked.
Lack of originality and creative thinking skills are not the real issue. Koreans can be competitive in anything they decide to do. Just because they employ rote learning in school doesn’t mean they all think the same. Westerners just like to believe that. But it is a competitive world, and when so many bands get famous in a record label’s talent laboratory, it’s hard to want to be different.
I’m not expecting anyone to be the next Beatles or Kurt Cobain. I just wish people here didn’t hear the word indie and think poor quality.
Juck Juck Grunzie
This band’s about as cool as it gets. Sexy and restrained at times, raucous and heavy at others, Juck Juck Grunzie is predominately female, and all rock star. They’ve been playing around Korea since 2007, and this noise, psychedelic group is set to take off. Three of the four members are girls, but this isn’t anything like a K-pop group. It’s too strange for that.
Eclectic post-rockers Apollo 18 have seen a meteoric rise in the past few years. They’re still considered an underground band, even after winning awards for best new band and best indie group. But as their success increases, so has their touring presence, with shows across Asia and in Austin, Texas for South By Southwest. These guys might just break through the indie stigma and go from the underground to the big time. Watch for it.
Maybe the best example of why indie bands are as good or better than corporate rockers, Galaxy Express have consistently been one of the best live acts in Korea since they started in 2006. They’re loud, punky, and really good at what they do. They’ve also played all over Asia and North America. Recent awards for best rock album and musician of the year demonstrate that are gaining a considerable amount of support, but we think they deserve more.