Indie band Jang Ki-ha and Faces
By Chung Ah-young
The local film and music industries are complaining of unprecedented slumps prompted by easier access to free downloads on the Internet that preludes the demise of the industries, separate from the global economic downturn.
However, the indie scene is turning the tables. Tens of thousands of people are flocking to theaters to see the low-budget film ``Old Partner'' everyday, while youngsters are queuing up to attend concerts by indie bands and buying their albums near the area around Hongik University known as Hongdae.
Why now? Partly it seems mainstream culture requires an infusion of new ideas and certainly the Internet has made even fringe culture easily available. But it is more plausible to say that people are eager to consume new and diverse content.
Rise of Indie Culture
Indie is a scene or an entire genre that includes music, movies and other facets of culture. It is characterized by its separation from commercial institutions and mainstream lines and is often considered synonymous to alternative styles.
Since its emergence some time in the 1990s in Korea, an increasing number of young people have been drawn to the beliefs and trends of indie culture. Like many subcultures before it, the indie culture has become part of mainstream youth culture, in some ways earning the conformist status that it initially rejected.
Early indie bands represented as punk and alternative rock groups dominated the club scene in the Hongdae area, infusing fresh air to youngsters.
Films made with shoestring budgets also drew the public attention in cinematheques and documentary movements, leading to the formation of the Association of Korea Independent Film and Video in 1998.
At that time, the rise of indie culture functioned as a counterculture movement, a symbolic spirit of punk rock bands such as Crying Nut and No Brain. They used to express resistance and social messages through their music against the conformist mainstream culture, but they were enjoyed by only a small number of aficionados.
However, recent indie culture seems to have different traits from that of the 1990s. More recently, it is becoming ``enjoyable'' and ``light,'' better appealing to the general public.
``Indie bands from both the 1990s and now are performing in the clubs in Hongdae. But there were musician-oriented activities a decade ago while, now, labels and albums are the main trend in the scene,'' Go Geon-hyeok, head of the BgBg Record, an indie label which produced the album by Jang Ki-ha and Faces, said.
He said that online culture also absolutely contributed to the popularity of underground bands through word of mouth.
Called the ``Seo Tai-ji of indie music,'' Jang Ki-ha and Faces finds themselves adored by new fans, assembling a strong following established by its numerous predecessors such as Crying Nut and No Brain.
Not only Jang's band but also Vodka Rain and Broccoli, You Too and others are selling more albums than they expected.
In the indie music scene, 3,000-4,000 copies is the breakpoint for albums as their activities are usually based on performances rather than albums. Jang's band has so far sold about 12,000 copies of its album that includes the hit song, ``Cheap Coffee.''
The success of Jang's band is cited as the most successful case _ sans an aggressive marketing strategy ― in the recent resurrection of the indie music boom.
``Definitely, it was possible only with help of Internet users who spread and shared the band's performing mobile clip in cyber space,'' said Go.
But he said the band is one of a growing number of creative and freewheeling performers of good quality coincidently rising with better infrastructure and events to support more indie bands' activities.
``I think the current prosperity is not the result of one or two years effort but the decade-long outcome while our predecessors gradually built up the infrastructure and systems, a gateway for aspiring indie groups,'' said Go.
Ssamzie Sound Festival, EBS Space and Incubating Project by Sangsang Madang, the cultural center in Hongdae are the some of this infrastructure and systems.
Go said that Jang's band aims for pop music that is easy and fun, appealing to the general public.
The genres the indie bands pursue are getting diverse ― from punk rock, heavy metal and alternative rock to jazz, hip hop and electronica to world ethnic music ― compared to the genres a decade ago.
In the past their views were seen as rebellious and anti-government, but now, they sing about love, daily life, loneliness and despair.
However, despite the success, Go said that there is a long way to go before indie music can sustain its popularity.
``We're very glad and encouraged because of the love from our fans but there are still many bands without the ability to produce their own labels and albums. They are in need of public attention and support,'' said Go.
Like the indie music scene, indie films are an art form produced without support or intervention from major movie studios. Their ``independence'' allows fans to discover purer qualities within the movies.
Two independent films ―``Old Partner,'' a small documentary rewriting the box office history for the genre, while ``Daytime Drinking,'' a mini-budget road movie ― are currently creating a buzz in the local cinema.
The first South Korean documentary to compete at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, Old Partner has drawn 1.5 million viewers since its release Jan. 15. It is the first time for an independent movie to mark the remarkable figure. It portrays a farmer and an ox as his old friend.
``Daytime Drinking'' touches upon ``soju,'' the favorite drink among Koreans. The film, which debuted at the 9th Jeonju International Film Festival, won awards at several overseas events, including Locarno last year.
``Breathless'' by director Yang Ik-joon won the top prize at the 38th International Film Festival Rotterdam, which will be released in April here.
Last year, ``Our School'' garnered a record of 75,000 moviegoers. Local flicks like ``Who's That Knocking at My Door?'' and ``Milky Way Liberation Front'' were also hot Internet search items.
However, the indie filmmakers are not that happy about the results because the government's support of the genre will be suspended beginning this year. The Korean Film Council has scrapped the policy to provide 500 million won in support to independent films every year. ``Old Partner'' was the last recipient from the policy.
Six indie film directors held a press conference on Feb. 11, revealing their concern over the hype of the recent success of "Old Partner."
``I cannot fully enjoy the success of `Old Partner' because the reality of the indie film scene is still harsh. The success shouldn't be regarded as the thing other indie films should pursue,'' said Lee Chung-ryoul, director of the film.
Recently, more spaces are devoted to independent films. Last year, the Korean Film Council and the Association of Korean Independent Film & Video revamped Joongang Cinema in northern Seoul for the exclusive screening of independent works. Spongehouse relocated its Jongno chain to a larger space in Myeong-dong and launched a new theater in Gwanghwamun, while Indiespace also opened its doors in northern Seoul.