The Korea Herald


Coronavirus threatens Hongdae indie music scene

By Lim Jang-won

Published : April 15, 2020 - 11:50

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People fill the streets of Hongdae on Friday night despite social distancing. (Yonhap) People fill the streets of Hongdae on Friday night despite social distancing. (Yonhap)

The indie music scene in Hongdae is struggling to stay afloat as concerts and festivals are delayed or canceled amid strict social distancing.

While major music labels are better able to endure long-term losses, allowing musicians to concentrate on their next albums, small labels and clubs that rent out venues to bands are suffering to the point where their very existence is under threat.

“We had zero profit. What worries us the most is not now but what is about to come. Usually from late February to March is a period where we rent out our club for band performances, so we feel the financial impact even more. We’re also worried because April and May is festival season,” said Han Jeong-wook, owner of Club Rolling Stones, a live performance venue in Hongdae. “Despite our profits disappearing, the set payments we have to make are unchanged. We can’t help but consider closing down the business as an option.”

Compounding the problem is that many of the venues are ineligible for government support set aside to assist the cultural sector.

“We are nonmainstream, so it’s hard to get government support. For example, getting a live music club license (in order to apply for financial support) is a problem. Most, no, all clubs in Hongdae are not registered as performance venues, but as restaurants or as rental venues because to get the license, we need massive amounts of money for fire hazard prevention and change of structure,” said Han.

Since Seoul closed down clubs until April 19, musicians who perform at live venues in Hongdae have expressed discomfort.
Lesser-known groups like Rolling Quartz turn to performances on social media as an outlet. (Rolling Quartz) Lesser-known groups like Rolling Quartz turn to performances on social media as an outlet. (Rolling Quartz)

“I am uncomfortable that people view clubs where people go to dance and live music clubs where bands perform in the same way. Live clubs are more like miniature performance halls,” said Park Ja-young, vocalist for the band Rolling Quartz.

Indie bands in Hongdae are also fighting to survive.

Although the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture has announced a number of plans to aid the struggling artists and the Korea SMEs and Startups Agency has pledged financial support, they are out of reach for many of those they are intended to assist. 
Fishingirls is an indie band facing financial losses. (Naturally Music) Fishingirls is an indie band facing financial losses. (Naturally Music)

“We are not getting any financial support. We want to, but it seems like a faraway story. We know such financial support exists, but we haven’t seen any artists that we know get it,” said ENNA, vocalist-guitarist of indie band Fishingirls.

Bands like Rolling Quartz that have just started their musical careers lack the albums and lists of performances they need to meet the requirements for financial assistance.

“I hope not only session men, who have multiple albums and have many things to say on paper or are famous, but also indie artists like our group who are in the blind spot of financial support get many chances,” ENNA said.

While indie bands are turning to online platforms to communicate with fans and raise income, the absence of live performance income has been devastating. According to the Record Label Industry Association of Korea (LIAK), a nonprofit trade organization, a total of 114 performances in Hongdae had been canceled as of Tuesday, with losses estimated at 860 million won ($707,000).

Artists who are relatively lesser known are concerned that the only way they can reach out to audiences now is through social media.

“We performed only in clubs, and with barely any media coverage of the band scene, social media is the only platform available for us now,” said Rolling Quartz.

Online concerts are not without costs.

According to music label Sugar Records, even getting the equipment and renting performance venues for online concerts has been no small investment.

In an effort to help indie musicians, LIAK is supporting eight online concerts in April and would like funding for venues and equipment from the Culture Ministry to expand the daily livestreaming of concerts by indie musicians.

“We have asked the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to review our plans for the concerts. The government needs to get the opinions of the artists in the field and come up with diverse support measures,” said Shin Jong-gil, head of LIAK.

By Lim Jang-won (