If you know me, or have been following my writing for an inordinate amount of time, you might remember that this whole journey started for me back in South Korea, with a blog about my time living and working in Seoul (now moved here, if you’re into it). I loved the place, not least the music scene, which you’ll be happy to hear went way, way beyond K-pop. When I got an email out of the blue from one of the up and coming stars of the Korean indie scene From The Airport, then, it was an absolute no-brainer for me to ask them to fill me in on how the Korean scene has developed. These guys perform an interesting take on electro pop, and featured on MAP as the Korean act not so long ago. Of course, my questions were heavily informed by my own experiences and serious love of a district called Hongdae, and arts and music/ nightlife hub in the north west of the city; their answers give a more ‘of the minute’ angle…
Korean music’s international profile has been pushed through the roof with PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’. Were you surprised/ happy about its success? Is it a good representation of K-pop?
We obviously were very surprised, but not shocked, at the success of ‘Gangnam Style.’ When it first came out, we remember the music video was hilarious and we were sure it would be a hit, though we didn’t know that would be worldwide. I think it was the first time a Korean track went as high as it went on the Billboard charts, and it was quite unnerving seeing Psy on the front page of nearly every popular music webzines. As we knew Psy since before he became famous even in Korea, we were very happy to see him succeed. As for him ‘representing’ K-pop, we don’t think it’s the right word. The music in Korea, we believe, is more diverse than it looks. There are countless musicians working on their own style of music, even though they might not be top stars or famous. But yes, we think Gangnam Style is the ‘most known’ song from Korea.
I guess with PSY a lot of people outside of Korea only know of K-Pop when it comes to Korean music. How diverse is your music scene in 2015, and what kind of music are people listening to?
The most popular music currently in Korea is K-Pop and hip hop. They currently rule the charts here. However, we think the indie music scene is also growing constantly, and we sure believe the overall scene will become diverse in the near future.
A few years ago everything in Seoul seemed to centre around Hongdae. What is it about Hongdae that fosters and arts scene so successfully? Is it still as important as it used to be?
We don’t think everything is centered around Hongdae anymore, but the place is still very important to the arts scene, definitely. There are still numerous gigs and street concerts going on everyday. Now there are a lot of independent coffee shops, clothing stores, etc., attracting a big amount of visitors and tourists to the area. Itaewon is another place that is growing in terms of the arts scene. Tourists should definitely check both places out.
Tell me about From The Airport’s journey so far. How did you go from a new band to playing at events like SxSW?
When we first started out in 2012, we produced and mixed our music in a small basement studio by ourselves. We released three singles in our own power, making the covers, music videos, etc. ourselves. Thankfully we were recognized by our current label, and after we signed the contract, we released ‘Chemical Love EP’ in 2014. That’s when we really started to play more gigs and produce more songs. Our first trip to the States happened in that fall, when we participated in Culture Collide festival and CMJ Marathon. It was extremely fun and we are so excited to be a part of SXSW 2015. It was great to meet new audiences outside of Korea.
What is the best way to build a reputation as a band in Korea?
The best way is getting on a broadcast. We feel the Korean audience is usually influenced heavily by the media, so the best way is to get on the media. In order to get a chance to get on the media, though, a band needs to consistently do gigs and release new tracks, and basically ‘stay in the scene.’ And yeah, the most important aspect of building a reputation is composing good music (obviously). I think that’s the same everywhere around the world, not just in Korea.
Do you feel a big difference between a Korean audience and the audiences you experience when you play all over the world?
There’s quite a difference. Korean audiences tend to be quite passive, and prone to the overall atmosphere of the venue. When the atmosphere is very active, each of the audience tend to follow. If the atmosphere is calm, the audience stay calm, even when the music isn’t. Foreign audiences that we met were more honest to their opinions to the music. If the music is good, they’ll express it, no matter what other audience members are doing. If they don’t like the music, they’ll just leave. So in summary, the Korean audience is more passive but loyal, and the foreign audience is more honest and direct.
How difficult is it for Korean acts to get attention outside of Korea? Do you find language can be a barrier for a lot of bands?
It’s difficult, probably because there hasn’t been many Korean bands out there on the world market yet. We think that’s changing as more acts are invited to foreign festivals, etc. But we think the Internet has helped immensely in gaining more international attention than in the past. Concerning the language, we don’t think it’s an unbreakable barrier. Many people listen to music not in their own language, because music is a global language in itself (but some English probably won’t do any harm haha).
Can you describe a typical Korean music fan’s night out? What do people like to do, and where do they go?
Many Korean venues and live halls are nearby, especially in Hongdae. So many music fans jump from venue to venue, seeing their favorite bands. In case of Itaewon, there are many foreigners and various types of people, so it’s quite a different atmosphere from Hongdae. After seeing the gigs, most of the fans will go for a drink or two at a near pub or hof. Then they rush to the metro station to catch the last train.
Tell me a little bit about the recording and album release process in Korea. Is it expensive? Do people still buy CDs? Do bands make money from selling music or selling concert tickets?
Thankfully, our label has its own studio, so it’s much cheaper for us to record and mix. Among other studios, there are cheap ones and expensive ones, pretty much the same as anywhere in the world. People don’t buy CDs here anymore. A lot of CD shops have closed because they can’t get enough revenue. Most music here is sold online, on music streaming sites. It’s pretty sad, because the cost of music in Korea has really gone down and those music streaming sites can basically ‘rule’ the market, and advertise music they want to sell. This has led to bands not being able to earn a lot of money from selling music. Many band members have secondary jobs so that they can maintain their music career. We still like to buy CDs, especially at Hyang Music, which is still alive in Sinchon.
Can you recommend a few Korean bands that people should check out? Who are the big up and coming acts in Seoul at the moment?
We really like Heo, whom we will play with at SXSW. You won’t be disappointed in listening to his music. Last year, we toured in the U.S. with Rock N Roll Radio and Love X Stereo, which are two great bands we recommend!
What do you expect to happen in the future. both for From The Airport and the Korean music scene in general?
We expect great things in the long run! We aren’t sure what’s going to happen, but we feel confident in our music and our music scene. Hope to meet more people all around the world, for sure! Come see us at SXSW, we’re playing on March 20th at The Majestic!
You can get hold of From The Airport’s debut album, released earlier this year, here.