South Korean festivals suffer a setback

by Shawn Despres

In 2006, South Korean promoters I-Yescom Entertainment and Yellow9 launched the Incheon Pentaport Rock Festival to coincide with the Fuji Rock Festival in the hope of capitalizing on the amount of foreign acts touring Japan every July.

Showcasing a mix of international and Korean talent, Pentaport grew with each edition and attracted 40,000 people last year to Songdo Daewoo Motor Fields in Incheon city.

In March, Yellow9 revealed they were splitting from Pentaport and beginning their own multiday concert, the Jisan Valley Rock Festival. The only hitch — it would run on the same weekend as Pentaport. South Korea, like Japan, has several summer music festivals. None of them compete directly with one another, though. “I was shocked, disappointed, and frustrated when I heard the news,” says I-Yescom’s Jimin Euncil Lee. “Both companies had already talked about possible Pentaport headliners for 2009. Together we’ve gone through the ups and downs of trying to establish a solid festival here for over 10 years.”

“Working as part of Pentaport put limitations on what we are trying to achieve,” counters Yellow9′s Steven Kim. He cites Pentaport’s grounds as a factor in pursuing their own annual endeavor at the Jisan Valley Resort in Gyeonggi Province.

“The commercial development around the site was causing us to make more hassle for the area. We wanted somewhere with more nature that was more free and would cause no conflict for our neighbors,” Kim says.

Yellow9′s relationship with Tokyo’s Smash Corporation has helped the inaugural Jisan Valley Rock Festival secure Fuji Rock top-draws such as Oasis, Weezer and Fall Out Boy, all of whom would have appeared at Pentaport in past summers.

Meanwhile, Pentaport has had difficulties attracting overseas musicians, but have secured American nu-metal group Deftones as a headliner and are relying heavily on Seoul bands to fill much of their lineup.

“They knew we were tied in with Smash and Fuji Rock so I’m not sure why they decided to go ahead with those dates,” says Kim. “Next year our festival will stay on the same weekend as Fuji Rock, but I’ve heard rumors that Pentaport may change to another date.”

The 2,000 available presale passes for Jisan Valley sold out in minutes. According to Kim, overall sales thus far are slightly higher than expected. Ticket prices range from 88,000 won (one day, ¥6,800) to 165,000 won (three days, ¥12,800). Previous Pentaports cost the same, but this summer’s entrance fees have been drastically cut to 50,000 won (one day, ¥3,900) and 90,000 won (three days, ¥7,000) in hopes of luring cash-strapped music lovers.

Although Kim feels it is positive that festival-goers will have more options, he and Lee stress it is detrimental to both events to run concurrently.

“It’s going to definitely be difficult to be successful this year,” states Kim.

“We have to split the fixed number of attendees,” offers Lee. “Instead of sharing the opportunities, we will both be losing fans and money. I worry that the festival scene in Korea may lose the chance to make the big step ahead that we anticipated this year. Instead, we are going to reap just what we sow.”

This festival fiasco is another hurdle for a young music scene that’s still trying to make its mark. While K-pop stars such as Rain, BoA, and Wonder Girls (who are opening American pop band Jonas Brothers’ North American arena tour this month) have had success overseas, other genres struggle for recognition.

When asked about the Pentaport and Jisan Valley situation, Park Yoon Sik, the vocalist for Seoul punk quintet Crying Nut simply answers, “It’s not a clever move.”

Crying Nut will perform at Jisan Valley before flying to Japan to appear at Fuji Rock, which they also played at in 2000. The country’s best-selling independent act, each of Crying Nut’s five full-lengths have sold more than 100,000 copies in South Korea.

“We’re popular because we look sexy just like pop idols,” Park jokingly explains. “Also, we’ve done a lot of local shows.”

Several revered Seoul underground rock bands including No Brain, Gumx and Cocore participated in Fuji Rock between 1999 and 2005. While few of them were concerned about followup trips, Yellow9′s Kim wants Crying Nut to make this visit count and is seeking a Japanese record label to distribute the group’s August release, “Uncomfortable Party.”

Although there are bands, clubs and events in other regions, nearly half of South Korea’s population resides in the Seoul metropolitan area, making it the primary epicenter for almost all significant international and domestic music happenings. Few local bands regularly tour outside of the city, but this is gradually changing as musicians and venues slowly better their promotion skills. Cocore drummer Jung Ji Wan feels that historically the capital has always been considered more important than the rest of the nation, which is why most groups focus all their efforts on Seoul.

“A wise old Korean man once said, ‘If you have a son or daughter, send them to Seoul. If you have a horse, send it to Jeju (South Korea’s largest island),” laughs Jung at the proverb.

“But this is a crazy city, I think,” adds Cocore guitarist Lee Woo Sung. “There are so many people, but the arts scenes are very small.”

The diminutive size can be attributed to the cultural chokehold employed by the South Korean government in the 1970s and ’80s. Things began to open up musically in the mid-’90s, when the indie scene was born in Hongdae, the artist-friendly area surrounding Seoul’s Hongik University. Crying Nut and Cocore were pioneers during Hongdae’s humble beginnings, giving them godfatherlike stature in the starting point for many of the city’s major and minor acts.

“Lots of musicians were prohibited from playing public shows, appearing on radio and TV, and releasing albums because the government feared they would have a bad influence on young people,” says hip-hop turntablist DJ Soulscape.

Presently working on a second volume of his “The Sound Of Seoul” mixtape series, which features forgotten Korean rock and soul sounds from the ’60s and ’70s, DJ Soulscape stresses the importance of bands, regardless of stature, striving to be innovative with their creations by adding their own sense of style.

“For most Koreans, the concept of globalization has been like the first commandment for the last 50 years and we’ve been denying our sense of locality in pursuit of it. Having our own unique identity will help set us apart from others.”

Current “buzz” folk-pop acts Yozoh and Jang Ki Ha and The Faces, and up-and-coming underground rock groups like The Plastic Day, Vidulgi Ooyoo, GoGo Star and Apollo 18 (who are organizing a Tokyo tour for August) are hoping to do just that and are attracting attention at home and with foreign audiences that should help expose more to the city’s many excellent sounds.

I-Yescom’s Lee has solid advice for everyone involved in Seoul’s burgeoning music scene to follow.

“The music industry is still growing up. We should learn more about how to envision the future instead of simply searching for immediate gains.”

Crying Nut play July 26 at Fuji Rock Festival, Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture. Three-day tickets ¥39,800; one-day tickets ¥16,800. For more info, visit www.smash-uk.com/frf09.