K-pop giants make foray into indie music

Anna Park, June 27, 2016, 9:55 a.m.

Four-member indie rock band Hyukoh made a quiet debut in the Korean music scene in September of 2014, dropping the EP “20.” Soon, however, word of the band’s moody, hip tunes began spreading via social media and the band began selling out at small clubs.

And when Hyukoh appeared on popular variety program “Infinite Challenge” in 2015 and rose to even wider acclaim, it grabbed the attention of YG Entertainment, which was seeking to extend its musical reach. In July that year, Hyukoh became the first band to sign on with HIGHGRND, YG‘s indie music label.

According to industry experts who convened at a forum to discuss the convergence of K-pop and indie music in Seoul last week, large K-pop agencies have caught on to the profit potential of indie bands, who are cost-efficient -- they make their own music and require little additional training -- and their growing popular appeal.

“Just because (indie bands) operate on a small budget does not mean the consumer base is also small,” said Jang Kyu-soo, director of the Entertainment Industry Research Institute, citing examples of former undergrounds bands such as Hyukoh and Rose Motel. Both bands are in much demand on television variety shows, top streaming charts with each release, and played instantly sold-out concerts in March and last December, respectively.

SM Entertainment and Loen Entertainment -- known for churning out commercially successful, if highly produced, music -- have also created indie sub-labels and are actively scouting successful indie artistes, with an eye on diversification and nurturing of creative talent with their wealth of resources. Some welcome the potential of a healthy cooperation of corporate money and creativity, while others worry that the free-spirited indie scene is being overrun by market principles.

Early June, Loen announced the creation of Mun Hwa In, a label dedicated to managing and promoting indie artists. It is the latest project of the entertainment behemoth, which already houses entertainment agencies such as Starship, Plan A, Cracker and King Kong as subsidiaries and owns MelOn, the country’s top music streaming service.

In 2014, YG Entertainment established HIGHGRND, an indie music label that is operated separately from, but still entirely owned by, the company that manages worldwide K-pop acts like Big Bang and Psy. That year, SM Entertainment also made a foray into the indie scene, acquiring Baljunso and recruiting non-mainstream bands, including Sinchon Tigers.

Hong Jung-taek, chief operating officer of HIGHGRND, sees this new corporate-indie cooperation as a way to allow struggling artists to pursue their craft with better resources.

“There’s no need for heavy production, because the artists already have their own musical color,” said Hong. “What (HIGHGRND) aims to do is provide the best environment where (the artistes) can make music, without forcing a production schedule ... and finding a balance between profit and creative freedom.”

Because live shows make up a significant portion of indie musicians’ income, said Hong, HIGHGRND hopes to provide them with the necessary infrastructure for such shows. Profit-wise, while their fanbases may not be as energetic as those of K-pop idols, indie bands appeal to a broader audience.

Creatively, indie labels offer big agencies a chance to rebrand themselves as more “artistic” and less “commercial,” according to the Entertainment Industry Research Institute’s Jang. “A growing number of consumers feel (K-pop) is too commercial and limited,” he said.

Lee Kyu-young, who owns the independent indie label Ruby Records, says this new model could help deliver indie music to a wider audience.

“This is the situation that I’ve wanted for 10 years, ever since I founded my label,” said Lee. “It’s too hard for small labels to cover everything. We had always thought, ‘What if we do the production (of music), and a bigger company takes care of promotion?’ ... That’s what’s happening now.”

Others, however, fear the injection of big capital will taint the artistic integrity of indie music.

“The very definition of ‘indie’ is to be independent from large companies,” said music critic Kim Yoon-ha. “Saying big companies own indie labels is an oxymoron. The terminology should be clarified.”

“The biggest concern is that indie music may lose its spirit,” said music critic Im Jin-mo. Though it would be ideal for musical creation to be entirely separate from distribution, promotion and profit motive, “whether that is actually achievable or not remains to be seen,” he said.

Still other experts worry that though the supposed aim of large agency-owned indie labels is “genre diversity,” music is being monopolized by a few top-grossing companies, pushing out smaller players and thus threatening diversity. 

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