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Five years after the first, Korea succumbs to rock festival fever

All Headlines 09:00 September 17, 2010

By Niels Footman

SEOUL, Sept. 17(Yonhap) -- Nanji Island, a landfill on Seoul's Han River, seems an unlikely venue for one of the most famous events in global dance music. But for one weekend in October, that's what it will be.

On this usually quiet parkland in the Mapo area of Seoul, thousands of music lovers will congregate at the Global Gathering dance festival to whoop and grind, well into Sunday morning, to thunderous dance music served up by superstar DJ Fatboy Slim, French electro duo Justice and a host of top local DJs.

A few years ago, the notion that a world-renowned dance music festival would take place in Seoul would have seemed outlandish. Though smaller festivals did exist for Korean bands, as recently as 2005 Korea didn't have a single large-scale international rock or dance festival to its name, and was lucky to see four or five big acts play the country in a year.

Just five years later, however, and the summer has been clogged with festivals, with some offering at least that number of international acts over a single weekend. From a live music backwater, Korea has developed a festival scene that is perhaps second only to Japan's in Asia. But how, in the span of just a few short years, has it come to this?

Jimin Euncil Lee, of local promoter I-Yescom, has a broader perspective than most on the rise of Korea's international rock festivals. Five years ago Lee was part of the team that staged the inaugural Pentaport Rock Festival in Incheon, an event that is still running today.

Coming seven years after I-Yescom's predecessor Yescom had attempted to stage Korea's first international rock festival, Triport -- which had sunk under an onslaught of typhoon rains, virtually ruining the promoter in the process -- the first Pentaport boasted a line-up including Franz Ferdinand, The Black-Eyed Peas and Snow Patrol, kick starting the trend toward the bigger, more ambitious events Korea is seeing today.

"When we held the first Pentaport in 2006, we had to write manuals explaining what a rock festival is and why the tickets are all different -- one day, two days and so on," she says. "Now, we have our own Korean festival culture, which, I'm proud to say, basically began with Pentaport."

For Lee, timing was a crucial part of festivals' subsequent success in Korea.

"K-pop (Korean pop music) really started to take off seven or eight years ago," she says. "With that, investors and the government started to notice that music could be a real money spinner, and more funding became available for big music events."

Mark Russell, a long-time cultural critic and the author of Pop Goes Korea, also believes the last few years presented an opportune time for festivals to grow.

"There is no money to be made any more in CD sales, but companies still recognize that music is really popular and a good way of getting your name out in a 'hip' context," he says. "Also, Koreans are more affluent now. Across Korean society, you can see more options and choices, more of an international mindset in restaurants, clubs and music."

Yenny Shin, a visual merchandiser and veteran of more than 10 Korean festivals, agrees.

"Ten years ago, listening to rock music was the preserve of hardcore fans," she says. "But as the Internet grew and more young people spent time overseas, they became more culturally savvy. The festival culture was an outgrowth of that."

Whatever its exact causes, Korea's rock festival scene has since boomed. This year's biggest events, each lasting two or three days, have attracted tens of thousands of fans to see a roster of Korean bands, including indie stars Jang Kiha and the Faces and ska revivalists Kingston Rudieska, along with some of the hottest names in international music. Pentaport featured LCD Soundsystem; the Summer Week&T Festival, a dance/hip-hop event on Korea's east coast, was headlined by Kanye West; and Jisan Valley Rock Festival, the biggest of them all, welcomed the Pet Shop Boys, Muse and Vampire Weekend.

Even lower-key events such as the Grand Mint Festival in Seoul's Olympic Park, which this October hosts Scottish indie legends Teenage Fanclub, claimed 40,000 fans in 2009.

"I've been to a few festivals in the UK, and I can honestly say I prefer the ones in Korea," says Ross Hunt, a trader with a Swiss bank who has been to five festivals in the country.

"Though the events back home are usually much bigger with a better choice of bands, most stages overlap, making it impossible to see all the acts you like. Also, the food and drink are better quality in Korea and actually fairly priced, unlike the rip-offs you see at home. Best of all, I think the atmosphere is much better here. The fans are wildly enthusiastic but generally very friendly. I'd be happy to bring children, whereas festivals in the UK can be much less family-friendly and even a bit aggressive."

Yet for all their recent success, Korea's rock festivals have been far from problem-free.

A few events, including this year's Peace at the DMZ, were announced to great fanfare, only to be suddenly canceled. In 2009, a disagreement between Pentaport's joint promoters led to a schism that saw the two biggest festivals, Jisan and Pentaport, being staged on the same weekend.

As even a cursory glance shows, the line-ups at Korea's festivals remain very shallow compared with established events in Japan, Europe and North America. And despite some large crowds, profits have been elusive.

"Many Koreans still believe that festivals should be free," says Lee. "We still operate on a deficit budget, so even though fans expect more every year, we can't keep improving our line-up. This is the vicious circle we find ourselves in."

For Russell, the apparent health of the festivals actually masks a deep malaise in Korea's own music scene.

"Though Korea's live rock scene is definitely growing, and summer music festivals are a big part of that, the live/indie scene remains so cloistered," he says. "Korea has the talent, but the whole scene is in such a state of disrepair, from the bands to the labels to the promoters, it can't function well and rarely produces breakout bands that cross over into the mainstream. You cannot blame any one part; the whole thing needs improving."

As with much else in the country, Korea's rock festivals have grown from practically nothing to a developed, large-scale concern in a matter of a few years.

And while challenges persist, and whatever the influence of changing economics, a central explanation surely lies with the fans themselves, who have embraced rock festivals with a fervor that often leaves a deep impression on even the biggest stars.

"I remember the first time we came we were very, very surprised by the reaction of the people who knew all the songs very well and could sing all the lyrics very well," said Matt Bellamy, lead singer of two-time festival headliners Muse, in an interview with Korea's OnStyle TV channel. "The audience is very strong, a very passionate audience."


(Editor's note: Niels Footman is an expat Briton who has been living and working in Korea for nine years. Besides working as a PR consultant, he contributes features about culture and travel to media including CNNGo.com, Time Out and CNN Traveller. He lives in the Yongsan area of Seoul.)

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