Posted on May 17, 2014


Creating Independent Culture

The more time you spend in the Korean independent music scene, the more you begin to get the sense that something is a little different from other scenes in other global cities. The quality and quantity of music is the same, so it certainly isn’t that. Fans at the shows are enthusiastic and supportive, the same as fans in New York or Paris. Venues are just as dingy, shoestring, and glorious as anywhere else. And of course there are the ever present hipsters. So then what is that feeling? Where does it come from?

I could not answer these questions for myself until I started talking to musicians, venue owners, promoters, and fans about their experiences gained while participating in independent music culture. I compared these with the stories of practically every person I met in Korea who was not connected to the independent scene. What I found was a startling gap in worldviews and an outlook from the non-musically inclined that seemed to have seized the soul of most of Korea, leaving little room for anything else.

In other nations, there is a cleft between independent and mainstream culture, but nowhere near the degree and magnitude to which it exists in Korea. Mainstream Korean culture is so thoroughly sanitized, directed, managed, and calculated that the very idea of an independent, and uncontrolled, spirit seems foreign. The best way to break through as an independent band isn’t to make a great record, it’s to allow a professional management team to change everything about you, create a marketing focus group to determine who you should be, and make you consumable for a television audience in front of whom you compete with other faux-indie bands. This public cultural sterility numbs the senses of the masses and weaves the idea of individual creativity into the concept of “the other”.

Strange people wearing strange clothes playing strange music aren’t expressing themselves, they are different and crazy; an “other”. That is the message being piped into the brains of the people of Korea. Rock music is defined as X, Jazz is defined as Y, Pop is defined as Z. If rock music dare sound like Q, well that just isn’t acceptable. Playing bands like Mukimukimanmansu or Odaeri for people indoctrinated into this mainstream mentality elicits looks of confusion and a lack of understanding.

More than once I have heard the words “culture shock” leave their lips. But I emphasize to these poor souls that this is also a part of the culture they were born into. This is your culture! But it can’t be, because their culture is defined as X, Y, and Z. Q couldn’t possibly exist within that paradigm. They dismiss the practitioners of the bizarre as mentally deviant, people who couldn’t cut it in normal culture and so live a sub-life; never part of their Korea.

That is the atmosphere and environment independent artists and musicians are working within when the work and live in Korea. It feels stifling, like someone is throttling you, insisting you give in to a list of demands if you wish to breathe. But, as a reaction to the hostility besieging their lives and passions, this creative community has chosen to band together and rise above; forming a stronger bloc by working for a common purpose.

The musical collective known as the “Jarip Music Association” (Jarip means ‘independent‘ in Korean), serves a plethora of functions. It stands as a creative community, a safe haven for beleaguered artists to seek shelter, and a battle cry to oppose the overwhelming forces pitted against their ideals. The members have defined the type of world they wish to live within and are prepared to teach, fight, protest, rock, fundraise, and do whatever else it takes to carve a place for themselves in a reality they craft to resemble that dream.

Jarip has its roots in the tumultuous period of 2009-2011 when two major cases of forced removal spurred Seoul’s creative class into political action. The first, known at the “Yongsan Incident”, occurred on January 20, 2009 and involved police illegally raiding and clashing with members of the Federation Against Housing Demolition and evictees of a commercial building in Yongsan who were refusing to vacate. The massacre left twenty-three injured and six dead. This tragic event heightened public awareness of the forced removal issue and the set the stage for the Dooriban protests of 2010.

Yamagata Tweakster, a musician and activist involved in Jarip and the Dooriban protest

On Christmas Eve 2009, armed thugs from a shell company called Namjeon DNC, a front for GS Construction, the conglomerate attempting to redevelop the land, broke into the noodle shop “Dooriban” located near Hongik University Station and proceeded to forcibly remove clients, smash up the interior, and cause havoc. The next day the owner of the restaurant, Ahn Jong-nyeo, began a sit-in which lasted 531 days and eventually pressured the company into delivering a reasonable settlement package providing the establishment with enough funds to relocate.

During the sit in, bands and musicians such as No Control, Bamseom Pirates, Amateur Amplifier/Yamagata Tweakster, Park Daham, and many others joined to help the owners, members of the Hongdae community, maintain the twenty-four hour protest. The communal atmosphere mixing art and politics eventually led these musicians to form a type of committee to handle the musical acts performing at the newly christened makeshift venue. This small committee, forged in the fires of protest, was eventually codified as the Jarip Music Association in April 2011.

This auspicious birth has defined the organization’s character. The same protest also saw the birth of the unbelievably wonderful 51+ festival, which Jarip hosts every year in remembrance of the 51+ (it was originally billed as 51 acts, but apparently some extras joined late, hence the +) bands who participated in a giant protest festival at Dooriban. Being at this festival as a music lover is a frantic sensory overload where you will find yourself running from room to room trying to catch every amazing act and bemoaning how everything is running simultaneously. And at each festival, the theme of protest remains.

Seogyo Group Sound playing in the basement stage at the 2013 51+ Festival (Mullae Arts Center)

When you go to the Pentaport or Ansan festivals, you can be sure you will see some pretty cool bands, but you can also be sure that you are supporting the interests of major corporations and the very types of people who enforce the crushing cultural standards that make it so hard to be one of the artists they are paying to perform. Sure it’s pretty cool to see Radiohead, but have you seen Kuang Program??? At 51+, you can see artists getting their fair pay amidst a communal atmosphere tinged with revolutionary spirit and important causes. Last year’s festival saw anti-Cort signs, the guitar manufacturer accused of exploiting and abusing workers, bedecking the walls of the venue’s entrance in Mullae. Jarip continues to serve the interests of artists while being a responsible advocate for progressive change.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Jarip Music Association is how they have taken the traditional relationship dynamics found in any music scene, those of fan-venue-promoter-band-producer, and turned them on their head. A member of Jarip can fill any or all of these roles, contributing to the overall health of the collective. By having dues paying members from each of these groups, the direction of the organization is representative of the music scene as a whole. Anyone can be a member; the only qualification is buying into the idea that an independent creative community requires active support. Over 200 artists, promoters, venue owners, technicians, and fans have signed onto this concept.

The day-to-day workings of Jarip are defined by their steering committee, which is made up of a core group of musicians, most of whom knew one another from the Dooriban days. They decide which causes to support and the general direction of Jarip. Any member can bring an issue to this committee for discussion.

SSS playing in the 2012 51+ festival - Jarip's venue DGBS

The end goal of Jarip seems to be to have an entirely insular process in which a young musician can enter the collective, attend seminars and lectures given by veteran musicians, learn the trade, start performing at Jarip sponsored concerts in Jarip owned venues, and eventually produce musical output in the form of albums produced by Jarip affiliated technicians. When new musicians come in, the cycle starts again. It is this idea of nurturing new creativity, no matter what seemingly outlandish or experimental form it may take, that sets Jarip apart.

Though some claim Jarip is exclusive, serving only the interests of its members, this argument misses the larger picture. Korea, and increasingly the rest of the world, is not conducive to a sustainable music scene where independent musicians can make a decent living from their art. If an anti-Jarip artist adopts an individualistic idea about personal success, it comes at the expense of every other musician in the scene. If they buy into the culture of personal brand management sponsored by a large corporation and professional “handlers”, they are tacitly supporting a destructive system. It is the idea that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not.

Jarip is not perfect. Its members are fallible and sometimes petty controversies can arise (see: Kuang Program band description for the 2013 51+ festival). However, the concept underpinning the Jarip Music Association Is one of the most important ideas in any music scene in the world; that in a culture and environment where no one will help you, it is time for musicians to help themselves. By working together for a common goal, we can create micro-cultures in which creativity can flourish and people can stand up and proclaim with pride, “I am Jarip.”

You can learn more about Jarip or become a member by visiting them at:
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Written By: Alex Ameter

Check out Alex's other articles on Doindie.


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