Missing the Music in Korea

If you've never lived in an area that has a vibrant music scene, you may not appreciate how fantastic it is to be able to go out any night of the week and see original music. If you've never lived in such an area, you may also not realize just how hard it is to adjust to not having that option at your disposal. 

Before I moved to Korea, I lived near Austin, Texas in a little city called San Marcos. Worldwide, Austin is renowned for its amazing music scene and its insane music festivals. But 26 miles south of Austin, San Marcos has its own vibrant music scene to rival its neighbor. The tiny town has multiple venues for live music. One of them, The Triple Crown, has had live music every day for years (over a decade, if I'm not mistaken). Cover for these shows is rarely over $5 when it isn't free. San Marcos venues often treat performers better than places in Austin where bands either pay-to-play or "play for exposure." Add to this that you never have to pay for parking, your bike probably won't get stolen, and the beer is half the price of Austin. I rarely went to Austin for shows. There was no reason to; live music was nearly ubiquitous. Shit, half of the parties I went to in San Marcos featured at least one local band, if not more.

After four years of living in the little river city, I became accustomed to my weekends being filled with amazing original music. I spent my Fridays with a foot on a monitor, shooting bands and quickly losing my hearing. I spent my Saturdays hectically editing photos so I could focus on shooting the shows from the pit Saturday night. All week I worked to the soundtrack of the bands I shot that weekend. It was never-ending, and it was fantastic. 

Did it pay the bills? Hell no! But it was fun. It was fantastic. Some of the bands even bought me drinks or put me on the list.

Awesome punk at Speakeasy in Gwangju.

Then I moved to Korea. 

The first city I lived in was Gwangju. Gwangju isn't exactly the most modern city in South Korea. It's not the most out-of-date, and it certainly isn't politically conservative (see: the Gwangju Uprising), but it isn't as socially liberal as Seoul or Busan, both of which have had a much greater western influence over the decades since the Korean War. The night life there was incredibly centralized, and most of the music was fed from a computer. What "live" music I could find was usually a DJ mixing substandard loops to an ambivalent crowd who never touched each other.

There was one night, my birthday in fact, when I was able to find original live music. I wandered into one of the local foreigner bars to find a four-piece band smashing out balls-to-the-wall awesome punk music. A genuine pit formed. People slammed against each other, sweated, spilled drinks, laughed, and pumped fists. They did what you're supposed to do when you're enjoying music: they forgot about themselves. It was fantastic. I loved it.

It was the perfect birthday gift to remind me of home, but it wasn't the gift that kept on giving. I tried to offer pictures to the band. I gave them my card. I offered to buy a CD. They didn't have a name. They didn't have a website. They didn't speak English. I never saw them again.

Performing at open mic in Pohang.

The second city I lived in was Pohang, and if I thought Gwangju was bereft of good, live music, I was in for some hurt. Pohang has about one third the population of Gwangju, and it's just about as socially conservative. You can walk the city in a day, and if you sneeze during that walk, you might miss the music venue.

Somewhere in the middle of the city, tucked into an alley, there's a little place called Portabello's. I don't think the place has anything to do with mushrooms, unless it's a reference to their beer pricing. About once every month, this little place had an open mic night. There are open mic nights you want to go to. San Marcos, for example, had some fantastic open mic nights. Portabello's was not one of these. Most of the audience came to see their friends play, then left. No one danced. No one sweated. Everyone remembered exactly where they were.

A few months later, and I'm here in Busan. It's a big city which has been hugely influenced by the west over the years. There's a thriving foreigner community, multiple happening districts, tons of tourism, and more than 8 million people in the area. Surely there has to be some live music. Well, yes and no.

There is live music. There's actually quite good live music. There's an enjoyable weekly open mic night less than a mile from my apartment. A few of the bars nearby host live music from time to time. I've even become friends with one of the bands that plays a lot in my area. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the music is covers. The open mic night is basically a cover night. All the bands I've seen play covers. I thought one band was playing original music until they told me they were covers of Turkish songs.

To make it worse, there's barely any dancing. I can't judge too harshly, because I'm usually too busy taking pictures to dance, but if I did, most of the time, I would be doing so alone. Even in the smallest of venues with the largest number of people dancing, everyone still has their own room to move around and avoid touching another human being.

Omer of Istanbullshit at the Ol' 55 in KSU, Busan.

Oh, sure, there's dancing in the clubs to recorded music. At least in Busan the couples actually touch each other, unlike in Gwangju. But it's club dancing. It's the bump and grind: the alcohol-induced, ostensibly-erotic dry-humping you can find in any club. It's a dance not about forgetting who and where you are, but about anticipation; it's about being inexorably in the moment. There is no catharsis in this dancing. It's exhibitionist foreplay. 

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though. There are a few bands who mix in original works with the covers. Istanbullshit, my friends' band, is going to start playing their own original works soon. Maybe one day I'll see an actual pit in Busan. Maybe I'll hear some punk music again. For now, though, I've go to settle for some admittedly awesome Turkish covers, and bob my head. 

Once I get home, though, I'm gonna get sweaty and bruised in a pit. It's been too long.