On cracks and growing pains in Seoul’s creative scene

2013 is set to be a great year for creatives and those who love the arts. With the average teaching job requiring little more than a pulse above one and and a half-awake brain, the need to express oneself – or at least not spend all of your money on alcohol – remains high. The expat scene has long had plenty of creative types, but there’s more now than ever before – people have been sticking around for longer, getting better connected, and otherwise making something of themselves. This has led to some issues (four, at least, that are mentioned here) that will have to be addressed before long.

A balancing act regarding money

To use a buzzword, we have a convergence of tech, talent, and time here in Seoul. Among many other worthwhile projects, one 15-minute documentary on indie musicians is just one exhibit of what can be done with a small team of creatives and a surprisingly small footprint of equipment. The tech needed to do video is little more than a newer-model DSLR with an external microphone, a decent computer, and the willingness to edit video. It’s not free, but it’s far cheaper to do it today than a decade ago. That there are multiple, competing, free services to host your video make the barrier to entry even lower than ever.

The issue is money – or a lack thereof. There are more people angling for a piece of the pie, and that pie hasn’t grown much in recent years. In most cases there just isn’t enough money going from appreciative audiences to the organizers, performers, and venues. Kickstarter / Indiegogo campaigns definitely serve as an intriguing, if unpredictable, source of money, although extensive publicity and interest doesn’t necessarily open the floodgates of dollars. The good news is that few projects have to have a big budget, nor are the tools necessary out of reach from your average teacher’s salary – which is more than enough for most. Raising money for your project may come down to priorities – do I really need that 6,000 won cup of coffee every day? – or it might come to savings or family.  Whether there’s money in it or not, creative endeavors are alive, kicking, and moving towards their next album, gig, performance, or other big thing.

One case study in this balancing act was the Burn. Korea’s first Burning Man-like event, held on a remote Korean island in summertime 2012, had plenty of volunteers to aid the cause. A final financial statement from the event is on their Facebook page: 3.8 million won in donations and fundraisers, and 15.5 million won in expenses. That 11.7 million won difference – about six months net salary for your average teacher – was largely put up by one person who very much wanted the event to succeed. Success, in this case, was presumably an event that actually happened, as opposed to an event that paid for itself. (Yes, I’m well aware of the decommodification principle of Burning Man, thank you very much – and also that tickets to the real thing cost $380 for most people. That doesn’t include the expenses for getting there, the gifts you might hand out, and everything else associated with enjoying the event. Creativity and radical self-expression have their costs, unfortunately.)

Professionalism and reputation

There’s a growing schism between creatives that feel they ought to be paid for their efforts, and creatives looking to create first and break even second. The two camps, while likely friends, may well stand apart and disagree over this one difference. At their best, they’re able to work together and reap the benefits of their creative forces; at worst, the former let the need for payment overrule a natural desire to create.

But I’m a professional! I should get paid! Yes, I’ve heard this one before – and I’ve been guilty of saying it as well. The definition of professional, however, has no simple answer. The consummate professional – the person making her full-time income from  his or her craft(s) – is a very rare breed within the expat world, and is almost certainly busy with paying projects or clients. Even if they’re interested in working on a personal project, the paying projects have to come first, which rules out most longer-term commitments or obligations to non-paying ones. No, the professionals seen around Korea mostly teach by day (or night) and create by night (or day) – not a bad way to do it, in fairness, but a different sort of professional than mentioned above. If you’re delivering valuable results to the client(s) that asked for them, then yes, some form of compensation is fair. The question of what and how much is often answered by what’s available to a client, not a price schedule imported from your home country. Simply put, your client can’t pay you what they don’t have to offer.

Another thought – if what you do is hard to distinguish from someone else with similar tools or talents, it should surprise no one when the cheaper or free option is chosen. Use your unique talents to make those tools come to life in a way no one else can copy.

Inflated titles and pretentiousness

These two are more of my personal pet peeves. It’s always nice to feel self-important, and some people might get that from calling themselves an “Executive Director” or a “CEO” of The Organization’s Name. If a title is necessary to do your job, and if it’s justified by your responsibilities within that organization, then so be it. If you spend more doing something and less time leading or getting other people to do something, that leadership title becomes questionable at best. If you’re hoping to use that title on your resume, your responsibilities and capacity needs to reflect that. The solution is to simply state what it is you do – “I organize events” is perfectly fine, and opens a great line of questioning to an interested person.

The pretentiousness comes from making an event (or concert or whatever) sound bigger than it actually is / was.  The thought of ‘talking a big game’ or ‘faking it until you make it’ might bring in people the first time, but hailing every concert as THE BIGGEST CONCERT OF THE YEAR or the BEST CHANCE TO SEE (whoever) begins to sound like the boy who cried ‘wolf!’ one too many times.  Reality is simple – not every event is huge or unmissable (and good thing, too – there were at least three different events I wanted to get to last weekend), and not every events needs to be promoted as such.

Strong personalities / egos

At their best, strong personalities can work together in overcoming reticent characters, roadblocks, or other obstacles standing in your way. At their worst, you get power struggles, threats, and negative cycles of ‘he said, she said’. There are no monopolies in this or any other scene, and no one person or organization can legitimately claim dominance of any aspect of the scene, no matter how strong their personality. Doing so makes you look silly at best or stupid at worst.

Saying the creative scene has plenty of interesting personalities is like saying Dolly Parton has huge tits.  I’ve seen more than a few organizers or event planners plastering a copied-and-pasted message to any number of open Facebook groups, or on the streets emulating the poster-hangers in Itaewon and Hongdae. The aim to promote and make popular what they create is righteous, but the result is creating even more noise than ever. That noise comes from hearing about the same show a dozen times, or from people whose primary goal on social media in sharing what they’re promoting instead of conversing with friends. This is nothing exclusive to Seoul or Korea, of course – but it can still be annoying.

A better way forward…?

There is a middle ground between doing creative stuff solely for the creative benefits and doing it solely to get paid. On one end, you’re potentially a starving artist creating extraordinary work; on the other end, you’re potentially a member of a K-pop band. It ends up working out differently for every group or organization, and to be clear it’s a constant balancing act – one source of revenue goes down, or a cost goes up. There aren’t any easy answers, unfortunately, so it’s time to use those creative skills to figure it out for you and your group. One example I look to is the Camarata Music Company’s studio / practice space. Beyond using the Haebangcheon space for their own purposes, it’s rentable by other expat groups, like the Seoul Filmmakers Workshop. The workshop then asks for an admission fee – essentially passing on the cost of reality to the people that come out. That’s a fair balance, all things considered – people still volunteer their time and effort to create something artistic, while the money goes to cover necessary expenses.

Other venues have recently become excellent places for foreigners to play their instruments or sing their hearts out – four that come to mind are PowwowBar CarmenCakeshop, and Moonnight, all of which are active on Facebook. While there are enough promoters and production teams / labels in the expat world, two making a splash right now are Loose Union and Seconds2Impact. There are plenty of other venues enabling performances, to say nothing of all the other performing opportunities that exist throughout the country. The quantity of open mic nights all but ensure a microphone and an audience are available most any night of the week in Seoul. With a band, the city becomes your oyster. As I write this, there are 67 venues listed on koreagigguide.com – some possibly out of date or closed, but certainly at least as many that aren’t yet listed.

What’s really needed is a central list of all the events and performances that are going on – something that proactively gathers in data, while accepting event information from anyone throwing one. Some great efforts have been made by 10 Magazine and the aforementioned Korea Gig Guide, but the reality is that there’s so much happening that it’s near impossible to track it all. That goes for the creators as well – it’s hard to track who’s coming out with a new album, who’s on hiatus, and who’s joined with a new band.

Seoul itself is changing as well – anyone that’s been to the Hongdae area in the past few months has seen a growing number of fancy coffee shops and corporate investment. It’s gentrifying, which has slowly began to steal the spirit that made the area famous. The venues are still alive and kicking, but some of the underground scene has moved to Mullae in what’s still very much a developing area. Itaewon’s gentrification has been comparatively more gradual, but it’s definitely shifted as well.

There’s also a growing case for digital products – while the implementation looks a bit different in every case, the infinitely replicable nature and near-free distribution costs means you’re able to share your creative awesomeness with the world, or whatever part of it you like. Maybe it’s SoundCloud, Vimeo, Youtube, WordPress, Tumblr, or any of the other free services that share your message with the world. I’ve used uploadnsell.com to sell my latest book for free, with money going straight to your PayPal account when someone buys your offering. Maybe the singles are released for free, while the whole album is available on your website. Maybe anyone can enjoy your video online, but the behind-the-scenes fun is hidden behind a pay-what-you-can type of system (do this by setting a donation page on PayPal). Maybe the digital download is available with a password, and you print that on a business card given away with the cover charge to the concert.

However you share your creativity, do it – the world is a better place for it. Collaborate. Grow. Don’t do it just for the money. The decades-old book title remains correct – Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. How it follows is up to you.