K-pop dominates the music news in South Korea, but South Korea boasts a thriving and vibrant indie scene as well. One of the best ways to see the diversity and creativity of modern Korean music is to see what new generations of musicians are creating. Bands like No Brain, Crying Nut, and Crash helped lay a foundation for a different brand of musical expression in South Korea, and musicians these days are following their lead. The music is not only unique, but it has such a wide variety not seen in pop music. The best way to experience this variety is to see it live and certain clubs and venues cater to different genres and subsets of the indie scene.
The diversity provided by indie venues not only provides concert goers with a range of music from Korean, expat, and the occasional touring band; it also one of the better ways to spend a night out without breaking the bank to see a band. Most shows cost less that \20,000 and music festivals like the monthly “Live Club Day” and the upcoming “Zandari Festa” offer a plethora of bands for significantly less money than a typical music festival in South Korea. Many of the venues double as art spaces and bars so even if the music is not to your liking there is plenty else to see and experience while exploring the world of the Korean indie scene.
For nearly 25 years the area around Hongik University (Hongdae for short) has been the epicenter of the indie music scene in South Korea, but with economic changes some of the original clubs and mainstays of the scene have disappeared. Gone are 500 (Obec), Club Ta, Salon Badabie, the original Skunk Hell, and so many other indie institutions. But that doesn’t mean the indie scene is not fighting on. Here are some of the best places remaining in the Hongdae area to take in live shows.
Honorable Mentions: Suzie Q,
410-3 Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, Korea
Suzie Q is not a live music venue, but it is one of the more endearing LP bars you will ever go to. The elderly couple that run the bar are always friendly, the vinyl collection is impressive, and the drinks are decent. It is one of the best places to go in Hongdae if you want to start your night or wrap it up.
#8 Club FF
407-8 Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
FF is not necessarily the best place to go for live music, but what it lacks in ambience it makes up for it with quantity and variety. There is almost always something going on at FF and they are deeply connected to the indie scene. One of the more active venues for music festivals, this spot is one of the more common places international bands touring in South Korea visit along with the nearby and more sterile MUV Hall. For anyone new to the Hongdae indie scene this is a good place to get introduced.
#7 Club Sharp
384-23, Mangwon-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
This little venue in Mangwon-dong gets its name from the “Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice” (SHARP) subculture that grew out of the New York and United Kingdom punk scenes. Club Sharp is all about the music. The atmosphere is one that can remind a person of basement house shows where you brought your own booze (there is no bar here) and danced in cramped areas to your friend’s punk band do their best impression of “Bad Brains” or “The Replacements” on a crappy, used PA system. If you don’t mind the suffocating heat and getting sweaty this is as good a place as any to dive headlong into the more aggressive side of indie music.
#6 Club Evans
407-3, 2F Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
If punk and ska is not your thing, and you are looking for a more relaxed place to sit back with a cocktail, conversation and Jazz or the Blues then the best place to do it is Club Evans. It could be argued that Club Evans is the premier Jazz club in Seoul, because of the environment they have created. This is one of the older and more successful clubs remaining in Hongdae, because they cater to the casual as well as dedicated Jazz fans. But Club Evans doesn’t just stop with live performances, because the entire space is dedicated to music appreciation and education, complete with its own recording studio. The mood is suitable for a date, or to go sit and enjoy some innovative new music without the pressure of having to understand the language of jazz. But be warned, it has a reputation so get their early if you want to get a seat.
408-16 Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
The original Freebird opened in 1995 and has been in operation ever since, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest music space in Hongdae. Its longevity is a rarity in the realm of Korean indie. The intimate and tucked away original club has given way to the much larger location where the iconic Club 500 once stood. The dynamics of performances have changed due to the size of the newer venue, but it is still an enjoyable experience for audience whether you are on the floor or hanging out upstairs. Like FF, Freebird’s larger venue allows them to cater not just live bands, but also to electronic dance parties. The cavernous look may take away from the intimacy that the audience may feel with the band, but the sound created by and for the space is an experience of its own. Freebird is another great venue for anyone who enjoys live music for the social elements of a concert.
#4 Channel 1969
227-1 Yeonnam-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Channel 1969 is one of the more eclectic venues in the Hongdae area. The mish-mash of memorabilia strewn among the books in the library, next to the relatively basic setup of the stage area for shows makes the venue feel both intimate and abrasive. But that doesn’t stop the radically minded space from being perfect for an intimate and relaxing acoustic set as well as more energetic bands and hip-hop acts. However, Channel 1969 really comes to life when bands incorporate visual art into their sets; because the space feels as if it absorbs the energy and spits it back out at the fans in attendance with more vigor than a band alone can. More importantly if you are looking for entertainment on the cheap, most shows are free or donation-based, allowing you to stretch out the bar tab a little longer.
#3 GBN Live House
54-41 Mullae-dong 3ga, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Formerly known as Space Moon, this little Mullae-dong venue is not just a metal club, it is a metal workshop. Technically, not in Hongdae, it caters to the same subset of people and musicians. The atmosphere compliments the typical bands you would see at GBN. Graham Parkinson of local band “Victim Kit” says that GBN has great sound for its musicians but also that it is, “a home for weird and abrasive shit.” The stage is small so concert goers can get in tight and the space is open so you can dance or headbang all night long. But don’t be surprised if you end up standing in one spot for the night either. Each trip to GBN is going to be different, and that is part of the charm.
395-17 B1, Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Not as big as Freebird and less stark than MUV Hall, DGBD is one of the few concert venues that have the look and feel of a small New York City club. The stage is raised up high and if you wish you can watch from the second floor balcony, so there is not a bad spot in the place to see a show, unless you are unfortunate enough to be short and standing behind someone tall. DGBD has been a pillar of the indie community and many large acts have walked onto its stage. But the beauty of this venue is that maintains a happy balance between large space and intimate gathering. When shows aren’t completely packed it is easy to move around and easy enough to step outside to get some air if you need it. The variety of music that comes to DGBD makes it a very accessible venue for fans of all sorts of music.
#1 Strange Fruit (Musicians choice)
330-15 Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Strange fruit is not large; in fact it can get downright cramped inside. But, for many in the indie community this has become the new center of the Hongdae music scene. “That’s home turf for a lot of us I feel. It’s our comfort zone, where we play just for ourselves,” said Jonathan Jacobson, Hongdae resident and member of the band Tierpark. Everything about this space is dedicated not just to the musical performances happening on a given night, but it is a place for likeminded individuals to gather and talk about the music (and other things) that unite them. Even when there aren’t shows happening, Strange Fruit is still a very welcoming and inviting place to get a drink. But Strange Fruit embraces the idea of music as a uniting force, and people of all backgrounds are warmly welcomed. So drop by prepare to rub elbows (literally) with the audience and the band and have a night full of love and passion for music.