The Tragedy of the (Rock) Commons

P070729004I love live concerts. There’s something about the experience that cannot be replicated in studio recordings. Maybe it’s the unpredictability of the performances, or the energy of the crowd, or the booming drums that you have to be there to feel. But the thing is, it’s hard to go to all or even a significant number of the concerts you might want to go to. Concert tickets, especially in Korea, are pretty expensive, plus you might not have the time. That’s why I’ve always liked the concept of the rock festival. A musical smorgasbord with enough artists that you wanted to hear so you get your money’s worth, plus if you’re lucky a couple of pleasant discoveries. But for the longest time, Korean rock fans had to glance longingly across the sea at neighboring Japan and its Fuji Rock Festival or Summer Sonic and their world class acts, because Korea didn’t have a proper rock festival to its name. Sure, there were local music festivals with Korean bands, but those didn’t quite capture the excitement of a Glastonbury or Woodstock. They wished that one day, Korea might have rock festivals whose stages would be graced by the hottest bands in the world. And they got their wish. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

There had been an attempt to start a rock festival in Incheon in 1999. It was called Tri-Port Festival and there were plans for an all-star lineup that included Deep Purple, Rage Against the Machine, Dream Theater, and The Prodigy. Unfortunately the event was cancelled due to bad weather conditions. So ended the first attempt at a Korean Woodstock. There were other attempts, like K-pop/K-rock legend Seo Taiji’s ETPFest (which stands for the nonsensical “Eerie Taiji People”) which was more in the vein of an Ozzfest or Crossroads Festival than a Lollapalooza or Coachella, and the Dongducheon Rock Festival which was more of a Korean band-centric affair, but neither was held regularly and both have basically been defunct since 2010.

2006 was when everything changed. Taking place where the Tri-Port Festival failed miserably, the Pentaport Rock Festival kicked off the era of rock festivals in Korea with acts like the Black Eyed Peas, the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol. You might think those bands aren’t that impressive now but think back to 2006. These guys were huge back then. I went to Pentaport the next year, camped out for the three days and it was awesome. The headliners were bands I had always wanted to see, the Chemical Brothers, L’Arc-en-ciel, Muse, and there were plenty of other bands that I really enjoyed, like OK Go, Ocean Colour Scene, and Asian Kung-Fu Generation. It was a blast, both for the crowds and for the bands. Many of the bands made remarks favorably comparing the rapturously raucous Pentaport crowds to the Fuji Rock Festival crowds, who I’m guessing were a bit more reserved and polite. I won’t say the name of the band in particular said that Japan was “boring,” but I will say that I really like their music videos which often go viral. What can I say, Koreans love to party hard. The festival was a great success, probably for the organizers and definitely for me, since I could name-drop so many bands that I’d seen live now.

Of course, when a certain product, like a rock festival, becomes wildly successful, a lot of people want to get a piece of the action, or a bigger piece. In 2009, one of the main organizers of Pentaport cut ties with the festival due to issues regarding the location, and launched the Jisan Valley Rock Festival. Now, two rock festivals might sound better than one, but the problem was that the two festivals happened to draw their acts from the same pool: the Fuji Rock Festival. Which means they were held on the same weekend, forcing festival-goers to choose between the two. Jisan won the first round, since the organizers were the ones responsible for booking the acts at Pentaport, and Pentaport hasn’t quite been the same ever since. I checked the lineup for Pentaport this year and the headliners for the second and third days were Kasabian and Travis, respectively. Which is basically the same as 2008 when Travis was one of the headliners and Kasabian was the penultimate band of the festival. Back then having Travis and Kasabian would have been fantastic, but now, well, it’s kind of sad.

The Jisan Valley Rock Festival went from strength to strength, even getting a major backer in Korean entertainment conglomerate CJE&M in 2010, until a new challenger emerged in 2012. Remember how I talked about two Japanese rock festivals? Well, the other one, Summer Sonic, decided to get into the Korean rock festival game with its booking clout and created the Supersonic Festival, a two-day festival in August that was basically a budget version of Summer Sonic. And in 2013, everything started to fall apart. The Jisan Valley Rock Festival’s contract with the Jisan Resort location ended in 2013, so the organizers decided to move to Ansan and became the Ansan Valley Rock Festival. Since the Jisan Resort folks had profited quite nicely from hosting the Valley Rock Festival, they decided to have one of their own, called the Jisan World Rock Festival. Which was extremely confusing for those who weren’t paying close attention to contractual disputes between rock festival organizers, so basically everyone. And Hyundai Card, known more for organizing cultural events by bringing in world-famous artists and musicians than their actual credit card business, surprised everyone by announcing CITYBREAK, a two-day festival with a star-studded lineup that included Japandroids, Muse, and Metallica, most likely poached from Summer Sonic, because even though Supersonic might have ties with those artists, Hyundai has a shit ton of money. So in 2013, concertgoers could choose from five different music festivals. Isn’t that great?

The thing is, there are only so many major bands that can be booked for rock festivals in Korea. These bands can attract huge crowds of fans who will purchase tickets (one of the main sources of revenue) and these huge crowds will in turn attract corporate sponsors (the other main source of revenue). But since there were so many rock festivals and most of the touring bands only had enough time to play at one festival, each festival only got maybe three or four internationally renowned artists, and the rest were local bands who are great, but not really justification for the expensive passes. And even though a lot of people might have been excited to hear that all of these bands were performing in Korea, most of them weren’t willing to fork over money for every single festival. At most, they’d probably go to one or maybe two, which means that the number of people going to each festival was a lot smaller than if there were only one or two festivals with star-studded lineups. So these festivals were essentially cannibalizing each other, and you can’t really say that the consumers benefitted. Because like I said, all the artists you want to see were spread across these five festivals, so you probably missed most of them if you just went to one.

Which brings us to today. The Jisan World Rock Festival is no more, after the organizers probably realized that it wasn’t quite the easy money they had hoped, and the Ansan Valley Rock Festival was cancelled following the Sewol ferry disaster, as the vast majority of the victims were from Ansan and having a major rock festival might seem a bit gauche. Pentaport seems like the Pentaport of six years ago, which could either be a good thing or a bad thing, most likely underwhelming. Supersonic is next week as a one day event rather than the usual two day event. Basically, the rock festival bubble, which hit its peak in 2012, is rapidly bursting. Hopefully after all the dust is settled, a duopoly like Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival and Summer Sonic will emerge, and other potential investors will have the good sense to either back off or join forces with one of the existing events, not try to split a pie that has been proven to be smaller than expected. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on CITYBREAK and probably Valley Rock Festival as the future of Korea’s rock festivals, with a diminished Pentaport as a distant third. Hyundai Card has shown an absurd knack for bringing the top performers, and you can never count out the entertainment juggernaut that is CJE&M. Tomorrow is the first day of CITYBREAK, which will be my first rock festival in seven years. I will either have a ton of fun or become painfully aware of my impending decrepitude. Either way, I am very, very, excited. And isn’t that how rock festivals should make people feel?

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2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of the (Rock) Commons

  1. 선배님 글 잘 읽었습니다. 저도 2009년 여름 지산이 지금까지도 제일 재미있는 기억으로 남아있어요. 고등학교 여름바학때 하루 쪽내서 펜타포트 놀러 가던 것보다 2009년에는 민사졸업하고 대학가기도 전에 신나게 놀던 시절이라 마음껏 보고 왔던 주관적인 면도 있겠고 비만 오면 흙탕물이 되던 펜타포트에 비해서 훨씬 쾌적했던 지산에 비해 압도적인 라인업이 기억에 남았던 것도 있겠구요. 그 뒤에도 2011년전까지 지산에 3일 모두는 못 가도 꼬박꼬박 갔었는데, 2013년 여름에 군대 갔다 나오니까 펜타포트에 지산, 안산에 현대카드까지 다 갈라져 있더라구요. 선배님 말대로 이렇게 갈라져서 많아지니까 오히려 팬입장에선 과유불급인 것같습니다.

  2. INTERESTING and insightful post! Ansan and Jisan had a huge falling out over some private business affairs and it did not end well, I recall.

    Looking back at 2006, when even Youtube was in its infancy, I would have to agree that the large-scale festivals backed by huge sponsors like Hyundai card and Red bull were pretty appealing in the dearth of alternatives. I was at the first and second Pentaports too. But I do feel like the festival boom was more of a financial, rather than a cultural or musical, breakthrough.

    Musically it’s a completely different picture! There is a lot of innovative Korean rock music still going barely noticed buried under the corporate stratosphere — it’s been this way for quite a few decades now. But I live in Hongdae and I’ve definitely been seeing some recent shifts in the culture on an observable level: autonomous scene-organizing from artist-owned collectives, loads of free, frequent, smaller festivals with little to no admission rates, so on and so forth. I feel really positive about these micro-level changes. My freshly-minted blog will probably dwell in length on this topic, so… !

    Not sure quite what relationship these behemoth festivals will have with actual artists, though. I have friends whose bands performed at festivals like Green Mint, Soundberry, Pentaport and the like, and the payment is patently abysmal — 250,000 won per set at the most. A band of five people takes home 50,000 won per person. How is that sustainable? Why aren’t artists getting their share or worth? Where’s the ticket money going? It’s exploitation, and it’s disturbing… anyway, that’s that, and the positive changes are what I like to focus on personally.

    This blog is really awesome! You might actually be someone I know, or someone who knows someone I know. The latter prospect actually is kind of scary but plausible. You have a new follower!

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