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Future cities: the case of the independent music scene in Seoul

Image: Concert.

Image credit: Alkan Chipperfield

The Hongdae region of Seoul is at the centre of an independent music scene that is changing the way the music industry works.
Since the mid-1990s, the Hongdae region – located near to Hongik University from where it takes its name – has been renowned for its street art, clubs, and, above all, its indie music culture.

Over the years, Seoul’s independent music scene has grown from here to the extent that it has shifted the balance of power from the major record labels to the fans themselves, representing a significant shift in the industry’s supply chain. How did it happen?

The death of the record industry?

Seoul was the first city in the world where digital music sales surpassed CD sales. In a city with a population of 10 million, that’s a fundamental shift in the supply chain. How is it that Seoul came to be at the centre of this shift?

One major factor is the internet. What the internet means for the music industry is a contested topic. But Dr Bernard Burnes and Hwanho Choi argue that, despite the fears of Western music executives, the internet will not destroy the record industry. The internet has meant decline for big labels, but as Burnes and Choi note, it has actually boosted independent labels.

We are now in a place where independent music is a not a small or niche sector at all, with independent labels accounting for 26.4% of all UK album sales, and 32% of US album sales in 2013 – despite the fact that few independent labels are really driven by commercial goals.

Image: Concert.

Image credit: Alkan Chipperfield

Burnes and Choi note that independents have been far better at adapting to the internet than the big labels, seeing their fans less as sources of revenue, and more as value co-creators. This means that Seoul has seen growth in the popularity of home-grown artists, whose sales have increased from 60% of the market to 80%. This, of course, has also meant a rise for independent labels, whose consumers – probably because of loyalty to local artists – appear less inclined towards piracy.

The rise of Seoul’s independent music scene

Today, the South Korean market is widely regarded as the most successful music market in Asia. A lot of this is thanks to what’s been happening in South Korea’s capital, Seoul.

Burnes and Choi argue that the future-oriented culture of Seoul, including the early development of digital infrastructure such as high-speed internet, has been key to South Korea’s musical success. They observe that as early as the late 1990s, music fans were connecting on online forums to talk about the music that was coming out from the Hongdae region, and to share information. According to their research, a few interconnected factors contributed to the remarkable growth of this scene.

First, downloadable digital recordings weakened the ability of major labels to control the music industry, and enabled musicians and fans to have greater control of the music’s production, distribution, and use.

Second, the internet – and social media in particular – enabled fans to create and control their own community. Smartphones meant that fans could use social media to download and play music easily, and to share their preferences on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Image: Musicians.

Image credit: Eunice Hong

The third factor is the nature of Seoul itself. Seoul’s size means that the independent music community is big enough to dominate the supply chain and set the “terms of trade” between fans and labels. Its forward-looking perspective makes this radical transformation possible.

Ultimately, Burnes and Choi point to the coalescence of Seoul’s vibrant and innovative music scene, and the use of social media to create a strong and democratic community of fans, artists, and record labels.

They note that, in contrast with the traditional supply chain, which is driven by record labels’ pursuit of economic value, in this new community music is produced and consumed very differently. “They have developed a non-linear, non-hierarchical virtual music community, which contains a multiplicity of individuals and organizations and is in a constant state of change as new artists, fans and organizations join and old ones leave,” Burnes and Choi observe.

“It is a community in which no one group or individual appears to be dominant and where economic value, for the majority of the community, is only one form of value that is created, rather than the most important form of value.”

Read the research ▶

Read more! “Future cities and self-organising value chains: the case of the independent music community in Seoul” is published in Supply Chain Management: An International Journal.

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