Within South Korea there is an ongoing struggle between the old and the new. While the economy has modernised at a ferocious pace over the past fifty years, South Korean culture remains caught between keeping its traditions and embracing the future. In no other place is this more visible than in music.
Seoul City Government announced plans to create a street to promote traditional Korean music last week. The development intends to rejuvenate interest in fading arts such as pansori and sanjo and boost the flagging industry. Located between Changdeokgung Palace and Jongno 3-ga station in central Seoul, the road already includes a number of music shops. They will be supplemented with outdoor performance areas, galleries with courses in various instruments and a new Traditional Music Art Company building at the top of the street.
“It is true that Korean traditional music is facing difficult times. But people tend to miss old things as they are more exposed to modern civilization” said Lee Sang-Kook, Director of the Culture and Arts Division. “People feel nostalgia for old culture and tradition. So we are going to develop Korean traditional music and show tourists what gives us pride,” he added.
Local businesses hope the plan boosts tourism to the levels seen at nearby Insadong street, currently the top destination for tourists looking to buy traditional souvenirs. Park Joo-yeol, who recently moved his 30-year-old antique business from Insadong, said he believed it would take five years to start feeling the effects of increased tourism and foot traffic.
The government has played a vital role in maintaining more traditional forms of music through this kind of project in the past. Continued government funding has been the lifeblood of traditional music as it has become marginalised by the popularity of more modern forms of electronic music. With the ever growing popularity of K-pop both inside and outside of Korea, it is becoming increasingly difficult for traditional music to find an audience, particularly amongst the younger generation, and without government support many forms are at risk of dying out.
However the high cost to the taxpayer has drawn critics.
“I think we need to take a step back. I think limited support is the best way to go, not expanding. Because in the culture industry you do have these classical Korean traditional music performers and composers that have vested interests in having more government money into what they do because they get richer and have more recognition” says Korea cultural expert Andrew Kim.
The government is therefore in a catch-22 situation. “If you don’t preserve it, what do you have left as something that tells the people outside the form of traditional culture and what gives a certain aspect to Korean cultural identity? But then to preserve it, it’s costing money” Kim argues.
The move to establish a street dedicated to traditional music can be largely seen as a response to the recently established K-star road in Seoul’s high end Cheongdam district. Created with the support of various record labels the street intends to promote K-pop music and is seen as a way of increasing tourism through interest in the Korean wave. Ironically the street is lined with mostly western designer fashion labels.
K-pop is now becoming the face of Korean music to the outside world and threatens to eclipse more traditional forms of music. Recent concerts in Europe and recognition at the latest YouTube awards have proven K-pop’s universal appeal, success that’s bringing in huge profits for the major labels such SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment.
However there are questions surrounding the longevity of K-pop’s success. Japanese popular music (J-pop) had a similar period of success in the 1980’s but has fallen far behind K-pop since the 1990’s, and there are concerns K-pop could face a similar future. In fact there are already signs that the bubble of Korean music is at the point of bursting in Japan. So government policy intends to preserve Korean traditional music for future generations that will outlast the trends of popular music.