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INTERVIEWKorea needs more small-sized concert venues: Prof. Lee Gyu-tag

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By Dong Sun-hwa

Lee Gyu-tag, an associate professor of cultural studies at George Mason University Korea / Courtesy of Lee Gyu-tag
Lee Gyu-tag, an associate professor of cultural studies at George Mason University Korea / Courtesy of Lee Gyu-tag
With President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol set to take office on May 10, a K-pop expert and associate professor of cultural studies at George Mason University Korea, is calling on the new administration to build more small and mid-sized concert venues for various pop singers and create more platforms where they can meet the audience.

"We do need big arenas that can accommodate up to 50,000 people, but we should also set up more small-sized venues with about 5,000-10,000 seats," Lee said in a recent interview with The Korea Times. "As of now, most singers throw their shows at sports stadiums like the KSPO Dome in Olympic Park located in Seoul's Songpa District, but they often do not have good acoustics, as they were not built for concerts. A lot of seats have a limited view, too."

In fact, the market size of the live performance industry in Korea is relatively small. Despite being the birthplace of K-pop, Korea does not have any concert-specific arena for more than 10,000 audience members, although it is planning to build some soon.

Lee explained that a rise in the number of proper venues may attract more international K-pop fans to Korea, helping singers and their record labels rack up more profits.

"If we can enrich fan experiences, a growing number of fans will visit Korea and attend K-pop concerts. This will not only benefit K-pop stars, but also other pop singers, who will grasp more opportunities to take to the stage and make their living."

While many culture industry insiders claim that the government should lend more financial aid to pop singers and their agencies, Lee believes providing infrastructure should take precedence.

"It will be challenging for the government to single out which singers to support," he said. "In order to help them in the long run, I think the new administration needs to create more platforms where they can stage their concerts and organize more events that will allow them to perform in front of the crowds."

Boosting cultural exchange is another crucial task, Lee added.

"Korean music is actively expanding its presence beyond Korea, but not really vice versa," he pointed out. "To date, only a few popular pop stars from the U.S. or Europe have been able to perform in Korea, mainly because private concert organizers rarely attempt to organize concerts for lesser-known singers, who are less profitable. Thus, if we are really seeking cultural exchange, the government has to run more projects that private organizations cannot, by bringing a variety of stars to Korea and giving them the chances to showcase their music here."

Lee also called on the new administration to map out specific plans to change people's perception of pop culture.

"Over the last few years, numerous people in the pop culture industry have vented their discontent to the government for its unfair treatment of pop singers," he said. "They complained that it only sought ways to permit classical music concerts or musicals to take place in the time of the pandemic, while applying harsh quarantine rules for pop concerts, citing that the spectators often sing along with the performers and spread the virus. On top of that, unlike classical musicians who can perform at different cultural centers or make money as educators, pop singers hardly have these opportunities, largely due to people's perception that they are not as qualified."

The professor stressed that the new administration should play a bigger role in eliminating such a prejudice.

"The government can establish more institutions where pop singers can teach students," he noted. "It should not divide classical musicians and pop singers to treat them differently, considering the global clout of Korean pop culture."

Lee then moved on to touch on the issue of military exemption, insisting that the current system has an issue over fairness. Under the current law, all able-bodied male citizens aged 18 to 28 must serve in the military for nearly two years. While international award-winning classical musicians and athletes are exempt from this duty due to "enhancing national prestige." However, pop singers are not beneficiaries of this system.

"I am not saying that pop singers should also be exempted," Lee clarified. "My point is that the current criteria for selecting the beneficiaries are too vague. I believe the government should give preferential treatment to everyone or no one. Maybe permitting pop singers to defer their duty until 33 or 35 can be another option."

Lee commented that the new administration should refrain from being too "nosy."

"The presidential transition committee recently stirred up debate by saying that it might invite K-pop behemoth BTS to Yoon's inauguration ceremony, without having any prior discussion with the group's management company HYBE," he said. "It later said it wouldn't but the incident hinted that it is the best for the government not to involve pop singers in any political affair that can be controversial. Most K-pop stars are apolitical and are often asked not to take a side in a certain political issue, so I think the government should take this into consideration. K-pop is regarded as 'cool' music by most global consumers, but if it turns nationalistic, its image can be severely damaged, with people deeming it as a tool of propaganda."

Lee Gyu-tag is an associate professor of cultural studies at George Mason Korea and a committee member of the Korean Music Awards. He authored several books including "K-Pop Without K" (2021) and "K-Pop in Conflict" (2019).

Dong Sun-hwa


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