The rulers of the South Korean (and international) music world might be a certain seven-member group right now, but Korean music is as diverse and innovative as it is powerful, and you can look no further than the K-indie scene as evidence of that.
Originally, South Korean indie music referred to the independent music scene that developed in the 1990s in Hongdae, a bustling urban area in northwest Seoul. K-indie artists would release their music independent of management companies, publishing enterprises or distribution firms — think garage or basement bands. While K-pop, South Korea’s most successful cultural export, is inherently focused on the commercialization and promotion of the artists behind the music, K-indie puts the music front and center.
Nowadays, as with the concept of “indie” in general, K-indie refers to the musical sound itself rather than its origins. K-indie is characterized by its mellow and ambient sounds, light and moody vocals, and aesthetic designs. However, don’t be fooled by this description — K-indie serves a wide variety of musical genres: alternative, R&B, hip-hop, rock and pop. Whatever your tastes, there’s a K-indie song for that.
For R&B and Hip-Hop Devotees
When it comes to fantastic Korean R&B and hip-hop, musicians like Dean and Loco are pretty much household names both in Korea and worldwide. Their novel artistic vision, groovy soundscapes and moody lyrics have defined and redefined their genres. However, independent music label DPR is definitely a force to be reckoned with, and LEEBADA is a fantastic addition to the K-R&B and K-hip-hop genres.
Take Dean’s “instagram,” for example. In this moody black-and-white song, Dean sings about feeling lonely and numb after scrolling through Instagram, in a digital world filled with glamorous pictures of people’s lives (“I’m sinking right now / inside a square ocean”). In a Spot Interview, Dean explained that “instagram” was written after he realized how depressed he was after using the social media platform, where he made a bad habit of comparing himself to renowned artists. Despite how he felt, he kept scrolling mindlessly and aimlessly. As someone who has definitely felt this way after opening Instagram, “instagram” is not just a great song, but a source of comfort.
DPR, short for “Dream Perfect Regime,” is made up of members DPR LIVE (Hong Da-bin), DPR IAN (Christian Yu), DPR CREAM (Kim Kyung-mo) and DPR REM (Scott Kim). DPR is not just a musical act, but a fully independent entertainment label, as the members of DPR write, produce, edit and direct all of their own music and visual content.
This type of independent organization is rare for a music industry as tightly controlled as South Korea’s is, and even more rare considering that DPR is essentially a group of friends releasing music and intimately connecting to their fans. The quality of this group comes from how, despite the authenticity of both their music and their connection with fans, their music has that same slick production quality as the biggest artists in the industry.
DPR IAN’s and K-pop icon CL’s collaboration on “No Blueberries” has wowed fans with its curious lyrics (“I like no blueberries in my ice cream cake / No air to breathe with that masking tape”) juxtaposed with its serious themes of trauma and battling one’s inner demons. In the song’s music video, the futuristic-slash-retro setting is shot in shades of dimmed neons and twilight blues, which makes IAN’s blueberry monster even more trippy.
“No Blueberries” is part of the same universe as “So Beautiful” and is part of the trilogy storyline that DPR IAN has been working on. The song was written by DPR IAN and DPR LIVE, and arranged by DPR CREAM. In terms of a K-hip-hop song though, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill “chill” track. CL’s and DPR LIVE’s voices and verses complement the relaxed tone of the song, making it a great autumnal listen, or perfect for days dedicated to introspective reflection.
LEEBADA is a female vocalist who stuns her fans in every song she sings. Whether it’s her recent vocal-busting ballad “Lonely Hearts Club” (which she wrote in collaboration with Swedish singer-songwriter Winona Oak), or the crisp, fast-paced staccatos of “High” (featuring PENOMECO and GroovyRoom, who are also fantastic K-R&B artists), LEEBADA’s voice is simultaneously soft and sharp, and swells in all the right places. Her songs perfectly suit her dreamy-hued aesthetic.
As LEEBADA explained in an interview with Bandwagon Asia, “colors” is the theme of her artistic vision, which she uses to describe the different sides of her personality and each song that she creates. Her 2019 album “THE OCEAN” evokes the image of a painter’s palette: songs “Red Rose,” “Blue Rose” and “Watercolor” call to mind a faded Kinemacolor fantasy. If you are looking to get into LEEBADA’s music career and are unsure of where to start, “Night Dream” is definitely a great song to check out, as well as LEEBADA’s favorite, “Diana.”
TAEK, also known as “Im TAEK” on his YouTube channel, has released fewer than 10 songs, but all his songs possess an imaginative sense of artistry. His songs, which all share a delicate sound and voice, range from slow ballad-like croons (“Everywhere, Bad People are There”) to sharp electronic riffs (“Liar”) to soft, lo-fi-type murmurs on his most recent work (“My Status”).
For Rock and Alternative Enthusiasts
If you’re a fan of Paramore, then you’ll definitely get into Loveholic, a modern rock band formed in 2003. Made up of Kang Hyun Min, Lee Jae-hak and Ji Sun (former vocalist), the band has that characteristic early 2000s sound in their earlier albums, like the eponymous “Loveholic” (2003) and “Nice Dream” (2006). Their songs have also been used in many famous Korean dramas, such as “200 Pounds Beauty,” “Boys Over Flowers” and as the outro song for the Japanese anime “Black Blood Brothers.”
NELL is an alternative rock band that formed in 2001 in Seoul, with a gloomy and psychedelic sound. NELL is the result of an amalgam of influences — their name comes from the movie “Nell” (starring Jodie Foster), and their sound is influenced by British rock bands such as Radiohead, Placebo, Travis and Muse. In 2016, they became independent, setting up their own label, Space Bohemian.
Under this new indie label, NELL released their first independent album, “C,” with the song “Dream Catcher.” Although their song “everythingoes” featuring BTS’s RM is the most popular in terms of Spotify streams, it is really their songs “Green Nocturne” and “Glow in the dark” that stand out the most for their superb spin on classic rock themes.
As the popularity and talent of artists like Dean, DPR and NELL have shown, there is a unique vibrancy and experimentation that comes from the Korean indie music scene that music lovers would benefit from listening to. Hopefully, this inspires you to add some new songs to your shower and everyday playlists.