Monday 3 May 2010. In an unprepossessing building in a small backstreet in trendy Gangnam is a compact office which manages a gugak fusion band which briefly caught the spirit of a nation. At the height of the Korea, Sparkling promotional campaign, when the Korean Tourism Organisation was promoting Korea as a place with ancient traditions but with very modern style and energy, Sorea’s “In Panic” video was a YouTube sensation. Five pretty girls playing traditional Korean instruments to a very modern beat, and a b-boy from Korea’s world-beating Extreme Crew dancing to the same beats as traditional nongak dancers. A perfect fusion of old and new.
Sorea is the brainchild of Ryu Moon, a music industry veteran of more than ten years. Mr Ryu had noted the growing World Music trend, spotting the international popularity of styles such as Celtic music and Tango. He judged that Korea had something to contribute to this new trend. In the first “Creative Gugak” competition run by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2004, Sorea were unexpected winners.
Sorea is commercial operation, formed to sell a product. The product is pretty girls on traditional instruments playing accessible new music for a young audience both domestically and internationally. For the domestic audience the hook is the new use of traditional instruments, while for the international audience this is a fresh new entrant in the World Music market. If a girl band can succeed, what about some cute boys, I ask Ryu. Is there room in the market for a gugak fusion boy band, a samulnori TVXQ to rival Sorea’s SNSD? Ryu has considered it, but with an eye on the international market has concluded that while such a product would sell in China and the rest of Asia, it would flop in the West.
While the Sookmyung Kayageum Orchestra, an all-female kayageum band, tends to focus on cover versions (the Beatles songs you hear on the KTX express train or in tourist shops are likely to be played by them), Sorea is all about new music. You’re not going to access the World Music market if all you’re playing is cover versions. Sorea’s music is mainly written by independent composers, but arranged by the Sorea team. Although the music is all new, that’s not to say that there isn’t some reference to the tradition from which the instruments come. For example, in the first track of their first EP Ryu tells me you can hear the traditional gutgori and chajinmori rhythms. “But we don’t have a serious message. We’re all about entertainment. But if people come to understand their tradition better as a result, that’s great.”
Despite their success, Sorea has released comparatively little on CD, compared with, for example, the four albums released by haegeum player Ccotbyel: no full-length album, just an EP and a collection of tunes from their fledgling stage musical. Ryu is cautious about releasing a full album, even though he has 16 tracks in the bag which could easily form the basis of a CD. He prefers to focus on live performance and to keep an eye on where the market is going, waiting for the right time and the right market to release a full-length album – if indeed there is a right market.
Ryu gives me a quick overview of the music industry to explain his cautious strategy further. The move from LP to CD was reasonably quick, he explains, while the move from CD to MP3 was quicker. “Increasingly, music isn’t something people listen to any more. It’s a service. It’s used as something to express identity, for example by personalising the ringtones on your cellphone or providing background music for your CyWorld page. How does a traditional CD fit in with this new market?” Ryu regards the market right now as in a transformational period.
The Korean music market is only 1% of the size of the US market, and around 2% of the Japanese. And traditional music is only 2% of that. Sorea therefore has to be international in order to be a success. And each international market is different. This involves tailoring the sound for different countries. Ryu rattles off more statistics: “13% of the US pop market is guitar based. That’s a lot more than Korea. That means we’ve got to consider our sound if we release in the US. The core product and basic style will be the same, but the sound engineering will be localised.”
In Panic was an immediate success in Korea and elsewhere, and Ryu is looking to maintain that success. One obvious question: if part of Sorea’s selling proposition is young, pretty girls, what happens when the years might take an inevitable toll on the players’ youthful good looks? Not an issue: there is a ready stream of gugak players exiting university, and today’s Sorea is in fact a squad of 12 musicians even though only 5 will appear at any one gig.
Evidencing Ryu’s further experimentation with the market, a stage show, called Monsters Theatre was produced last year, which had a brief run at the Myongdong Theatre in Seoul and which also made an appearance at the Thames Festival in London. A major gig is planned for the autumn of 2010 to coincide with the G20 summit, at which Sorea will share the billing with other big names like Kim Duk-soo’s Samulnori and the Sookmyung Kayageum Orchestra. Tours to the US and France later this year provides further opportunity to get Sorea’s name known better. The prize is a piece of the World Music market, and Moon Ryu is determined to win it.