Why Seoul’s CityBreak could become a world-class urban rock festival

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by Christopher Johnson in Seoul, South Korea

—– CityBreak festival, organized by Hyundai Card, has a really good thing going for it: a great location in central Seoul.

At many festivals around the world, you have to travel a few hours out of town and camp in squalor amid hordes of other “rock refugees”. Nearby hotels, if there are any, are always sold out. Local transport, if there is any, often requires long waits in line.

But at CityBreak, you can stay in a hotel in one of the world’s most dynamic cities, take the subway to “Sports Complex” station, and walk a few minutes to the 1988 Olympic Stadium.

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Compare this to Japan’s two most famous festivals, Fuji Rock and SummerSonic, which are increasingly drawing fans from Australia and across Asia. To get to Fuji Rock, you have travel by car or train for about four hours north of Tokyo. If you didn’t spend $100 per person on a hotel room booked months in advance, you’re left with camping on a mountainside in mud. You lie down in your tent but don’t really sleep, just like at festivals in Europe such as Frequency, Southside and Pohoda, two of my favorites. It’s fun, of course, but by Sunday, you’re a zombie rocking out on remote control.

With SummerSonic, which bills itself as a city festival, I only had to travel 90 minutes by train (total time including transfers) from my home near Shibuya in central Tokyo to the seaside Makukari convention center near the port area between Tokyo and Chiba. But then I probably spent 2 hours per day hiking between stages in 40 C heat and humidity. I spent about 15 minutes in line just to purchase a train ticket, about the same time lining up on the train platform, before cramming desperately onto the last train. Forget about finding a room in the handful of hotels near the site, and it’s too hot to sleep comfortably in a tent, even with sea breezes. Instead, I woke up at 9 am Saturday, got to the site at 1 pm, left at 9 pm, got home after midnight, then did the same on Sunday. Miss the last train at SummerSonic, and you’ll spend the night sleeping rough on concrete, or paying $100 or more for a taxi.

For CityBreak, I flew to Seoul, took the excellent and cheap train into the city, and stayed near the central business core of Gangnam, famous for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video, which now has 1.7 billion hits on youtube, for about $50 per night in an adequate room. I walked 3 minutes to the station, took the excellent subway one stop, and walked for few minutes into the Olympic Stadium, where Ben Johnson once set the world record before being busted on doping charges.

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Amid a packed crowd Saturday night for MUSE, I noticed no queues for the subway, since trains come and go every five minutes or so. On Sunday night, Metallica’s gig was delayed about 20 minutes, due to weather in Shanghai delaying their flight. Metallica, scheduled to play from 9 pm to 11 pm, didn’t cheat their fans, known as “The Metallica Family.” They played until 11:45 pm. By the time I reached the station, after hanging out with new friends, the subway station’s gates were closed. No problem. I simply walked for 10 minutes over the bridge to my hotel. Others took night buses, or hailed taxis. It was easy to find delicious food late at night.

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Inside the festival site, everything is close. The three stages are really only meters apart: Ben Johnson or Carl Lewis could go from one to the other in about 20 seconds.

The stadium toilets are clean, and I didn’t see long queues. They have funky installations decorating concrete corridors and empty spaces inside, and plenty of green outside.

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Instead of the muddy valleys of Fuji Rock or the sweltering mats and concrete of SummerSonic, the Olympic stadium infield grass is covered in funky see-through mats. It’s perfect.

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You can also sit on crates or painted drums and watch indie bands in the shade of a shelter, or even from a “cooling station” spraying mist.

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It’s also great for journalists. At Fuji Rock, photographers, who have to lug heavy gear long distances, aren’t allowed to use backroads, and there’s often nowhere to sit down or keep equipment out of the rain. SummerSonic doesn’t even allow photo-journalists permission to shoot. But at CityBreak, it’s more like covering a sporting event. There’s a press room with food and cold drinks, and the organizers treat the press like friends not foes.

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Fans looked really happy in Seoul. I didn’t see the exhausted faces of people at Japan festivals who’ve been enduring rain, mud, cold or killer heat.

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For people in Seoul, it’s like going to a shopping mall or a street market. You sleep at home, take the subway, walk a few minutes and there, right in front of you, is Iggy Pop, Limp Bizkit, Muse, Rise Against, Shin Jung-Hyeong and Metallica.

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