Shawn Choi came to New York from Seoul, and moved from studying arts administration to working in development, marketing, and presenting. He longed to build stronger ties between the Korean traditional and indie music scene and American audiences, which inspired him to found his own agency, SORI. Choi has been an instrumental figure in raising awareness of Korea’s diverse and unique performing arts scene in the U.S.
He shared his story with DubMC.
How did you first get interested in music?
My first in-depth experience with music came when I started playing drums in high school.
However, music and arts are not the main focus of the Korean education system; your goal is to get in a university with good name recognition. Nothing else, really. You have to apply to study the subject that will be your major, and that’s not necessarily something you’re interested in, but something that is easy to get accepted in. That’s how I ended up with a degree in biochemistry.
I went to that great university, like I was supposed to, but was looking for something else to do. I served in the army for two years, and then came back to school and I began to look for something new. I enjoyed the high school band and continued to play during my university years, so I thought I’d try performing again. I auditioned for a popular show, Nanta. I was working there for 4 years. Nanta is a non-verbal performance that’s very rhythm-based, something like Blue Man Group or Stomp. As a part of the company, I toured a lot of different countries.
In the end, though, I decided that being a performer was not my future career. Performing and training as a performer was challenging and I liked it, but it didn’t feel right. The performing arts field in Korea doesn’t have a high degree of professionalization, so I decided to become a strong professional in the US, to go to New York and study arts management.
That’s how I came to the US in 2004. After a year at community college, I went to the masters program at NYU in performing arts administration. That was a tipping point. I was interested mostly in the marketing side of the major. I’m the person looking for something new and different all the time. Marketing always changes. You need to figure out something unique and specific to sell your project and market to the community, to find the right target audience. That was such a challenge and fun to explore.
As an immigrant, it was hard to find the stable job that allowed me to settle in the US. It’s hard for a lot of migrants, sorting out the visa situation. I was looking for a job that was challenging and that would be willing to support the visa process. The folks at Flushing Town Hall were looking for someone like me, and I just celebrated 10 years here. I built up my career here and I’m currently serving as the Director of Marketing and Community Engagement. And in 2016, I started my own company, SORI agency.
Tell us a bit about why you founded SORI.
In 2016, it felt like the right time to start in another direction and try and support Korean artists.
The artists I work with at SORI come from my personal taste. Frankly, most of these artists are not well known in Korea, with SsingSsing being the exception today. K-pop can represent Korean pop culture but cannot represent music of Korea. There are more and more festivals and programs for presenting traditional and world music in Korea, but of course it’s still small compared to the pop scene. I thought that this music is really perfect for international touring. K-pop artists are not a good fit for many presenters, even the big ones. It’s fun entertainment, but it doesn’t further the education goals or missions of many performing arts presenters.
I also saw it as serving the Korean scene. There are so many artists who are doing something remarkable and beautiful but have little support. There are so many different instruments and genres, so many different forms found in Korean culture. There’s dance, music, and theater both traditional and fused with other styles. Lots of young talented artists are combining forms, and the new stuff has its own merits. Coreyah for example adds Brazil rhythms to Korean traditional instruments’ repertoire. They recently performed in Brazil, and it was phenomenal experience for both Brazilian audience as well as the musicians. That’s how they can build bridges.
SORI is the only agency in the US that is dedicated to promoting Korean world music and trying to make things easy for Korean artists and American presenters. In the past, I found most of Korean performing groups would come to the US to do one show and would then go back. Often Korean groups would get travel support from Korean government sources, but it simply was not worthwhile to do one or two performances. Also, Korean artists or groups didn’t know much about visas and taxes, and when they learned about it they’d sometimes give up their opportunity to perform or take a big risk coming without visas or taxes done properly. Many things are happening between artists and presenters, and sometimes lots of communication problems get in the way. The gap I found can be really challenging. I thought I should do something to close it and to create a professional platform to benefit both Korean artists and American presenters who are willing to promote Korean music through their venues and festivals.
You mentioned SsingSsing as an exception. Has their career taken off in Korea?
Yes, and it came about because of their acceptance in the US, in part. I wish more Korean artists could get more support to reach international stages. Many world music musicians go overseas to get their name out so they can come back and be more successful. SsingSsing is a great example and a great story of changing people’s biases. SsingSsing uses minyo, Korean folk song, as part of what they do. Young folks don’t know anything about these folk songs, and now they are singing along with the musicians at their shows in Korea.
The way it happened was really exciting to witness. SsingSsing came to the US in January 2017, with performances at SORI APAP showcase, globalFEST, and Flushing Town Hall. Bob Boilen from NPR came to see them at globalFEST and when I reached out to Bob for Tiny Desk, he gave me an instant Yes and that was probably one the best moments of 2017. SsingSsing became the first band from Korea/Asia performing at the Tiny Desk and their video on Youtube got almost a million views in just little over two months, and a lot of those views lately came from Korea. SsingSsing broke into the Korean media at last. They have started to generate buzz in Korea. They performed in a 200 capacity club recently, and hundreds people could not get in, and their shows in Korea are being sold out instantly as soon as the ticket went on sale. We’re also getting so many inquiries and fan messages from all over the world.
Check out this video about how SsingSsing broke into NPR's Tiny Desk.
Their glam rock and drag queen look didn’t fit in with the music business in Korea. But one of the reasons they dress that way is to reflect Korean shaman culture. Men dressed as women to neutralize everything. People don’t know about that so they just see something they think is weird. But SsingSsing’s success has pointed people toward the history and saying, wait, this is real Korean music.
Now, for the first time, when SsingSsing performs a minyo folk song in Korea, you’ll hear everyone singing along, because it was one of the Tiny Desk tunes. It’s been phenomenal to see what’s been happening, to hear generations coming together to sing these folk songs.
What’s coming up?
SORI will present a showcase at APAP Conference NYC 2018 featuring three Korean artists who bridge musical categories of traditional, jazz, pop, and world music: Korean folklore music group Coreyah; violinist-looper, singer-songwriter, and composer Joe Kye (represented by Craig S. Hyman at Numinous Music Presents); and gayageum and jazz drum dou Park Kyungso X Kim Chaek. The showcase will be held on Saturday, January 13th, 2018 at 7PM (Pre-show reception at 6PM) at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 2, (196 Allen St, New York, NY 10002). Tickets are $20 but APAP badge holders can attend both reception and showcase for free with online RSVP from SORI’s homepage at www.sori.nyc.
SORI had an incredible year in 2017 presenting seven world music groups from Korea in 20 different cities in the US and Canada including notable festivals and venues such as The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, SummerStage NYC, globalFEST, Mundial Montreal, Musikfest, Sunfest, World Music Festival Chicago to name a few. We have exciting programs coming up in 2018 including the APAP showcase, and North American tours including Black String (January 2018), SsingSsing (March 2018), Noreum Machi (July 2018), Heemoon Lee + Prelude (July 2018), and more in 2018-2019 season.
I am extremely thankful for so much support from world music community to Korean music and culture, and I will look forward to continuing to introduce the powerful works of Korean music.