Karaoke is often seen as a staple of modern South Korean culture. Unlike karaoke in western culture, South Korean karaoke centred on the noraebang which is a private (and usually soundproof!) room where people are free to sing their favorite songs.
For many South Koreans and tourists, it has been easy to find noraebangs everywhere, even in isolated areas in the country. It has become an entrenched habit in Korean culture, and has been one of the many South Korean cultural exports, with noraebangs popping up in the biggest cities around the world.
Yet, despite the widespread nature of noraebang, news reports have been documenting that karaoke has been falling out of style for the past few years. The number of noraebangs reached its peak with 35,316 noraebangs in 2011, but since then it has declined by more than 2,000.
The decline seems to be accelerating, as in the first half of 2019, South Korea lost almost 400 noraebangs. Traditionally, singing has been viewed as a way for Koreans to relieve stress, which been perfect for the development of a noraebang culture. It has been considered a fun and easygoing activity, even if you can’t sing.
One of the most common aspects of noraebang culture was for co-workers to go to karaoke as a way to bond with each other or alleviate the stress from work.
Given that South Korea’s corporate culture had traditionally been one of the most overworked in the world, noraebang was considered as the perfect way of combining leisure and gaining good favor from a person’s co-workers or even their boss.
Typically, a big part has been hweshik or after-work dinners, where co-workers are obligated to attend as this was considered important for staff to bond. However, this has been popularly characterized by the tense and awkward atmosphere, even if it involved stopping for karaoke.
Yet, this corporate culture has also been changing. While traditionally, money and work-centered lifestyle has been the major priority for many South Koreans, there has been a shift towards a work-life balance.
With average working hours decreasing in Korea and hweshik culture changing, workers and professionals have been choosing to focus on their own lives, rather than on spending additional time with co-workers.
Instead, it has been reported that increasingly many South Koreans would rather go home early, to spend time with themselves or with their families, rather than thinking about work. One of the consequences has been the decreased utilization of noraebang, with thousands of these iconic karaoke rooms shutting down over the past decade.
Regardless, noraebang continues to be everywhere in South Korea, and will always be on the to-do-list of anyone travelling to South Korea.