The arrival of Sofar Sounds, a company that helps to neatly organize secret shows in cities all over the world, arrived in Charleston this month and had some people wondering a few things, like: How are the cover charges distributed? Is Sofar replacing the house-show punk DIY format with a corporatized, elitist one, or are they simply adding a useful service to get more folks interested in local artists? After attending the first Sofar show, CP writer Heath Ellison said, “It isn’t chic to use a DIY ethic — it’s utilitarian to use a DIY ethic.” (Read Ellison’s Sofar review from April 12.)
And what about all of the other local house show initiatives already in place, particularly for people other than indie-rock fans? Diaspoura’s Anjali Naik, for one, questions the inclusiveness of Sofar. “I actually don’t appreciate the effort Charleston groups have made to push soft, white indie music as the only acceptable house show format,” she says. “Many genres have created communities by way of house shows, like house music and hip-hop music and punk music — the scenes that had to create their own spaces to hold shows when venues aren’t asking to host those kinds of music.
“It’s just another way conservatives are trying to exclude and arrest people on the margins for existing together,” Naik continues, “creating rules around what kind of music is acceptable to hear on the street outside and what’s not.”
Khari Lucas of Contour doesn’t organize house shows as often anymore, but at one time — between 2013 and last year — his (in conjunction with his friend, roommate, and fellow artist and emcee, Nory) shows were hot spots for fans of house, electronic, hip-hop, and more. His reasons for setting up DIY shows in the living rooms of friends were many, including being underage and unestablished as of yet in the music scene.
Lucas turned to friends to lead performances but he also met a lot of artists he wound up working with through now-defunct local house show organizers Pop-Up Charleston. Shows were advertised via the house show standard: word-of-mouth. His desire to be secretive about it is something he has in common with Sofar Sounds, which keeps all details about the artists and the location (understandably, because who wants their home address published for all to see, including the cops?) underwraps until the day before a show. “I like the idea of doing exclusive things, too,” Lucas says.
For him, it’s not elitist to be so secretive. It’s necessary, he says, because the space is usually small, so advertising the show far and wide would draw too much attention to it. “The focus is the music,” he says. “The fact that you have to find out about it is just kind of a side piece of what it is. It gets elitist if that’s the centerpiece. Because I do think that making people put the effort into finding out about things definitely makes it so that they’re more likely to be engaged. There’s just a way to go about it.”
And hand-picking people for invites means only people who want to be there will show up. “And if the event is really good people are gonna want to find out how to get to the next one,” Lucas says.
But if you thought house shows are also just for underagers, you’re wrong. Rick Kijanka, who’s in his late 50s, has been organizing house shows under Charleston House Concerts since last year, with gypsy jazz being a common genre among the shows thus far. Kids and families are welcome at the concerts, one of which took place last weekend on Folly Beach. For Kijanka, organizing is a way for him to create a meaningful music experience.
Before he moved to Charleston, Kijanka lived in Connecticut, where he and his son (who now plays in Asheville-based band Sirius B) organized shows for teens at a local hall, calling it Five Bands for Five Bucks. “I’m a huge fan of music and not someone who’s interested in putting money in my pocket but with putting money in the artists’ pockets,” says Kijanka, who raises plenty of funds for his acts via donations during the shows.
By comparison, Sofar is ticketed — tickets are often $10, or you can apply for a pay-what-you-want ticket for yourself and a plus-one. Day-of tickets are $15. Online ticketing is an obvious feature that sets the program apart from the DIY tradition of passing a donation bucket around so visiting acts can put gas in the tour vans. As for Sofar, it offers its performers payments of either $50 (even for five-piece bands like Brave Baby) or a professionally crafted video, which lives on Sofar’s YouTube channel. Leftover funds, (our reviewer estimated about 120 attended on Fri. April 7) go to Sofar’s global operation.
Charleston city leader Owen Brown says the volunteer-led organization still operates at a loss. “We admit it’s frustrating,” he says. “We’d love to be able to pay artists more than we do, but right now it’s not possible for that to happen … It’s only because of small chapters like Charleston that Sofar can run globally. Extra cash from local shows funnels into the larger entity, and that’s the only way to keep the wheels on the shop running.”
As for Kijanka’s house shows, he recognizes the intimate experience is for the listeners as well as the acts. “Artists are more interested in having a captive audience listening to what they’re creating and not so much about making a ton of money,” says Kijanka, who reveals each show’s location via private messages. “And it’s not a house party; it’s a house concert.”
So what else does the local Charleston house show scene have to offer? Plenty of everything, like metal — lots and lots of metal.
Will Manigault of 843Core Promotions puts on not only well-organized, all-ages shows at venues like Cory’s Grilled Cheese but also house shows in Summerville and Columbia for fans of metal and hardcore — and his shows have also been known to feature pop, punk, and hip-hop artists. For Manigault, one motivation to organize house shows is because not everyone can afford to go to ticketed shows at traditional venues. “And another thing is house shows offer a good entry point into the music scene,” he says. “If you’ve never been to a show before and you don’t want to go to a venue and you just want to dip your toes in, a house show is a good place to start. The last time I had a show was in January, and it brought some new people into the scene and exposed them to something they’d probably never seen before.”
Sofar has a similar sentiment. “A lot of people want to be tapped in to the music scene, but it’s not an easy thing to do. You have to be in the know to know where artists are playing,” Brown tells the City Paper, a publication that weekly publishes an extended music calendar, music/artist features, and multiple show recommendations. “Sofar gives you the ability to not know a lot about the music scene and dive right into it.”
Another local collective taking initiative of late is Charleston Counter Culture, headed up by “Rosa Luxemberg,” who says theirs is a community effort “with a focus on anywhere in-between slam-into-your-friends grindcore and drunk-punk sing-a-longs.” The CCC also welcomes indie, acoustic, hip-hop, and spoken-word acts. “So essentially any great music that isn’t xenophobic, transphobic, racist, or sexist — that is really about it,” says Luxemberg, who’s organized and promoted shows for three or four years now.
Collective “Steakout Beef” has presented downtown house shows for over a year. “The core motivation is to host acts that we really enjoy, attract more touring bands to Charleston, cultivate a comfortable space that people gravitate towards for live music, create a platform to book and record our own bands, and bring an atmosphere of DIY music/organization that we felt Charleston lacked in comparison to other East coast cities,” says “Sunny” Collier. “Pop-Up Charleston was just taking off when a lot of us got into town, so it was great to have that foundation and experience the growing fondness for house shows in Charleston.
“At the same time, we felt and still feel, that singular organizations are inherently limited and that the city doesn’t really have a full house show ‘scene’ until a variety of organizations/individuals are consistently stepping up to present shows, carve out their niches,” continues Collier, who once booked and played DIY shows in Philadelphia. “As we’ve grown and become more conscious of our role in the types of music that Charleston music fans can access, we have tried to promote programming that features any number of genres.”
As for the genres Steakout Beef present, they’re usually under the umbrella of indie-rock, since their band plays that kind of music, but they’ve also featured entire hip-hop, R&B, and electronic shows as well as mixed-genre concerts. “Beyond keeping programming fresh and interesting, this also gives way to intimate shows and experiences that just could not occur at the larger venues in town,” Collier says. “‘Genre’ in itself is a flimsy, incomplete way to categorize individual musicians, and although it is useful in curating individual shows, it should not be deterministic in who gets to play live music in Charleston. Unfortunately, this is a reality at many of the legit venues in town, while DIY spaces provide an avenue around this.”
Collier admits theirs isn’t a utopian model for inclusivity, but Steakout Beef actively tries to listen to others and work with what they have, in terms of everyone’s schedules and time, noting also that you can only have so many shows in the same house per year. “What Charleston really needs is more committed house venues and promoters coming forth and bringing their voices to the music scene,” he says, pointing out newer collectives like Hurricane Hunnies who provide a creative, safe space for women and non-binary individuals in the DIY community. “Granted, this task seems to prove much harder in Charleston than in other places, but the timing is ripe as ever.”
As for what Collier thinks of Sofar, he’s heard positive things from bands in other cities and says that healthy competition is good, but so is diversity in programming. And he says a corporate-style presence in the community’s house show market may be good for exposure, building a sense of “scene,” and bringing in more bands.
And as for Sofar, fingers are crossed that the initiative will reach out to more marginalized artists and genres that don’t already occupy the spotlight. Lucas agrees. “My cynicism, whether or not it goes away, depends on the lineups going forward,” Lucas says. “For now, it just seems like they’re transplanting indie rock and acoustic artists who’ve already been the main thing in Charleston and moving them from the scene and putting them in a house show, when it’s not necessary, because people have house shows out of necessity. So instead, if they’re doing it for aesthetics, historically that doesn’t go well. It should be cool, but I won’t know until they do more things.”
Decide for yourself: Sign up at sofarsounds.com/charleston-sc for May 19 and June 25 shows.