In case you hadn't heard of it, SoFar Sounds
is a global network of artists and fans that helps to neatly organize BYOB house shows, keeping the location and performing artists a secret until one day before the event. The SoFar website claims it's a better way to discover live music, "if you can get in." While Charleston has had plenty of diverse options on the house show front for a long time now (more on that in a later piece), Charleston got its first SoFar taste on the evening of Fri. April 7.
After attending last weekend, a lot of my pessimism washed away. It featured great performances from FALINE, who started the night off with some laid-back jangly indie rock, before Mechanical River, otherwise known as Joel Hamilton, took the stage. Hamilton quickly became a crowd favorite thanks to his wonderful and profound lyrics on songs like “Pomelos” and “The Swamp.” Brave Baby wrapped up the show by trying their hardest to stay low-key to fit the SoFar standards. It didn’t happen. They brought a danceable energy that felt out of place for a room full of people sitting down, and even performed a new song titled “Mothership.” More importantly, they lived up to their reputation as one of Charleston’s best.
The night’s event took place at the Lawton Miles Studio in Wagener Terrace, which made for a great venue. The section that was open for the show felt like a small aircraft hangar.
Even that online rhetoric about exclusivity was addressed by local SoFar chapter founder Owen Brown. When asked about it, he stated that he believes when a band announces they’re doing a show, their fans will show up. With the SoFar model of secrecy, people don’t know who’s playing, so they only go for the music and pay more attention to the artist. As a music discovery tool, it’s not a bad practice. Over 100 people were on the roster. Plus, I don’t think I would have discovered Joel Hamilton, otherwise, and he’s quickly become a new favorite.
One attendee, who asked not to be named, said that he believes the SoFar setup is more for the musicians than a traditional venue.
I do still have some lingering skepticism about SoFar’s band selection process and its influence on the local music scene, specifically how some attendees and volunteers compared what SoFar was doing to a grassroots movement. A pretty solid argument can be made that a grassroots happening can’t be aided by an national organization. That’s not to say the folks at the Charleston SoFar chapter have any malicious intent. The people involved with the event and the attendants all seemed very passionate about helping out local music.
There’s also something inherently worrisome about SoFar’s ability to masquerade as something as independent as a house show. Turning a living room into a stage is such a powerful DIY statement. It’s a rejection of the establishment so deep that even traditional venues are being questioned. And secrecy wasn’t done to be hip. It was done because there was no money to advertise. It isn’t chic to use a DIY ethic — it’s utilitarian to use a DIY ethic.
Mostly, the trouble with SoFar lies with SoFar as an organization. It’s still hard to get over the painfully self-righteous claim on their website that they’re “bringing the magic back to live music.” But, overall SoFar’s pretty benign, as long as the local scene doesn’t become too dependent on it. And overcoming that is pretty simple. Just don’t believe the hype.
It’s easy to get cynical about SoFar Sounds. Reading their website, it feels like they’re purposefully channeling the most obnoxious tendencies of music fans — namely an elitist obsession with things that are secretive.