On any given evening in London Ontario, enthusiastic concert-goers quietly gather at backdoors and private entrances to support independent acts. Away from the crowded bars of Richmond Row, these Londoners have created for themselves an underground artistic community in their own spaces. This do-it-yourself infrastructure has filled a need for more suitable venues and safe spaces to serve as an incubator for up-and-coming talent as well as facilitate a sharing of resources for traveling artists.
Typically, the term “secret show” is used to refer to an unadvertised performance by a musician which becomes known through word-of-mouth or social media. In a local context, the term has come to describe an alternative artistic economy where shows occur outside of traditional venues in spaces such as art galleries, stores, laundromats and most often local homes.
Especially in the case of residential venues, secrecy becomes a necessity as many promoters opt not to post their address to the general public. Some of London’s most popular artistic spaces come to be known by colloquialisms such as ‘The LOFT,’ ‘Foam Doam’, and ‘The Church.’ They are exclusive places that cater to a community which craves a deeper and more personal music experience one simply cannot find in a traditional venue. As it may be difficult to transition into these spaces, a guideline will be provided toward the end of the article.
Over the years, secret shows have become a launching pad or a place of expression for many up-and-coming artists who may not find as many opportunities to perform at a music festival or a bar. Adam Sturgeon of London’s Whoop-Szo is one of many musicians who has seen the benefits of secret shows. “A house show would normally be a bit more of a safe space for the fringe type of art we like to make and support,” he explains.
Especially in London, the majority of house show venues are operated by musicians, including the enigmatic Greggy ‘Clypse.’ In between playing with New Zebra Kid, Clypse runs ‘The LOFT’ (sometimes called ‘NZKpalace’), one of London’s most successful venues. Clypse recalls, “It felt right. I felt capable amongst a few of my friends to add some sort of novelty to an otherwise boring summer. We hoped it would inspire and help us create better art.” The centrally-located, three-floor apartment features multiple common spaces and a two-storey patio which allow Clypse to rotate set-ups to support different types of performances.
Initially, Clypse says that his goal in opening his home was to “grow as a promoter and get comfortable with simple small business economics,” which has it’s own challenges for residential venues. In more than five years, Clypse has never had issues with local law enforcement for running a private venue. “I don’t take chances though,” he explains, “We’re trusted to provide [a certain] amount of hospitality and the deals are always the same.”
Although secret shows have been increasingly popular, their presence is still unbeknownst to the community at large. It was this that inspired local filmmaker Travis Welowszky to create the ambitious 50-minute documentary Et Tu, Dude?, which will premiere in Toronto at the Reel Indie Film Festival on November 19. To complete the project, Welowszky spent more than a year independently recording secret shows and collecting interviews with some of London’s most prominent figures in the music community.
Though Welowszky began as an outsider, he states his acceptance into the community as one of the most enriching takeaways from the project. Welowszky said, “Being no different than many others, I feel I’ve gone a long while searching for some sense of meaning and belonging, and to have felt more welcomed in these DIY environments speaks volumes to the quality of not only ‘underground’ art in the city, but also the quality of the people.”
Studying the community so intimately has also allowed Welowszky to understand some of it’s greater challenges. “To think there’s a genuine lack of all-ages performance spaces in the city, so people have been driven to create a community circuit of living rooms and basements to hold shows for local and touring acts alike is both beautiful, but heartbreaking,” he says. But, he feels that some of these challenges may be inevitable, “Downfalls are clear in that when you have a small community so enthusiastic and defendant of their cause, you will inevitably have some infighting.”
In many ways, these shows have strengthened the London music community by offering more spaces which value artistic expression over the pressures to turn a profit at the door. However, it’s most frequent criticism has been the question of whether these spaces are inclusive enough. As Sturgeon explains, “While house venues support themes of accessibility and well-being they can be intimidating for concert goers if they aren’t familiar with whose house it is.” To an outsider who may be interested in what these venues have to offer, the task of entering these spaces for the first time may become daunting.
Recently, the not-for-profit music community Sofar Sounds was introduced into London as a means to make secret shows more accessible to the general public. Using the Sofar Sounds website, Londoners may sign up to attend events and offer to become a host themselves. Adam Helmers, London’s Sofar Sounds Team Leader, sites his personal relationship and passion for local musicians as one of the greatest reasons to introduce this organization to London. “I admired the non-profit driven model [and I] am a huge fan of creating a healthy and respectful space for sharing and supporting art,” Helmers explains. “The entire project has been made possible through the event planning efforts of the team, with advice from global, and finances from my own expenses with some balancing of the books with audience donations.”
As an organization, Sofar Sounds has used secrecy as a way bring the concert-going experience down to its core elements. As Helmers continues, “[attendees] commit to going to a secret place to a secret lineup and this eliminates the question of the artist’s fame and glory and brings up the question of why people should attend and support arts events.” Currently, Sofar Sounds is used to promote one show per month in London. In October, Sofar Sounds featured an evening with Zachary Gray, Ariana Brophy and Animasai in UprLft, an open source community space at the intersection of Dundas and Richmond. The next Sofar Sounds show is scheduled in London on November 25.
Even as the London community attempts to make secret shows more accessible, it can still be difficult to enter into these spaces for the first time.
General guidelines to make the transition into a secret show community easier:
1. Get to know your community’s alternative venues
Get to know your local promoters or follow bands on Facebook to become informed about shows in secret venues.
2. Bring a friend
As they say, the more the merrier! Unless otherwise specified, it is always okay to bring a friend to the show with you as long as they are respectful.
3. Don’t assume it’s B.Y.O.B.
This is one of the most difficult issues for secret shows as it is something that can get venues into trouble with the Liquor Control Board. Recently, some house show venues have allowed B.Y.O.B. for an extra cost. As in, $10 cover if your brought your own supply, $5 if you’re buying from the venue. If drinking is important to your enjoyment, it’s safe to keep a couple of tall cans in your bag as a back-up. You should always read the event posting to find out what the deal is with alcohol, but sometimes local promoters don’t specify anything to keep a lower profile. If that’s the case, here are the general rules:
- If the event posting doesn’t say the event is dry, it’s safe to assume it isn’t.
- If the venue is selling alcohol, don’t drink your own supply — you wouldn’t bust out a tall can in a bar.
- If you are unsure if it’s okay to drink your own supply, ask the host.
- Finish your drinks before you go outside: it’s a liability and an easy way to put these venues at risk.
4. Remember, you’re a guest in someone’s home
Someone has to clean up in the morning. This means: take off your shoes if everyone else has them off, do not reorganize knick-knacks or picture frames, stay off the tables/counters, do not complete feats of strength with household objects, do not use any appliances, do not steal food, do not feed pets, stay out of the bedrooms and recycle your empties.
5. If you don’t know, just ask
Anything mentioned here is a general guideline. You can always message an event host on Facebook if you unsure about anything from directions to etiquette. It’s not embarrassing and they will appreciate that you had enough care to ask.
6. Above all, be yourself
It’s about the music first and foremost. The pressure to appeal to a new group may seem higher when you are in someone’s home, but you will be a lot more comfortable by just being yourself. Dress the way you want. Drink a really good beer or a really bad one if that’s what you prefer. Don’t dwell on what’s “cool.” Dance if you feel compelled. Secret shows are meant to be a good time for anyone who wants to participate.
- Follow Sofar Sounds London on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Note: Did you know that Sofar Sounds events take place around the world? Take a look at all the cities!
- Go to shows, talk to bands, make new friends and you’ll probably find yourself at a secret show or an alternative event sooner than you think!