For my project in community music I attended Sound Off! 2019.
Sound Off! is a battle of the bands for youth (under 21) of the Pacific Northwest. Sound Off! has been taking place for over ten years and is supported by local Seattle radio station KEXP and the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP). Twelve bands come together over four weekends in the Sky Church and compete for prizes and glory.
I chose this event in particular because I was interested in the intersection between community and commercial music. This event also breaks with some of the “traditional” modes of community music by being both curated and performative in nature. At the beginning of the project I wanted to see if the performative space would be transgressed by participation.
Before I attended the first concert, I identified a few dynamics that I thought might manifest.
I anticipated seeing a shift in community, seeing an old community (a school, a church, a neighborhood) give way or be left behind in search of a newer and broader community. I pondered the relationship between community and commercial music. These two ends of the spectrum are sometimes thought to be mutually exclusive. I also wondered if we would see a factor of nostalgia in play. I was thinking of nostalgia as a potent force of communal ties in the light of Martha Gonzalez’s work particularly because she made a case for presentational music. The topic of social media as a tool for community building and engagement also intrigued me. I am an art historian, so I also wanted to focus on how visual culture and visual arts influence community music.
With those broad questions in mind, I set off to plunge into Sound Off! and experience its offerings. This is what I learned.
February 16th 2019 Semifinal 1
Due to the snow we had in February, the original semi-final 1 that was due to take place on February 9th was canceled and the performers were shuffled into the remaining two concerts. This sparked a couple of reactions. The first of which, was consternation by fans and extended community who had to alter their plans. I spoke with classmate Savannah Johnson who was extremely disappointed that the concert on the 9th was cancelled as she was unable to attend the competition on any other day. On the other hand, I observed excitement from artists who got to perform with the extended line-up. As bands took to social media to alter their community to the new performance dates, their competitors commented their excitement at being able to play with them.
This idea of playing together is central to the construction of community within a competition setting. Competition does not necessarily foster community. I have competed in musical competitions before which have had a far more cut-throat environment. But because the Sound Off! participants are learning together they have the potential to form bonds that they would never form if they all met for the first time on the day of the competition. Clearly some personalities better at forging these connections than others, but the environment of Sound Off! which purports itself as an educational experience fosters the development of community.
I was a little late to the venue and missed the first performance by Zoser. So, the first act I saw was i///u.
i///u defines itself as a neo-soul musical collective. “Join the i///u stew!” Calls their bassist Scott, who often interacts with the audience with his signature southern-baked style of speech. I had a chance to talk to Savannah about i///u since they have the same management. I said that any band that would use the phraseology “hey cats” unironically was my kind of band. She informed me that Scott always talks this way. She also noted that i///u had made a commitment to staying and developing the Seattle music scene, instead of chasing big studio contracts in LA or New York. Out of all the performances we saw, i///u’s performance during this semifinal was probably the most engaging of the competition. Through Scott’s wacky phraseology and tendency to talk over front-woman Katyrose, and some groovy music, they were able to engage the whole crowd. During the performance Scott plugged their Instagram, and asked people to book them at house parties and other events. Strangely enough, they were the only band to do this during their set. This may be a result of being a group of slightly older college-age students with backgrounds in music who know that word of mouth is a powerful and important tool.
The next performer was wilsonlikethevolleyball (who I will also refer to as just plain Wilson). He is a solo artist working in electronic music. Wilson said in his performance that he had been applying to Sound Off! since he was ten years old and he was finally accepted now at age twenty-one.
When I first watched Wilson perform I could understand that his community was clearly based in electronic dance music (EDM). A crowd of dancers gathered around the stage closest to where he was and would bust out the moves when the beat would drop. They were the most familiar with the structure of EDM style songs and would intuitively know how to build their dancing accordingly.
I think an important point to mention is the difference between live electronic music and commercial recordings of electronic music. As we explored and discussed in class there is sometimes a resistance to electronic music in community music circles. We saw this view typified by Charles Keil. He did not believe that electronic music had the same capacity for participatory discrepancies that other types of music (particularly acoustic and jazz music) exhibited. This was interesting because we discussed this the week after I got to see Wilson perform.
When I really saw community manifest in this competition it was through Wilson. He was a visible presence at each concert and would circulate through the crowd talking with performers and other attendees. He would engage with each performer through dance and responding to any call to action. I also saw him give advice and help to folks in the venue when they asked him. His approach was very much “we’re in this together” and it’s clear he wanted to work with others. To that end he has been the most prolific in creating collaborations with other artists in the cohort. He has previously collaborated with i///u and several other collaborations have been teased over social media during and directly after Sound Off!. The types of skills that Wilson has as an artist working in electronic music provide multiple ways to equitably collaborate with others. He has worked as a producer, a full collaborator, and there is always the possibility to work a remix. These modes of collaboration are increasingly viable for indie musicians and community music, and it would be interesting to continue to research these collaborations in the future.
Following wilsonlikethevolleyball was Nora Meier, a singer-songwriter from Portland. Her work was acoustic piano and her own voice. Perhaps due to the distance and her rescheduling (she was supposed to perform on the 9th) there was not much community involvement or support for Nora. Her music was well received but did not spark much more than supportive applause.
The next performance of the evening was King Sheim. Celeste Felsheim is the titular “king” and is backed up by a bassist and drummer. King is an old-school punk rock band borrowing from riot grrl and other feminist punk movements. Her friends in attendance all wore gold paper crowns as a sign of support, and many of them were women and queer people. King’s music manifests her political views as she screamed out lyrics about being a “bitch online.” In King’s music we can see a tension between embracing community particularly if that community is marginal and embracing commercial music. It was interesting to listen to her recorded music after watching the her perform live because the music has a far different aesthetic quality. Live she is a screaming punk girl and recorded she has toned down the vocals to be more sedate. Perhaps she is responding to what she believes to be commercially viable instead of leaning into the cult sound. I can’t say which direction Celeste will fall in the coming years as she attempts to build a career in music, but I hope that she will maintain her community and find a way to make what some consider marginal commercially viable as well.
The final act was Huey and the InFLOWentials. Huey raps over the InFLOWentials, a jazz-band. It’s a strange and at times dissonant relationship rooted in Black music and its interesting urban forms. They are supported by their “guest” vocalist (whose name unfortunately I cannot remember or find on social media). Looking back, I have serious reservations about that categorization since she performed with them throughout the competition and on almost every song. This is problematic for it shows us the continued marginalization and outright exclusion of women in male dominated genres such as hip-hop/rap and jazz. I find it odd Huey would title her their “guest” but never promote her on their social media or thank her there. Obviously, it is not my job to police any community, but it seems to me that this provides a clear opportunity for improvement.
The results of the evening were announced to cheers of delight by some and tears by others. i///u won and got an automatic slot in the finals while Huey and the InFLOWentials and Zoser were both wildcard picks. The final wildcard slot would be determined at the end of the second semifinal, and then we would know the complete line up for the finals.
February 23rd 2019 Semifinal 2
Semifinal 2 started off with two female performers back to back, Sharmaine and Niamh. This was a place where I once again saw the commercial creeping into the community space. Both young women have plenty of talent but presented the audience with performances that seemed a little canned. Sharmaine would turn her back to the audience and strike a pose in a way that was evocative of Beyonce, minus the giant fan and millions of fans. Niamh came onstage with a flower crown and dramatically draped it over her mic stand before singing. Her sad-girl airs and her song “Love Bug Teens” reminded me of Lana Del Rey. I suspect that both young women were emulating their respective idols. But even Niamh, who was supported by King Sheim in person and on social media, could not capture the audience and enfold them into any community, even temporarily.
It is important to note here that the bands were scored not only on their performance abilities, originality and musicianship, but on their “authenticity.” It is not clear, and it was not made clear to us audience members, what “authenticity” means to the judges. It is not clear if certain musical genres are more “authentic” than others, or if every genre has their own gold standard for what makes a performer/performance “authentic.” It would be interesting to discuss with judges from prior years how they made their decisions in this bracket and the distribution of points in this area. Perhaps Sharmaine and Niamh were not “authentic” enough to be the next PNW sound.
Alex Cade performed next. I was looking forward to his performance as I had listened to a bit of his music beforehand and could tell that his sound was highly developed. Alex is a rapper working in a more commercial mode than Huey or Crissy P. He has already produced a highly polished album and music video, so I suspected that his stage presence would be strong. It was exceptional. He and his DJ worked an ongoing theme of an old-school tape answering machine that incorporated each song into a cohesive whole. By the end of the twenty-minute performance he had created a whole narrative arc. Casually I dubbed it the “Alex Cade Experience.”
I’m not hep to the hip-hop/rap scene to be an authority on Alex’s “authenticity” but even I could tell he had the street cred to back his rap up. He is originally from Detroit and now resides in Port Orchard. During the semifinal the black community was present for his performance. Black members of the audience all collected near the stage for his performance and were highly visible during. People actively danced and responded to his songs vocally. You can hear a woman in the video clip from that night respond to him saying “hold up.” This leads me to believe that he resonated with that community and they found him to be worthy of support. Of course, as is standard in contemporary rap, his lyrics mention ties to place and communal experience that is specific to black Americans.
The next performer that evening triggered my own sense of nostalgia. Baja Boy’s sound lands somewhere between pop and rock, with heavy synth action. I couldn’t even tell you what band they evoke for me, but I had the strong sense of being twelve again. Their sound reminded me of rolling down the car windows and driving around, pretending to be much older and more sophisticated than I was in reality. But then again, maybe it was the front man Christian’s signature bucket hat that made me feel that way (only the very young and those into J-Fashion can make bucket hats work for them, although lord knows I’ve tried).
The next band was greeted by pandemonium. Fuzz Mutt’s community made its presence known before the performance even began. The screaming pre-teen girls at the edge of the stage shocked the emcee so much that he commented on their homemade shirts which read “Fuzz Mutt Sluts” on them. When the music started a mosh pit formed spontaneously causing all by the stage to back up around nine feet. Suddenly all of the black supporters of Alex Cade were suspiciously absent, driven to the edges of the room. Aside from a handful of pre-teen girls the majority of Fuzz Mutt’s fanbase was white men in their late twenties to early forties. They all wore baseball caps and tee-shirts and headbanged along with the music.
It’s interesting to note that in their bio on MoPOP’s webpage they include they call themselves “Loud but fun, aggressive but inclusive.” In practice this was not particularly true. While the front man for the band, Max had a lot of charm and presence onstage, he didn’t play to the non-fans in the audience as much as he could have. A handful of folks got into the moshing and dancing, but for the most part the aggressiveness of their fanbase paralyzed the engagement. This was demonstrated by King Sheim’s reaction to their performance, she stood with her arms folded and a dour expression for most of the set. A clear air of disapproval (and jealousy perhaps?) in her manner. Toward the end of their set a couple of security officers entered the mosh pit and broke up the worst of the wildness.
At the beginning of the project I suspected that nostalgia might play a factor for community building in this environment. Fuzz Mutt was a clear example of how this played out in this competition. I happened to witness their bassist get flagged down by a man in his late thirties who said that their sound was great, and that they sounded “like Green Day or Soundgarden!” to which the bassist thanked him politely and moved on.
Finishing off the semifinals was the rapper Crissy P. Unfortunately, Crissy got off to a rocky start, flubbing some of his flow and never recovered. The great advantage to playing a gig like Sound Off! is that the audience knows the performer is working hard and putting an extraordinary amount of effort into their performance. Crissy wasn’t able to harness the goodwill of the crowd, who devotedly stayed with him, dancing and responded to all the DJ’s calls for interaction. He was understandably upset afterwards.
The final results of the evening went from roaring approval when Fuzz Mutt was named as a potential wildcard slot and Alex Cade was named winner, to deafening silence when Fuzz Mutt was denied their chance at the finals by the higher score of Huey and the InFLOWentials. Alex Cade, Baja Boy and Huey and the InFLOWentials went on to the finals.
March 2nd 2019 Finals
Huey and the InFLOWentials nabbed the wildcard slot and they performed first on the line up. They were more polished and seemed more comfortable than when the performed at the semifinals. One thing that was interesting about Huey was that the trumpeter Mason always got the loudest response from the crowd. This may prove that the crowd is knowledgeable technically and understands the difficulty of playing horn. Or it could provide an insight into their fanbase, showing that the jazz-band has a more established community than Huey.
Next up was Baja Boy. They seemed more animated in the finals and ended their set with a bang. Their drummer ended up hurling one of his drumsticks into the crowd to much enthusiasm. I ended up standing behind the grandparents of one of the bandmembers during this performance. This was a charming and hilarious experience as the grandmother could not figure out how to use her phone camera. Finals night was the concert with the most diversity in ages. I observed toddlers in the venue (without ear protection!) as well as Baja Boy’s grandparents.
Finals clearly also brought out the previous winners and Sound Off! junkies. This was the first time that the competition felt like a music festival, as people were proudly showing off their tee-shirts and buttons from previous years. The emcee also commented on this and gave some old hands a shout out.
i///u was next on the list. As soon as they came up for mic check the crowd went nuts. The Sky Church was full of young college-aged folks who were clearly i///u fans. “That’s a heckuva response!” the emcee said when he introduced their set. One of the benefits of their large band was that they could pull a crowd just through word of mouth and friends inviting their significant others to the concert. The crowd was clearly full of colleagues in the UW music school as some people were still carrying their instrument cases throughout the evening. The young men I was standing next to clearly knew and were attracted to the front woman Katyrose. “Her voice is so sexy,” one said. Their keyboardist Billy’s friends cheered loudly when he did his solo.
Part of i///u’s appeal was its ability to draw in community through music and Scott’s silly mannerisms. So not only in the UW community were they able to bring together jocks and band geeks but in performance they were able to bring together folks that were not rooting for them with their own fanbase.
Alex Cade performed last, having spent the time up until then pacing at the back of the venue. It was interesting to notice a distinct shift in Alex’s fanbase from the semifinals. Whereas at the semifinals the black community was present and exuberant, the finals drew in a crowd of young white men. These men aged around seventeen to thirty were all well-heeled and many wore bandanas around their heads like Alex (not a great look for white dudes with about as much street cred as my mother). They smuggled in beer and drank during the performance. They were not good dancers who let the flow inspire them. They did all come up to Alex when his performance was over and ask for a picture with him. Alex politely indulged them.
I am not sure why the black community was not as present as they were at semifinals or where this young white male following came from, but it did feel like a transition. I would assert that this is another place where we see the slip between community and commercial. Affluent white men are a more viable demographic for a young rapper to market himself towards, they have disposable income that can be tapped for years to come. I can’t say whether Alex was thinking along such mercenary lines but based on the polish of his materials pre-Sound Off! I know he’s looking toward a commercial career in music. It would be interesting to know if he sees that commercial viability as a turn away from community.
We’ve been waiting all night and the judges finally made their decision. i///u takes the crown, with Baja Boy coming in second, Huey and the InFLOWentials coming in third, and Alex Cade coming in fourth. Alex’s young male fans get a little rowdy and chant “Alex!” in protest. But this is quickly eclipsed by the good will toward i///u and the other bands. Another chapter closes on Sound Off! with a reminder by our emcee that this event is an important opportunity to celebrate youth music, something that doesn’t happen in other places. We are reminded that this is important and we need to continue to support each other.
Visual Media and Community Music
I was actually surprised at how little visual art I experienced throughout Sound Off!. Most bands did not have merch, or their merch was not particularly visual in nature. The old school image-making that I associate with music, particularly underground music, were not well represented by the musicians themselves. No one offered screen prints or screen-printed tee-shirts. The only silk-screen printed poster that was available throughout the whole competition that I saw was official Sound Off! merch. This poster was designed and printed at The Vera Project, an official sponsor of the competition. This poster was only designed for the final concert and featured the names of the four bands who made it to the final round. Consequently, the poster had to be designed and printed in a single week. This speaks to the continued viability of screen printing as a mass media.
i///u was the only band to have any identifiable “logo” or iconography. Their tee-shirts feature two black hands with linked pinkies, in a position half way between a “pinky promise” and a shaka sign. They did sell tee-shirts with this logo and the band name on it, but it only in limited amounts. It seemed that how they moved most of their inventory was through Instagram. They would send out the call that merch was available, folks would direct message them, they would send an invoice through an app like Venmo and then customers would pick up their shirt at the concert.
Somewhat ironically, wilsonlikethevolleyball does not have any recognizable visual “logo.” It would be easy to assume that he would generate some interesting mascot like the instantly recognizable Wilson (the volleyball) from Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000). However visual media such as a logo require someone with skill in the visual arts. I experienced the difficulty of creating mass visual art first hand when I tried my hand at Kitchen Lithography. While this is a more accessible form of visual art for me than graphic designing (too costly) or screen printing (requires large set up), it does require technique and skill in order to create visual media that is compelling and usable on a mass scale.
I experimented in kitchen lithography in order to understand why young people might be turning away from older forms of mass media like printing. It is my experience that technique is a gatekeeper in this case. Interestingly, one of the perks the winners will receive is a class in screen-printing from The Vera Project. So, there is a clear emphasis on continuing traditional mass imaging through printing.
The one place where visual culture started to manifest in a consistent way was through the use of fashion. It may be more appropriate to term it “costume” in some cases. Baja Boy is recognizable through the bucket hat, an emblem of both beach culture and the 90s-00s. Wilson’s red and yellow vest and general raver attire make him recognizable in a crowd. Niamh and her flowers, which she required her bandmates to wear as well. This visual culture through clothing was more pervasive than I anticipated. It would be my opinion that this move to recognizable fashion might be fueled by social media where photographs are circulated more frequently than the digitization of visual art.
What can we take away from viewing Sound Off! through the lens of community music? This event allows us to examine the spectrum between community and commercial music. There is not always a clear-cut answer as to whether a band, a song, or a performance fit into one category or the other. We observed through performers like Alex Cade that sometimes there is movement from community to commercial. We can see that come bands like i///u would rather make a commitment to community over commercial success. In this microcosm we can see old communities fade away and new communities form. It may also be possible to say that through the all-ages venue we see the next generation of musicians in the audience envisioning their place in the community and learning by the example set for them by the bands on stage.
After watching the competition in its entirety, following some of the artists on social media, and speaking with people who have different insights into this particular community, I have come to appreciate Sound Off! more than I thought I would. I anticipated being surprised by the talent of the bands, but I didn’t expect to be inspired by their generosity.