Enigmatic, exciting and rapidly growing, the Sofar Sounds movement has changed from a tiny collective of music fans, disgruntled with the general state of music fandom, into an international phenomenon with groups in thirty seven countries worldwide. Sofar, an acronym for Songs From A Room, maintains a focus on appreciation and intimacy with groups meeting in a surprising range of venues. Audiences attend locations from theatres to living rooms to rapturously observe as excellent new talent performs for them privately. As if this weren’t appealing enough, most Sofar events are absolutely free, and any money that the group receives from an event is by donation. Unlike seeing the Rolling Stones, even the downright broke can enjoy a Sofar event. With such an inclusive and sensitive ethos, it is hardly surprising that Sofar has exploded. The reason that you still may not have heard of Sofar: the events are invite only and secret until a day or two before.
It sounds exclusive, and Sofar events are not open to just anyone. Invite only helps the organisers keep numbers manageable, and oversubscribed groups will only invite a given number for each event, yet anyone can join a Sofar group and attending guests are allowed to invite guests. Sofar is secret, but not shy.
Where Did Sofar Come From And Where Has It Gone?
The movement began in London, April 2009, when Rafe Offer, Rocky Start & artist David Alexander grew despondent with what they felt were disappointing audience reactions to local music. In answer, the three Sofar co-founders invited bands (Dave included) to play in Dave’s living room for an audience of friends. The hopeful little event had a familiar set of ground rules: no talking whilst an artist performed, and no noisome phones. Rafe has said that, in the beginning, the trio had found it difficult to convince many of their ideal bands to participate. After being stood up and rejected, Sofar has now presented more than two thousand artists, a number that is climbing rapidly. With the thousands of artists came tens of thousands of fans and Sofar groups in New York, Paris, Shanghai, Brisbane, Istanbul, Berlin and eighty other cities worldwide.
Sofar is beginning to run festival type events, with paid entry, under the moniker Sofar+. These events are held in derelict urban spaces, much larger environments than the typical living room gigs, which are then made into huge versions of the familiar cosy living room settings with the addition of sofas and furnishings. As you might imagine, Sofar+ events boast much larger set lists, with an increased likelihood of finding more successful artists.
Tom Vek at Sofar London #874
The Songs From A Room Format.
One of the things that makes Sofar events so magical is the inventive use of space. The venue is kept a secret until the details are released to the guest-list the night before the performance date, and the location is always unpredictable. Sofar events can be hosted in bars or theatres just like any other event, but the most charming shows come from next to the fireplace in a living room, or from a forgotten corner of a derelict building.
The secrecy surrounding each event creates an electric and clandestine feeling atmosphere, and as such, the artists are kept from the audience until they perform. I say that they are kept from the audience figuratively only, because this anonymity means that the next big thing in your country’s music scene could easily be the audience member that you chatted to during an interlude. It is only when listeners recognise the famous faces of a band like Bastille in the audience that they know for certain who it is they are there to see before the artists take to the ‘stage’. In all honesty, the famous names are like Famous Names at Christmas: you’ll be kind of pleased to see them, but it wasn’t really what you’d asked for.
Surreptitious allure aside, the taut atmosphere of a Sofar gig is generated by the attentiveness of the dedicated audiences. Drawn together by the common need to imbibe music, most Sofar fans remain rapt through each performance without urging. To drive home the purpose of the Sofar movement, audience attention is policed by a couple of simple and blessed commandments:
Thou shalt remain until all performances are finished.
Thou shalt not speak during the artists’ performances.
Thou shalt not send text messages, or otherwise use a smartphone, except where promotion is concerned.
It is important to bare in mind that these rules are not intended to limit the behaviors of viewers, so much as to encourage viewers to listen acutely to the music and allow those around them to do the same.
Rayland Baxter at Sofar Los Angeles #574
Why so secret?
When the founding trio of Songs From A Room first dreamt of their perfect private gigs, it was partly because they had observed audiences arriving at gigs late, in order to see their favourite band on the bill, and leaving before the event was done. As obnoxious as this practice is, the one to four person strong crowds for support acts at myriad small gigs testify that the majority of us must have missed bands before, whether deliberately or accidentally. Not knowing the bill, until each act plays, makes it neigh impossible to use Sofar as a platform to see your favourite bands, and keeping the bands secret helps to reserve Sofar for the sole appreciation of music.
When it comes to the location: Sofar events are extremely cool, and popular groups can easily become oversubscribed. Keeping the location a secret until the night before the event and limiting each guest to themselves and a plus-one ensures that the groups can keep control over the number of attendees at each event, without turning people away on the door. As well, the secrecy of the location lends the event an incomparable mystique, that can only really be understood if you’ve spent the whole day before a gig wondering if the address and postcode corresponds to a shop front or a front room.
L.A. Salami at Sofar Birmingham #522
How Are Artists Chosen?
These intimate shows are not just your buddy bringing his guitar to your house party, and Sofar aims to bring its audiences the cream of the up and coming musical crop. Sofar has presented performers of the calibre of DeVotchKa, so who knows which artists will emerge over the next few years with stories of when they played for Sofar audiences in an industrial estate?
In order to present only the best artists, Sofar utilises a system of vetting. Each band hoping to play Sofar must get three OKs from Sofar’s community of reviewers before they are allowed to play. The event organisers and reviewers try to bring in a versatile range of performances, and many tastes in music are catered for and encouraged in the organisation.
Sign Me Up, Now!
Ok, ok. You sure don’t lack for enthusiasm Mr Subheadings, but you can get involved in Sofar very easily, and if you are serious about music appreciation, this is something that I vehemently advise. To see if your nearest city is already the home of a Sofar group, just visit the movement’s homepage and click buttons until you eventually find yourself at an event that will change your life, slightly, for the better.
I’m certainly hooked, so if you are living near the Birmingham area in the UK then I will look forward to seeing you in person. Of course, we won’t be able to talk at all; we’ll both adamantly be listening to the music, oblivious to all distractions.
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