Shut Up and Listen: Sofar Sounds Brings Live Music to Living Rooms

Bastille and Devotchka are among many bands who have played secret gigs in homey locations.
Chris Godley
The Happy Hollows played an acoustic set at Sofar Sounds' secret gig in Echo Park

“It’s always a shock to play to people who are listening,” Chris Carlone, drummer of Helene Renaut, joked to a small crowd gathered on an Echo Park deck for Sofar Sounds' latest “secret gig” on Sunday Aug. 18.

That’s precisely Sofar's purpose: to bring undivided attention and focus back to the music in small, intimate settings -- more often than not (but not limited to) in living rooms.

Its website describes Sofar's mission statement as such: “Sofar Sounds curates secret, intimate gigs in living rooms around the world. We spotlight emerging artists by introducing them to connectors and new fans through a unique and magical concert experience that is then shared and streamed to music-lovers around the world.”

Sofar, which popular artists such as Bastille, The Staves and even Devotchka have played, first launched in March 2009 when Rafe Offer and musician David J. Alexander invited eight friends over to Alexander’s North London flat to hear him play five songs in his living room. The rest, as they say, is history.

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“We were frustrated with the state of live music today, especially for new musicians.  People talk, text, drink -- in places that are often unpleasant,” Offer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Sometimes the sound of beer bottles clanging or people chatting is louder than the music itself. Or, you go to a huge stadium and while fun, there’s no intimacy -- a lack of real connection between audience and artist."

Today, Sofar shows often consist of four artists or groups, unbeknownst to the audience until they arrive, who play four songs each. Sunday’s gig, for example, consisted (in order) of Helene Renaut, The Happy Hollows, Sun Rai and Warships. The idea is to introduce the audience to new music they might not hear otherwise.

Although intended to be small and intimate, Sofar has continued to expand through word of mouth, its website, newsletter and YouTube channel.

Today, Sofar operates in 45 cities worldwide (i.e. London, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Paris, New York, Sydney). Sofar LA, which began in 2011, is a prime example of how the concept as a whole has expanded.

Karla Hernandez, who heads the Los Angeles team, says “Once you attend, you’re hooked. We’re getting three to four hundred RSVPs each month, and definitely a fourth of those are repeats -- just the same people every single month.”  

Sofar has attempted to keep the gigs exclusive while coping with the ever-growing demand by increasing its online presence (YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud), adding performances in high-demand cities and even increasing the size of some shows.  

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“We are fast becoming the world’s largest live music discovery community,” Offer explains. “To expand, we are doing better quality videos in more cities (we already do a gig a day, somewhere in the world). And we are experimenting with larger gigs -- in addition to the smaller ones -- in cities where we are oversubscribed.  Unlike the living room events, which are free, these will be ticketed.”

Sofar London has hosted two larger, ticketed events thus far in which large warehouses were transformed into giant living rooms. Amazingly enough, the audience remained quiet and respectful, as with the smaller gigs.

Hernandez hopes Los Angeles can emulate London’s larger gigs as she’s working on holding a similar festival here called “Sofar Plus,” which would be “the same concept just on a bigger scale.”

Offer said of the warehouse gigs: “The vibe was incredible. Seven hundred people totally focused on the music -- people compared it to Burning Man.”

Here’s hoping Los Angeles can pull off the same feat.  

To find Sofar gigs in your city, check out their event listings here.

Twitter: @THRMusic