How Sofar Sounds is reviving the live scene

Back in 2009 two music fans, disenchanted with the live scene, decided to take matters into their own hands. Rocky Start and Rafe Offer started to organise their own gigs, the kind of shows they wanted to attend; small, intimate affairs in their friends’ homes. The London-based pair soon realised there was potential to take the idea further – so they did.

Today Sofar Sounds (Sofar stands for Sounds From A Room) is a global network of artists, hosts and guests working with one aim: to bring the magic back to live music.

Sofar gigs take place in 352 cities around the world; 75 Sofar gigs take place in London alone each month. The organisation is a business, but relies heavily on goodwill and volunteers.

How it works for music fans

If you’re a music lover you can register online for tickets to Sofar gigs in your local city. You won’t be told who is playing (each gig usually features three acts), or the exact details of the venue – most of the time you are just given a general location. The gigs are billed as secret and intimate, and can take place in living rooms, churches, showrooms or shops. Most acts are up and coming artists, although you can get lucky and catch a big name; James Bay, Bastille and The Staves have taken part in the past.

If you make it on to the guest list you’ll receive an email giving you a chance to purchase up to three tickets. If you purchase tickets, you’ll receive an email detailing the exact address of the venue and the house rules. These are pretty common sense: no waving your phone during a performance; no talking loudly through a performance; and no leaving midway through a gig.

How it works for performers

Performers can apply online to appear at a Sofar gig. Each Sofar city has a network of volunteers who review and vote on submissions. Reviewers are asked to be objective, and not just vote for music based on their personal taste.

Phoebe Petridis, the director of Sofar Sounds London, says: “We have a limited number of spots for each genre as we try to keep it quite diverse. It’s definitely more competitive for singer-songwriters and indie/rock/pop bands because we get far more submissions in those genres. So, for those, we’re really looking for something that stands out and that you can’t get out of your head.”

Artists selected to perform are paid a small fee (in London it’s £50). If you’ve performed a couple of Sofar gigs you may be given the option to forgo your fee, and have your music videoed instead – it is then uploaded on the Sofar website exposing you to a wider audience.

The benefits

Artists get a chance to share their work with an appreciative audience, and to work on their performance skills – a blessing given the rate at which live venues are shutting in the UK.

Many artists go on to play gigs in other Sofar cities, and end up working with musicians they meet along the way. Some even get picked up by managers or labels.

Music lovers get a chance to experience live music in quirky venues and don’t have to pay through the nose for the opportunity.

What does volunteering for Sofar involve?

The network relies heavily on volunteers who carry out roles such as: announcing artists on the night; acting as show lead (keeping the show on track); and artist liaison (working with the artists). More experienced volunteers join the review team or book artists. Many volunteers are musicians/performers who use the opportunity to build contacts.

An artist’s perspective

Mariska Martina has an exotic musical heritage: she grew up in Holland where her Peruvian mother loved Latin music, and her father played violin in a Romanian folkloristic ensemble.

She studied classical cello and constantly wrote her own songs – but for a long time was too timid to perform them in public. Since coming to London she has played two Sofar gigs.

Mariska Martina – Something Blue | Sofar London 

“The first gig was on my own and was incredibly scary,” she says. “I had about 90 people silently looking at me; they were sitting super close to me as well. The second gig was with my trio, in a small living room and I felt way more comfortable.

“Performing for Sofar Sounds is intensely satisfying. For me it felt like there was no judgement – which is a hard thing to find nowadays. You learn a lot from them too because of the intimate setting. You can’t get away with mistakes as easily as you can when you play for a noisy crowd in a pub. You learn to entertain the crowd more, because they are actually paying attention.”

Instagram: mariskamartina

Article by Bronwyn Bidwell

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Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.