At Sofar Sounds, quiet is the new loud.
Though you won’t find this motto anywhere on the company’s website, it’s an attitude that seems to permeate the organization’s culture, and it all starts with founder Rafe Offer.
A career-long marketing professional, Offer started Sofar Sounds in London in 2004 with the aim of returning intimacy and a focus on the music to the concert-going experience. The concept was simple: donation-based, invite-only shows that take place in unconventional venues and spaces around a city. With Sofar now operating local, semi-autonomous chapters in two hundred and sixty-two cities around the globe (and counting), it’s fair to say Offer and his fellow founders have struck a chord.
Offer is a slender man with a warm smile and a friendly face, and he talks about music like the cool uncle who bought you your first Royksopp album. There’s a soft and measured demeanor masking sincere enthusiasm for the subject at hand. The native Chicagoan looks the part, too, with a permafrost of white stubble on his chin, close cropped hair, and black rectangular glasses framing it all.
It’s a particularly humid Wednesday evening in late July when I meet him at Sofar Sounds DC’s new office in the WeWork building on Connecticut Avenue. The shared workspace floor is teeming with young, fashionable people, who all ostensibly conduct business in DC, though it feels like we could easily be in New York or Los Angeles.
Offer, who has lived in London for close to fifteen years, is back Stateside for a five-week tour, visiting family in between trips to different Sofar chapters. It’s all done in a quiet, unfussy, and personally attentive manner – qualities reflective of the man as well as his brainchild.
What inspired you to make Sofar Sounds happen? It’s not a new concept – musicians playing in smaller, unconventional spaces – but what drove you to make this a formal thing?
I’m a music fan. I can’t play anything, I can’t sing, but I’ve been going to concerts all my life. I had this moment, this kind of epiphany with two other guys where we just were listening to a band – I remember the day, it was in London, where I live now – and we looked at each other and said, “Everything is wrong with this concert.”
And it wasn’t just that one, but a lot of shows. At that moment, the band was playing and half the room was talking, and the bar was open, and you could hear the clanging of the bottles, and then the phones were ubiquitous. And that sucked! It was not OK. We thought there had to be a better way to enjoy live music. That was the moment we gave birth to this idea.
What show were you at?
The Friendly Fires, a UK band. They’re kind of alternative and loud and punk, and it was even weirder that they were loud and that many people were talking.
Where was the first Sofar? Who played?
It was one act. It was one of the three of us who started Sofar, David Alexander. He’s no longer a musician, and no longer involved in Sofar, but we started the project partially to help him. It was at his house in North London, at a place called Kensal Rise, and there were eight people there – the three of us who started it and a few others in his living room. Everybody was silent, and you could hear his clock ticking in the background. It was magical. I remember those five songs, and it felt like time froze.
Sofar has been ahead of the curve in terms of booking many acts that later went on to achieve notable critical and commercial success. Who is in charge of securing talents for each show? Is each local chapter responsible for this, or is it top-down from Sofar headquarters?
It is each local chapter, though we have a bit of a trial period where HQ listens to the kind of tastes they have before we let them book on their own. That usually doesn’t take long, and then each local chapter chooses.
One of the golden rules of Sofar is that nobody chooses by themselves, because music is such a subjective thing. If it was up to me alone, it would be all of my favorites, or all of Fitz’s [Holladay, Sofar DC Director] bands. We encourage people strongly to choose as a local community, and it’s usually a minimum of five people, though bigger cities like New York might have twice as many.
The theory is that if ten different people are listening and come to a consensus on music – or close to it – there’s something good about it and universal that cuts across age, sex, or style.
Is this decision-making process limited to the folks involved with Sofar’s organization at each chapter level, or have you opened it up to fans in some markets?
I would love it if we could get there. We’re not quite that organized yet, though it’s a great idea. Currently, it’s the people on the team, and anyone is welcome on the team!
It’s a fun thing to do, you get to listen to music for two to three hours a week, which a lot of these people are already doing. You’re not really changing much, except you’re learning about stuff in your local city. But anybody can unearth and come with ideas, and that’s how the fans get involved – they will say “what about this?” and we will consider those acts in the process.
I should just add, we don’t care if the bands are popular. We prefer totally unknown. I mean, it’s cool if they’re well known as well, but the sweet spot is if they’re up and coming and have something exciting. If someone comes and they have one hundred thousand Facebook Likes, we don’t care. Our main concern is that they’re good and that they’ll blow us away in a small setting.
How do you ensure there’s a healthy degree of diversity in terms of the acts that are selected to perform? Obviously, the audience itself is to some degree self-selecting – they have to opt-in to attend these shows – but what is Sofar doing to ensure that certain genres of music have an opportunity to get this kind of exposure?
The thing about that is that we made it our mission – because our lineups are unannounced – to throw in what we call “wildcards” into the mix. Usually, there are three acts, sometimes four, and we want to expand the repertoire and exposure for these acts, but also for what fans might be able to discover. We throw in things purposely so people discover new types of music.
Last night, we had a looping trumpet player meshed with a jazz singer – very unusual! I wouldn’t have found that on my own, and no one there might have discovered it or gone and bought a ticket for it, but there it was in front of them. So, diversity is really important, and we can throw anything into the mix, and we have: things like an indie band, followed by a beatboxer, followed by a comedian or a quartet. It can be anything, and I think the more diverse the better, as long as there is at least one act that is sort of more traditional “nice” songs.
You have a background in marketing for two of the biggest global brands. What principles and learnings did you take away from those experiences, and how do you apply them to a startup like Sofar?
Obsession over details, which was Disney. If you’ve ever been to the theme parks, they hit all the little things really well. Sofar has obsession to detail: how long are the breaks between sets, are the toilets clean, are the artists happy, is the floor OK? Disney did that really well, and they did it at all their theme parks.
At Coke, I picked up the importance of the consistency of the experience. Now, music and Coke are not really that similar, but when you open up one of their products you expect it to taste a certain way, whether you drink it in Melbourne or Mexico. As we expand, I want the experience to be consistent and replicable. That doesn’t mean that it should be the same, but you should have a certain expectation of quality. I went to one in Istanbul about a year ago, and it could have been Williamsburg.
How has your approach to marketing and publicizing these events evolved as Sofar has gained recognition?
In the early days, there was no marketing, and when we launched in a new city, it was limited. But we’re lucky that this sells itself. People talk about it. We’ve never hired a marketing firm or a PR person. It’s all been organic.
As we’ve grown in cities like DC or New York, we’re doing more than one show a month. And to put that into context, we are operating in two hundred and sixty-two cities at the moment, and seven of them do more than one show a month. We are thinking of ways to get the awareness up in those seven cities, because these are big cities. The approach to marketing in those places has changed as there is a bit more SEO, and inviting people down to the show who might want to write about it or broadcast their experience at the shows. We’ve also invested a bit of money in tech, and improving the user experience.
How do you think Sofar differentiates itself from other similar concepts, like La Blogothèque’s “A Takeaway Show” – what sets you apart?
A live audience. All tuhose other platforms are beautiful things, but they’re videos. It’s about the community – not just in the room you’re in, and the fact that you can turn to somebody and share a drink, and high-five your neighbor, and meet somebody, which happens all the time. There’s a global community.
When people go from show to show and house to house within one city or other cities, they meet people who are like them: passionate about music, or at least open to discovering something cool. People go from city to city, and have similar experiences and go to meet people you might never meet otherwise, and discover new music. It’s a global, traveling commnity of folks in cities and beyond, and that’s different than anything else around.
Sofar operates on a volunteer model, primarily – at least at the local level. How does the company generate revenue? Who are the company’s key sponsors or corporate partners, and if not, will you be looking to move into that space?
We don’t generate much revenue at the moment. It’s from ticketing, and it’s OK, but it won’t sustain us, so we have to work on it. That comes from quite humble roots of passing a hat – for years – and only now are we starting to formalize that so we can get towards sustainability.
Sponsorships and partnerships are good ways to spread the word, but they’re not going to put food on the table long-term. They’re hard to do, and I don’t want to do anything that affects the experience. The types of partnerships that make sense are like the ones we did with Uber, because it got people to the gigs: you would be selected at random, and the car would pick you up and take you to the secret show. That was really fun, and it added value.
We work with Sennheiser, and they give us the microphones, which saves us money and makes the artists experience better as the recording itself is better. The strategy is not to focus on partnerships, but when they come to us, we look at them on a case by case basis. We’ve been experimenting with some other paths to sustainability, but fortunately we have a couple of years to figure it out because we got some investment from Richard Branson and Virgin. While we’re not becoming Sofar Virgin or anything like that, maybe they can fly us or the bands somewhere. [Laughs] The money is going to help us figure it out in the next few years and gives us a bit of breathing room.
What has been your favorite performance to date?
Man, that’s like asking who your favorite kid is. [Laughs]
The first one that comes to mind is always the last one you’ve been to. But the first time we had a beatboxer has stuck with me – we had had so many bands with guitars, Mumford and Sons type of sounding acts. But there was a guy sitting in the corner and hanging out, who I didn’t know. My friend hosting the show told me he was a really good beatboxer, and asked if we could find some time for him to perform, which I agreed to because I trusted my friend’s taste.
The beatboxer’s name is Reeps One, and he had never beatboxed without a big speaker system, and he did it unplugged. His set was unbelievable – everyone’s jaws dropped; you closed your eyes and thought you were listening to a DJ set. We found out later that his brain was being analyzed by a major university in the UK, because they didn’t know how he does it – he’s just so good. We’ve had him back about ten times, and toured him, and he’s taken off. He was something then, but he’s really taken off since.
The element of surprise at each show is pretty cool, to me.
You can check out Sofar Sound D.C.’s calendar of events and sign up for tickets here.
All photos courtesy of Sofar Sounds DC. Featured image by Jeff Krentel Photography
Additional contribution by Philip Runco.