Sofar Sounds: reinventing the magic of live music, one adventure at a time

Bee Bakare Sofar Sounds
Sofar Sounds
Anna Brech
by Anna Brech
10 October 2022

Cast your mind back to your last major concert experience. It’s possible that you watched at least part of it on your own phone; or worse, someone else’s. The resulting sense of disconnect is something that Sofar Sounds – a global music community that produces intimate concerts – is designed to remedy. The company sprung to life in 2009 in the way of many great ideas: as a hobby that evolved into a global community.

“In the early days of Sofar Sounds, the founders just decided to invite a few mates over to listen to a musician friend in their living room,” says Natasha Bobbe, head of concert operations for the brand’s UK & EU venues. “People brought their own booze and sat on the floor because there weren't enough chairs. And everyone was asked to be respectful and listen to the music. These are some of the elements that we have worked hard to keep with our current shows, to preserve that intimate feeling.” 

Driven by word-of-mouth, and music-lovers committed to its vision of a great listening experience, Sofar Sounds now pops up in over 200 cities worldwide. Its unique model is all about unexpected settings, such as rooftops or churches; and it’s also given rise to an incredible roster of artists. This includes the likes of Billie Eilish and Anne-Marie before they became huge, along with a steady stream of emerging performers such as Latir, a London-based alternative RnB artist, and Lisa Canny, an alternative harp and banjo-playing singer-songwriter. 

Since guests never know who they are going to see beforehand, the novelty factor is huge; and places are in hot demand. Below, Sofar’s Natasha tells Virgin Red more about what members can expect from the intrepid live music experience. 

Curiosity and connection

Sofar Sounds
Sofar Sounds

Sofar Sounds gigs take place in unusual venues all over the globe, from Shoreditch treehouses to LA backyards and even – on one memorable occasion – a ski jump in Norway (above). 

“Every lineup is completely unique and includes three different artists,” Natasha explains. “For example, I went to a show last night at a brewery in South Bermondsey. We saw Jackson Mathod, a multi-instrumentalist and singer, Phoen!x Tha Rude Boii and songwriter Lisa Canny who's got some new music coming out this year

“Because the artists are unannounced, guests arrive with an open mindset – there are no expectations as to the headliner, and everyone’s curious to discover something new,” she continues. “We ask guests to put away their phones, too. We'd love them to take their phone out and take a snap at the artists and share that to support them. But the idea is that you save being on your phone and talking with your friends for the breaks. It's about creating a great listening environment that respects the artists so you can really hear the music that they've worked so hard to create.”

Audiences vary from around 50 to 150 depending on the size of the venue, and the intimate setting means that they’re more likely to interact with each other and the artists. An MC is present at all Sofar Sounds gigs, to help break the ice. Guests are encouraged to mix with performers; for example, by asking questions, or speaking to them during the intervals (because gigs don’t take place in purpose-built areas, there are no green rooms separating the artists). 

The power of listening 

Sofar Sounds
Sofar Sounds

The venues for Sofar Sounds gigs may be something of a mystery, but they all have something in common – the ability to create a cosy, intimate and unique atmosphere. 

“People volunteer their own living rooms, and we also go to a lot of cute neighbourhood spaces, like cafés, bars and co-working spaces, along with theatres and rooftops – especially in places like New York,” Natasha says. “We also try to flip the gig experience on its head a little, so if we're in somewhere that hosts traditional live music, we might have the guests sitting on the stage and the artist playing somewhere else in the room. We try to shake things up a bit and keep it interesting.”

A Sofar Sounds experience is also about the little details, such as blankets, fairy lights and a backdrop of curated art works, or the neon colours of a cityscape at night. These all combine to shape a gig outing that feels distinct and friendly. Artists and guests alike are able to share their love of great music “without pretence, distractions or large crowds”. 

This has a twofold effect; music fans get to connect with performers on a whole new and more meaningful level. And they’re also able to bond with one another. It’s not unusual, says Natasha, for people to choose Sofar Sounds as a venue for a first date, or even for a marriage proposal. Equally, it’s also a great way for travellers to get under the skin of a new destination, and connect with new people in the neighbourhood.

“MCs will encourage icebreakers, to get people talking,” says Natasha. “They might exchange what they're listening to at the moment, or share an embarrassing guilty pleasure. It really does help to break down the barriers. And at the same time, people are opening bottles for each other, and helping each other out. It's a very friendly environment.”

A fresh type of gig

Sofar Sounds
Sofar Sounds

Above all, Sofar Sounds is creating a new calibre of live gig: one that is more akin to an adventure than a traditional concert. Whether you’re in Liverpool, Barcelona or San Francisco, their experiences provide a gateway into vibrant local music and a community of like-minded souls. 

The standout magic is, of course, the artists themselves. Sofar Sounds’ booking teams work mainly within the music industry, collaborating with local record labels or radio stations, in an ongoing hunt for new and exciting talent. Curated line-ups may include anyone from ZEBEDE, a London based neo-soul band to world music fusion group The Rain Garden, or spoken word performer and poet Kae Tempest

It could even include a date with the one and only Tom Odell, who – like other household names with a connection to Sofar Sounds – has returned on occasion to test new material. The company also creates themed shows now and again; for example, a female-fronted line-up for International Women’s Day

All this means that there is a landscape of secret settings, unknown artists, and incredible sounds, just waiting to be discovered at a venue near you. 

As Natasha says, “It’s very inspiring to see how much each of these emerging independent artists put into the 25-minute performance that they do.

“A lot of us have very busy lives and a Sofar show never fails to bring you back to the present moment,” she continues. “After every Sofar show, I've experienced something new and always feel inspired.”

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