When I started Virgin Records, there were always bands turning up with guitars to play in our shops, as we sat around on beanbags, sharing a smoke and enjoying the music. As our stores turned into a record label, I had the idea of turning my home into a music hub, where artists could practice, write, record, relax and perform. This vision turned into The Manor, where everyone from Mike Oldfield to The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa to Paul McCartney played. Later, I originally conceived of Necker as a recording studio and retreat for artists, and we still often have performances everywhere from the beach to the tennis courts.
In the years since, the idea of music being performed in unusual, spontaneous places has slowly been eroded by established concert venues and protocols. You know the drill: go to a soulless hall, look into the distance while a band plays on a raised stage, and everyone stands around looking at their phones. The connection between artist and listener was being lost. This is where Sofar Sounds comes in.
Like all the best ideas, Sofar Sounds started life as the solution to a personal problem somebody was facing. Co-founders Rafe Offer, Rocky Start and Dave Alexander were fed up of going to gigs and hearing people talk and play on their phones rather than engage with the artist. So they began organising secret, intimate gigs in their living rooms with the simple idea of making every show magical. They quickly discovered that many, many more people wanted the same thing.
Before long Sofar (short for songs from a room) expanded from secret gigs in London living rooms to secret gigs everywhere from Thailand to Turkey, Brazil to Belgium, Kenya to South Korea. 260 cities are part of the Sofar community, with music-loving US destinations the fastest-growing, from New York to Los Angeles, Chicago to Dallas, Washington DC to San Francisco. As I’ve heard from the many friends and colleagues who have been going to the gigs, every show is different and each city puts its own spin on the distinctive Sofar experience.
So far there have been more than 4000 Sofar Sounds events featuring over 12,000 artists, and they are growing fast. There will be 290 events this month, and the average show is oversubscribed by 10 to one. This is the main reason I am excited to be investing in Sofar – the opportunity to help it expand and reach even more music fans. By creating more events in its inimitable style, they will in turn be able to support even more artists.
At Virgin Records we always embraced the unusual. Where else would you find a label just as happy to sign Gong as Janet Jackson, as comfortable backing The Sex Pistols as The Spice Girls? I like how Sofar embraces diversity too, with cellists, beatboxers, hip hop and spoken word artists just as welcome as folk or electronica acts. The artists come away with new, engaged fans who have been immersed in an authentic, eclectic night, and maybe met a new friend or two as well. I love the idea of romances beginning in random living rooms over a shared appreciation of a harpist or a rapper.
In our digital age, so many social experiences take place solely online. Sofar is bringing communities of like-minded people together to create a global network of members, artists, hosts and ambassadors who can be grouped by a more simple term: music lovers. If you want to go to a show and experience it for yourself, head over to Sofar Sounds and sign up to a gig near you.