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Going to live shows is no new adventure to me—I was rocking out at music venues since I was in the womb. Seriously, my mother was obliged to attend countless punk shows as the wife of a punk rock drummer.
Twenty-odd years later and I still go to several shows a week. Most likely I will be at least partially deaf by the time I am 40, if not sooner.
So as an avid concert fan, I decided to step out of my comfort zone of loud, reckless rock shows and experience a more peaceful musical performance. I decided to test if sitting quietly in someone’s living room listening to live music could elicit a new appreciation on how to enjoy concerts.
Founded in 2010, Sofar Sounds is a global community curating small, intimate shows in over 200 cities around the world. They have a reputation for booking only the best musicians, with a past set list that includes Karen O, Bastille and Leon Bridges.
Sofar was created by a few friends who went to see a show in a crowded London bar and got frustrated when the crowd was too loud and aloof. The musicians spilling their passion on the stage were undermined by the raucous of an unruly audience. The group of aggravated concert-goers decided to initiate a gathering that would guarantee ease and little disturbance to those truly interested in listening to the music. They had no inclination, though, that their idea would grow to the level of popularity it’s at now.
Sounds cool so far, but there is a catch. The cozy concerts in silence require audiences to follow a strict set of rules—attendance must be timely, talking or making phone calls is not permitted, and everyone must stay seated for the entire duration of the show.
When I first heard about Sofar, I have to admit, I was a little wary. Having to abide by a strict list seemed elitist to me. I mean, nobody likes to be told what to do, especially when you are trying to have fun. Additionally, listeners have no idea which band will play until they arrive.
The founder of Sofar Sounds, Rafe Offer, sat down with BTRtoday to discuss the creation of these stringent rules for the compact concert series.
“In hopes that it can educate people who go to gigs that it’s a better experience when you’re quiet or at least focused,” explains Offer.
The guidelines are there to show the artists respect, not to prevent people from enjoying themselves, continues Offer. In fact, he encourages people to sing along, dance, and enjoy their time, as long as it’s all done with an appreciation for the music.
With my history of punk rock experiences, where everyone is yelling, throwing beer at each other, and doing whatever they wan, I was not sure if I would be able to fully enjoy the type of show that didn’t include these pleasures.
My first Sofar event was at a small venue in downtown Brooklyn called Backdrop. It was a 30 minute bike ride from my home, and feeling under the weather, I was not particularly enthused about going.
At my arrival, I watched people take advantage of the BYOB perks entering the venue with six-packs and bottles of wine. I, on the other hand, had a giant bottle of Gatorade, a notebook, and a bicycle helmet under my arm. I felt like a complete square.
When I walked up to the door to give my name, expecting a strict list policy, the doorman quickly nodded me to enter. There seemed to be more of an honesty policy with the main goal of ensuring that no one is hindered from a great musical experience.
The venue had couches and church pews to sit on, but it was mostly made up of blankets covering the floors. It was a welcoming atmosphere that immediately filled me with cheer. I did not feel left out or an ounce of pretentiousness, like one can sometimes sense at rock shows.
I sat on a pew and immediately made friends. The 27-year-old girl sitting next to me, Shelia from Colorado, told me this was her fifth Sofar show in NYC. She comes for the intimate, relaxed atmosphere.
She introduced me to her friend, 27-year-old Chris from Hong Kong. It was his first Sofar event and he was excited to feel a connection with the music in a way that isn’t available at most shows.
Soon enough, the host came on stage to brief people about the history of Sofar and the explicit measures for a focused music session. Everyone grew quiet and the first band began.
At first I thought, “well, this is kind of weird…” The crowd was completely silent and not moving. However, when the music started it felt magical.
The sound was not only crystal clear, but I was also able to notice a pride beaming from the musicians that I had never seen before. It made me realize how I had never considered the performer’s point of view at a concert.
I gained a whole new respect for musicians that evening.
Flocke was not exactly folk, but more indie-pop. They were great, but it was the second band, eBONE Underground, that really took me for a ride. They had a beat-boxing trombone player with a jazz degree. His music sent chills down my spine. Especially after he invited his singing partner on stage to join him. The duo sounded simply beautiful.
The third band, Lionslimb, was a group of boys that rocked the stage. They played a sold-out show at Baby’s Alright the previous night, so I felt lucky to see them in such a cozy setting.
One of Sofar’s most frequented members is Chris Billias, an man with long white hair who has attended over 20 Sofar events and always sits front row. He claims he was a regular at CBGB during its prime and is still well known in the NYC music circuit.
In chatting with me, Billias describes Sofar Sounds as not only a unique gathering for music, but also a great way to get the word out about new talent in a very competitive music scene.
“It’s like grass-roots support for musicians and that is [the] real service that Sofar is doing,” Billias emphasizes. “So, props to Sofar for encouraging the artists.”
I left that night feeling enlightened, eager to take part in another of their distinct music events.
The second Sofar I attended was in the Upper West Side inside the living room of a penthouse apartment. It was completely different than the previous show. The space was tiny and filled with people. It was so tight that the couches and tables were pushed to the sides of the room. Some people were even standing in the kitchen or bedroom doorways.
They all played acoustic folk sounds, except Caverns, who played delicate melodies through a couple of amps. Each act explained how they usually play with a larger band, but because of the environment, were reduced to playing with only a couple of their regular members and a more subtle tone.
Though I felt like the band’s character was stifled by the limited space and arrangement, it was still a great performance that brought about tranquil entertainment.
Another act, Daniel Feels, illustrated to me his personal sentiments about performing to Sofar Sounds’ close-knit community.
Feels insists that no matter the amount of fame he may achieve with his music, he would still enjoy playing these specially tailored shows. It confirms that the precise arrangement does not only serve the viewers well but also makes for a special experience for each musician.
Sofar Sounds may not be my preference in a concert experience, but I highly suggest any music lover to attend one. It not only provides an alternative experience, it also gives you a whole new perspective on seeing live performances, and you will come out of it as a changed concert-goer.
*Currently, they are working on touring musicians around the world. You can sign-up online for the chance to attend one of the shows.