Sofar Sounds means songs from a room, but it could just as easily stand for “the best bloody live experience you’re likely to have for a long time”. Whether you’re a classical cellist or an emerging Scottish electronic act the formula stays the same: secret living room venue, captive audience and absolutely no smartphones.
Whether you’re a Sofar regular like Sophie Jamieson (“Considering the hundreds and hundreds of acts who have played these gigs all over the place, it felt kind of unbelievable to be asked. Basically, it means a hell of a lot”) or yet to break crack the community’s tight knit team of reviewers like Will Green (“Sofar is a promoter people trust – they care about the music they put on, they’re fair to bands, and they make the whole live experience exciting”), it’s widely agreed that Sofar gives you an exciting glimpse of the future of live music. Following the launch of their debut compilation album, we caught up with co-founder, Rafe Offer, to find out more about what it’s like discovering Bastille, how a dodgy White Stripes gig got him thinking and what it feels like to have created a new subculture of live music.
It’s often been said that Sofar Sounds came into being as a reaction to the current state of pop music. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
I think the reaction to pop is secondary, it’s primarily a reaction to live music – going to a gig now isn’t magical anymore. When you hear music and it captivates you, there is nothing like it, especially to a music fan like myself. But I found that the whole experience of a live gig was letting me down. We in Sofar think there are better ways than watching someone in a packed stadium. It can be good, but there’s zero intimacy and no real connection with the artist. Even smaller gigs can be frustrating. People chat, you can hear beer bottles clinking – all whilst some poor artist is singing their heart out. We’ve tapped into a subculture of people who value the music above their smartphones or the drink.
Where do you think that subculture comes from?
I never was a musician – never will be – so for me, there was nothing beyond pure “being a fan and wanting something better”. Sofar just blossomed out of that. I suppose you could say my intention was selfish – I wanted to create a music experience that I’d enjoy. The community flourished because people shared that feeling. I find that musicians are very charismatic people: they’ve got ideas that they’re comfortable expressing which I find very life-affirming. I’m a very optimistic person and I find that many musicians have something exciting to say and talk about.
Was there a particular live music experience that triggered the idea?
Tough question! I saw the White Stripes for the first time in Brixton and it was exciting because they are a great live act but all I could think about were the bottles and bodies flying towards me.
What did you do before starting Sofar?
I worked for a few large companies in senior marketing roles. I started out with Disney before moving to work for Coca Cola. I suppose when I came to London I has my business head on and wanted to start something new that would reach a global community.
What’s the vetting process like, for applicants? I imagine you’re inundated.
Funny you say that, as we used to have to beg for a band to play for us when we first started. Now we get dozens a day. The process is pretty simple – we have a group of reviewers who operate on a three-yes-vote policy. The community judges (anyone can become a reviewer). No matter where we are in the world, we’ll wait for three people to say yes, and then you’re in. We try to be strict as we want guests to really enjoy the music they’re listening to but we end up host a big mix of genres. Even if you’re focused on one particular type of music you can usually appreciate something that sounds good. We throw in a few surprises too, the other day we got a signed cellist, Oliver Coates, to a room of people expecting beat boxing or folk.
Do the reviewers have a typical background, do you think?
A lot of them were music students at some point in life, several went to Goldsmiths, but other than that we just try to accept people who are passionate about the music.
Are you consciously trying to bring in different types of music?
We’re making a conscious effort to bring in more urban and spoken word hip-hop. It’s all part of trying to give people a great mix of sounds throwing in some things that they might not always expect.
There have been some really notable success stories. Do you try to stay in touch?
Of course we try to stay in touch – we love it when they come back and they do! Dry the River performed at our most recent festival and as the line-up was unannounced, it was a lovely surprise for people who weren’t expecting them there. As people get more famous it’s not so easy to get them to swing by for an impromptu gig.
What is the next step? Any other projects/plans/partnerships?
So much depends on the city. This is a community-led global project so we have stuff bubbling up all over the world. In Sweden we’re speaking to Spotify about a potential partnership and in London we’re Samsung about a new initiative and in America we’re looking to host a tour along the West Coast. We have 50 small projects like these on the go all at once, rather than one big initiative. Whatever we can do to give artists exposure. I paid for a band called We Were Evergreen to come over on the Eurostar myself, they played a gig, and people who saw them perform in that very living room introduced them to their label.
What is the idea behind the first Sofar compilation?
We wanted to give an added boost to artists that all of us really wanted to see succeed.
Do you have any advice for artists who are looking to connect with the community?
I suppose part of the reason we started this is because it can be so hard for bands to market themselves. My advice would be, try to think like an entrepreneur ever now and then. The music should always come first but you need to understand how to communicate what you’re doing to get people interested in the tracks you’re making.
What country would you like to be in next?
We are already involved with someone in Africa and I admire how much he’s done there, but for a country with so much music I’d like to see us expand there. Or any country we’re still not in for that matter.
The Sofar #1 compilation is out now on vinyl and digital download – for more information, head here.