Sofar Sounds takes Washington’s live music scene to new heights with intimate concerts scattered throughout the city.
A hustling bar, an explosive three way fight between a couple and a random drunk lady, a Snapchat master– the kind who impressively seemed to see nothing beyond his phone screen, and a guy who opted not to wear deodorant. These are the sights (and smells) that unfolded in front of me within the first five minutes of being at a Grace Potter concert at the 9:30 Club last month. The music was great, but the scene was… not. Every show is full of these kinds of distractions that hinder the live music experience loyal fans pay to see. Sure, some of it was entertaining (you can’t go wrong with a drunken love triangle), but the allure of Grace Potter’s live show was damaged, irreparably.
15 years ago, Rafe Offer and a few of his friends felt the same way as they stood in the back of a SoHo London venue trying to enjoy the sounds of English indie rock band Friendly Fires. Loud talkers combined with a general disinterest among the crowd distracted Offer and his friends from the incredible show before them. What would happen if they could weed out the lackluster people, they wondered, and subsequently conjure up a small, curated audience impassioned by music and the concert experience.
From that foundation, the concept of Sofar Sounds was born. Simply put, Sofar (Songs from a Room) is a global community in 268 cities that facilitates an intimate live music experience based on a mutual respect between the band and a likeminded audience. As the concept has grown and of late, received crucial funding from Richard Branson, Offer hopes that music fans can go to any city around the world on any night and find a Sofar show. He remembers his favorite international show fondly – a rager in the middle of the woods in Olso, Norway.
When Forbes named Washington its coolest city in 2014, haters were aplenty. But Washington’s hip factor has a boost with Sofar being one of the seven cities worldwide with a demand high enough for a full time staff. The District resides in good company with New York, London, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Director of Sofar Washington operations, Fitz Holladay said that after hosting two shows in April, the demand grew rapidly. Sofar has 15 shows scheduled in D.C. for September. Each show releases a limited amount of tickets based on its location. Naturally, a show hosted at an individual’s private residence won’t be able to accommodate as many people as a show at the National Cathedral. Sofar runs on a “pay what you want” basis with a minimum suggested contribution ($10 in D.C.) that goes directly to the artists, video and sound teams.
After hearing about Sofar, I applied for tickets, not knowing what to expect. Besides the date, time and a rough location, no information about the bands was provided. Minor details! A few days before the show, I received an email with the venue address and the mystery concert slowly began to unfold. Sofar does not offer any intel on the bands ahead of time to ensure crowds are completely unbiased and unadulterated – the idea being that the live music experience can often transcend a person’s prejudged opinion of a band.
Holladay says keeping the show a secret “is a really special thing,” because “people come to the show without really knowing who’s going to play and remain open instead of sampling a Soundcloud song and coming in with preconceived notions.” Not advertising the musicians also allows for some flexibility if cancellations arise. “There is some magic behind the mystery,” Holladay adds.
There’s excitement and mystery as my Uber pulls up in front of a nondescript row house off of Georgia Avenue. “Is this it?” my driver asks. I shrug – “I guess so.” Once in, there is an immediate sense of camaraderie with fellow adventurous Washingtonians who have also decided to embark on a musical journey into the unknown. This forced intimacy, paired with BYOB (that’s bring your own booze for the acronym-challenged) make for an incredibly unique communal experience even before the first note of music resounds.
A glass of my store-bought rosé in hand and my best friend Erica by my side, we plop ourselves on the floor in a corner of the host’s living room and eagerly wait to see what we signed up for. Small pockets of people laugh over Solo cups filled with anything and everything, but when it’s time for the show to start, everyone magically quiets down. Although there are no explicit rules that say no phones or no talking, it’s natural human nature to be considerate when you are more than just two white eyeballs in a dark mass of bodies.
“It’s hard to force people not to use phones. You have to inspire them,” Offer says. “A part of the reason we prefer smaller spaces for shows is because there is a serious suggestion that it’s not OK to text or talk.”
Sofar has a “listening team” that vets artists before booking them for a show. They draw from a range of local talent and bands passing through town for bigger shows at District venues. Sofar uses a three band format at each concert to give ample and equal opportunity to as many bands as possible. So even if you’re highly-recognizable Sofar alums, Vanessa Carlton or Leon Bridges, you can still expect to share the stage with two other acts.
When Erica and I learn that there are three acts, we are pleasantly surprised and the range of musicians elicit different reactions – one is ‘foot tappin’ good, one is more of a ‘clap along’ band and the last is just a ‘stare with your mouth open’ solo act (see for yourself: Be Steadwell). Erica, a recent Washington transplant from Manhattan, was in awe. “This is the coolest thing I’ve done since moving here,” she said.
We left feeling inspired by the revolutionized live concert experience, and above all, thankful that our fellow music lovers wore deodorant.
Check out Sofar D.C.’s upcoming schedule here and don’t sleep on it– shows are bound to sell out!