When was the last time you’ve been to a concert and at least one person pulled out a phone? Chances are, it was the last one.
But after one music fan got fed up from not hearing his favorite band, he decided to bring the music to his living room. That’s when Rafe Offer created Sofar Sounds.
“You pay money and half of the audience is on cellphones,” Offer said to a living room full of people in Chicago one Tuesday evening. Offer scratches his stubble and he wears a simple white t-shirt, black slacks, and a fedora. He’s from Chicago, he currently lives in London, and first he kicked off Sofar Sounds in 2010. “Sure, I like to drink but I can’t bear the all the clanging,” he continued. He remembered turning to his friend at that fabled concert to tell him, “this sucks.”
Sofar stands for “Songs from a room,” and the company coordinates and plans secret shows across the world. They find volunteer hosts, they gather artist submissions, and they scope out bookstores, lofts, and apartment living rooms alike to see how many guests they can fit.
Offer said about ten people attended their first show in London. It was so quiet that he said “I could hear a clock ticking.” But creating silence isn’t as important as crafting an environment for people to “just focus on the music.”
Tonight’s host, Christian Trapp, is an artist liaison for Sofar and he encouraged people t0 get nice and snug with one another. Trapp noted how Sofar plans shows in 268 cities. Not accounting for time zone differences, he mentioned that shows in New York City and London were happening during the same night. To him, “it’s the coolest thing ever to do in the city” and this was his last show at this apartment before he leaves to work for Sofar in New York City.
“Come nice and close. We’re family,” he said. Chicago Director Matt Brooks quickly added, “we’re just one big hug!”
Walking into the apartment almost felt like stepping into a scene from HBO’s Girls. Plenty of 20-somethings clasped 3 Floyds beer bottles and Goose Island cans while wearing Converses and plenty of buttoned shirts with nautical designs. Unlike many concerts, this was unambiguously a community gathering.
Chicago musician Matthew Shelton started the night by sitting down and plucking way at his large thumb piano called an mbira. He created a trance with the instrument’s silvery ambiance, which Offer later compared to that night as “raining ice.” But when Shelton started to sing, he left the vast avant-garde territory and entered a folk-pop sound. His music sounded like acoustic shoegaze, if it ever could be a thing.
Most people sat on the floor while others lined along the walls. Shelton, who has attended a Sofar show in Chicago before, announced that he just returned from a house show tour. Smiling to the audience, who clapped enthusiastically after his first song, he asked “why did I ever leave?”
A certain energy and suspense fills the air of these secret shows. Like live theater, anything can happen. And if you don’t pay attention, you might miss out, including Shelton’s funny lyrics, “My family thinks I’m crazy / my friends think I’m stoned.”
There’s no stage at these house shows. There’s only a rug where the musicians place their instruments or equipment. Here in a room full of attentive ears and eyes, Offer said, the artist has nothing to hide. The artists can use microphones but often they don’t. Not all artists here are strictly acoustic, singer-songwriter acts, but all the music is unplugged and stripped down to the bare essentials.
The living room is an environment Sofar Sounds can control. Their team orchestrates each light to hone the ambiance. At times the intimacy can feel awkward: is it ok to move my leg, or will that create too much noise? Can I set this beer bottle on the floor? And at this time of the year, maybe it’s best to take your allergy medication beforehand.
Offer was right: at these shows, you can hear each detail chiseled into the nickel and wood of an acoustic guitar. Sofar Sounds has a few simple rules: 1. Don’t talk. 2. Support the artists. 3. Stay the entire time. But this isn’t to say you can’t laugh, sing along, or clap.
The indie-soul artist Kristina Cottone of the rock band Honey & the 45s played an acoustic guitar and a bandmate accompanied her on harmonies. Cottone encouraged the audience to clap along and to sing during one of her choruses. Her music was a team effort.
You can bring your own drinks here. And while people casually sipped on beer or wine, these shows aren’t about drinking. During intermissions, a roar of chatter fills the apartment as people get their talking fix.
They’ve brought Karen O, Bastille, and Leon Bridges before. Sofar Sounds originated by a music fan for other music fans. Anyone interested can join a show’s guest list by applying, which includes a short essay. You can pay what you want for your ticket, which includes a +1.
When you sign up, you only know the neighborhood of the city you’re attending. They don’t announce the lineup beforehand, and you don’t even know the address until the day before.
Dean Rolando, the Director of Electronic Media at Chicago Federation of Musicians, remarked to me and Sofar’s Matt Brooks, “it’s like the Uber of music.”
But it’s maybe more like the Airbnb of music. It’s not exactly helping you get anywhere or simplifying your life so much as it is providing you a respite: an experience and the chance to open you up to a community. Their Cleveland Director Jeanette Sangston, who also attended this show, said to me during one intermission, “this generation is very into experiences.” Instead of focusing on money, she continued, millennials would rather collect memories.
One new attendee share his first Sofar experience to Brooks. He asked Brooks how he can sign up to host secret shows. Just like that, a new fan became a new collaborator in this community.
All three acts of a given secret show can be very different, and yet they all contribute to the night’s energy. On this Tuesday night, the vibe they was just chill. The duo Frances Luke Accord closed the night with lush harmonies, looped percussion by drumming along on the body of a guitar, and blazing fast mandolin fills. Sofar Sounds’s Matt Brooks remarked, “it’s like they were born to sing together.” He said he never heard two people with voices that suit each other so well.
These secret shows are like attending your very own NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Since the lineups aren’t announced beforehand, everyone enters as a music fan but they leave as a fan of artists they may have not known.
By the end of the evening, I hadn’t checked my phone since I looked for the apartment’s address on Google Maps. Maybe Apple does not need to disable phones at concerts. But we might need more venues that cater to the performer and the fan alike.
Before the audience left, host and artist liaison Christian Trapp spoke into the microphone. He encouraged anyone traveling to scope out their different secret shows along the way. Because they’re happening all across the world, Trapp summed it up by saying “same people, different cultures.”
They are launching their first shows in Columbus, Ohio this September and they also now releasing live tracks on Spotify.
Stay updated on Sofar Sounds shows in Chicago via https://www.sofarsounds.com/chicago