Sofar turns 10: With a decade of music under its belt, the living room gig series has big plans for the future

Anurag Tagat

May 18, 2019 09:38:39 IST

In early 2012, while in London, I was invited to a Sofar Sounds show — a living room gig series that was born in 2009 thanks to Rafe Offer and Rocky Start. Offer, the host of the evening, milled about jovially and then gave an introduction that remains similarly relayed even today at gigs across 400 cities.

Offer spoke of what makes Sofar an exclusive community experience of music, and of course listed the rules about turning your phone off and not talking (during the performance). He took off his hat before introducing the last of the three acts for that night, asking people to contribute to keep the show running. This too remains a staple ritual at Sofar (obviously, they need money to run anywhere in the world), except you see jars more often now — at least in India, where it started in 2012 and then relaunched in 2015.

Seven years after attending my first Sofar show, there’s always a familiarity to it, whether you’re in London or Bengaluru, or any other part of the world. The atmosphere is always friendly and there’s a certain anticipation — perhaps because none of the attendees are told the lineup beforehand. Sofar, now celebrating its 10th year running in May, thrives on providing that uniform experience.

Sofar turns 10: With a decade of music under its belt, the living room gig series has big plans for the future

From the April 2019 edition at Bengaluru. Photo courtesy Asmita Upadhyay for Sofar Sounds

A lot has changed along the way, of course. As recently as three years ago, Sofar found an investor in UK’s Virgin, with Sir Richard Branson even spotted at a show. Over the phone from London, Offer says the whole feeling is surreal. “I never imagined that after the first show, with a bunch of friends in a small flat in North London, it would get to where it got to,” he says. Considering Sofar went from taking up an hour of Offer’s time every week to more than 15 hours of coordinating and planning events, the company decided it was time to get a business partner. Offer says they’ve hosted more musicians and kept their ethos the same, save for trying out ticketed shows (which aren’t invite-only) in bigger venues in the US, UK, Spain and Canada. Plus, they’re able to do more and have more full-time employees.

Among their staff is Bengaluru-based Prarthana Sen, a global community development lead who coordinates with volunteers around the world for shows. Starting out in Bengaluru in 2015 (in its relaunch phase), Sofar in India has expanded to Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Shillong, Dimapur and more. Sen says, “What’s been really interesting with Indian artists, (is) even within the Indian market, each city differs in its genres and scene.” Offer adds, “It’s like, ‘here are some of these guidelines, go forth and make some cool stuff happen in whatever community you’re in’ — whether it’s Bengaluru or Poughkeepsie, New York.”

Rafe Offer. Image courtesy Zandra Carbajal Arguedas for Sofar Sounds

Rafe Offer. Image courtesy Zandra Carbajal Arguedas for Sofar Sounds

Sofar seemed to have made its entry into the music industry at a time when venues and pubs (in the UK especially) were beginning to face closure, due to unsustainable financial models. Even in India, music venues face a tough test to stay afloat, so musicians find an intimate audience at Sofar. In other music markets in Asia, like Hong Kong or Seoul, there are different challenges.

Max Humberstone, city leader at Sofar Hong Kong, works with his team of volunteers to put together one or two shows each month. He says the standard expectation from any gig in Hong Kong is “more gear equals better”. The shows, interestingly, are MC-ed by an English-speaking host and a Cantonese-speaking host. Jay Jeong, a Sofar city leader in Seoul, has been at it since 2014, offering an alternative to the mainstream music market. However, Jeong adds, “We try to offer new artists/sounds rather than a K-pop artist because that’s what Sofar does as a tastemaker. If there’s a great K-pop band that people are not familiar with, we might have a show with them.”

It’s also fair to say that the allure of Sofar — even to the average mainstream music consumer — is the exclusivity that comes with it, but it’s slowly building a culture that goes beyond curiosity. Offer admits house gigs are centuries old, but it’s how you do it that counts. Closer home in India, perhaps it has also encouraged intimate gigs such as LVNG, House Concert series and more. The experiences are slightly different, but Offer says he doesn’t see (it as) competition. “I love it when there are competitors, it means more for the artists. That’s why I’m in it, it’s why I started it and I’m still around,” he says.

Beijing edition of Sofar. Photo courtesy Chen Minghui and Xiao Bei for Sofar Sounds

Beijing edition of Sofar. Photo courtesy Chen Minghui and Xiao Bei for Sofar Sounds

When you zoom out a little, Sofar Sounds is undoubtedly a facilitator but also perhaps a middleman. Where it pays artists around $50/Rs 3,500 for a show (or they can opt for a live video from their set), they do often ask for $10/Rs 500 donation from attendees to cover the costs of renting audio gear and paying venue rents. Sofar is a for-profit company with an investor now, so what does that mean for artists who want to make a living? Offer says he thinks about it all the time.

He points out that Sofar offers a “listening room” of about 50 to 75 people who have probably never heard an artist’s music before; the brand is more than welcoming of artists travelling to any part of the world, to play a local Sofar show. Offer says even DIY musicians who can put together a house gig may not be likely to have this kind of audience. For India, Sen says indie artists are more interested in the experience of having an attentive audience than getting paid an industry-standard performance fee. “The compensation question is always secondary. Those 25 minutes of pure silence are something you wouldn’t get four years ago, and now you have a lot more options.” Plus, if they have a video, it goes up on Sofar’s YouTube channel, which is closing in on a million subscribers.

For Offer, the long-term goal is to impact “hundreds of thousands of artists” around the globe, help them sustain their careers, “but not make them rich, because we’re not a label that’s just picking out 10 artists”. With the celebration week running all through this week, with 60 shows, it looks like Sofar is well on its way.

Updated Date: May 19, 2019 18:47:39 IST

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