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No matter how transcendent a concert at 9:30 Club, Rock & Roll Hotel, or U Street Music Hall, the live music experience is plagued by the same distractions: overtalking conversationalists, smart phone documentarians, boisterous drink-orderers. But while this may feel like another problem with the New D.C., it’s probably universal. “No matter if you’re in Jakarta, Melbourne, or Chicago, it’s the same issues,” Rafe Offer concurs. “Live music has become background noise.”
That’s why Offer—an expert in global branding that has worked for Coca-Cola, Disney and Diageo—co-founded Sofar Sounds in 2009. Sofar (short for Songs from a Room) is a company that aims to bring intimacy and “magic” back to the live music experience. In nearly 300 cities around the globe, Sofar Sounds members sign up for concerts with locations and line-ups that are revealed hours before the event. About 60 people can attend each show, which take place in non-traditional spaces; in D.C., that means living rooms, art galleries, and even the National Cathedral—places that feel “a little transgressive,” Offer says, “a space you wouldn’t expect [a concert].”
After a brief spell in D.C. at the beginning of the decade, Sofar Sounds relaunched in the city last March, with Fitz Holladay at the helm. Born and raised in D.C., Holladay returned to town in 2010 after five years in New York and was “blown away” by how D.C.’s arts scene had evolved. He had been impressed with the experience at a Sofar show in New York and came on as a volunteer “ambassador” before becoming one of Sofar’s paid city leaders earlier this year. Since then, D.C.’s Sofar Sounds branch has grown exponentially, from throwing two shows in April to scheduling 15 for this month. And it’s not done growing: London and New York branches throw fifty shows a month, a number Holladay believes D.C. can match: “We’ll get there.”
For members, the Sofar experience is all about intimacy and spontaneity: the chance to discover a new act in an unusual venue, like something out of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. For bands, Offer says they relish the chance to perform for a “quiet, respectful audience” for once. They also receive a professionally-produced video of their set, become part of a “global community” that can help fill in free nights on a tour, and gain exposure in front of industry influencers.
But one thing that’s largely missing from the Sofar formula: money. Currently, Sofar members in the U.S. and the U.K. RSVP for each gig with a minimum $1 donation ($10 is suggested), and bands can receive a “small amount of cash” in lieu of the video (or if they’ve performed before). Offer’s goal is to convert Sofar from an optional donation to a fair ticket price that takes into account the BYOB nature of most Sofar shows and allows them to give more money to artists. Helping that along is the involvment of Richard Branson, who invested in the company this summer. “That helps us stabilize what we’re doing and buy a bit of time to get sustainable,” Offers says of the company’s “no strings attached” relationship with the Virgin Group founder.
Critics may blanche at Sofar’s business model, especially in light of Branson’s involvement, and especially in a city with a long tradition of DIY house shows, like D.C. Holladay is cognizant of the latter, and members of D.C.’s local scene are included on the committee that determines which bands are booked. Plus, he points to Sofar’s diversity, in both music and audience, as what sets it apart from homegrown concerts. “The DIY scene is a bit more homogenous—not in a negative way—but you see the same people at the same shows,” he says.
That point is echoed by James Scott, who has booked at his house venue under the OTHERFEELS moniker and works with Sofar. “Something that really bothers me about the D.C. house show scene is that the bills tend to lack texture: No diversity in sound, no diversity within the bands, and no diversity within the crowd,” he explains, noting the difference when compared to Sofar. “You can see a string quartet play right after a rapper, where else can you get that in the city?” As for bands (Scott used to manage local trio SHAED), he says the Sofar experience is an attractive one: bands play for a guaranteed audience, without having to do promotion, for a video or a stipend that compares favorably to house show payouts.
And it’s not like house shows are always the bastion of quiet reflection and musical appreciation. “I’ve been to house shows where people just stand outside the whole time smoking cigarettes and weed and never even see the band, but are just there for ‘the scene.’” Perhaps Sofar Sounds is the scene for concertgoers tired of loud talkers at a club concert or weed smokers at a house show. Or at least ones that wouldn’t mind some BYOB-assisted intimacy.