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Sofar Sounds founder explains how it built a global music community


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Sofar Sounds has built a big network of people running ‘secret gigs and intimate concerts’ across the world: its events take place in nearly 430 cities now.

Founder and CEO Rafe Offer has just handed over the reins to incoming CEO Jim Lucchese, formerly of The Echo Nest. Offer remains as executive chair, however, and will continue flying the flag for Sofar Sounds globally – including a keynote speech today at the FastForward conference in Amsterdam.

“Going to gigs was really frustrating me,” he began. “If you’ve been to a gig where a phone is blocking your view, to some extent. Or even things bigger than phones. I’ve been to amazing gigs where people are texting, and it has nothing to do with them being excited to be there… This was the first catalyst for starting Sofar.”

Second, he questioned why bars are open when artists are on-stage – “and the clang of beer bottles is louder than the performance!” – and third “the feeling that it is okay to talk while somebody is performing”. Something he says is far less acceptable in the cinema or at the ballet, but seems to be accepted at gigs.

“We decided to get the hell out of here and have a gig somewhere where we can control the environment. Actually at my house!” he said, while noting that there’s a centuries-long tradition of house concerts, from Mozart to India.

“The eight people who showed up were all silent. It was literally so silent you could hear my friend Dave’s watch ticking! And everyone was in the moment… I thought that night was magical, and that this was the way it should be,” said Offer. Getting everyone to put their phones away was a key part of the experience.

That gig in London led to another, and another – by this point, there was “a line down the block” – which is what spurred the idea of making each gig’s lineup secret.

“I believe that every musician is equal. I’ve never believed in headliners. It’s always seemed strange that one act is up in lights and the others are teeny-tiny… and people talk even more when the first act is on, and the second act. So I said we will never announce – unless there’s a special occasion – who’s playing. Because everybody’s equal.”

The Sofar Sounds format is three artists – from different genres – playing 20-25 minute sets in homes, but also other interesting spaces. Sofar has now put on 20,000 events in 60 countries, with Offer keen to talk about the community behind it.

The first expansion was to Los Angeles, when someone asked Offer if they could put on the same kind of events there, under the Sofar Sounds brand. A partnership with Amnesty International followed, to put on concerts around the world to raise money and awareness – including an Ed Sheeran concert in a Washington D.C. living room.

“This was all community. We could not have done this ourselves if we had set out to do it. If we had focused on a business, this could not have happened,” said Offer. The expansion has also seen Sofar Sounds go well beyond homes as locations: a gig at the top of a ski-jump in Oslo, for example.

“It got on TV locally, and we went from having 50 or 60 people wanting to come in Oslo every month to literally 1,000 overnight,” he said.

“You’re hearing a lot about concert venues closing. We’re saying that actually, the whole world is a venue, in the same way that Airbnb said everything can be a hotel. Any space, as long as it’s intimate,” he said.

Offer went on to offer some advice for startup founders. “The first thing is go for things that bother you. With Sofar it was things that bothered me, and I went out to try to solve them. That’s the best thing you can do to start something, and then if you’re lucky, you’ll love it, and other people will feel the same way,” he said.

Offer added that this solves a problem for other people too: artists in this case. He cited a Sofar Sounds gig in Stoke Newington with both George Ezra and Wolf Alice, in their early days.

“That really helped those two acts, because those 80 or so people then went out and screamed about how amazing that was, and all of us in that room will never forget those two amazing acts… We’ve had 40 acts go on to get Grammys or nominations.”

Offer also talked about the importance of culture for a startup, and making its values clear internally, as well as externally.

“The most important thing is they’re not a plaque on the wall or something you read on your first day and forget about. They have to be lived. You hire and fire people based on those values… If someone isn’t living those values, I don’t care how smart they are, how much money they’re making you. You have to fire them.”

He also said Sofar Sounds’ growth has relied on empowering its community. That includes treating celebrities like any other attendee: Offer related an anecdote where he got chatting to a fellow Sofar gig-goer who was an actor. Assuming she was struggling, he gave her 20 minutes of advice, to which she listened politely. Later he found out she was Scarlett Johansen.

At another concert, a homeless man joined the audience, and was treated like any other attendee. When a cup went round for donations at the end “most people put in 50 cents or a dollar. This homeless guy reaches into his jeans and pulls out a 20-dollar bill, and pops it into the hat”, saying that nowhere else had he been treated as just another person.

“Empowering your community also means: nasty stuff happens. We’ve shut down the Austin branch three times, I think. Why Austin? I have no idea! When you empower people in 426 cities, and everyone is asked just one thing: take these guidelines and make sure people are quiet and the music is amazing and other rules we have… And Austin was breaking the rules… the community told me.”

In Austin’s case, once an attendee filmed a concert to document some of the issues, and sent it to Offer, leading Sofar Sounds to shut it down and spend six months finding new people to lead it. Offer’s point was that the company couldn’t shirk taking action, when it felt its values weren’t being represented.

Offer finished off with some anecdotes, including about Sofar Sounds’ most popular city. “We have 4,000 people want to come in every living-room gig in Istanbul. It is absolutely insane. It maybe has something to do with the way the country is right now: people are yearning for a real experience.”

In the Q&A part of the session, Offer was asked whether Sofar Sounds is planning to launch any more festivals, having put on three as testers. In a word: no. “Festivals are the sexiest thing ever, and they’re incredible… but the work behind it is really difficult. More importantly, we break our own rules,” he said. It’s tough keeping a festival crowd silent…

Offer was also asked about the economics. “For the first five years, the economics were my wife saying ‘can you please stop this?’,” he joked. But more seriously, Sofar Sounds started charging for tickets – it’s legally incorporated in three countries – and does some sponsorship deals.

One recent campaign was for the Bohemian Rhapsody film, with 21st Century Fox, with eight gigs around the world (including high-profile artists like Lily Allen) with each set including a Queen cover. “They paid us really good money!” he said. “And we paid the artists good money!” Sofar Sounds has also raised money from some angel investors, including Sir Richard Branson.

How did the community respond when Sofar started charging for tickets? “I lost a lot of sleep,” he admitted. “When we did it, the response was ‘what took you so long?’ They said ‘you are stupid, we know you should be charging… you need money and the artists need money’. So our consumers said this is fine. And then when we raised prices, they always said ‘this is fine’.”

One final stat: Offer said that 75% of Sofar Sounds’ hires are from within its community. As the company expands, then, most of its staff are drawn from the people who started as volunteers and fans.

He was asked to what extent the current success is because of those early years where it didn’t need to be a commercial business? “Huge. We grew organically: we didn’t spend anything on marketing until six months ago,” he said, while stressing that this isn’t any kind of ‘one single model’ for startups to follow. “For me, Sofar benefitted tremendously from that, but that doesn’t mean everybody needs that.”

Stuart Dredge

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