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It’s not just Spotify transforming the music industry.
Many artists I know here in New York have shows coming up, and nearly all of them are with Sofar Sounds. But these aren’t just regular gigs at your local venue —it’s all cloaked in a shroud of mystery. Audience members don’t know where the show is, who they’ll be seeing, or even if they’ll get a ticket.
Intrigued yet? That’s how the company has spread quickly to over 450 cities worldwide, putting on community-based sold out shows in unusual locations. So I was excited to visit their New York headquarters and learn more from City Director Stephanie Mitchell and Assistant Director Grace Pozniak. Here’s our conversation:
Danny Ross: How did a concept like Sofar Sounds get started?
Stephanie Mitchell: It started almost 10 years ago in London. Our founders weren’t able to enjoy live shows as much as they wanted to because of the distractions that came with it. So they decided to have a house concert with a few friends, and they asked for a few simple things from the audience — to be engaged and not talk during the performance. That kind of attentive room left an impression, so they continued doing more. Friends started hosting in other cities and it grew by word of mouth. We’re at around 450 cities now, so it really is a global community. Every city has musicians deserving of a platform and an attentive audience.
Ross: How Sofar works is so mysterious. Can you explain it?
Mitchell: That sense of mystery is what’s attractive for people. We don’t tell the audience where they’re going until the day before the show — whether it will be in somebody’s home, a store or a basketball court. They also don’t know the lineup in advance. There’s no headliner, no opener. All three acts are equal and deserve the same amount of attention.
And as an audience member you go onto the website to apply, everyone’s name goes into a lottery system, and then you receive an email saying congratulations or try again next time. It was out of necessity in the beginning because of the limited seating in these really unique spaces. The capacity could be as small as 45 or as big as 150. And we’re trying to not prioritize VIPS. I like the mystery of, “Am I going to be able to attend this show?” We host about 80 shows per month here in New York, so there’s ample opportunity to come.
Ross: And what does a Sofar show generally feel like?
Grace Pozniak: We usually have three artists across different genres performing at each show, so that there’s something for everyone. Usually it’s 20-25 minutes sets, which ends up being about four songs. We want to showcase the music scene of New York, which is incredibly diverse — which also means making sure the lineup is diverse in gender and ethnicity. The audience is sitting on the ground watching, so we want the artist to be engaging with banter or sing-alongs. And there’s an opportunity to go up to them after the set and say, “Hey that was amazing. I’m Grace”
Mitchell: And we distribute “social handouts” so that every guest can follow that artist. Platforms like Spotify and Instagram are also a great way for our bookers to discover new artists. We have Sofar handles for each city, so you can really zoom into the community.
Ross: Which artists excel in a stripped-back environment?
Pozniak: Some people get the impression that it can only be someone with an acoustic guitar, but some of my favorite shows have featured artists who typically play with a big setup. Somehow, they find an interesting way to strip it back, whether it’s playing a cajon instead of a drum kit or rapping with a guitarist instead of a track. Some artists who do this exceptionally well are Randy Mason and Ellevator.
Ross: As an artist, I didn’t always appreciate having to bring a huge draw or people talking while on stage. Is the success of your model a reaction to the traditional venue show?
Pozniak: In some ways it is. There are so many musicians in each city looking for a way to get in front of people. And we can provide this room and audience, who will decide how they feel about you based on the music alone. They don’t know who you are or your social following. That’s a valuable experience for up-and-coming artists. But we’re not setting out to replace the normal concert — we want to supplement it. A lot of artists will play a Sofar show leading up to a venue gig, hoping to get a bigger audience. We only care about the quality of your music. When I’m booking, it’s pretty rare I’ll look at anyone’s social media or ask about draw in traditional venues.
Mitchell: Almost all of our shows are sold out every single night. We’re proud to be able to provide a promotion-free packed room. And it’s a crowd that will be very quiet while you’re performing. It’s not unusual to hear, “Wow, you guys are such a great audience!” Plus we like to start on time, which is so refreshing. At venue shows, it can be doors listed at 8 and the artist is still nowhere to be seen by 10:30. That’s just when we’re wrapping up!
Ross: How do you sell out all those shows?
Mitchell: Word of mouth. Most people attend because someone they knew went and highly recommended it. And the show is different every time, which encourages you to keep coming back. Many new hosts will come from that as well. Once you experience a Sofar show, there’s a cool factor in hosting one yourself.
Pozniak: Our audiences are usually about half new attendees, and half returning guests. So there’s a good chunk of people who keep returning and bringing their friends.
Ross: It’s notable that the live music industry has taken on a more important role for artists’ since record sales have plummeted. Streaming seems to have improved the situation, but not by nearly enough. Do you think that contributes to interest in this kind of alternative show?
Mitchell: It’s definitely true that the live music industry is more lucrative now than record sales. At our shows, artists are building an audience, selling merch, and connecting in an intimate way that might be difficult over the internet. There’s just so much content out there. This gives people an opportunity to wind down and focus on just a couple of musicians.
Ross: And these shows offer face-to-face contact with limited cell phone use — something increasingly rare in the digital age.
Pozniak: People are looking for that genuine connection. I’m optimistic about the future of this model because we try to foster connectivity between the audience members, artists and our team members. It encourages people to be open and present. When you think about it, the concept of sitting on the ground in silence is a little bit weird. But when you’re ready to have this experience, it puts everyone in a collective space. We’re all here doing this together.
Mitchell: People use their phone as a defense when they’re feeling awkward or alone. If you’re not taking out your phone, you might be more inclined to chat with your neighbor.
Pozniak: And there have been lots of Sofar love stories of people who met at our shows and got married — artists, audience members, team members. It’s unbelievable. We love love!
Ross: What would you tell both artists and fans who want to be more active in the music community?
Mitchell: Come to shows, and apply to play! When I first moved to New York, I started coming to shows with the hope of making friends. I didn’t know anybody here. Making friends is a big reason why people get involved.
Pozniak: We all have at least one thing in common, which is that we all love music. There are people who come from different places and work in different places, but music is the common thread.
May 13, 2019 at 10:05AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs