England has bore us musical greats from The Rolling Stones and The Beatles to Elton John, Coldplay, The Spice Girls and more. The music scene feeds off London’s energy, unmatched in variety of global influence. It’s the city where the world finds fresh ideas. It’s also the birthplace of SoFar Sounds, the secret concert series that’s attracted stars like Robert Pattinson, Scarlett Johansson and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery.
SoFar’s global community aims to discover new musical talent and celebrate spontaneity by stripping away the distractions of a large music venue. But its air of secrecy and exclusivity has made the difference. We caught up with co-founder Rafe Offer to find out more about SoFar’s start, success and how to snag the most coveted ticket in more than 270 towns.
InStyle: The London music scene - did you know people in the industry? How did you get this off the ground?
Rafe Offer: It’s very interesting because none of us have anything to do with the music industry. That helped a lot. It was harder and easier at the same time. Easier because we can break the rules (like asking people to keep quiet, BYOB and not telling them who is coming to play ahead of time), which is really uncommon in England.
Tell me about the first show.
(Co-founder) Dave Alexander, at the time was a musician so that was easy. He played the first event and then it went to his friends. One of his friends invited Robert Pattinson, the actor, and he played… We didn’t care who he was but it did make a difference when it came out later because it helped us spread the world. His fans found out about it, and it was the height of Twilight.
The first one in New York was hosted at the apartment of Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Grey). He and Dave are really good friends and he wasn’t famous then, but still good looking.
Stars must appreciate the secrecy of all of it. I feel like that’s a major mover for what you have.
It’s so intimate and it’s all about the music. You’re exactly right. It’s a part of the reason why it works.
You didn’t expect for Sofar Sounds to take off the way that it has. Is that correct?
Yeah, totally. The night we came up with the idea, I had just met Dave. Rocky (Start) I knew through family friends but not well. It all just came together one night while we were at a gig in London (for the band Friendly Fires). We were commenting about how many problems there were. We were trying to hear bands and people were talking. The music was secondary to people’s conversations. The bar was open so during the performance—you could hear the clinging of bottles. People turning their backs and ordering drinks, looking at their phones. It didn’t make sense, so that’s where it came from.
When did you realize you had something different and marketable?
When people started contacting us from other cities who we didn’t know in 2012. We first started doing it in London. Then I started it in New York and Paris where I knew people really well. Then people started hearing about it through word of mouth. And they started say, "Hey. I have the same problem in LA." And roughly four years later, we started thinking, "Okay we have to make this a business."
Talk a little bit about the selection process for who is getting one of these hot tickets and how that’s working.
You apply to come and we’re able to track now… who has been [to a show], how many times they’ve been, and a little bit about them so we can have a good mix. We really like it to be all ages and music fans. It tends to be millennials, but all ages are welcome.
I think there’s something about seeing live music in different places. You have very different venues – the place where I saw a show was a bike shop in Brooklyn. Do you vet any of the venues that you get offered? What’s the process for selecting?
We’re always looking for venues. The only criteria is, ideally it’s a house or an apartment. If not, it isn’t a bar or a regular venue. It’s a space like a bike shop where you don’t expect it to be a gig and we can create that environment where we can make it feel intimate and quiet. It really should fit 50 but that’s on the floor, curled up next to each other. Many spaces will fit that amount. Your living room would fit that amount.
The original venues in London, are they still active or have they changed a bit?
We move around. We keep people guessing.
Do you have any particular places in London that you’ve enjoyed going to or a favorite show?
We went to one in a carpet store in Paris and it felt like Aladdin’s cave or something. I also remember there was a warehouse, like an artist’s studio. There was one beat-boxer. It was the first time we’ve ever had a beat-boxer play. That was incredible. If you closed your eyes, it sounded like a whole DJ set.
Did you contact him?
No, he was there. A friend asked, "Hey man, you want to play?" He said, "Sure." That’s spontaneous, but it was the same thing when Robert Pattinson played. We didn’t expect him to play. I didn’t know who he was and his friend said, "This guy should play at the end of the night if you have room." He played guitar, one song. He played really well.
Genres, is there a specific mix you’re looking for?
We open it to any genre. It can be anything from a man with guitar to a duo to a full band. We have a lot of spoken word. We’ve had comedy. You come and you don’t know what to expect. One of the things we’re most proud of is that we’ve had a lot of musicians early in their career who have gone on to get really well known. Coming to Sofar is a lot about music discovery, and you’ll get something exciting.
I was reading that Bastille came and played for you, as well.
Yes, they’ve played now four times. They played when they were completely unknown. They were really nervous by the way and it was really cute. It was about 70 people in the room and I was like, "Wow, these guys are great." I heard later that somebody was there from a local radio station in London and they end up putting their song on the radio. So that was great for us to support such a great band and great for them to gain some new fans. We also had Leon Bridges play when he wasn’t well known, in Dallas. We’ve had Hosierplay when in Manchester. In New York, we had Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs. No one knew who any of these people were.
To find out more about SoFar sounds, become a host, member, volunteer or artist, visit their website at SoFarSounds.com.