Lightning rarely strikes in L.A., but it does for the underground music movement SoFar Sounds. When musician Avid Dancer perches in front of the windows at the Fashion District penthouse loft of Astroetic Studios, lightning flashes as he announces his new album, and this invite-only secret concert for a group of 100 randomly selected music lovers suddenly seems like something special.
L.A. sneezes secret VIP shows like a kid with bad allergies, so the concept of a secret concert holds no magical appeal, especially to jaded music journalists like myself. It took incessant coaxing from the guy I dated for me to succumb to the idea that this could be unique or fun. When I finally relented, he shared what became a tantalizing process as it slowly unraveled.
The SoFar community thrives because of a strong online presence and word of mouth. The website brings the elements together: musicians, venues and fans. SoFar staffers and volunteers sort through thousands of music submissions from unknowns to famous artists, find event spaces as random as people’s bedrooms and forest patches, then invite hopeful music lovers to these secret shows.
Fans choose the area of town they want to go see the show in without knowing exactly what the venue will be or what artists will perform. There are no guarantees you will be selected to attend a show, no matter who you know. There are no VIPs; I was not given a press pass or any special treatment as I was writing this article, and even was rejected once. The element of surprise and the feeling of exclusivity (when you get an acceptance email for a show, it feels like you just won the lottery) keeps fans coming back.
Rafe Offer launched SoFar Sounds in London in 2009 with Rocky Start, a former London DJ, and Dave Alexander, a singer-songwriter from Belfast who played the first SoFar concert, a solo acoustic performance for an audience of eight at his home. A house show is nothing new, but the guidelines people followed were what made SoFar Sounds different.
“We asked everyone to please focus,” Offer explains. “Everyone was so quiet … we could hear the grandfather clock ticking loudly in the background. After the first three songs, we knew we had something.”
From there, word got out quickly. “The second show we had a line out the door; by the third show, people showed up and we didn’t have room for them.”
SoFar spread from London to Paris, New York, and other cities, arriving in L.A. in January of 2011 with help from KROQ's Casey Oliver. Today, they host 300 shows a month in 268 cities worldwide.
Before each show, the rules are set by an emcee, who asks that no one talk, use cellphones (except for a quick photo for Snapchat or Instagram) or leave during the show. In a town filled with fickle fans, it’s completely miraculous to watch Angelenos adhering to these rules, yet they do — even when they're sitting on the floor crammed together with fellow music-lovers, as is common at SoFar events.
The company has a small staff, but volunteers keep the events running smoothly. That's how Robin Westlund first got involved, before becoming head of SoFar's L.A. branch. “It took me three months to get in just to see a show and once I did, I absolutely loved the experience,” says Westlund. “We never have two shows that are ever alike — they are at different venues, different artists, so it’s still magical.”
SoFar hosts shows all over Los Angeles, but “our shows on the Westside are really popular because there are not many music venues there,” Westlund notes. The Valley is another popular area for the same reason. “We did a couple shows in the Valley near Burbank airport. The house is decked out in neon, Christmas lights and pinball machines. It’s in a very suburban neighborhood, but when you walk in it’s like, 'Woah, what’s this place?'”
A typical SoFar show might feature three or four performers — and they won't necessarily all be unknown or up-and-coming artists. “We have bad-ass A&R people on our team,” boasts Westlund. Acts as well-known as Leon Bridges, Karen O, Bastille and Silversun Pickups have all played SoFar events. The very first SoFar L.A. concert featured popular local indie-pop band Saint Motel. “The main bread and butter is unknown acts,” says Offer, “but hey — we [booked] Hozier in a living room in Manchester!”
“I loved the idea, the premise and intimacy of the show,” says two-time Grammy nominee Andra Day, who has done two SoFar performances — one in her hometown of San Diego and another at SoFar L.A.'s Woman’s Day Show last year. “It’s actually my favorite way to do a show now, but when I was younger small shows always made me the most nervous. I love to crack jokes or tell stories and be able to engage with the audience on such a personal level.”
The Woman's Day performance was at a Studio City house in the hills, a “work of art with spectacular views,” Day remembers. Her set “felt reflective” so she shaped it accordingly. “I threw in a song I had written just a few days prior called 'Ungrateful,' about looking at domestic violence from the perspective of the victim not the rescuer. I knew I was with a group of people that would appreciate and enjoy some experimentation.”
Offer says there are no plans to expand the SoFar format into larger venues. “We will never compete with stadiums. We really wanted to help young musicians, then it evolved into a sense of global community. We can empower people differently in L.A. by exposing them to different musicians.” No matter how much the SoFar concept expands globally, Offer wants to stay true to that original vision. “Somehow we set the rules, and our challenge now is to keep them.”
When I ask Day if she would do another SoFar show, she sums up the entire experience: “Absolutely! It just feels so authentic and free. Shows like that are great for the audience, but equally as great for artists like myself. It is very cathartic.”
To sign up to attend a SoFar Sounds concert, visit www.sofarsounds.com.