Would you attend a concert with no stage and no pre-announced lineup? What if it took place in a stranger’s living room, an antique shop, a rock climbing center -- even the top of a ski slope?
Rafe Offer is banking on it. With his gig curating company Sofar Sounds, the London-based entrepreneur has staged secret, intimate concerts with names like Hozier and Sylvan Esso in all these donated settings and more, spread across 382 cities worldwide from Memphis to Mumbai, New York to Newcastle. And with backing from Virgin Records co-founder Richard Branson, the project is growing fast: In late September, Sofar teamed up with Amnesty International for the one-day event Give A Home, bringing performances by 1,000 musicians including Ed Sheeran and the National to living rooms across the globe to raise awareness of the ongoing refugee crisis.
The idea for Sofar -- short for “songs from a room” -- first sparked between co-founders Offer, Rocky Start and singer-songwriter David Alexander while attending a noisy, packed Friendly Fires concert in London in 2009. Between the clinking of beer bottles and iPhone cameras swaying in the air, the three friends couldn't hear or see a thing.
“The band over there felt like background noise,” Offer remembers, speaking to Billboard on a recent afternoon at the Ludlow House in downtown Manhattan. “We said, ‘Let's get out of here. Let's do something different.'"
A week later, Offer invited Alexander to perform for a small group of friends in his home, hosting what might now be considered the first Sofar Sounds gig. One by one, the guests arrived, dropping off cases of beer in the kitchen before settling on the couch or cross-legged on the carpet.
Then, Alexander began to play. “There was a clock in the background that we could literally hear ticking because it was so quiet,” Offer recalls. “And you know what? It was magical.”
At the time, Offer had just moved from Atlanta to London to work in marketing for beer and spirits producer Diageo, having held similar positions at Disney and Coca-Cola. But he soon found himself spending between 15 and 20 hours every week booking concerts, and turned Sofar into a full-time job by 2014. (Alexander has since left Sofar, which Start and Offer now run together.)
While Offer is a self-described “obsessed fan” of music, growing up in Chicago on the sounds of Led Zeppelin and Talking Heads, he argues that being a music industry outsider gave him the audacity -- and perhaps naïveté -- he needed to skirt the traditions of the live music market. For one, Sofar keeps both the location and three-performer lineup for each show secret, a win-win setup both for fans seeking new sounds and emerging artists hoping to break into new markets.
“I think the fact that I had nothing to do with the music industry was really the reason why we started this. We broke a lot of rules and ignored them and just said, ‘Okay, we won't announce who's playing,’” says Offer. “Rocky and I were always thinking of things that were music[-minded] and then just rejecting the sacred cows that every industry has.”
By 2016, the project caught the attention of Branson, who announced Virgin's investment into the company through a blog post admiring Sofar's disruptive spirit amid "soulless" concert venues. "The connection between artist and listener was being lost," he wrote. "This is where Sofar Sounds comes in."
Today, individuals can apply to host, perform at or attend each secret Sofar gig online, and might find themselves listening to hip-hop, indie-pop or even opera and spoken-word poetry. There’s only one rule: “One of the things we tell the artists is, ‘You come and you stay and you’re the same as everybody else,’” says Offer. “You can talk to the person next to you and find out that they’re about to perform.”
Notable past Sofar performers include Leon Bridges, Sylvan Esso and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, who launched Crush Songs at a Sofar gig, and even actors-slash-musicians like Robert Pattinson and 50 Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan, who hosted Sofar’s first New York gig in 2010. (“Nobody was handcuffed at the time,” Offer jokes.) Often, artists who play their first gigs at Sofar have gone on to achieve wide fame -- take Hozier or Bastille, both Sofar alums.
But Give A Home, Sofar’s Sept. 20 worldwide event with Amnesty International to raise awareness of the ongoing refugee crisis, marks the company’s largest endeavor yet. The partnership pulled off 300 gigs across 60 countries that day, the result of what Offer calls a “nine-month odyssey” which began when Offer approached the international human rights organization in early 2017. Offer invited Sheeran on board through Branson, whose daughter happened to be an acquaintance of the singer’s, and the project grew from there.
“We kept thinking...what would be the power of [being] in one living room, but you feel like your living room is all around the world?” Offer says of the event. “And it just became way bigger than we anticipated.”
Give or take 40 guests, the very first living room gig Offer remembers hosting with his friends in London isn’t so different from a recent chilly October night in Manhattan's East Village, when attendees packed into a trendy loft apartment owned by Alex Roy of audio showroom company Noho Sound for the latest Sofar production. The female-themed event played host to singer-songwriters Anneliese McCarthy and Britanny Fousheé along with Swedish flutist Elsa Nilsson, while listeners crouched on the carpet, toting deli beers and solo cups of wine (Sofar remains a BYOB event).
Amid the hushed crowd, crouched on the floor in the corner of the room, was Offer himself. As the first performer began to sing a soft, acoustic ode to her hometown, Offer sat with his eyes closed, perfectly still aside from the slight nod of his head every few notes.
“What happens is everyone melts into the music and it becomes a community,” he explains. “It's almost like meditating, and being in the moment.”