We chat to Sofar Sounds volunteer Steve Gilbert about how social media and mobile tech has helped them grow into the world's largest live music community...
In March 2009, big changes were afoot in the world of live music. London-based Americans Rafe Offer and Rocky Start founded Songs From A Room (or Sofar Sounds to give it its full moniker) – an experimental movement aimed at creating a better way of enjoying music through secret gigs in small, intimate venues that are as good for guests as they are for artists.
Not heard of it before? Neither had Vodafone Social until now. Fortunately for us, our very own Steve Gilbert who works in Internal Communications at Vodafone UK, is a regular Sofar volunteer so was more than happy to chat to us about how it’s quietly grown to become the world’s largest live music community, with a little help from social media and mobile tech.
All about the performance…
So, first things first: how did Sofar Sounds get started?
“Rafe and Rocky were disillusioned with large-scale commercial gigs,” Steve explains. “I think many of us have been to see bands where you’re just too far away from the stage, peering through a sea of mobile phones while people next to you chat all the way through the performance. The connection between artist and audience gets lost. So with Sofar they wanted to put the magic back into live music, bringing upcoming talent to much smaller, more intimate venues, but using the power of social media to then share it globally.”
Those venues vary wildly these days, but in the beginning that almost exclusively meant borrowing people’s front rooms, and packing them out with a dozen or so punters.
“We’re in over 100 cities across the world from Brighton to Buenos Aires.”
“For the first ever gig, they invited three young musicians and a few local friends to a living room in a tiny north London flat,” says Steve. “That’s still the basic formula, but now we’re in over 100 cities across the world from Brighton to Buenos Aires.
While the venues are always intimate, the fact that it could be just about anywhere is all part of the appeal. Sofar Oxford recently did a gig after hours in a museum and our first ever Reading Sofar was in a bicycle shop. We’re also lucky enough that Blissfields let us use one of their yurts every year for a Sofar gig in the week running up to the actual festival. We love secret spaces!”
“We don’t necessarily restrict the art to music alone, either,” Steve adds. “At Blissfields last month we had a brilliant sketch artist called Michael Weller join us who did pencil drawings of the whole evening whilst the music was playing.”
If you already like the idea of seeing something a bit different in an intimate setting, you’re in luck. As Steve explains, Sofar is now putting on more gigs than ever, and it’s really easy to be a part of it:
“You don’t know who you’re going to see, or exactly where it’s going to be.”
“If you go to sofarsounds.com on your mobile, you’ll see the entire list of upcoming gigs and all the cities around the world where they’re happening,” says Steve. “You sign yourself up for dates essentially, so you don’t know who you’re going to see, or exactly where it’s going to be. If you make it on the guest list, you then get sent full details closer to the night.
“There’s no age limit either – our audiences range from under 10s to over 70s. At a typical gig you’ll turn up with your ‘plus one’ in a room full of strangers, who you then get to know through the course of the evening. It’s pretty social – everyone brings their own drinks, and you have no idea who the musicians are at that stage, so you might find you’ve been chatting to one of them right before they jump up and perform!
“At the gigs I help organise in Winchester and Southampton, we have about 25-30 guests on average and they’ll get to see 4 to 5 different acts in a night. At the end, a hat goes round and guests make donations depending on how much they’ve enjoyed the evening. Sofar is largely run by volunteers, so the money goes towards artists’ travel expenses and keeping our monthly gigs going strong.
“It’s all about the music,” Steve adds. “People are very chatty and friendly but everyone respects the performances when they’re going on, just sitting there listening or even joining in. That happens quite a lot, as the acts are only a few feet away and encourage people to sing with them! We post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at gigs but it’s naturally quite a phone-free environment as we do proper recordings of the gigs that people can watch whenever they want on YouTube.
Sofar records every gig to their YouTube channel – click the link below to take a look!
“Search for Bastille and you’ll find a very early Sofar video of them playing Pompeii in a lounge with a tiny audience learning the chorus for the first time! Hozier is another artist who we were lucky enough to have play for Sofar before he became really well-known. Our gigs are a great way to catch emerging talent on the way up, but even for those who don’t make it big, Sofar is a unique global community of artists and music-lovers, and I think everyone gets something out of being part of that network.”
Mobile music makers
And as Steve readily admits, that’s a network that simply wouldn’t be able to function without mobile technology:
“Without mobile phones, we wouldn’t be able to run Sofar,” he says bluntly. “We want guests to rave to their mates about the gig they’ve just been too, share photos, or watch our YouTube videos. Having people spread the Sofar word through social media is our main way of growing and reaching out to more people – whether that’s future audiences or future artists.
“Also, because many of us are volunteers, we’re always dealing with Sofar stuff on the go. Our local team aims to get together once a month, but the rest of the time, it’s all done through our mobiles. In the days running up to our June gig I was crewing on a London to Paris cycle ride that I help with each year, and was sat in my hotel room late one evening sorting out final Sofar guest list arrangements on my mobile from deepest France! If I didn’t have that connectivity, and the ability to work with the rest of the team around the clock from wherever, our Sofar nights just wouldn’t happen.”
And remember: wherever there’s music, there’s Spotify. If you’re a Spotify member, check out the Best of Sofar Global playlist below for an idea of what’s on offer:
Not signed up? You can grab a Spotify Premium membership at no extra cost with any of our 4G Big Value Bundles*, unlocking a world of over 40 million songs on your smartphone.
Get involved with Sofar!
If you want to do more than just attend the gigs, you can get involved with the Sofar movement too, whether that means offering up your lounge as a venue, or volunteering like Steve does to help organise events in your spare time…
“I just stumbled across Sofar one evening on my phone, not quite sure how, and thought it was a really cool and different idea,” Steve explains. “I liked the surprise and mystery element of just signing up for a city and I was amazed when I saw my little home town of Winchester listed. I went to a couple of gigs and was hooked.
“I was then asked if I wanted to volunteer. For a while there were only two of us, myself and musician Josh Savage, doing everything but it’s grown massively from there – now we have a local team of six and we all look after different bits, though I think I’m still the only one who can’t play an instrument! It’s also really interesting working with so many Sofar cities and artists from around the world. Ultimately, we all came here because we have a love of live music.”
And with Sofar getting bigger and bigger by the month, there’s a growing need for more volunteers and more venues in cities everywhere:
“There are always new artists that are waiting to be discovered.”
“There are always new artists that are waiting to be discovered,” says Steve in closing, “and people waiting to enjoy them. In capital cities like London, Sofar is now doing three gigs a week, with the hope of eventually doing one every single night.”
“It’s not always easy convincing people to offer their lounges to a bunch of musicians and complete strangers. But the truth is, after having done it once, most people jump at the opportunity to host again or come to a future Sofar in a different city.
“It feels really special going to a live gig in someone’s living room with everybody nestled on the sofa while the music happens right in front of you. Where else do you get that kind of experience?”
Are you a music lover? Check out our chat with Spotify’s Drew Lam, as he gives us the background story on how Spotify Sessions came to be.