Meet the man behind Sofar Sounds – the “secret gig” movement changing the face of live music, one living room at a time

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Rafe Offer, co-founder of Sofar Sounds, explains how a hobby to preserve the magic of live music spread to a global movement – and a new business model for emerging artists

An email drops into my inbox. I’m on the list. I feel like Charlie when he finally discovered a golden ticket in his Wonka chocolate. Sofar (short for Songs from a Room) Sounds had been seeping into the periphery of my consciousness for a little while – the way things tend to do just before they reach critical cultural mass.

And now I had one of the hottest tickets in Berlin – a “secret” intimate gig held in someone’s front room, featuring as-yet-unconfirmed artists. And there’s nothing like the threat of being refused entry to make an event 200 times more desirable…

A week later we enter an unassuming hinterhoff in Kreuzberg, follow the hand-made signs and squash into mismatched sofas along with about 60 other fairly shy and bemused attendees in the apartment’s front room. People crowd on the floor, peer down from a platform bed in the corner, sip wine from mismatched mugs in the open-plan kitchen as a hush descends and the magic of the music begins…

“There was something wrong with live music…”

rafe offer

says Rafe Offer, the enthusiastic Chigaco-born, London-based co-creator of Sofar Sounds, the “secret gig” club that furnished me with unlimited Date Kudos back in 2012.

“You had two choices – you can either see it in a giant amphitheatre, where that tiny dot in the distance is the lead singer from Muse. Or you see it in a small venue, but the issue with that, especially with new music, is that people talk, people text, people drink…

“There’s very little focus and respect for the music, especially for new acts. My friend Dave [Alexander, co-founder along with third founder, Rocky Start] and I were at a gig and it was so loud we couldn’t even hear the musician, that’s when we decided that there had to be another way…”

And the Sofar formula was born: transforming willing volunteers’ front rooms into venues for intimate, pop-up gigs. Attendees are asked not to talk, text and to stay to the end of the performances, but this is less authoritarian than it sounds and, coupled with the environment, makes for some electric live music sessions.

Four years on, and after hosting a first series of gigs in London living rooms, where the pair are based, Sofar Sounds has achieved that most delicate balance: achieving impressive growth while retaining underground caché.

The movement is now active in over 30 cities in five continents – from Barcelona to São Paulo, London to New York, Sydney to Mumbai, Paris to Berlin. Sofar alumni include Dry the River (hailed as the next Mumford and Sons), the beautifully eccentric singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop, hotly-tipped trio We Were Evergreen (below) and even an impromptu appearance by celebrity vampire Robert Pattinson

A carefully engineered global network

“After we got it going in London, I started to call some friends in other cities,” says Offer. “So we tried it in New York and Paris. We started making videos of the nights. Pretty good ones. And people started to discover them… We started getting calls with people offering to expand to their city.”

But Offer, a seasoned marketer (with stints as Director of Marketing at both Disney and Coca Cola, plus clients such as Amazon.com, AXA, The Daily Mail and Microsoft in his current role as self-employed Marketing Consultant) recognised the importance of keeping faithful to the original vision and not grow too quickly or carelessly: “We wanted to ensure the same quality and same magic that had made it so special in London. So we have really great regional organisers who suggest acts – we all listen and give our opinion – three people in the community have to agree to the suggestion.”

Offer admits that the guestlists are also carefully curated: “We spend as much time on the guestlist as we do on the music. For instance, there are 80 people coming to the gig tonight in London – we can guarantee that at least half of them will have never been before. And we prioritise those that can help in some way – bloggers, people helping with the filming, people that are part of the family in some way. And also fans – the kind of people who will come and then tell another 100 people ‘you won’t believe what I saw last night…’”

The secret digital sauce

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Jesca Hoop @ Sofar Berlin 2012

It’s the correlation between these real-world experiences and a plugged-in digital strategy that makes Sofar not only cool, but commercially viable. Local volunteers create gloriously high-quality image galleries and video for each event – furnishing the Sofar website and social media with great content, as well as giving free marketing materials to the performers.

“For any young bands starting out, it’s hard to get yourself out there. Anyone can pop stuff online but as a fan it’s hard to find anything and as a musician it’s hard to promote yourself unless you’re a social media expert or entrepreneur.

“At each gig, we’ll pass a hat round and usually 100 per cent of that goes to the film maker or photographer. We say to the band that yes, we’re fine if you want to take money from this too, or you can get a high-quality video that will pump around the world and hopefully get you some notice.

“And for anyone who can’t attend, we have a great archive so they can see exactly what it’s like.”

Attracting star investors

As well as attracting some of the most exciting unsigned acts out there, Sofar has netted a stellar cast of investors including Peter Read, Michael Acton Smith (Moshi Monsters), Max Niederhofer (Accel Partners), Stefan Glaenzer and Neil Rimer (Index Ventures). All doubtless see the potential of Sofar’s high-quality recordings as a valuable new means of music distribution, especially when endorsed and propagated by grassroots influencers.

“Up until a year ago, this was run purely as a hobby – or a movement towards intimacy, if you like. We had no interest in money. But we realised it was taking up too much time; we needed to make some money to pay the bills. Plus, we realised we were building something that was valuable – it’s a global brand and there are a lot of people into it,” says Offer.

“Joe Cohen (Seatwave CEO) was helping out as a friend and then more formally as an adviser after he invested. He knew a lot of these people through raising money for Seatwave, so he opened the doors to a number of people.

“We wanted to bring people in from venture capital, but using their own money as angels. One of the things that we’re not experts at is online tech, so we tried to choose investors that knew about this area, that would help us expand the movement…

A disruptive model for music consumption?

Sofar London

Sofar @ London

“It was a small round, but one of the attractions for the investors is that there are so many directions we can go. We want to focus on more gigs, more people. When we started the investment round we were doing eight gigs a month, now we’re doing over 30. This month in London we had 2,500 requests for the last gig. We can fit 70 people maximum.

“The investors took a punt. They saw that if something’s growing in user numbers like that, then you’re going to find ways to monetise it. Plus, the burn rates are low for them; it’s a low-risk investment.

“One huge asset we have is content – if we’re doing 30 gigs per month and four videos per gig, that’s over 100 videos. So we’re taking the best of them and putting them on YouTube. You’re not going to get rich unless it’s Gangam Style, but it’s still revenue. We’re also brokering deals with various distributors, such as Spotify and iTunes. It’s obvious that you can take all this content and awesome it digitally.”

Canniest of all, Sofar has introduced licensing arm Sofar Creative – a music synchronisation service: “We’ve become an agent to bring the best, coolest emerging music from around the world to brands, to film makers, to game makers,” Offer explains. “This is usually a long and expensive process, but we can react really quickly – our acts are unsigned, we’re catching them early and people think that’s really cool…”

“It’s an interesting trip…”

Sofar Brighton

Sofar @ Brighton

Where many starkly commercial ventures would have failed, it’s Sofar’s genuine foundation of passion for live music and connecting human beings in a new way that has driven its success to date. The organic, “build it and they will come” model has left enough room for future manoeuvres and embracing spontaneity.

“I love it when spontaneous stuff happens,” smiles Offer. “There was a gig in Seven Sisters in London where we had some Art College indie kids, a very shy 16-year-old singer songwriter and the UK beatbox champion… who just happened to have the German beatbox champion visiting. They both got up and had a dialogue through beatboxing. It was insanely cool. Just magic. It’s that kind of thing that keeps me going… We might not know exactly where Sofar is going, but it’s an interesting trip.”

For related posts, check out:

Investor Spotlight: Peter Read on why Berlin “floats his boat”
The hot new music startups for 2013 – Songful, Jamplify, Stageit, Audience.fm