In March 2009, three young friends grew tired of disrespectful crowd members at a concert, and decided to create something original that would take back the live musical experience to its roots: no phones, no chatting, no mistakes in sound mixing, and no clinking beer bottles. Eight people were invited to their flat as one of them performed. They referred to the project as Songs From A Room, known today as Sofar Sounds.
Sofar Sounds grew to become an international global community, honouring live music, supporting up-and-coming musicians, and providing a friendly, quiet environment. Organizers do not aim for grand scales and epic performances, but lay their focus on the low-key charm of a handful of people sitting in a room, and getting to know each other. To maintain this charm, most events and locations are kept under wraps, and those interested are selected randomly. The newest addition to the Sofar community of towns is none other than St Andrews. The Saint sat down with two students on the committee (who asked to remain anonymous), and discussed the process of bringing the project to the Bubble.
The Saint: What should people know about Sofar Sounds before they go to an event?
Student A: Sofar is a community of artists and music lovers around the world. Our goal is to organize secret gigs in special locations, such as people’s living rooms, coffee shops, bike repair stores – just something out of the ordinary. The location is released 24 hours before the event, and people don’t get to know who’s playing until the night of the performance. Usually this means 3 artists, mostly locals, but sometimes you can get people who are travelling around the world. At the gig, it’s really about the music: no one’s on their phones, everyone’s paying attention. The best thing about it is that you feel like you’re involved in a little secret, you feel like you’re part of something special. I’ve only been to two gigs but I still remember them. It is also great to discover new artists because they’re usually people you haven’t heard of.
Student B: Although big names have done Sofar before, like Hozier and Bastille, it’s usually before they become known.
TS: What makes St Andrews a good location to realize this project?
A: The focus in St Andrews usually falls on the student body. While of course it’s a university town, it has to be about students, but we thought it would be a good idea to invite professionals, who are trying to make a living from their music. We want to reach out a little to non-students and people from Fife. We’re aiming at creating a sort of bridge between those things.
B: I believe it’s something that any age group would like. When we were putting up the promotional posters, I talked to a guy who I think owns one of the venues. He’s in his 50s, and he told me “Oh, that sounds very cool” – it really is for everyone. So it would be fun if it wasn’t just students, but also locals and people from any age group. I think the Bubble is called the Bubble for a reason, and Sofar is a nice opportunity to reach beyond it by bringing in artists on tour, or Fife musicians who for example work in Dundee and we would never go see them otherwise. There’s a lot of possibilities in that.
TS: How do you find these artists?
A: We went to places in town where you get to hear live music, like Mitchell’s, Aikman’s, some other pubs, and asked “Do you have a list of the artists you’ve invited?” [Student B] and I were in Aikman’s a month ago and we saw this blues musician and we thought wow, he’s so cool, anyone would love blues if they listened to it like this. Then we started cold-calling, cold-emailing people, we also did some research online. We started looking at people who had shows in venues in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow at a date that was close to the one we’d been aiming for. Once we got on the website, artists all around could and can see that we’re an active city. We started getting emails from artists from Chicago and Australia saying “Hey I’m touring the UK right now, I’ve always wanted to visit St Andrews, we’re planning to go to Scotland for two weeks in April”, and we said “Hey, come play!”, so hopefully we’ll get more international people as well.
TS: How do you pick the venues? Have you already done any events?
A: Not yet – our first show is coming up on 8 March.
TS: I guess I obviously can’t ask then which venues you’ve booked for your first events – How do you decide which venue to choose?
B: Currently our focus is on size, because every event has about 50 to 100 people, and the space has to be large enough for that. You also don’t want too much room — after all, everyone sits on the floor. In St Andrews this might become difficult since every university-affiliated building is off the charts, it doesn’t really work for us (we’re not affiliated). We’ve been trying to think of places that we can make cosy and interesting – and we don’t pay for the reservations, so we have to have a certain level of flexibility.
A: We’re trying to pick places where you wouldn’t expect a gig, so we’ve considered all the spaces in St Andrews, including more unconventional ones. We want to be able to get spaces in people’s flats, especially living rooms. We’ve already confirmed our first location, so we’re hoping that after the first few gigs we can start asking people to volunteer and offer their flat, and then we could grow.
TS: You’ve mentioned a couple of challenges due to not being affiliated. Are there any other big challenges that you’re facing in terms of organization?
A: The biggest one has definitely been finding hosts. Obviously if you approach shops and businesses, their first question is “What’s in it for us?”, while in the “venues” in towns where shows have been organized before, they become very keen to get involved and volunteer their space. Quite often if you approach a commercial space you keep their shop open after closing hours, so we need to figure out promotion and focus on what they can gain from the show. We need to be able to convince them that this is all a great experience and they can enjoy the music. I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges.
B: It’s a small town so there’s a certain limit of spaces. But we’ve already come up with ideas that would be original, like “What about that store at the end of South street?” You have to get a little bit creative, which is fun for us too.
A: Initially I thought that finding artists would be a boundary as well, just because of the size of St Andrews. However, now that we’ve started, and we have these emails from people travelling through and able to come, having realized how much music there is in and out of Fife, I don’t think that will be as much of a challenge.
TS: Different genres require different instruments; what are the limitations of bringing equipment to your venues? Do you invite artists with little equipment or can those with more complex sound systems come as well?
B: We want to include all genres of music. We can’t provide them their necessary equipment, so if they have their own, we encourage them to bring it. The hesitation with computer-based music is that you don’t really just want to watch someone standing in front of a laptop pressing buttons, because even if the music is a little bit different, there might be a lack of liveliness to it, and that might create a barrier. With more electronic genres, it would be ideal to have some experimenting with live mixes, some improvisation on the spot.
A: I agree. At the moment, we’re at the starting stages, we don’t have any equipment, and we rely on people to bring their own. I’ve been to an event where I saw someone playing with a loop pedal. The emphasis is on live mixing, and of course the wider the genre range, the better. The idea that every artist has a 25-minute set in a specific kind of venue influences that a bit.
B: We’re also really open for instrumentals, if someone wants to play the cello for half an hour, that’s cool. (all laugh) We’re trying to keep it as open as possible, because even for the musician, it could be a step forward to perform in front of a 100 people in a small space.
A: No chatter, no interruptions.
B: Just a lot of people staring at you. (both laugh)
TS: Where can people hear from your events?
A: We have multiple social media accounts now. Ticket sales will go through the Sofar Sounds website, where all other towns are available as well – there are about 89. At the beginning of the month, the tickets for that month go live. You can sign up for a ticket draw for St Andrews, and you get an email notifying you whether you made it to the list or not – it’s completely random, not selection-based, just because of the limited space. When you get that email, you can buy your tickets. People are given the choice to buy 1, 2 or 3. If you decline, tickets go back in the pool.
B: Tickets are £10 each.
A: Sofar set the prices themselves as they want to ensure that each artist gets paid fairly for the gig they play. They recently announced that from March onwards, Sofar gigs will be the same price all around the world.
TS: How often will you organize events?
A: Ideally, once a month. It’s kind of a requirement for new cities to do at least one a month. If we can do more, all the better! There will be one in March, April, May, and potentially a last one during Grad Week in June.
TS: As my final question, I’d like to ask something I was planning to in the beginning, but the conversation quickly kicked off. What are your personal experiences with Sofar events?
A: My first time was in London a few years ago in someone’s flat. I couldn’t find it, so I thought “Oh no, this thing is a scam, they just ripped me off for £10!”— eventually I did find it. It was packed, there were about sixty people in a room, and the experience was amazing — three bands played that night. I haven’t worked with the Sofar team or volunteered before, but a friend of mine and I approached them, we exchanged emails and recommended St Andrews as a good place for gigs. They tell you exactly what you need to do, there’s many resources, everyone is friendly.
B: I went to my first gig last year in Copenhagen. A friend recommended it to me, she had the ticket, and I went as a plus one. It was in a small office, but I didn’t realize that until they actually mentioned it – I didn’t notice what it was because they cleared it out for the audience. The artists were all Danish, not exclusively from Copenhagen. Some songs were in Danish and others in English, it was great. I was also going to go to one in my hometown in Southern California, but that one got cancelled.
A: You were the one who told me about it first.
B: You were on your semester abroad and I told you to go if you want a good gig experience.
A: Yes, and this might sound cheesy, but I’ve never heard negative feedback from Sofar gigs. The best thing is that everyone remains quiet and puts their phone down, and enjoys the performance.
B: Obviously we don’t confiscate phones, you can take a few pictures, just don’t spend the entire gig on Snapchat. Another thing is that it’s great when you’re travelling somewhere and you get tickets to an event in the town where you are. You can see where gigs will be held in the next month and say, “I will be in Rio de Janeiro then”, and then get tickets to that.
For more information, visit Sofar St Andrews on their website: https://www.sofarsounds.com/st-andrews