Live music magic: Sofar Sounds expands in Bay Area

What Uber did for transportation and Airbnb did for lodging, Sofar Sounds aims to do for concerts, according to Sam Toizer, a lead booker for Sofar San Francisco. He started volunteering with the organization in 2013 when he lived in Chicago. Eight months ago, he started booking shows for the Bay Area.

“One of the goals of Sofar San Francisco is to make it a music city,” says Toizer. “Right now, L.A., New York and Nashville are seen as music cities, but we want to bring San Francisco to that level and make it just as respected as those cities.”

Now in more than 320 cities worldwide, Sofar got its start in London in 2009. Founders Rafe Offer and Rocky Star got frustrated by how disconnected a lot of concertgoers were from music. Instead of focusing on the music, “fans” were talking, texting and smoking. The two men decided then and there to bring “magic back to live music.” Sofar, which stands for Songs from a Room, accomplishes that by crowd-sourcing guests for meticulously curated shows.

“I think it’s easy to explain, but it’s kind of hard to emotionally feel until you go to a show,” Toizer says. “Seeing the look on the artists’ faces when they play and have everyone actually pay attention is really cool.”

A typical event, called a ‘Sofar,’ features three diverse acts. Would-be guests sign up without knowing the location or the lineup. If they are selected to attend, they are told the location as late as the day of the concert.

“A lot of these artists just don’t have quality material online yet because they’re still up-and-coming,” Toizer says. “It’s really easy to go online, look at who’s going to perform and convince yourself that you’re not going to like them just based on the quality of their material. That’s why we don’t release the artists before.”

The goal is to cultivate a space where people who love finding new music are paired with emerging artists for a special experience.

“Sofar Sounds continues to be one of our very favorite things, creating a beautiful culture of music and connection,” indie duo Dagmar wrote after performing at a Sofar SF show in November.

Guests are expected to arrive before the first act and stay through the final performance. Another expectation: devoting their full attention to the artists. That means no talking, texting, or filming.

Venues range from a personal living room to a conventional concert setting. Locally, they have ranged from the Mission to the Upper Haight, SOMA, Alamo Square, Twin Peaks, Dogpatch and as far east as Berkeley. Locations are chosen based on the crowd and performers.

“Found myself in a cozy art studio on Sunday in SF and discovered [an] awesome band, Scary Little Friends,” Olivia Reed posted on Sofar’s Facebook page.

The arrangement is one that seems to be appreciated by guests and artists alike.

“They’re creating a music culture by training audiences to turn off their phones and be present from start to finish,” said Jared Swanson of Bay Area indie rockers Abbot Kinney, who have played SoFar shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “The concept that no one knows who will be playing in a secret location makes it fun for the attendees and musicians. It’s like an Easter egg hunt and the finely curated songs are the treats. … It’s the same feeling I have when I’ve played music for family in my hometown living room. The moment is heightened. It feels special.”

Electronic soul artist KLEZ, who performed several Sofar SF shows in the past year, credits the organization with connecting him with music lovers.

“Without each and every one of you, none of this would’ve been possible,” he wrote.

Through word-of-mouth, demand for SoFar SF shows has increased. Toizer says the local group offered two shows a month last June, but that number is now up to 20 each month. That led the branch to hire a full-time employee. The other 300 or so cities are run by volunteers.

Interested in attending a Sofar? Visit the group’s website and create a profile. Then, click to ‘Apply for a Ticket’ for the date you’d like to attend. While some cities and some events offer fixed-price tickets, most operate on a “pay what you want” basis.

“It’s a really good way to discover new bands,” Toizer says. “But it’s also a cool way to see them in an intimate setting. The shows usually have an audience of 50 to 150 people, so you can see really cool performances that are only at Sofar and aren’t really anywhere else.”

As for artists—which can include musicians, poets, comedians and dancers—Toizer suggests they attend a Sofar before committing to performing at one to get a taste of the experience. If they are still interested, they can submit a sample of their performance to their city of choice and that Sofar team will decide whether it’s a fit.

“One of my favorite ways to find new performers is to tap into the artists’ network that we have. It’s such a vibrant community,” Toizer says. “There are different pockets of communities of artists that all know each other, play in each others’ bands and work with each other.”

Most of the upcoming SF events are sold out, but check Sofar’s website for a complete list of performances.

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