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The Not-So-Secret Success of Sofar Sounds

by Miguel Perez 21 Sep 2017 1:53 PM

The secret pop-up show startup tiptoed its way to DFW in 2011. Now, everyone is paying attention.

A.N.T. the MC performing at a Sofar Sounds show in February. Photo: UnknownNet Photography

Picture this. You’re seeing your favorite band live, and one of their best songs is starting. A wave of phones suddenly rises from the crowd, and your already-paltry view of the stage is blocked. That’s the dilemma that fueled the rise of Sofar Sounds, a music startup present in 375 cities that promises a more intimate experience.

Sofar DFW will be presenting a pop-up concert at the upcoming State of the Arts panel conversation in Fort Worth this Friday, so we talked with their city director Carolina Armstrong about how the company is setting itself apart from other live show experiences.

Sofar’s premise is straightforward; you sign up for a show near you, and you’re entered into a draw for tickets. The catch? The artists performing are kept secret until the show starts, and venues (which are often private homes) are only disclosed to confirmed guests. Shows usually feature three acts, who typically play about four-song sets to a small and attentive audience.

Here’s our extended conversation with Armstrong:


Carolina Armstrong

What was the impetus behind creating Sofar Sounds? 

We’re a company, but we’re really a movement. We started in London. Our founders became friends through their love of music, and Sofar was borne out of their desire to have more opportunities and more intentional spaces for actual listening. They were finding as I think we all do, if you’ve been to see a band you really love, you’re excited for their success if they’re at a bigger venue, that’s more talking, more jostling, more texting, more Instagram story-ing, and less just focus on the music. And so they wanted to create an intimate space where musicians can really be heard and respected. It caught on because I think it’s something people are really craving even if they don’t know it.

How often do you hold gigs?

Our monthly gig count ebbs and flows seasonally. We’re at about 10-12 gigs right now in summer and fall. We peaked at about 17-18 in the spring, and that was exciting. But, we really want to make sure that we hone in on quality and keep the experience really intimate and special and unique every single time … We’ve had some really great talent from Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton, some of the other smaller suburbs in the metroplex like Grand Prairie and Bedford.

We’ve also been able to tap into music hubs in Austin and Houston. Oklahoma City and Norman have got a really great music scene. That’s something we’re really excited about.

What kind of artists are you looking to book? 

We’re looking for newer talent in the sense that we want to showcase the best and brightest who maybe haven’t gotten an opportunity to really shine in the metroplex. It might be somebody who has a longstanding Wednesday night gig at Lola’s Trailer Park in Fort Worth, but they’ve never set foot in Dallas to play a gig.

Also, new in terms of who is only playing open mikes and hasn’t really had a chance to have their name on a poster or have people really connect with the music that they have on YouTube … It’s also really exciting when booking artists that are coming through. [Acts] that may have one Texas date and people just didn’t get out to see them last time and three years later, they still don’t have an audience in Dallas. We’d like to provide that for the people in the room and the artists coming through.

Did you have to sell the concept at first? 

I think that we didn’t have to because when we first started, we didn’t have a vision of how big this was going to be. In the beginning, if we had 10 people in a room … that can be pretty special if you’re somebody likes that kind of one-on-one attention-giving experience. I think that’s something that we miss a lot in this day and age — the gift of your wholehearted, undivided attention to another person.

I find that the people that come back the most and the people that engage the most are the people that discovered it organically. They just stumbled upon it on like an Instagram post and came on a whim, maybe by themselves. Those are the people that at the end of the night can’t leave and they’re talking to all the artists … If you’ve been doing it for a long time, you really live for those moments because I think there are pieces of that at every show, but that first-time experience is one-of-a-kind.

Do you think Sofar challenges industry norms? 

We like to think of ourselves as disruptors in the music industry. I mentioned that we like to keep one foot firmly in the DIY community, while also being leaders as a company that wants to have a focus on safety for our guests … Anytime you’re taking music out of a traditional venue, I think that’s exciting. But more than that, we are organically creating space for storytelling, which is something that pushes outside of just music in that musicians have an opportunity to talk really intimately with really focused listeners about what they’re working on and the places where their songs were born from. We’re not booking just artists now. We are a music lover’s community, but we have been branching out to spoken word. Some Sofar cities have had live artist painting during the show. There’s always space for spontaneous collaboration amongst artists.

How does Sofar balance its grassroots origins with a growing popularity? 

It’s something that I think we talk about a lot because when you were borne out of this anonymity and secrecy, that’s a really special thing. But, it also lives in a tense relationship with the inclusivity that we also have as part of our core values. If you’re secret and grassroots, how can you be inclusive and welcoming? I think you can kind of do both, but that’s a tension that we live in every day. Like I mentioned, we’ve adjusted the amount of shows we do month-to-month because we’re constantly trying to find the sweet spot of a full room of listeners, an intimate experience for our audiences, and always keeping the value of that experience at the forefront. We want people to really walk out of a room and think, wow that was awesome, even if it’s your first or fiftieth show. That’s one of the challenges too. Wanting to go against the grain and disrupt those industry norms. Remembering that it’s okay to not always stay the same but wanting to keep the experience at its core true to our beginnings.

There have been some concerns raised about how Sofar compensates artists. How has the company addressed this? 

That was a really important learning opportunity for us to take some responsibility. We’ve been a movement for so long, and we haven’t been focused on making huge changes or even addressing things that need to be addressed … In the last few years, we’ve been focusing on tech. We just released a new app, and there are pieces of that that have always come with a huge portion of focus to how this supports artists. That has never fallen by the wayside, but it was really important for us to remember and be called to action that that might be something that will support artists down the road but compensation needed to be addressed. So, we did. We doubled compensation for our U.S. artists in May. I think we’ll always have critics because we’re doing something that’s new and not new. We didn’t invent the house show, and we’re not trying to take credit for that but we are committed to being leaders in artist support.

So, what were those compensation changes? 

All of our artists play a four-song set — about 20 minutes of music. For a while, it was $50, and as of May, it is now $100. Hopefully, we’ll continue to increase as we start to actually make money because we’re still not making money. But, we have money to do the things that we think are really important and speak to what’s valuable to us and that’s the artists that make Sofar what it is.

Artists can also opt for a music video.  

Artists oftentimes have the opportunity to choose whether or not they’d like the compensation or they’d like to have a professionally-recorded and engineered video that goes onto our YouTube. For some people, that’s all they want. All they want is a Sofar video — maybe that’s how they discovered Sofar. We get a lot of people who that’s just like it for them  … I think that’s been a good opportunity for more partnership with artists. I’ve learned so much about what’s valuable to artists through those conversations.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.