The secret gig. It’s a concept that’s been steadily growing for years, from people scrambling over one another to get to the front of the Glastonbury secret slot, to people queuing for miles outside London venues, exchanging rumours of who the night’s secret act is. Radiohead? Beyoncé? In this realm of gig mystery it feels that anything is possible.
Tonight, as I walk towards my first SOFAR SOUNDS secret gig, I’m expecting nothing, embracing the beauty of the unknown – but the back of my mind whispers, “It just could be Bob Dylan…”
Mystery is at the centre of Sofar Sounds, and it shrouds the whole process. After entering a ballot you need to be selected and invited to attend, with the location of the venue only being released the night before, and the artists at the moment of performance. Tonight’s venue is revealed as Ziferblat, a pay-per-minute café on the Albert Dock. Entering, I’m ushered into a large living-room-type space, strewn with plush armchairs and sofas adorned with masses of cushions. Guests are scattered around sharing coffee and treats from assorted cake stands. Within minutes I’ve almost forgotten that I’m here for a gig at all, and this is where Sofar’s charm begins.
When we think of live music, most of us have been conditioned to think of dark, sweaty rooms crammed with people. Rooms where there’s always someone ordering a drink at the bar as loudly as possible. Someone catching up with their friend whilst the musician on stage is pouring their heart out and, always, someone in front of us filming the entire gig on their phone screen. It makes us question what ever happened to gig etiquette? Manners? Just plain respect? Aren’t people supposed to be here for the music, after all?
This is where the origins of Sofar Sounds come from, starting back in 2009 when founders and live music lovers Rafe and Rocky began to get frustrated with audiences constantly talking over bands. In retaliation, they decided to start hosting gigs in their own houses, inviting friends over to watch. “It started with around eight people in a living room, and soon enough the idea caught on to friends around London and the world.” The popularity of the event spiralled, causing a global movement, with 300 secret gigs a month taking place in hidden, unique venues all over the world.
It’s this desire for a greater gig experience, combined with a respect of the artist playing, that lies at the heart of Sofar Sounds’ ethics. Their ethos is that all artists on stage should be treated with equal respect, whether they’re well-known or not – the main reason for keeping their line-ups secret. The protocol of the gig is made clear from the start, as Mel, the evening’s host, takes to the stage to give some simple rules for the night: no texting, no filming, no talking and you’ve got to stay for every artist.
It all feels like a very exclusive, polite Fight Club, as Tadgh Daly, the evening’s first act begins to perform. A singer-songwriter from London with an acoustic guitar and gritty voice, his powerful vocals explode through the plush living-room environment, breaking on falsettos to reveal an underpinning of hurt and emotion which seep through his songs.
“It seems to me that these nights somewhat transcend the usual ‘performer/audience’ relationships and you get to see people’s raw reactions to the music,” he tells me. “With Sofar, you have the opportunity to really engage with the audience in a very vulnerable way and I love that… You know for sure that everyone in the audience is a passionate fan of music and I personally feel like you owe them the most honest performance that you can give.”
The artists themselves have a choice about what they’d like to gain from the experience – either a high-quality video of their performance or a share of that evening’s takings. For others it may just be that extra exposure. Blue Saint is a Congolese-born, Liverpool-based rapper and singer-songwriter, who has already been nominated for a MOBO, won the Merseyrail Sound Station Prize in 2014 and performed alongside artists such as Ed Sheeran. As he dons a balaclava and spits out his spoken word to a small room of people, it takes us out of our realm of comfort. Yet the intimacy remains, feeling as though we’re getting an early performance from someone whose career is on the very verge of taking off. It all adds to that special, exclusive feeling.
Stoney Browder Jr. are the last act up – a politically-motivated band who pack a high-energy punch, blending funk, soul and groove beats with elements of spoken word and rap. Their jazzy melodies are a contrast to the other, darker, mellower acts of the evening – underlining how varied in genres a single Sofar Sounds evening can be. “There’s no mention of genre, arrangements, language, movement, dress code,” says frontman Lorne Ashley. “It’s very much a case of, ‘We like what you do, can you please bring that to our stage, we think our scene will love you’. It’s very very humbling.”
The variety of acts, fully allowed to be themselves, is something that is specifically special about the Sofar movement. Artists are hand-picked by a curator who purposefully casts their net across a wide blend of genres. One performer may be right up your street and the next may take you out of your musical comfort zone, challenging your perceptions. For those who are expecting big names, the likes of Karen O, Hozier, Bastille, James Bay and even Robert Pattinson have made Sofar Sounds appearances, but, at its heart, these are gigs for the music fans.
It’s more than a marketing gimmick of mystery to draw a crowd – this is a movement that’s redefining music for audiences and artists. It’s not only happening right here in Liverpool but throughout the whole of the north, from Chester to Leeds. It’s a call to arms for the gig-goer, as people who love music are being brought together under one big respectful umbrella. This is, ultimately, live music as it’s meant to be.
For tickets, or information on performing visit sofarsounds.com. If anyone has a space they would like to consider for a show then get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org