Rafe Offer is Bringing a Concert to a Living Room Near You – Anywhere in the World.
(London) My first SOFAR-LA concert was held at a home in Los Angeles. I didn’t know what to expect– maybe one or two acoustic folky duos, playing with a primitive sound system to room full of middle-aged people sitting in chairs sipping wine. What happened was way better. There were three alt rock bands, plenty of electronics, fabulous sound system, wall-to-wall millennials and no chairs, but there was a laser-like focus on the music. This happens multiple times a week in over 181 cities around the world and it all started in a London living room because a marketing guy from Chicago named Rafe Offer loved music and wanted to hear it without the noise and expense of clubs and big venues. So he created SOFAR: Sounds From A Room. He took time from managing his global musical empire of volunteers and bands to talk with me from London.
Patrick. Would you describe SOFAR Sounds for us?
Rafe. I think the best word is movement. We started it as a hobby with no interest in anything besides but trying in our small way make a difference in the way the musical experience happens. That then blossomed into something I would have to call a movement because more people than just myself and the other two guys who started it thought it was a good idea. It is mainly volunteer led except for a couple of us who are more than that because we just got so busy we had to spend more time on it.
Patrick. You, Passionate Dave and Rocky Start launched SOFAR Sounds in your living room to create an experience that respected the music, one where you and your friends could hear music without distraction. When and how did you realize that this was much, much bigger than a few living rooms in London?
Rafe. We had been in those few living rooms for a year and I just called a friends in other cities, first in New York and Paris, and asked if they thought people there were frustrated like we were with talking and texting and the clanging of the bar, especially with new music, and they said yeah, let’s try it. And it worked. The fourth city was LA. That was really exciting because a woman named Casey who was at KROQ at the time saw a basic video we did of one of our first concerts and said this was interesting and wondered if it would fly in LA. She teamed up with a couple of people there and a number of other people to start it and have now made it an amazing thing– it was all about the internet.
Patrick. What is the model for growing SOFAR Sound? Is it a franchise? A license? Do people just do it and you bless them…how does this work?
Rafe. It is a heavily volunteer-led network of people who just say they would like to support the music in [their] city through “intimate gigs,” mostly but not always, in living rooms. It is usually 3 to 5 people– anyone who wants to get involved. We have a global network that appeals to the musicians because they get heard outside the living room they play in. It is usually just a couple of people who put together events at whatever frequency is right for their city.
Patrick. As preparation for this interview, I did video interviews with some of your volunteers and staff. Everyone one of them told me that SOFAR Sounds had changed their life. Did you anticipate that? That you would change people’s lives beyond just giving them music?
Rafe. No way. I am blown away and humbled by that remark. Soon after we started in LA, Karla and Molina and Jaime and Robin and more people that I can name got involved. I am so humbled.
Patrick. SOFAR Sounds is in over 181 cities in 65 countries. But different countries have different musical traditions, religious views of music, legal and cultural restrictions and rules. How do you deal with this? Is SOFAR a way, in some countries, for people to get forbidden music?
Rafe. Yes, and it is actually quite difficult. I remember our first gig in Cairo; it was during very difficult times and people there told me that they saw our concert as a way to get away from what was going on. There was a blackout because of a terrorist attack nearby and the volunteers said the music would continue on. So they just went up to the roof where they could play by moonlight and they finished the concert. There was a similar situation in London and we streamed it. For some people, SOFAR is a chance to connect with the world when it is difficult and, yes, there are regulations and things we have to deal with but it is a global community and we have all made a lot of new friends.
Patrick. Does it take a while for SOFAR to catch on in a city?
Rafe. In varies with the city. In cities where a house concert is a totally new thing, it grows very quickly. Take Istanbul and St. Petersburg, Russia where it went quickly because it is one of the few routes to share music– one group’s video in Istanbul got a million hits on YouTube. In the creative cities like LA, Portland, New York, it is harder because there is so much going on. In other cities that are not a creative centers, it can be easier– it’s different with each city.
Patrick. You have a “no headliner” rule. Do you always focus on new music?
Rafe. It is all about equality in music. . . . just because someone has more hits doesn’t make that much difference to us. . . I think every musician is equal, but also we want diversity in music. We have spoken word, indie, whatever– it is hard to say a cellist is headlining over a rapper. It is all about the music.
Patrick. SOFAR has launched some careers. Can you name any artists who have really taken off as a result of SOFAR?
Rafe. We are very open to anyone coming. Our sweet spot is new music, but we welcome anyone. We have had better known talent drop in unannounced sometime. We had Karen O from the YeahYeahYeah’s in New York. Bastille got their start at SOFAR. They were terrified at first because they had never played an acoustic show and never conducted a sing-a-long. We talked with them about an audience sing-along to their song “Pompeii,” which became the most successful streamed song in the UK.
Patrick. Do you have a policy about inviting full bands instead of just the leads, or do you leave it for the local folks?
Rafe. We definitely leave it to the local folks. More importantly, we leave it to the musicians. In New York a week ago we had a hip hop brass band and it worked fine. It is really up to what the musician wants. . . a large living room can work with anyone. It comes down to the song.
Patrick. How does a band get picked for a SOFAR concert?
Rafe. Go to the website and just follow the instructions…it is easy. It is a local decision. Every community decides, there is usually 5 to 10 people, and they just decide what the music is for their city. We don’t care if you’re popular, if you are signed or unsigned– it is about your music and the local community.
Patrick. Do the bands get paid?
Rafe. Absolutely. We give them a choice. We give them a cut of what we take in, usually by passing a hat, although in some places where we are busy we are now doing a digital contributions. Or we can give that money to the video team and the musician gets a high-quality video and then we put it on our global platform which will get them noticed more than they would have otherwise.
Patrick. How can people get involved in giving concerts or volunteering?
Rafe. They just go to www.SOFARsounds.com. There is a link on the website where you find [your] city and let us know.
Patrick. Rafe Offer, thank you for talking with me today.
Rafe. You’re welcome.
Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!
full interview at http://bit.ly/1Mn8bOk