Sofar Sounds: Changing the way we listen to music

Whether by a coincidence or as an intended reference, the alternative name for Sofar Sounds shares the title with the album by Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room. A simple, unpretentious and elegant invitation to come in, sit down and listen – if you are lucky enough to make it to the list.

Born in 2009 in London, Sofar stemmed from an idea to create an alternative, more intimate way to listen to music. In order to attend the secret concert you have to register online and wait to be accepted. The chance of that varies, as gigs are hosted in a range of venues: from bedrooms to churches, coffee shops to offices. Naturally, the capacity of these venues is limited. This leaves many keen ears disappointed UK-wide, especially in cities like London, where the rate of acceptance can be 50 per 2,000. In Edinburgh, the average number of requests is 150, with an optimistic number of 60 places who get in.

What exactly is it that makes this medium so appealing to contemporary audiences? Given that today we live in a changing economic environment, or a so-called prosumerist society, its popularity is arguably unsurprising. Uber, AirBnB and other similar startups reflect the desire to remove mediators, for the consumer to become the producer, and for audiences to bring performers straight into their own spaces.

The Student tried to answer this question on International Women’s Day, when Sofar hosted one of their monthly gigs in Ronde Bicycle Outfitters, a bike-cum-coffee shop in Stockbridge.

The lineup was suited for the occasion, with local artists including Carrie Mac, Be Charlotte and Stina Marie Claire Tweeddale from Honeyblood highlighting the talent of female Scottish artists. The atmosphere of Sofar events is cosy and the audience tend to feel at ease, even if they have to cram in a rather small room with all sorts of bikes hanging on the walls.

All the fairy lights and candles reinforce the idea that any space could actually transform into a concert hall with the right touch. Having attended several Sofar events, I am always left surprised by the consistency of Sofar’s standard and style. At the same time, there are a few surprises tonight: local poets Ellen Renton and Sarya Wu share some beautiful spoken word and Ruby Scott-Geddes puts out her live drawings after the show. It all contributes to an excellent night.

It is tradition at the start of every concert to start by asking the audience who is attending a Sofar gig for the first time. There is always a good mix of people, and as Lucy Evans, one of the team leaders for Edinburgh Sofar Sounds pointed out, it is the goal of the organisers to make new people fall in love with it from their very first time. The impression from chatting to the musicians on the night was that they felt that performing to a room full of such attentive listeners is extremely refreshing.

After the concert Lucy sat down with The Student to discuss what Sofar is all about, and where the future of live music lies. She believes it is the inclusive nature and the ability to have a direct connection with the artist that makes Sofar such a success: “The fact that you do not know who you are going to hear tonight does make publicity harder, yet is a great way to expose less known local artists.”

Carrie Mac found Sofar a great medium for her to find new listeners in the age of YouTube channels, while Stina Tweeddale is happy to play in her hometown.

It is clear that local identity and social consciousness is essential to the Sofar community. Stina told us she has played in a couple of Sofar gigs around the world, and there are differences: while Edinburgh is usually folk dominated, the concert she played in New York had an electronic music act.

What unites Sofar Sounds are the rare moments, like tonight, “when we had the exclusive honor to hear Stina playing an acoustic set with just an electric guitar” says Lucy.

Live music does hold a particularly magical element of surprise. The rise of Sofar Sounds and various initiatives like it just proves that indeed there is, and always will be, the need for that surprise.

Image:  Aurelija Karaliūnaitė

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