On a Friday night, Jack the Radio is setting up for a crowd of a few dozen people, all squeezed into a Person Street condominium. Only five months earlier, a block away, the Southern soul-and-rock quintet had drawn more than three hundred people to the Lincoln Theatre to celebrate the release of its fourth record, Badlands. But as singer and guitarist George Hage explains, this isn't a disappointment; it's exactly the change of pace his band wanted.
"We were drawn to the idea of getting a group of people together for a semi-private, intimate concert with the understanding that the people in the room were all there to listen," says Hage.
Everyone had gathered for the second Triangle edition of Sofar Sounds, an international string of concerts in close quarters that uses subsequent online streams to subsidize pay-what-you-will shows packed into spaces as small as apartments. With its invite-only guest list, undisclosed lineup, secret location, and online integration, it's a logical update on the familiar house show model.
The Triangle is one of the newest outposts for Sofar, which includes nearly three hundred series spread across fifty countries. Sofar has hosted big-name acts like Dawes, Bastille, Leon Bridges, and Hozier. Since February, the Triangle chapter has organized four gigs, also distinguished by high production value and respectful audiences.
"It differs from your average house show where everybody's got a PBR, people are outside yelling and smoking, and someone's still playing a radio in the other room," says songwriter Matt Phillips, who joined the local team after playing Sofar gigs in Philadelphia and Wilmington. "Although there are great things about those experiences, too, this is like the high-art version of the house show. Everybody is there to listen, digest it, and be mindful—and they're dead silent, too, because you're recording."
In 2009, Chicago native Rafe Offer was living in London when he and friends Rocky Start and Dave Alexander launched what became Sofar—short for "songs from a room"—after being frustrated by a noisy, distracted crowd at a bar gig. The series expanded to Paris and New York the following year; in 2011, after they started posting the performances to YouTube, membership ballooned. Compensation now comes primarily from the professional footage shot during the show, which Offer says generates four million monthly views.
"People's first question is always, 'Who's playing?'" Offer says, recalling one of the struggles Sofar faced early on—and still does in new markets, including the Triangle. He credits Alexander, a former musician, for Sofar's policy of not announcing performers or proclaiming headliners.
"People come for the main act, and they're not there physically or mentally [for others]," Offer says of typical shows. "We made a decision early that all acts at Sofar are equal. Because we don't announce it, nobody's fans are going to show up just for them."
Instead, the curious sign up for limited spaces online, offered at a pay-what-you-want rate for those selected via lottery. Fans count on shows hosted in unique spaces, like a recent spot in Oslo that Offer describes as "a small living room at the top of a ski jump," with acts that are either "doing something very different or best in class in terms of their style." He raves, for instance, about Durham's Sylvan Esso, which played Sofar London a few days into its first-ever British tour. The band's Nick Sanborn soon fell for the concept.
"It encourages the growth of an open-minded audience. Part of the point was to see a show with absolutely no expectations," he says. "Having an audience that is willing—or even excited—to routinely take a chance on an artist they've never heard before is such an important part of the growth of a scene."
Offer saw such an opportunity in the Triangle, where a rising population and a pre-existing music scene with a pedigree and history could coalesce. The area Sofar team—which receives support and guidance from the London headquarters and other chapters—includes Phillips, fellow Triangle musician Jason Elliott, UNC student Maddy Ashmun, and Toby Kandies, who enlisted after hosting that crowded Jack the Radio show.
Sofar doesn't really include louder metal or punk acts, another distinction from customary DIY house shows. Phillips—who played with an electronic act, a rapper, and an acoustic duo during his own Sofar stops—says the series normally seeks bands that "really cater to quiet, attentive, personality-heavy shows." Here, the bills have mostly drawn on acoustic rock and roots acts.
"Playing sad, queer folk songs in front of a crowd of respectful strangers just felt so right to me," Raleigh songwriter Al Riggs says of his experience in April. "Everyone was there to be helpful and make sure it was the best show it could possibly be for everyone involved—the acts, the audience, and the tech people."
While there are plenty of bands fit for a Sofar bill in the area, the local chapter faces different challenges than its counterparts in New York or Los Angeles when it comes to crowds.
"Around here," Phillips says, "you have to do more convincing with the brand so people understand it's going to be a really cool thing."
But Sofar seems to have been well received during its first four months here, with growing crowds and fans who have traveled from other cities after experiencing the setup elsewhere. At the first installment, Kandies met people who had driven from Charlotte and Charleston just for the shows. For Phillips, putting a premium on the experience of watching and listening is what it's about.
Sanborn agrees: "No one was using their phones [at the London Sofar], which was wonderful," he says. "We were all just there together, in the present. It's a bummer how rare that is becoming."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Living Room"