Why would someone go to a concert without knowing who’s playing?
It’s not a rhetorical question. In fact, Sofar Sounds is responding quite convincingly with its business model. The London-born organization stages tiny, secret shows (the location and lineup are announced day-of) in cities around the globe, including Asheville, as of earlier this year. The next performance will be in the River Arts District on Saturday, April 29, at 8 p.m., but you’ll have to register for tickets for more details than that.
“What we’re trying to accomplish is almost like a premium for music geeks, who really don’t want to go [see live music] just to party or socialize,” says Joey Wilson, a leader on Sofar Sounds’ local volunteer team.
For such aficionados — especially those becoming jaded about bar lines, pricey drinks, late set starts and the inevitable loud talkers — Sofar offers a gentler evening. Each event has a BYOB alcohol policy, the schedule is prompt, and the niche nature of these get-togethers skews attendees toward the devout end of the music fan spectrum, making cellphone use and chatter sparse during performances. These factors, plus the surprise location (usually a home or business after hours), add up to a delightfully offbeat listening experience for anyone adventurous enough to partake.
Circumnavigating the typical concert can be a treat for artists, too, like snipping one string in the rope that tethers creativity to profit. As an added perk, the covert lineup removes any need for posters, social media plugs or other band-specific marketing.
“James Brown or The Beach Boys wouldn’t have had a chance back in the day if they had to have Facebook likes and stuff,” Wilson reflects. But, “That’s what venues are looking for nowadays. A band is an advertisement, and you have a certain number, on your name, of people you can bring to a club to buy drinks.”
With moneymaking aspirations on simmer for now, Wilson and his Sofar colleagues Claire Duncombe and Heather Taylor enjoy the liberty of booking based on talent alone. Specifically, their ideal act performs “from the heart” in a style that “just wouldn’t work in a loud bar,” Wilson explains.
“It’s really cool that artists who submit to us can be anybody. It can be somebody who just got started and has 10 people that like them,” he continues. “It’s not a popularity contest. … It is really just about finding artists who have something pure to say.”
Still, Wilson realizes the long-term need for financial sustainability to compensate musicians (beyond the professional video content he currently captures and edits for them) and other contributors. The Sofar umbrella organization also charges local chapters for its support.
Two shows have been staged since local musician Scott Gorski brought the concept to Asheville, and, on those dates, the volunteer crew may as well have been paid in goosebumps. The inaugural event took place in February at the home of local art-pop outfit Midnight Snack, with the band’s bassist, Peter Brownlee, as the audio engineer. Wilson recalls filming singer-songwriter Jim Swayzee as he complimented the “super, superattentive audience” between songs. “You could just see his expression,” Wilson says, explaining the rarity of a fully engaged crowd.
When the Phil Mechanic Studios hosted the second iteration, no audio gear was used, but the room’s natural echo and reverb effects bolstered Fireside Collective’s sound. “I think we all just felt the … I don’t want to say electricity, because they’re an acoustic band. But the electricity just pumped through them in that space, because it amplified them without having an actual amp,” he says. “That was definitely a you-just-had-to-be-there kind of thing.”
Beyond heightening a sense of mystery, Wilson hopes staging the gatherings in unconventional spots like thrift stores and laundromats will bring more unplanned idiosyncrasies into performances, “whether it’s a flickering light in the background or the window being open and hearing crickets, or somebody flushing a toilet and you hear the water running through the pipes — I don’t know,” he says with a laugh.
Welcome interruptions like that contribute to the low-key atmosphere that Wilson is consciously cultivating as an antidote to bigger, higher-tension shows.
“With Sofar, it’s so relaxed and intimate that artists get to tell stories,” he says. “Sister Ivy played a song, and they got to talk about where the song came from, how they were inspired by events that happened to them, and this dream they might have had. I forgot bands could talk without having to yell over the audience like ‘This is our next song. We have three more!’”
Even sluggish ticket sales at the March concert were quickly remedied with an open invite to friends. At small, familial events, “You don’t have to worry about [anything] other than the artist being comfortable and doing a killer set,” Wilson says. “That’s what we’re all there for: a great performance.”
For more information about attending ($15) or hosting a Sofar Sounds show, visit sofarsounds.com/asheville. Due to limited capacity, ticket requests must be approved before payment is taken.