Boston police made national headlines in March when they foolishly posed as punks online trolling to find the secret locations of local DIY basement concerts, but you don’t have to go to that extreme to find out where the Sofar shows are in Philly. Sofar Sounds is a national initiative to bring new music to a live stage — usually in someone’s living room. Good luck getting any information on who’s playing before the doors open, though.
“The attraction with Sofar is you don’t know who’s playing and where it’s going to be,” Ken Winneg, a co-coordinator for Sofar Philly, said.
The premise of the Sofar shows in Philly, as well as the Sofar shows in about 30 other cities worldwide, is that you sign up to be on a newsletter that lets you know when you can RSVP to a concert two weeks in advance at a secret location. The location is revealed three days before the show and the bands aren’t introduced until you arrive.
And when you do arrive, you don’t end up in a room of people who all like the same bands or types of music as you. You end up in a room of people who all love music — not a specific band or an artist.
“This is a bigger thing than just a house concert,” Winneg said.
It’s different from the usual house show scene too, and not just because the Philly cops aren’t creating fake Gmail accounts to RSVP to Sofar shows. With Sofar, the houses don’t book themselves, and they don’t need to have cool names either. Money isn’t collected at the door for the band or the homeowners, but a hat is passed around for people to donate what they can, even if it’s cigarettes or a $100 bill in Chinese money, which Winneg said has happened before.
For the most recent Sofar show held May 5 in the Tri State Indie home office in Kensington, Toy Soldiers actually gave $1 bills to audience members to throw at the band for a video that will be used for their Kickstarter campaign.
“I know you're not used to getting paid to go to a show,” Toy Soldiers front man Ron Gallo joked to the crowd.
It’s the kind of stunt that wouldn’t be possible in a professional venue, and that’s exactly what Sofar is going for.
“Sofar was created in London in 2009 by two guys who realized they couldn’t hear music with people talking and performers weren’t thrilled by that either. They wanted to create an intimate setting where the audience is focused on music and the performers can notice and appreciate that,” Winneg said.
Philadelphia was the 15th city to create that specific intimate setting at a Sofar show, and that was 11 shows ago back in November 2011. Since then, Philly has hosted singer-songwriters, spoken word artists, and bands playing acoustic performances in South Philly, West Philly, Northern Liberties, Kensington, Fishtown, and Ardmore.
And just like the various locations that the shows can be held at, the performers themselves have to be approved by Sofar.
“We’re not being snobs but we want to bring high quality,” Winneg said.
Winneg, who goes through a database of houses whose owners want to be a part of an upcoming show, said that the bands are chosen by “a review board where people from all over within the organization listen to the band and okay them.”
“We’ve built up a following among the audience and performers via word of mouth, and we’ve started to have performers contact us to play,” he said, adding that local and touring bands who play shows and have regular club gigs come to Sofar either to play or take in the music.
When Stephanie Seiple, co-founder of Tri State Indie who eventually hosted the May 5 Sofar gig with her husband and Tri State Indie co-founder, attended her first Sofar show, she ran into people from World Café Live, WXPN, and local bands at her first Sofar house show.
“It was really kind of cool to show up and go into a room and see all these people we knew,” she said.
On my trip to a recent May 5 show, I was able to meet fans and musicians alike. I met both the drummer and the bassist from The Lawsuits, the band playing alongside New Sweden that evening. I’d no idea I’d just met band members until they got up to perform five feet away from me for the last set of the night.
“At the shows, we’ve had every band, minus one, tells us this is a great, unique opportunity for themselves and the fans and that they’d love to do it again. That’s how we know we’re doing something right,” Winneg said.