Photo by Chris Basford

A global phenomenon that’s taken off in the city, Sofar Sounds turns unique spots into one-night-only gig locations. They won’t tell you who’s playing.

FREE. SIMPLE. SOCIAL. The concept of Sofar Sounds is one that very much returns music to its roots, kissing goodbye to gig promotion, ticket sales, headline tours and conventional stages.

The idea is simple: find an empty space, borrow it for the night, bring in musicians and invite strangers to enjoy them. The whole shebang is done on a donation basis, and there are other twists: the acts playing – big or small – have no particular priority of billing (there’s certainly no headliner), and nobody bar the organisers knows who they are until they turn up and start playing.

From a punter’s perspective, the gigs are essentially a ‘pot luck’ night out, but one that’s become increasingly known for its high-quality curation when it comes to performers. The venues can be pretty special, too – anything from someone’s front room to a cafe, a church or a historical site. Every gig is recorded for posterity and released online a few weeks after the show takes place, meaning Sofar also has a stunning selection of atypical music videos to their name.

The concept encompasses over 300 cities worldwide, and is a growing tour de force in Dublin. Clare O’Hanlon got involved in the local version of Sofar Sounds after stumbling across a call out for music-loving people in the city a couple of years ago, and has been at the heart of the action ever since. The project has been active here for four years – it only founded globally in 2009 – and has grown in O’Hanlon’s time to bigger venues, better equipment and a monthly scramble for tickets.

“It’s got a loyal, respectful following now, but it’s also become really popular,” O’Hanlon tells the Gazette. “It can get a little difficult to keep the balance with tickets. We try to keep a balance of new people and regulars, and make sure everyone gets their chance, but it can be difficult.” Not that popularity is a bad problem to have, of course.

“In terms of venues, we work with what presents itself, and we’re often approached to offer spaces,” O’Hanlon says. “We have to make sure people understand the concept: this is not private entertainment for the person who’s venue we’re using, for example, so they can’t takeover the tickets. It’s a public thing, and not every venue is suitable to host, but we get some great spaces.”

Photo by Chris Basford

“Once we have a venue, we work with finding acts who want to play. They have to keep quiet until the night, though we do make the occasional exception, for example where we’ve had acts base a tour around Sofar nights in the past. Robert J Hunter, who’s based in London, is a recent example. We’d let them to announce their appearance. The bands get a video or two out of it, but it’s really about playing music because you want to play music.”

“The audience get tickets for free, though we do take optional donations on the night. That’s mainly just to keep things going. It’s allowed us to buy better camera equipment recently, which you can see if you watch the videos from the nights in order. Everything gets reinvested into it. Sofar’s a big, registered business in some places. We’re all volunteers in Dublin. It’s a massive time commitment but really great to do.”

Internationally, Sofar gigs have featured huge names. Bastille played early in his career, while Hozier, Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), James Bay, Emeli Sande and Wolf Alice have all made appearances. Dublin shows – which have taken place in locations such as the Tara Building, All Out Designs and The Darkroom  – have featured local stars including Ham Sandwich, Rosa Nutty, Sorcha Richardson, BARQ and Farah Elle.

Having met some of the other groups carrying out Sofar gigs globally through her work, O’Hanlon tells us she’s been told “Ireland is very relaxed” compared to some locations. “We’ve heard about MCing between bands, other stuff that’s a bit more energised,” she explains. “Dublin is just a few cans and the bands. It’s very calm, I think we kind of like it that way, you have to respect the venues.”

While the regular gigs will continue as normal, Sofar also have a big charity gig on the horizon, with September’s events aiming to raise over a million Euros. The international collective come together to promote Amnesty International on the 20th, under the title ‘A Global Day Of Secret Gigs’.

“Because Sofar’s so international, I’ve started to feel a more personal connection with some of the things going on in the world, like the Manchester attack recently, and the refugee crisis,” O’Hanlon tells us. “You start to know people in these places. One of our videographers is in Reykjavik, and another Sofar person is back and forwards from Japan. It’s great to be doing something to help. For September, there are some really, really big artists involved, especially in some of the UK venues.”

“The Amnesty Project just feels right,” she concludes. “We put on gigs in homes. Some people don’t have them. This should help that.” This is just the latest project, though. More generally, Sofar have their own significance: slowly taking back the idea of gigs, simply for their own sake.

Tickets to Sofar’s Dublin gigs cannot be bought. They’re made available monthly via their mailing list, with entry to a ticket ballot typically closed around a day after each show is announced. Visit sofarsounds.com for information. The next show will be in the Leeson Street area on July 20th.

This article is one of my weekly music columns for the Dublin Gazette, reproduced here with permission. Note: this column is published in the Dublin Gazette several days ahead of on this website, so at times, some columns may be slightly out of date. The Gazette is a freesheet paper available across Dublin, published on a Thursday. Pick up copies at these locations

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