When Rafe Offer, Rocky Start and David J. Alexander walked into a Friendly Fires concert back in 2009, they weren’t thinking about launching a company that would transform the live music landscape. They just wanted to enjoy the show. But soon, vexed by extraneous chatter and countless patrons staring into their phones, they realized this was impossible. Did anyone even go to concerts for the music anymore?
To find out, Offer and Start asked Alexander – the musician among them – to stage a show in his own flat. A handful of friends came, bringing cases of beer and their undivided attention for Alexander’s playing. The night was such a success that they decided to host another – and another.
Before long, the trio found themselves helming a grassroots revolution called Sofar Sounds (an acronym of Songs From A Room). The concept was simple – to hold concerts in private, intimate locations like a loft or a rooftop – but they threw in an extra twist by keeping the performing artists and the venue a secret until the last possible moment. Word spread and turnout grew. By 2016, Sofar was hosting hundreds of concerts a year in cities all over the globe, which led business tycoon and philanthropist Sir Richard Branson to sign on as an investor.
At a time when many classical venues are courting audiences by billing musical programs as social events, Sofar Sounds presents an alternative model: one that allows them to court music purists – and thrive. Intrigued, I reached out to Rose Rutledge from Sofar’s audience development department. We talked about startup infrastructure in an entrepreneurially-driven world, audience curation and Sofar’s scalability.
BLAKE PFEIL: Tell me about your role with Sofar Sounds.
ROSE RUTLEDGE: It’s a strange structure – we all work for each other [at Sofar]. We have city operations, then we have global staff. I’m learning what works for each city and what doesn’t: traffic information, data mining. Comparing those cities and trying to make sure that everything makes sense for the diverse audiences across the globe. I would say I’m where marketing meets tech – data analysis.
PFEIL: Sofar didn’t start as an online venture, though.
RUTLEDGE: It wasn’t started with the tech story in mind. The tech came as inspiration afterwards, to help connect everyone. The initial model is exactly what you’ve heard: people in a room enjoying music together. It began to fan out with the interest of other people wanting to start it in their cities. We didn’t say, “Oh, we have to start one in Beijing!” It happened organically.
PFEIL: That’s what fascinates me about [Sofar]: strengthening the audience’s connection to the artist. It’s like Sofar is changing the generational narrative on audience-to-artist connection.
RUTLEDGE: We’re a global community made up of guests, hosts and artists. Our goal is to create a lasting connection between musicians and fans. I would argue that it’s not just Gen X or Y who’ve lost their attention spans. Any of us who own a smartphone have lost that. Sofar brings us back to an analog experience – but in a digital world.
PFEIL: How does Sofar survive in a digital world, using technology to attract audience members, maximizing demographic growth – all while encouraging that exact same audience to turn off their phones when they enter a space?
RUTLEDGE: We like to ask, “Where does technology exist in the user journey?” Ultimately, audiences migrate to different landscapes. It’s up to us to meet them there. Hopefully we’re giving them a compelling enough reason to go offline. For Sofar specifically, it’s subtlety. We don’t ask people to turn off their phones – we ask them to be in the moment. Sometimes, that means you grab your Instagram shot later. Or you text friends to follow up about the show afterwards. All we want you to do is be there in the moment.
PFEIL: Music entrepreneurship has found a powerful voice online. Do you think this helps the Sofar mission?
RUTLEDGE: Anything in the realm of helping artists get their footing in this world helps Sofar and our community. My Spotify and YouTube lists are full of songs and videos featuring artists who I’ve seen live. Sometimes I have trouble finding artists on my own online because there’s so much out there, but it’s those live experiences that create profound moments for both artists and the audience. Sofar allows you to do that: it’s a small room, and you’re going to get to know that artist whether you meant to or not – then connect with them online later.
PFEIL: Clearly Sofar has expanded since its inception. Where do you go from here?
RUTLEDGE: Our website tracks how many cities we’re in. Right now we’re in over 400. Every time I check, I realize, “There are more cities!” It fluctuates, and that has been [an] analogy for our growth. As soon as a number’s published, it goes out of date. I’d also hint at the family aspect of this: We’ve had artists who play shows in multiple cities, so when they’re on tour, they add a Sofar show to connect with a local audience and start building relationships in new cities. Sofar has become sort of a way for them to truly connect with people. We’ve also had a handful of Sofar weddings.
RUTLEDGE: Probably more than we know, but people who met at a Sofar show or had their first date at a Sofar show. I think it speaks to the strong sense of our community and what I referenced before about social discovery. Sure, people are Instagramming before and after the show, but they might also meet the person next to them and fall in love and get married.
PFEIL: If you had any fun secrets about upcoming programming, names, or events …?
RUTLEDGE: Good try. Occasionally we leak plans, but our venues and artists are secret. We like the idea that you have no idea what you’ll experience. I do have something that’s still kind of a secret because we haven’t advertised it much: We just launched an app which we’re rolling out to all of our major cities this year. It has a location filter so you can find shows near you. The app also gives you the chance to skip the line – you don’t have to apply to get invited to a show. And there’s an option to follow artists on the app. If there’s a photographer at the show, pictures will get sent to you after. Fun things to keep the engagement alive.
PFEIL: Thank you again for chatting with me today – it was a pleasure.
RUTLEDGE: Of course, thank you.
The above interview has been edited for clarity and length.