Sofar Sounds Throws Secret Shows in Denver

Sofar Sounds recently appointed Plume Varia guitarist and keyboard player Shon Cobbs as the City Leader for the Denver branch of the international concert series. Founded in London in 2009 by Rafe Offer, Rocky Start and Dave Alexander, Sofar started as a house show alternative to standard commercial venue shows where oftentimes members of the audience talk over the music. Offer had caught a Friendly Fires show where other attendees stared at their smart phones rather than pay attention to the band o and he assumed there had to be a way to set up a show in a setting to circumvent this.

Nearly seven years later Sofar, which is short for Songs From a Room, has expanded to more than two hundred cities worldwide and hosted acts that include Karen O, the National and Wolf Alice, to name but a very few. Each Sofar outpost sets up has a team of people that books a monthly show at an unconventional venue featuring a trio of artists — neither of which are announced until the day before the show. Then those who signed up online for the show are told the location, but the performing artists aren't revealed until attendees physically show up to the venue. In essence it's a secret show. Each act plays a maximum of four songs so if one band isn't to a listener's taste, you don't have to wait long until the next act. The event typically lasts two hours. In Denver usually it's from 8 to 10 p.m. on a weekend night once a month. In larger cities like New York or London there are several shows a week with several teams of people setting up the events.

People interested in attending need to visit and sign up for the email list for a particular city. In the last week of a particular month, a full list of all Sofar events for the following month is sent to your email and you can sign up to attend a show in a host city near you or a host city in which you may find yourself. Those who make the cut for an invitation are informed via email the week before the show that they have been granted a seat. The day before the show, a follow-up email is sent with the venue location. Rather than seats going on a first-come, first-served basis, one of the members of the team has established a system to keep track of who has not had a chance to attend and even people those who seemed most enthusiastic at previous events. 

Cobbs didn't really know much about the event before Plume Varia was asked to perform at a Sofar event in early 2015. When he and his wife/bandmate Cherie showed up to the venue, an auto repair shop, their collective uncertainties about the situation were put to rest when the staff was friendly and helpful.

“We set up in front of this Winnebago,” recalls Cobbs. “There were probably seventy-five or eighty people there but it was our most intimate show and it was one of our best shows last year.”

The experience was so positive that Cobbs decided to inquire about how to volunteer and otherwise become part of the Denver chapter of Sofar. His knowledge of the local scene made him a good candidate for booking bands and in helping to book unconventional venues for the concert series. Not long into his tenure helping booking, the City Leader stepped down and Cobbs applied for the position and received his appointment.

One of his primary goals as Sofar City Leader is to spread awareness of the event to music fans in Denver as well as to musicians regardless of musical genre. Sofar initially catered to acoustic acts for pragmatic purposes but the project has expanded far beyond the limitations of just having events at houses. Thus far not-so-acoustic acts like SF1 and Eros and the Eschaton have performed at Sofar events as have Petals of Spain and Bluebook.

Bands performing can be paid a flat performance fee of $50 or opt for a high-quality video and audio recording which Sofar also shares on its global website. Once an alum of Sofar, an artist can also reach out to the organization to see if there is an opening at an event at a city it's touring through at that time and see about potentially performing. But the main attraction of the show for performers and audience alike is an intimate environment for the show where the focus is on the music. Most events are BYOB and not geared toward the sale of anything. For instance, Cobbs tells us that if the Denver chapter of Sofar made T-shirts, he and his team would have to give them away. Although attendees can now donate on a pay-what-you-want basis with funds going to defray costs of the event and to help maintain its infrastructure. 

Although there are rules for each show that one can find in detail on the Sofar Sounds website, the emcee delineates these at the beginning of the show including no talking or using cell phones except to shoot some pictures. The shows are focused on providing a respectful, immersive experience for all involved, including both audience and artists.

“Our goal is to pair people that make music with people that love music to have a good time,” concludes Cobbs.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.

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