How Sofar Sounds is changing Chicago’s DIY Music Scene

This story originally appeared in the January 2016 print edition of 14 East Magazine

When Rafe Offer and Rocky Start attended a Friendly Fires concert in 2009, they couldn’t help but be distracted from the show. Annoyed by the loud clinking of glasses, the disruptive crowd, and the constant glow of cell phone screens, the two left feeling frustrated with the current state of live music. They went back to their North London flat and invited eight friends over for a small, acoustic show. Listening to their friends perform, the room grew so still that all Rafe could hear was the ticking of the grandfather clock, and then he had an idea.

This idea became Sofar Sounds — a company that organizes intimate shows with small bands in unique, local settings. Fans purchase tickets online, but don’t receive the address until the day before, and only learn who the artists are once the show begins. The main goal of a Sofar Sounds show is to preserve the feeling of intimacy — everyone sits on the ground, silences their phones, and lowers their voices in order to appreciate to the music in its fullest. The magic of that first North London show which Rafe tried to recapture was successful, and contagious. Sofar Sounds has now spread to 342 cities, from Havana, to Tel Aviv, to Seoul.

Sofar Sounds: Chicago is the company’s fourth largest branch. This is likely due to Chicago’s large do-it-yourself (DIY) music scene, which has provided live music experiences at alternative, unofficial venues for decades. “There are tons of great people in this city that are doing big things already, it’s not like that we just had this genius idea one day,” says Vicky Wang, Assistant Director of Sofar Sounds: Chicago, “It’s that our founders really just perfected the system.”

DIY began in the 70s as a form of punk counterculture, eventually crossing genre lines and growing scenes in different cities. Chicago grew a rich DIY scene, in part because of the need for venues that were not motivated by profit from alcohol sales. “Chicago is a terrible place for live music if you’re under 21” says Daniel Makagon, author of Underground: The Subterranean Culture of DIY Punk Shows

In many ways, the mission of Sofar Sounds can often differ from the ideals of the local DIY scene. For example, due to its existence outside of the law, DIY culture has always operated largely off of the books, with information being spread through flyers, fanzines, or private Facebook groups. Sofar Sounds is much different, accessible through a very public and entirely digital platform.

Every DIY scene is different in each city, although Sofar Sounds does not quite account for this. “If you go anywhere across the world and attend a Sofar Sounds show, it will be the exact same as you saw it in your home city, it’s the same structure,” says Wang, although she says that the individual city leaders are “given the opportunity to make their city’s branch their own, and what they want it to be.”

DIY purists might say Sofar Sounds clashes with the counterculture ideals of DIY culture, by serving as a middleman between artist and fan, an element that DIY aims to eliminate. “People don’t want to give their money to ‘the man,’” says Makagon, on why people prefer the DIY alternative, “They want their money to go directly to the bands.”

However, Sofar Sounds’ compatibility with DIY ideals may outweigh the many differences. Most notably, the vast majority of Sofar Sounds staff are volunteers (the Chicago branch has 2 paid employees and 60 volunteers, but most branches in smaller cities are entirely volunteer-run), which would make it inaccurate to characterize the company as a corporate entity, or one trying to commercialize the DIY scene.

“The volunteers do it outside of their nine-to-five jobs, because they fell in love with Sofar and really believed in ‘the magic of Sofar’ so much that they wanted to put it on in their cities and really spread it all around the world,” Wang says, her words bearing a striking resemblance to a quote from Makagon about DIY’s ideals: “There’s this idea that the culture is not really ‘do-it-yourself’, but ‘do-it-ourselves’ instead,” he says, hinting at a central belief to DIY, that the sense of community is strong enough to mobilize people to care for the scene themselves without any central oversight.

Sofar Sounds’ main divergence from DIY culture is that rather than shows being scattered and varied, they are managed and organized through a well-oiled machine. Although this may infringe upon some of the DIY ideals, the system they’ve developed has allowed them to recreate the same sense of intimacy over and over again, in hundreds of cities worldwide. They have the process down to a science, allowing it to spread more easily and bring this feeling to a much wider audience.

“It was a lot different than anything else we’ve ever played before,” says Ramsey Bell, bassist of The Slaps, a Chicago-based indie rock band who performed their first show with Sofar Sounds in April, at an Asian restaurant. “Usually at DIY venues you can expect a pretty rowdy crowd, but this was really intimate. No one was dancing, it was just people watching us, which was cool. You could talk to people, and get really good audience feedback in between songs. You could really tell if people were enjoying the music or not.”

If Ramsey’s Sofar Sounds experience is shared across the board, then that can only mean that the vision Rafe Offer set out with has been entirely realized, even after 8 years, 342 cities, and thousands of shows. And it shows no sign of stopping.

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