By: Arlington Winright
Sofar Sounds Gainesville is throwing its third show this upcoming Monday (April 23). Seeing that the past two events have completely sold out and the group has had some of Gainesville’s favorite bands play, we wanted to get to know more about Sofar Sounds. Who better to ask than the person who runs it all, Brandon Telg, City Manager for our local Sofar Sounds office. He had some interesting thoughts on what he thinks Sofar Sounds is and why it has found recent success with its local audience.
How did you get involved with Sofar Sounds?
I first heard about Sofar Sounds on an episode of my favorite podcast, NPR’s All Songs Considered. The host, Bob Boilen, interviewed one of the co-founders of Sofar Sounds and described this revolutionary-sounding community-building music experience unlike anything I’d ever heard of: a monthly show with unknown acts in a mystery location, and you can’t use your phone during the show or talk to people around you while the musicians are playing. This sounded amazing, as I’ve seen far too many shows where the artists can barely be heard over the audience talking. I hoped that someone was hosting Sofar shows in Gainesville, but that wasn’t the case. A bit later, I looked for a unique way to announce the Changeville 2017 lineup, and decided to host a “Secret Show” modeled after Sofar Sounds. It was a huge success so we did it again for Changeville 2018. All this time, I had been hoping that someone would bring Sofar to Gainesville. Eventually, I decided that if nobody else was going to do it, I might as well try. I reached out to Sofar Sounds and, after a long series of interviews, I was granted the City Leadership position for Gainesville!
From your perspective as the city manager of Sofar Sounds Gainesville, what do you think it adds to the Gainesville music scene?
I think it adds a number of things that are difficult to quantify but are definitely palpable. For one, all artists are given the option to have a high quality video produced from their Sofar set that is uploaded to the international Sofar Sounds Youtube channel. This Youtube Channel has over half a million subscribers from all over the world, so Gainesville artists are being put on an international stage along with acts like The National, Local Natives, and Ed Sheeren.
Another thing that Sofar adds to the Gainesville music scene is a new way for music fans to connect with artists. Since the audience is buying tickets for a show without knowing the acts performing, they are inherently open to new musical experiences. If every audience member leaves with one new artist that they love, that can exponentially increase the awareness of many Gainesville acts!
The community development is another element to these shows that is unique. We invite MCs who are trained in community development and facilitation and it really shows. Our music community will grow if people connect with each other in new ways. One of my goals is to have every Sofar guest leave with a new friend, and we’ve already started hearing stories of friendships that began at our shows!
Finally, its part of a larger movement towards more intimate music experiences that change the nature of live music in Gainesville. Between Sofar Sounds, Note Book Sessions, and the Creators Lounge at Heartwood, among other regularly-occurring events, Gainesville’s music scene is seeing a really amazing renaissance. There’s never been a better time to jump in!
How do you choose your bands and venues?
There’s a lot of factors that we consider for both of these artists and venues. For venues, we look for intimate and unique spaces that you wouldn’t normally see a show in. We have really one rule and that is: no traditional music venues. Sofar guests get to see new sides of Gainesville, or see spaces they love in a new light. As for artists, its kind of hard to put into words what makes an artist right for a Sofar: Gainesville show. There are certain elements, like the fact that they must put on a compelling live show, have a presence that works in an intimate setting, and generally make good music, but there’s another X-Factor that is harder to describe. That’s why we have an incredible team of curators who help us identify artists locally and from around the country to host at our shows each month.
Without much promotion Sofar Sounds Gainesville has sold out every show that you have had so far. How do you get your message out?
Word of mouth, almost exclusively! I’ve found that people, upon hearing about Sofar, have a reaction similar to the one I did when I heard about it on NPR. They say “sign me up!” and buy a ticket right away.
Is it harder to get people to come to your event, since you don’t tell them what they are actually going to?
I’ve definitely spoken to some people who have said “I’m not going to pay money for something sight unseen like that,” but that’s the cool thing about live music in Gainesville: there’s something for all types of people. If you want to see a band you already know, there’s plenty of shows in town for you. Sofar is for those willing to try something new and jump in head-first. Sofar is for the tastemakers and influencers who want to be the first to know about art in our community. I think that type of adventurous person gravitates towards experiences like the ones we offer with Sofar, and because of that, I don’t foresee us having troubles getting people to come to our shows simply because we don’t announce the lineup. I honestly think the mystery is part of the fun.
Why don’t you release the bands or venue until the day of the show?
It’s part of the excitement of the show! There’s something electric about walking into an unknown location with 50 other people and giving yourself over to art created by other members of our community.
At your shows people aren’t allowed to use their phones, most events encourage people to take pictures and videos of their shows to help “spread the word.” why make this a rule? What do you think it adds to the experience of your shows?
It’s definitely true that by asking people not to take pictures, it limits the potential reach during the night of the show. No shared videos or pictures or Snaps, etc limits the Sofar experience to the people in the room, but I personally think that this changes the live music experience completely, for the better. In 2018, there is no such thing as a show that doesn’t involve some level of distraction from phones. Whether you yourself are trying to line up the perfect shot for Instagram (I’m guilty of this) or you’re looking at the bright glow of a phone from the person in front of you, it is a distraction that it just part of the live music experience now. Sofar offers a different experience, where there are no distractions. Such a focused and connected environment is unique and special. A Sofar show is ephemeral. Either you were there and you saw it, or you weren’t there, and you won’t see it. You may see a couple of pictures that we took, or a video of an artist’s song, but that’s it. The rest of the set lives only in our artists’ and guests’ memories. I think that that’s beautiful and an experience worth seeking out.
Sofar Sounds is definitely a unique event, what is your favorite part of a Sofar Sounds show?
My favorite part of a Sofar show is watching a community form. During our first show, our MC, Dr. Jaron Jones, got our guests to form groups, made of strangers, and create a fake band name and backstory. How awesome is that? Everyone in that room will remember that experience, together. It’s also super cool to see people find new favorite artists in our Gainesville music scene. I got an email from a guest of our first show who said that they had never heard of flipturn before but because of seeing their Sofar set, this person bought tickets to their next headlining show at the High Dive. That’s exactly what I want to hear and really shows the hard work is worth it!
If you had to choose one performance that Sofar Sounds Gainesville has had so far as your favorite, who would it be?
All of our six sets have offered something very special, so this is a hard question to answer. At our most recent show, Hugo $anchez blew away all expectations and it was so cool watching an audience fall for an amazingly talented rapper like that. However, for personal reasons, I’d have to say Ricky Kendall’s set. He opened our first show. Ricky Kendall was actually the first artist I remember ever seeing perform live. I grew up in Gainesville and in middle school I saw his band Jukebox Wagon perform somewhere and it was so incredible to me at that moment that I remember it to this day. I’ve seen Ricky perform numerous times over the years and his music has meant so much to me, so it was a real privilege to get to offer him the stage for Gainesville’s first Sofar show. Not going to lie, I cried during his set.
Why have people apply to your shows, then have to get approved to buy tickets? Why can’t audience members just buy tickets at the door, or purchase tickets on one of the many online ticketing websites?
We have the application process so that we can make sure this experience stays intimate. We are still establishing our identity in Gainesville, but we are continually selling out each show every month. I would like to get to a place where we can use the application process to make sure that we are giving new faces the opportunity to experience Sofar each month. In some of the bigger Sofar cities, shows sell out as soon as tickets are opened to applicants so the application process is used to give first-time Sofar attendees a higher likelihood of being able to buy a ticket. We’re not quite at the point where we can set up a system like that here, but it’s definitely a goal of mine. On top of that, with our system, you don’t have to pay all those exorbitant fees that the big ticket companies charge.
Can you tell us anything about what the audience members can expect from the upcoming show this Monday (April 23)?
This is our first “themed” night. This show is all acoustic. However, rather than simply having three acoustic guitar singer/songwriters, which is what that type of show often consists of, for our show we booked three artists that redefine what the acoustic experience looks like. I’m probably giving away more than I should by saying this but I’m going to give you a taste of what you can expect next week. One of our acts is actually coming in from another city (our first out-of-town act) and we chose them because they perform a genre of music that isn’t typically associated with acoustic instruments, but the way they’ve fused the two is incredible. Another of our acts is a well-known group here in town that rarely plays in a stripped back, acoustic fashion which will be super fun. Our final act is going to deliver an exclusive one-time-only acoustic set. Again, I’m probably revealing too much, but they play electronic music and have never played their songs acoustically and have told me that they probably never will again. We’re all super excited about seeing this because it’s the kind of experience only Sofar can bring to Gainesville.
Photos by: Lindsy Carrasquillo
Photos by: Eliza Goldstein