On a recent Saturday evening at Hyphen, an art gallery in Ivy City, guests sipped wine and beer while lounging on rugs spread over a concrete floor. Given the rain outside, you might have thought this was a relocated picnic. But it was actually a pop-up concert featuring Broods, a New Zealand synth-pop band.
On Aug. 1, Broods sold out the 1,200-capacity 9:30 Club. At Hyphen, the band was performing for a crowd of about 80.
This is the intimate atmosphere of Sofar Sounds, a concert series found in about 260 cities around the world. Sofar, which stands for “songs from a room,” aims to shut out the glitz, glamour and impersonality of modern music by forming connections between performers and audiences in organic spaces.
D.C.-area concerts take place several times a week. Guests can either buy a $20 ticket for a guaranteed spot or “apply” for a random pay-what-you-want ticket. For each concert, the location and lineup remain hidden until the day before the show, although guests know the neighborhood when they sign up. The setup ensures concertgoers are going for the experience, not for a specific artist.
The series launched locally in 2013, but lasted only a few months. Fitz Holladay, Sofar’s city director for Washington, revived it in March 2015, and it began sputtering along with about one show per month. Now, Sofar hosts roughly 10 concerts a month, mainly showcasing various subgenres of indie music. In the past, artists have included the Summer Set and Vanessa Carlton, who performed at the Washington National Cathedral.
Sofar’s local success may have something to do with its dedicated fan base. Before the first act took the stage at Hyphen, one organizer polled the group: Who had been to a Sofar show before? Roughly one-third of the audience raised their hands.
It’s easy to understand the appeal: The concerts present a unique opportunity to discover new artists and interact with musicians in an unconventional setting. Camille Parker, a 23-year-old analyst for a federal consulting firm, hasn’t gone to too many concerts in the District, and yet, the Broods show marked her second Sofar experience. “This is the way I would rather see music,” she said.
Chelsea Iorlano, a 20-something, three-time Sofar veteran, enjoys the project’s founding mission of dissolving barriers between performers and audiences: “I appreciate being able to focus in on the moment and be present for the music.”
But paying for a concert before you know who’s performing — and where — can be a risky proposition. What if you don’t like the band or the location? Sofar fans have to jump in with an open mind, especially considering Holladay has said that he likes to pair newer acts with better-recognized musicians.
The lineup at Hyphen reflected exactly that. Band of Lovers, a Brooklyn-based trio that performs folksy, ukelele-infused songs, opened the concert by asking the audience to hold hands, close their eyes and take three deep breaths.
Next came NUEX, an electronic pop duo that has performed at two other Sofar shows. The band added an extra song to their set to get the crowd worked up. “This one’s ‘Diana,’” Camille Michelle Gray, NUEX’s singer, said, introducing the song. “It’s about a gold-digging b---- that I knew.”
The crowd cheered.
Then came Broods, performing a stripped-down set of their most well-known songs, including “Bridges” and their most recent single “Heartlines,” with lead singer Georgia Nott on the keyboard and her brother Caleb Nott on guitar. The setup was entirely different than the band’s trademark electronic sound.
“It’s nice to be able to play in front of a group of people without their phones in front of their eyeballs,” Georgia Nott told the audience between songs. “It’s a good thing.”
Tosign up for an upcoming show, to sofarsounds.com/washington