A Q&A with Dean Davis of Sofar Sounds
by Amanda Hoover (Journalism), published February 26th 2015
It’s Friday night and you’ve packed a drum kit, a couple of amps and 60 strangers into your apartment. For Sofar Sounds, an international company that coordinates secret concerts with unannounced lineups in the homes of willing volunteers, it’s a standard show. To learn what it’s like to throw shows on the down low with huge demand, Tastemakers talked to Dean Davis, founding member of the Sofar Sounds’ Boston chapter, about the state of the music scene, cell phone addicts and the possibility of Usher playing a gig in your living room.
Tastemakers Magazine (TMM): What is the philosophy behind Sofar Sounds?
Dean Davis (DD): Sofar Sounds was founded on the frustration that three people had over in London at a show, where they could barely hear the music being played in this venue because of the loudness from all of the people clinking glasses and chatting over the music. These three guys went over to a flat in London and hosted a small get-together of about eight people and just sat around and listened to music and really treated it with respect. Eight people turned into 40 people, 40 people turned into 100 – and then all of the sudden 100 turned into 110 cities worldwide, kind of under the same philosophy of bringing respect back to the music and serving as global connectors. That way you can always have a window to the world no matter where you’re at. You can see what’s the music like in Singapore, what’s the music like in Bangkok and from Cairo to Boston. We’re putting the power of musical choice back into the people’s hands, because all of our people who run our Sofar cities are just people who are passionate about music.
TMM: It’s interesting that people were being too loud. You traditionally think of rock and pop music as being genres where you’re encouraged to be loud.
DD: Of course you’re going to have those louder genres where you can hide under the noise of the musicians, but sometimes it’s nice for these musicians to strip back a little bit. We had a seven or eight-piece orchestra that was really stripped back, and everybody could hear all of the little nuances and things that you can really never hear from live music. It’s kind of like a Storytellers session where you can really connect with the musicians, ask them questions and talk to them and just hang out with them. It’s a completely different kind of vibe and atmosphere that musicians really love.
TMM: When did you start Sofar Boston?
DD: I started the Sofar Sounds Boston chapter in September . In February , I started focusing more on the global aspects and I became community manager for Sofar.
TMM: How did you get involved with that? Are you a veteran of the DIY scene?
DD: I was a student at Berklee for four years and had a ton of connections that you make through there. A big passion of mine has always been music and bringing people together and community. I had a friend from Costa Rica who was in town for a week and she mentioned to me the idea of Sofar and I was just all for everything that they stood for. I e-mailed Rafe [the founder] and he put me in contact with two other guys who wanted to help out. We all just kind dove into the DIY scene, and that’s Sofar Boston.
TMM: You’re working with some pretty small spaces here – intimate crowds of about 20 in apartments. Is it hard for attendees to make it onto the guest list?
DD: That’s one of our biggest things. With Boston, we’re sometimes lucky where we find spaces that allow for 80 to 100 people, but unfortunately, then [we] have spaces that are limited to 60 people. We do have a bigger demand than supply, but in the future we do have plans to host more shows and ramp up so that we can bring more magic and allow for more people to attend our shows. That’s the issue with a lot of other cities as well.
Brooklyn band Weather, photographed by Olga Khvan.
TMM: I read a show review of one of the early gigs in Boston Magazine and saw that there were policies prohibiting exiting early and phones – unless users are on social media. Is that on the honor system or do you police unruly texters?
DD: It’s definitely an honor system. We don’t have people that are just staring at people who have their phones. We don’t throw rocks at them. The thing is that it’s kind of a common courtesy. The reason you’re there is to focus on the music. We don’t want you to be face deep into your phone and just staring at it while these musicians are up there pouring their heart and soul out. Of course we allow the phones, because if people take photos they upload them to Facebook and tag the band as well as Sofar Boston. It is an honor system. The reason why we say people should stay until the end is that our local teams work really hard to give you the best lineups. We want you be there for all three acts to witness the diversity of acts that are within. You also have to take into consideration that there were people on the waiting list that would absolutely kill to be there. If you have a couple of people staring at their phones and then leave early, that’s kind of a slap in the face to the others that would kill to be there.
TMM: We’re in a generation where people are so addicted to their iPhones. How do they respond?
DD: It’s actually crazy. We don’t police it because we don’t really need to. It’s the energy in the room that keeps people away from their phones and outside of social circles. It’s a completely separate atmosphere that people kind of gravitate to. People are so consumed by their phones and talking to people outside the room, but when they come into that living room, people put their phones down and just pay attention.
TMM: People have no idea who’s coming to their living room. Do the musicians, or you as a coordinator, ever worry that hosts and attendees might be disappointed and have different expectations than what they get?
DD: Absolutely not. The beauty of it – it’s kind of like what festivals do. Festivals have their ticketing system where they say it’s going to be $200 to come to Bonnaroo, but they’re not going to tell you who’s playing. You trust that Bonnaroo is going to be an amazing show no matter what and you’re never going to be disappointed. That’s the thing with Sofar. We have developed a brand where you never leave the room disappointed. We’re all looking for the best music. We make sure that it’s diverse, something that will keep you on the toes. If somebody goes home disappointed in a band, there’s nothing we can do. We strive to find the best talent worldwide and bring it. I’ve never heard of someone going home and saying that show was terrible. It’s also the experience that you get and you can’t get it anywhere else.
A collaborative sing along with artists Will Dailey, Dwight & Nicole and Mia Dyson. Photographed by Olga Khvan.
TMM: How is this different from any other DIY house show that might happen in Allston?
DD: The biggest thing is that we are a global community. When you enter our living rooms, there’s a similar show going on in Berlin and Amsterdam. When you tweet at us, you join this global conversation. At the core of it, it is a house show and it is kind of like a DIY show, but on a broader scale. As soon as you walk in, it’s an exclusive event that people are R.S.V.P.ing to get in, and you’re one of those people. You never know who you’re going to walk into. We do have that kind of community that allows bands to tour around the world and you never know who’s going to be in a living room.
TMM: What’s the coolest place in Boston to ever host a Sofar Sounds gig?
DD: We did one at Berklee. The best one that we did was in the financial district and it overlooked the seaport. It was a beautiful apartment. It was just unbelievable. That’s the most interesting one that I’ve been to.
TMM: Can anyone host? Could I book a show in my studio apartment? You might fit half a drum kit and one amp through the door, but acoustics are at least of average quality.
DD: Pretty much. You go online to Sofarsounds.com and there is a tag that says ‘host’ and you sign up. A leader will reach out to you, then they’ll send a scouting team to your place and see if it is suitable to host this amount of people.
TMM: Is there a waiting list to be a host?
DD: Not necessarily a waiting list – they usually come kind of month-by-month. It varies for different cities. In London there are 17 places waiting to be scouted, but Boston is a smaller market.
TMM: Any hints as to who’s playing the show next week?
DD: No, but it’s going to be a great time. It’s one of those things that I’d be more than happy to talk about, but it ruins the experience. You never know where it’s going to be. You’re going to find out a day before, and the band – you have no idea. You could walk in and it could be Usher.