Secret gigs in secret spaces

Sofar Sounds brings intimate shows to small rooms in Portsmouth

Most of us have done it. The show starts at 8, but there are two opening acts, so the headliner probably won’t take the stage until 10. You’ve never heard of the opening acts, so you show up late, just in time for the band you paid to see.

For all you know, those opening acts might have been amazing. They might have been better than the headliner. They might be on the cusp of blowing up. Or they might remain obscure forever, and you’ll never hear them.

That’s a shame. And that’s one of the reasons a group of music fans started Sofar Sounds in 2010. The series is geared toward listeners who want to discover new music and experience it live in a small, intimate setting. The attendees don’t find out where the event takes place until the day before the show, and they don’t know who’s performing until they get there.

Founded in London, Sofar has expanded around the world, and Portsmouth is the latest locale to join the global community. The Seacoast’s first Sofar show takes place in Portsmouth’s West End on Friday, Jan. 27, at a location that will be revealed to guests by email on Thursday.

“Portsmouth is now a part of 300 other cities globally that are organizing and putting on these events,” says Selena Hoover. She’s one of five main organizers of the local series, along with Chris Greiner, Chad Turner, Drew St. Aubin, and Joshua Sheets. They hope to hold Sofar shows on a monthly basis.

Typically, Hoover says, the gigs feature several acts, each performing for 20 to 30 minutes. The events take place in nontraditional venues — often someone’s living room — and usually have capacity for fewer than 50 guests.

“It’s very unique,” she says. “It’s secret gigs in secret locations. It’s based off of people’s love for music and discovering new music.”

People interested in attending a Sofar gig must apply online. If more people apply than the venue can hold, all the applicants are entered into a lottery. Rather than issuing tickets on a first-come, first-served basis, the lottery system gives everyone a chance to attend a show, despite the limited capacity. “We don’t want the same 30 people at the show every month,” Hoover says.

Tickets to the Portsmouth show are $15, most of which goes to the artists. Some shows are live-streamed or recorded, and the revenue may also go toward paying photographers and videographers, as well as buying insurance.

“I think there is enough love on the Seacoast for music and supporting artists that we shouldn’t have an issue filling (the space).”
— Selena Hoover 

Not only does Sofar introduce music fans to new bands, it also gives musicians a platform to play in locations with uniquely attentive audiences. Musicians can apply to be performers on the Sofar website. Teams of organizers in various cities review the applications and, if they like what they hear, invite the act to play. According to Hoover, some acts are able to plan national or international tours in which they travel from one Sofar city to another.

In Portsmouth, Hoover says, the gigs will feature a combination of local and touring acts. “We’ve already received a lot of local acts that want to be a part of the Sofar community and play,” she says. But the organizers will also “weave in some of our favorite acts who are coming through.”

In some Sofar cities, prominent acts have made surprise appearances. For example, according to the Sofar website, Bastille once performed at a show in London, and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played at a gig in New York City. “You never know who’s gonna show up and play,” Hoover says.

Hoover works for the experimental marketing agency Trigger(House, which has offices in Portsmouth and Brooklyn. A New England native, she was living in New York when a coworker told her about Sofar, and she signed up to see her first show. “I immediately was hooked,” she says.

She moved back to the Seacoast about a year ago and found that Sofar was absent from the area. She continued to catch occasional Sofar shows in Boston, but eventually decided Portsmouth would be a perfect host community.

Of course, the Seacoast’s appetite for unfamiliar music has been tested in the past, with mixed results. Several Portsmouth venues, such as The Music Hall Loft and 3S Artspace, have been regularly bringing lesser-known artists into town, and attendance has sometimes been sparse. So, will local music fans be eager to attend shows where they don’t even know who’s playing?

Hoover thinks so. Since the shows are held at residential houses or small commercial spots, it won’t take many guests to fill the room. And there are plenty of local listeners who will be curious to check out secret gigs once a month.

“I think there is enough love on the Seacoast for music and supporting artists that we shouldn’t have an issue filling (the space),” Hoover says.

Portsmouth’s first Sofar event takes place at a secret location in the West End on Friday, Jan. 27. Guests are asked to arrive at 7:30 p.m.; the show runs from 8-10:30 p.m. Tickets to the BYOB show are $15. To apply, click here.