On a brisk Thursday night in April, a group of about 30 people sat on the floor of a small brewery in Jamaica Plain. Thin cotton blankets with purple and blue mandala patterns were scattered around, covering up drains and offering a barrier from the cold, garage floor. Massive vats of ales and lagers stood tall, filling the space with the smell of hoppy, slightly sour beer. Millennial couples, groups of young women, and a few parents in their 40s and 50s sat chatting while chill, folk music played softly in the background.
But this was no ordinary taproom tour. This was a concert. Just a few feet away from the cross-legged audience members were two microphones and a tall chair—a sparse but unique concert set-up where three different Boston-based bands were about to perform stripped-down versions of their original songs to a room full of people who largely had no clue who they were.
This less-than-typical show was all thanks to Sofar Sounds, an international company that holds what it calls “intimate concerts in unique spaces.” The company opened in 2009 and eventually grew a large presence in Boston, hosting concerts multiple nights a week all over the city, from Roxbury and Allston to Boston’s Seaport and Financial District.
People who are interested in local music or a spontaneous outing can go online and select a concert date. Tickets for each event range from $20 to $30, and the concert listings feature nothing more than a very short description—the neighborhood, accessibility features, or whether it’s an indoor or outdoor event. Aside from a few limited descriptors, the rest of the show details are a secret.
Ticket holders receive an email from Sofar about a day before the concert starts, providing the address of the makeshift venue the concert is being held in. The three artists performing aren’t revealed until they arrive.
“You have no idea who’s playing, you have no idea where you’re going, what the experience is going to be like—you just know that you appreciate music, and you want to be a part of it. And that’s really cool,” said Abby Kenna, a local marketing lead with Sofar Boston and a student at Berklee College of Music.
After being forced to cancel all in-person shows and relying on Zoom performances for months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenna said crowds at Sofar shows seem ready to get back to normal.
Sofar Boston is still checking vaccination cards but no longer requires masks. Show-goers can eat and drink and enjoy the simple pleasure of seeing a room full of faces enjoying live music once again.
At the April 21 Sofar show at Turtle Swamp Brewing, EJ Sharpe, a soon-to-be-graduate of Berklee College of Music, welcomed the crowd. A jazz and R&B inspired singer, Sharpe sang honest and spunky lyrics over her guitarist’s looping, reverberating chords.
Sharpe has performed at a handful of Sofar shows—she played one in New York City just a few days before the Turtle Swamp Brewing concert. She learned about the company from her fellow budding musicians at Berklee and was intrigued by the concept.
“I loved the intimate atmosphere and vibe that was created,” Sharpe said in an Instagram direct message. “Most importantly though—I think—I wanted to have the exposure to a crowd that didn’t know me or my music.”
The emcee for the event encouraged the crowd to meet and chat with Sharpe during the 10-minute intermission after her set.
A husband-and-wife duo, Visen was up next and performed about six songs of its acoustic pop originals. Singer Ari Alexander promised the crowd “a lot of love songs,” and the seated couples in the audience swayed back and forth, resting their heads on their partners’ shoulders.
The third act of the night took Visen’s place at the front of the taproom. Juniper, an indie rock and folk group with over 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, featured singer and guitarist Scott Johnson. Drummer Alejandro Marín sat perched on a cajón. With syncopated percussion and steady guitar chord progressions, Johnson and Marín played tunes about falling in love and everything that goes wrong when it fails.
As the show came to a close, the crowd—now likely stiff from sitting on the ground for a couple hours—gave a loud, crackling round of applause for all of the groups.
Kenna is finding ways to help get her fellow college students involved with that fan-and-artist connection that Sofar is trying to promote.
“Here in Boston specifically, we have been putting out a lot of discount codes and targeting local businesses because we know that there’s a huge student population,” Kenna said. “We want our shows to be accessible to everyone, and a lot of students probably can’t afford to spend $20 on a ticket.”
Local artists can apply online to play Sofar shows, but trying to figure out an artist’s stage presence and talent through an online application often doesn’t cut it, Kenna said. The organization now hosts Sofar open mic nights, too, not only to provide yet another platform for smaller artists, but also to determine lineups for future Sofar shows, Kenna said.
Though Sofar is intent on expanding its fan base and artist reach, it has required a bit of creativity since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Since its return, attendance at Sofar’s concerts has dwindled in performance venues closer to downtown Boston. Shows held outside the city—in Somerville, Cambridge, Brighton, for example—have exploded.
“We’re trying to really refocus our efforts to see where [the] people are that actually want to be going to shows, because so many people moved and now we have such a high student population back in Boston again,” Kenna said.
Sharpe, for one, said she feels a growing confidence as she continues to play Sofar shows. She said she is encouraged that people who like her music at Sofar might attend other shows she’s playing in the city or stream her new music that’s coming out this summer and fall.
“It’s helping me grow a community and fan base here which is so important for independent artists,” Sharpe said. “I’m really appreciative of the people I’ve met through Sofar and truly look forward to every show I play.”