People don’t like surprises. Sofar Sounds thrives on them.
I get the email a little after 7 a.m. on March 16. My application has been accepted. I’m in. Three days later, I’m sent an address.
I text my friend immediately to see if he’s still planning on coming along. He asks who’s playing and where. They haven’t announced the band yet — even though the show will start in less than 36 hours — but I share the address: 2225 N. Humbolt Ave., the secret location of Milwaukee’s 61st Sofar Sounds concert.
Sofar Sounds is an app and website that sponsors underground concerts. Dates and cities for concerts are posted online, but you have to apply for a ticket. If you’re lucky enough to get chosen, you’ll receive an email a couple days ahead of time, letting you know that you’ve been approved. The location won’t be announced until the day before, and the performers are often kept secret the entire time. Good luck crashing this show.
Sofar’s secrecy isn’t intended to generate exclusivity, but rather intimacy. The suggested ticket price is $10-15 per person, but you can pay however much (or little) you’d like.
Sofar started in a London living room in 2009, but now sponsors concerts in more than 400 cities in 80 countries. It came to Milwaukee in 2014.
“You can put on shows that, regardless of genre, have interesting lineups [with] something for everybody,” says Justin Otto, one of Sofar Milwaukee’s co-founders.
This show was held at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 20 in the After Gallery, an art studio that opened last year three blocks east of Kilbourn Park. Owner Lloyd Flow Johnson opened the After Gallery to try to bring diverse groups of people together. When he saw that Sofar fit that mission, he opened his space to the concert.
“I want anyone in my space to give back to the community. That’s the goal,” he says. “My gallery’s mission is to be a creative and collaborative space where people can come and feel comfortable.”
Concerts are never hosted in the same spot twice — an attempt to showcase the alcoves that each city has to offer. The name “Sofar” is a sort-of acronym of “SOngs From A Room.”
Locations vary from art studios to business offices to living rooms — local crews are always looking for new places to host performances. Venue owners and local organizers don’t make any money from the show, and the band is paid separately by Sofar.
“We all do this for the love of the game,” Otto says.
Locking down performers is the easy part for organizers. The first performer, Kendra Swanson — a tree-hugging Cedarburgian banjoist who tells stories of cannibalistic firefly courtship and Great Plains bison repopulation — asked to take part, as did Chicago rapper Cassius Tae. The headliners, a soulful five-piece group from Brooklyn called On The Sun, have been playing Sofar shows for years.
“It’s easier to get in with Sofar earlier on,” On the Sun’s bassist tells me. “They’ve got so many people hitting them up right now.”
The 60-or-so attendees (mostly local 20-somethings) sit quietly cross-legged on the floor, lean against walls or perch on the radiator. Part of the reason Sofar makes people apply for tickets is so that they can control the attendance. They want every show to be full, but not overcrowded.
As such, attendees are discouraged from moving or leaving mid-performance. Since it’s BYOB, no bar runs are necessary.
The couple in front of us brought a bottle of wine. Next to them, a quiet girl sips from a coffee thermos. To our left, someone picks from a bag of Sour Patch Kids. A tough-looking dog and unassuming feline explore the crowded floor, getting scratches from most everyone gathered, their owner unidentified.
A volunteer checks the guest list at the door. They don’t want people wandering in off the street, like one passerby attempted during On the Sun’s set.
Phones are asked to be turned all the way off, unlike so many other shows where half of the lighting seems to emanate from cellular screens and Snapchat notifications.
Although they surely aren’t the norm, these kinds of shows have become increasingly common. Last month, I featured indie-rocker Brett Newski’s Sub-Urban House Tour. MKE House Concerts uses a similar scheme: intimate shows at atypical venues.
After a hiatus, Sofar Sounds is hosting monthly concerts in Milwaukee again. Otto says they have a tentative date for May, and there is already a concert scheduled for April 21. Don’t ask who will be playing — mum’s the word.