If you’ve already been to a SoFar show, you know the drill: One day before the show, you’ll be notified by email of the venue. Maybe it’s a loft in the Pearl, or a backyard in North Portland, or a brewery in Southeast, or your neighbor’s living room. Who’s playing? You won’t find out until you get there.
This formula has drawn music fans and bands into living rooms all over the world since two Londoners—Rafe Offer and the inimitably named Rocky Start—got sick of going to bad gigs and invited some people to their flat to hear a friend play music in 2009. Since then their concept has taken root in some 380 cities all over the world, harnessing big-name acts like Hozier, Leon Bridges, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Ed Sheeran, and thousands of other musicians from around the globe.
The local chapter has grown steadily since Ghada Soufan, SoFar’s “lead ambassador” for Portland, arrived in 2016 from Chicago. Failing to find an existing SoFar chapter—“which was pretty surprising for the Portland music market”—she set one up herself. Now Soufan, an account executive at Wieden & Kennedy by day, and a team of nine volunteers put on two or three shows every month.
“The premise is bringing back the magic of live music,” she says. “We don’t allow talking or texting, and we don’t believe in headliners or closers. We have three different acts for each show, and it’s all about building a community around those artists.”
The basement, living room, or backyard show is a time-honored staple of indie scenes here and elsewhere, but SoFar’s international model puts a sharp gloss on the concept.
If you’re a music fan, you apply through the website to enter a lottery for an upcoming show. Musicians and willing hosts can also apply for consideration.
What emerges from this slick portal are some of the most electric and direct live music experiences you’ll find in town. SoFar’s strict secrecy policy means almost everyone at every gig is hearing at least one band for the first time that night, and they have to pay attention. Plus, the intimate scale and short breaks between acts mean everyone’s in the same bathroom line at some point: musicians and their audience essentially hanging at the same house party.
“The intimacy creates relationships with the audience members,” says Sarah Clarke, singer with Dirty Revival, who has played two SoFar gigs to date. “It’s a cool community and very eclectic, and people end up seeing you that maybe wouldn’t ever necessarily go to a soul and funk show.”
Audiences range in size from 35 to 120, and attendees are encouraged to bring their own beverages. Any profit—in Portland, tickets are sold at $15 each—gets funneled back to the artists, either as a cash payment or through a professionally filmed video of their live performance.
Over 18 months, SoFar Portland has hosted legions of musicians at tiny venues all over town, among them local wonders Blind Pilot and Blossom, and out-of-towners Vegas R&B up-and-comer Cameron Callaway and English alt-folk band oktoba.
Portland was also part of a global SoFar event last September, which raised tens of thousands of dollars for refugees around the world through events in 173 cities. Closer to home, SoFar has allied with local nonprofit Dollar For Portland, which helps families with medical debt.
This month marks the outfit’s 33rd Portland show, and the buzz is building—Soufan says at the outset she had to reach out to people to find new venues. Now she has to wrangle a waitlist as more and more Portlanders offer up their homes and businesses to host gigs, and more and more music fans apply to attend them.
“I don’t love going through my Discover Weekly playlist every week on Spotify,” says Soufan. But SoFar presents a new playlist in a live format, “like a live music discovery.” Pull up a chair.