The Airbnb of Music Venues

By Michelle Konstantinovsky

Singer-songwriter Royce Lovett performs at a Sofar event in San Francisco. Such appearances are a unique way to grow his audience for live concerts — and make some extra money, too.

Hosting home concerts (yes, for strangers!) is an innovative way to support local musicians.

When Alexis Oakland and Steve Thompson started dating six years ago, they made it a point to sidestep the stereotypical dinner-and-a-movie rut. Instead, the couple sought out unique experiences, and that’s how, on their second date, they ended up at a live concert in a stranger’s living room.

“A family with young kids owned [the house],” Oakland says. “It was small group, and [local bands] Rin Tin Tiger and French Cassettes played. We loved it.”

Oakland and Thompson had unknowingly stumbled into one of the very first Bay Area shows for Sofar Sounds, a company that now produces intimate music events in 433 cities around the world. Londoner Rafe Offer founded the organization in 2009 because he was sick of spending money on subpar gigs; it’s since grown from a homegrown hobby into a full-fledged international business.

Oakland and Thompson fell in with the tight-knit community of artists, hosts and fans, and eventually decided to get in on the action. “Steve and I started our design company together, went to look for a live-workspace to move into, found our loft, and were like, ‘This would be cool for hosting Sofars.’”By the time 60 or so people filled both floors of their SoMa space in May, the couple had hosted at least 15 Sofar events; they even hired the local organizers to book acts for their festival-themed wedding last year.


— Brad Gallien, who hosts concerts at his Berkeley home

Sofar Sounds isn’t the only home concert organizer in the Bay Area, but it is by far the biggest. According to Sofar’s city director, Karim Saleh, the company puts on about 35 concerts a month that feature three acts, each performing a 20-minute set. Most shows are lottery, and interested parties must apply for tickets online — the location and performers are kept secret until the day of each show.

While Sofar has certainly staked its claim as the niche industry leader, plenty of mom-and-pop-style operations exist as well. “It’s our way of helping to build community and support the arts,” says Mark Schaeffer, who runs Rose Avenue Acoustic Delights with his wife, Debra. “All of the money we collect goes directly to the musicians.”

Brad and Lisa Gallien started hosting concerts in their Berkeley home shortly after attending a Rose Avenue show six years ago. “We thought we could do this — so we did it,” Brad recalls. “We were motivated by the fact that there are so many amazing artists out there that people never get to hear because they’re not famous, so it’s hard for them to get audiences, so we wanted to create space for them to be heard.”

In many instances, smaller organizers pass most, if not all, guest donations to performers. Sofar is different: the investor-backed company charges attendees anywhere from $10 to $30 per ticket and pays musicians $100 per set. While the business has recently come under fire for its financial model, many musicians insist that the unique platform affords them worthwhile perks. “It’s a very different experience from our typical shows,” says drummer Matthew Sutton, whose band, Arms Akimbo has played over 20 Sofar gigs over the last few years. “They’re stripped-down sets, meaning we’re playing acoustic guitars instead of electric. Often, we have no mics, bass is turned down, and I am playing a smaller, dampened kit with lighter sticks or brushes. With minimal instrumentation, there is a much stronger focus on the skeleton of the song; no guitar solos, no crazy textures — just a song in one of the rawest forms.”

San Francisco native and Berklee College of Music student Harry Egan performed to the crowd at Oakland and Thompson’s loft in May, and says he’s drawn to the relaxed nature of Sofar, which was evident from his casual banter with audience members, his mom among them. “It’s a truly incredible experience, because you get to perform your own original music in the most organic way possible, to an audience that is so excited to be there,” he says.

Whether performing for a sold-out Sofar home venue or a smaller gathering, performers are generally guaranteed an audience of new listeners and at least some monetary compensation. But what’s in it for hosts? “I can’t think of anything more fun than having really talented musicians perform in my living room,” observes Schaeffer. “The audiences are happy to hear really talented musicians whom they might never otherwise have encountered. The musicians are happy to have an attentive audience who are there solely to hear the music, and we’re happy to share our favorite music with people who appreciate it as much as we do.”

And while Alexis Oakland admits that her mom routinely asks whether she’s afraid of concert goers stealing from her home (she’s not), she says the informal, friendly atmosphere seems to encourage good behavior. “People are ready to operate on a different level when they’re present,” she says, noting that Sofar discourages excessive chatter and iPhone usage. In the end, a lot of guests come up after and thank us – so it’s all around good vibes.

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