A few months ago, my wife was scrolling through her Instagram feed when she came across a post from an old college friend. In it, singer-songwriter Madeline Edwards was serenading a crowd inside a venue my wife didn’t recognize. She checked who else was tagged, and saw an account she hadn’t heard of: Sofar Houston.
Come to find out, Sofar isn’t unique to Houston. The group, which is based out of London, organizes pop-up concerts in 400 cities around the globe with an emphasis on intimate performances in interesting locations. The Houston Press recently spoke with Jeff Paxton, the group's city lead here in the Bayou City, about the project’s mission.
“Houston was actually one of the first North American cities to have a Sofar chapter,” he says. “However, it struggled to maintain momentum, as a few different teams have come and gone.”
Paxton took over as city lead in January of last year. Since then, he has been hard at work curating a steady stream of concerts around town, showcasing local talent and promoting the Sofar brand. Recent performances include Mighty Orq, Mas Pulpo, Leigh Sinclair, Amanda Pascali and Tomar & the FCs.
“I'm really excited about what we've built up to this point,” he says. “I think the idea of having these pop-up shows with secret lineups in non-traditional venues is so innovative that it will keep spreading within Houston and in new places. As long as we continue to deliver amazing, unique experiences, it's hard to imagine Sofar Sounds slowing down any time soon.”
Funded completely by ticket sales and staffed by a few diligent volunteers, the Houston chapter’s overhead is minimal. In part due to the willingness of community members to host the shows, Paxton says the model is working.
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“The model is pretty simple,” he says. “If we consistently put on great shows in unique venues, word will spread. We've sold out all of our 2019 shows (so far), and we're starting to add more and more shows per month to meet the demand.”
According to the Sofar web site, four concerts are scheduled to take place in Houston between April 20 and May 11. Paxton says the company plans to increase that number to seven or eight every month.
In lieu of a conventional transaction, would-be concertgoers have to apply for tickets to a Sofar concert, at which point they are entered into a lottery. Lottery winners are informed via email when they gain entrance, at which point they can purchase tickets to the event. Attendees aren’t given the location of the concert until the day before the show, and they don’t know who’s performing until they arrive at the venue.
In his time with Sofar, Paxton and his team have hosted over 70 artists in more than 20 venues around town.
“Pretty much everything happens because a team of volunteers is passionate about putting on these shows,” he says. “Up until now, no one on the Houston team has made a dime from Sofar. The money has just gone back into the artists, photographers, videographers, and putting on more and bigger events.
"What we're looking for in volunteers is a hunger to see Houston become the next great music city. We want people who can channel their frustrations with the music scene into solutions and productivity. These shows take a lot of work, so we need people we can count on and whose visions align with ours.”
Interested parties can apply online to host a Sofar pop-up, at which point Paxton will pay them a visit to see if their space fits his needs.
“We typically try to find venues that can hold between 50 and 80 people, with easy restroom access and plenty of parking. Also, we're just always on the lookout for potential venues, so sometimes we do the asking.”
Paxton insists that hosting a concert isn’t only advantageous for his organization and its fans.
“We have a lot of data that suggests that hosting a Sofar concert is beneficial to a company or a brand because of the exposure through our social media channels and our dedicated group of music fans.”
Up-and-comers are as welcome at Sofar Houston as established acts. Paxton says he doesn’t care how many followers an artist has. Instead, he and his team are interested in finding musicians with an ability to connect with a crowd and deliver an appealing performance.
“Ideally, we want to help audience members find artists that they will love and will want to tell their friends about. We want them to leave a show saying, ‘I can't believe this guy isn't famous!’ and we want artists to have a chance to connect with new fans that will support their music careers.”
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And for those interested parties who can’t host or perform? Paxton says there’s room for them too.
“There are hundreds of volunteers making the shows happen,” he says. “In Houston, we have a team of 5, but we're currently in the process of expanding.”
SoFar’s next pop-up is scheduled for April 20 in the East End. For information on how to apply for tickets, visit sofarsounds.com/houston