There's just something about live music. Something that can't be replaced by any other experience.
Sofar Sounds is a global network of chapters of small intimate gatherings, where people get together and listen to music. The plot twist is that they usually don't know who they're going to be listening to until it happens, and the venue is not your typical music venue. It could be a home, or a church basement, or a carpet store. But it's all about people getting together to sit and listen and appreciate the music.
Rafe Offer is the man behind Sofar, and he's here today to share the Sofar origin story, how to create a cohesive, intimate community experience in more than 300 chapters across the globe, and all about the time he gave someone hilariously unnecessary professional advice.
Rafe Offer is a marketing, innovation, and branding expert.
Chicago-born and London-based, Rafe has held high-profile positions at some of the world’s leading brands including Coca-Cola as global marketing director, the Walt Disney Company as director of global marketing, and Diageo as a director of innovation. He has also consulted for companies such Microsoft, Aviva, the Daily Mail Group, and Amazon, and is the cofounder of global music start-up Sofar Sounds.
Described by the Guardian as “a quiet revolution” and New York Magazine as “one of the top new brands in America,” Sofar Sounds promotes music gigs in intimate spaces around the world.
Hosted in over three hundred cities, Sofar is a global movement that aims to bring the magic back to live music. The brand has recently seen investment from Sir Richard Branson and announced major partnerships with the likes of Airbnb and Uber.
In This Episode
- The disappointing experience in a bar that led Rafe to cofound Sofar
- How Sofar has navigated COVID, and how it's changed their business
- The role live music plays in fostering connection and supporting mental health
- The surprising truth about how good you actually need to be to sing karaoke
- What community organizers need to think about if they want to add a musical element to their community or space
- The most common thing that goes wrong in live music
- How Rafe's obsessive attention to detail has helped Sofar create a consistent audience experience across cultures and locales
- More than a few fun celebrity name-drops 😉
The CX 034: The Sweet Sounds of Well-Run Musical Gatherings with Rafe Offer of Sofar Sounds
Rafe Offer: It just came from being a fan. I have no musical talent and I've always loved to support and discover new music. So our vibe was always, can we get our friends together to listen, to actually listen, be in the moment almost to the point where you're like meditating on the music and lo and behold, myself and my friends weren't the only ones on the planet who missed it being quiet or at least respect for a certain kind of music.
Jillian Benbow: Oh, hello. This is Jillian with my co-host...
Tony Bacigalupo: Tony Bacigalupo.
Jillian Benbow: Hi, Tony, and this is the Community Experience. I know you enjoy seeing local music from time to time. What is your favorite thing about seeing a live show?
Tony Bacigalupo: Oh, gosh. So many things. I love just being able to connect to the sound of the music, by singing along with it, by dancing along with it, but also feeling connected to the people around me knowing that we're all sharing in the experience at the same time.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Tony Bacigalupo: How about you? What do you like about live music?
Jillian Benbow: Ditto.
Tony Bacigalupo: Great. That's the show. Thanks everybody. We'll see you next week.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. Thanks everyone. Yeah, there's something about being live that just digital and streaming will never, ever replace and it's just something about the experience. You feel the vibration in your chest and you're a part of it that day. That is absolutely my favorite part. My least favorite part is the lack of personal space, which is an excellent segue into today's guest. Who are we talking to today?
Tony Bacigalupo: Rafe Offer from Sofar Sounds has created a global network of chapters, of small intimate gatherings, where people get together and listen to music. The plot twist is that they don't know who they're going to be listening to until it happens and the venue is not your typical music venue. It could be somebody's home. It could be a storefront, all kinds of different locations, but the idea is that it's about people getting together to actually sit and listen to and appreciate the music without all the noise and cacophony. What's amazing is for one, he has such an appreciation for music, but he's also scaled the sucker.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. I love the conversation we have about how he did that.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah. Getting a gathering, especially music, it's so hard to consistently produce a good experience around music, but he's had such a strong eye for curation and setting standards that local chapter leaders can follow so that the experience is consistently good, which is tricky to do, but he's giving us some really good insights into that today.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. I learned a ton. I think any community builder that is looking to scale in that sense to have chapters, to have events happening without you, you'll love this episode. Also, Rafe is just a gem and stick around to the end because he tells a hilarious story.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yes. There are a couple of celebrity name drops in this that are big time A-list celebrities. So it's going to be... If you're into that thing. Over 300 cities, 300 chapters worldwide, check it out sofarsounds.com. Really beautiful events that they put on. So check that out while you hang with us as we interview Rafe Offer from Sofar Sounds on the Community Experience. Rafe, so great to have you. Welcome to the program.
Jillian Benbow: Yes. Welcome.
Rafe Offer: Thank you. Good to be here.
Tony Bacigalupo: Tell us a little bit about Sofar, how did it get started? Just give us the brief little background on you and Sofar and how you ended up being in this position to be running this crazy operation.
Rafe Offer: I was in a bar in London where I still live and I was with two other friends and we were trying to hear the band play and we couldn't because what felt like every single person in the room was talking either to each other or on their phone or to the bartender and we kind of looked at each other and said, this is not okay. This is not the way we should be enjoying our favorite band and it's kind of rude. One of the two guys, Dave, was at the time a musician he's said yeah, it's soul crushing to be up on a stage and everybody's talking but not about your music. So we just said, let's get out of here and go somewhere else and that somewhere else happened to be my house where we put on gigs and just told everyone to be in the moment. We weren't so polite, it was like shut up and it was just magical.
Jillian Benbow: Shut up and listen.
Rafe Offer: Yeah. With other words that I won't mention, but it was [crosstalk].
Jillian Benbow: The good words, the fun ones.
Rafe Offer: You know, it just came from being a fan. I have no musical talent and I've always loved to support and discover new music. So our vibe was always, can we get our friends together to listen, to actually listen, be in the moment almost to the point where you're like meditating on the music and lo and behold, myself and my friends weren't the only ones on the planet who missed it being quiet or at least respect for a certain kind of music.
Jillian Benbow: There's something so special about that. I think modern technology is the best and the worst combined, and we've fallen into this digital dependency. And what I'm thinking of is going to shows and everyone's recording on their phone and it drives me crazy because it's like, just enjoy it. So setting the precedent back on being in the moment, enjoying the music and it being kind of a reciprocal relationship between artist and attendee, there's something really beautiful about that. I know I'm guilty of talking during a show and whatnot. So it's made me think, Rafe, you've made me think about my own choices.
Tony Bacigalupo: The setting too, right? That there's certain settings where there's just an expectation of do whatever you want, but when the expectation is set, hey, we're here to appreciate the music. It's a very different experience. Just before the pandemic hit, I saw a Raconteurs show that they made you put your phone in a pouch that was locked and you couldn't take it out until the end of the show and it was so great. It was wonderful. For you Rafe, you're taking it one step further by taking it into an intimate setting, a person's home and I'm curious, just tell us a little bit about how that's worked as you've taken it outside of your home and into many, many homes all over the world.
Rafe Offer: Well, not everyone wants us in their home so we are in a lot of homes, but we're also in a lot of other places, but we try to avoid that behavior, which is inspired by going to your traditional venue where maybe the toilets aren't so nice and the bar is always open and all the things that we were trying to avoid. So the intimacy is something you can create on the top of a ski jump in Oslo, which we did, which was mad. Only when we got to the top, did the band leader reveal that he was afraid of heights and he was too terrified to sing, but he ended up getting over it. Or a church basement or a carpet store in Paris, or wherever. The woods, wherever. So it's an intimate space where it's like up to 100 people and you can see each other. And you know, there's nowhere to hide.
Everyone is looking and kind of together and I think that's a huge part of it. It also creates this community. You meet people who are like you, just really into music. For most of the gigs, we don't reveal who's playing. So people are coming to hear new music and to discover stuff. The weird thing is it build a community where people would start at the early days and even now to pitch in. Hey, I'll host in my house or I'll MC or I'll get the drinks and that then led to a lot people coming single and meeting people. Fun fact, we've had over 60 people get married to the people they met at Sofar.
Jillian Benbow: Wow.
Rafe Offer: Who they randomly met sitting next to them. And I think it's just when people come together and it's to your word, Tony, intimate. Crazy cool things happen.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah. That intimacy is, it can be a hard thing for an event organizer to conjure and so kudos to you and kudos to those 60 folks. That's amazing. Tell me briefly, your events are largely small, intimate indoors crowded together. I imagine the last couple of years have been wild. How have y'all been navigating it and where are you guys at as far as COVID related things going forward?
Rafe Offer: Yeah. It kind of sucked. It was not the best time. We quickly tried to think about the artists because we're fortunate and that we have some backers. Look, I started this as a hobby with no money and five years later we raised a bit of money and then raised more and so we were okay, but most of my friends who are musicians and most of the people who play were not okay. So we did the best we could. We raised some money. We created a charity, started streaming online, like everyone else on the planet. We created instructional videos/podcasts on topics like how to build a home recording studio and how to spread the word during the pandemic about your music without playing in real life and did about 30 of those. That was really great because the team was able to focus on doing stuff that actually made a difference, but it was brutal as well.
We had to lay off loads of people and like everyone else, we thought it would last three months, six months, not as long as it did. The happy ending is like many people were back and we're back with a vengeance and we're selling out gigs and we're doing lots and lots of them. We're still being super careful and cautious and I think that's what everybody needs is to make sure they feel safe in every way. The other thing that happened, I don't know about you guys or people that you talked to, but we were able to be super innovative because we were twiddling our thumbs for a while and those who were left were able to think what if, when we get back. So coming out of COVID, we're not the same business. We're different, we're streamlined. We have more stuff going on, more ideas that might have taken years to do without this disaster that hit us all.
Tony Bacigalupo: Any major improvements you can highlight or share briefly before we kind of move into the next phase of things?
Rafe Offer: Yeah. Well, a lot of artists kind of graduate is the word we use internally from Sofar. They play, they're not known. They become better known. A great example is Billie Eilish who played what I think was her first ever gig with Sofar. Leon Bridges over here in the UK, Bastille and I could list a lot of other ones, but the ones who are maybe not rockstar famous, but doing pretty well like a band from New York called Bailen, we decided to announce them and have a gig where they can fill the room with their fans and we help. We charge more. So instead of getting the usual $100 for 20 minute set where they just show up and they don't have to market it, they let their fans know and they can decide how much the ticket price should be. So they make a lot more money. 10 times more or more than that.
It's a chance for their fans to see them again in an intimate setting, instead of let's say for 1,000 people.
Jillian Benbow: You know as you're talking, it's interesting because when I was looking at Sofar, the closest area to where I live is Boulder. There's a show coming up on Saturday in a warehouse. It looks really fun. I love how clear it is. It's like here are the vaccination requirements. You cannot bring in your own booze or food, but you can purchase. You set the expectations so well from a consumer standpoint. And I think you've built this community with a feeling of safety and knowing what to expect for the people coming for the music. That's a community in and of itself, right? But then on the flip side you have the artist community and the things you said that what you focused on during the pandemic, I mean that really helps support those artists. That's wonderful. I'm curious, just I want to know everything, but I'm curious how it works within your artist community. They're on your list kind of thing and you're like hey, we're doing this thing. It might be helpful to you. Do you have a place where they can talk to each other?
Because it does sound like it's a lot of these bands that are kind of in that certain stage. Are they able to support each other at all?
Rafe Offer: It happens organically, and one of our wishlist things is exactly what you said, to create a way for them all to talk and contribute to each other’s careers. For example, when a band goes from New York to say Boulder, they're unknown in Boulder, but maybe they can connect with the five fans who we love, who are in Boulder or Denver. Then they can welcome them into a supporting role at a gig they're having that's sold out. And vice versa when that band from Colorado is going to New York. We want to make that a thing, and it's exactly as you put Jill, so you're spot on. Right now it's more informal. At almost every gig, there's three acts, and they often meet and they often collaborate. They create songs and they go off to the races. Thousands of times this has happened, or they just become friends or to my earlier point, a musician met someone in the audience and they ended up getting married. In fact, he sang his proposal to her in Washington.
So you know, you never know where that's going to go, but in terms of connecting the artists, certainly we try to do it locally. Like in London we have, for example, jam nights when they can all show up and just play into the night and it's just crazy fun. So there's a lot of stuff happening with 30 some thousand musicians informally, somewhere orchestrating, but you hit the nail on the head about one of the dreams. The other thing is they just want to play, and that's the number one thing that happens when you ask any musician anywhere. Obviously they want to make some money, but they want to play and they want to play as much as they can and everywhere.
So another dream which we're very close to and doing anyway is having like a welcome for them wherever they go. So that means lighting up the globe so that they have that experience of a sold out gig where they just show up and ideally we've got a couch for them to crash on or something else, but it's almost this global network of thousands of musicians who can be sustainable with our help.
Jillian Benbow: That's amazing.
Tony Bacigalupo: What can you tell us about the role that music plays for people in general? We talked about the intimacy side of things. We're all processing a lot. We're dealing with the fact that we're going through so much. What are you seeing in terms of maybe the healing role that music can play? Are you seeing people kind of talking about that, people who attend or even artists as they perform?
Rafe Offer: Loads, and I'm seeing a lot about mental health. So you used the word safe before. Sofar is a safe place for artists to reveal their issues because it's so intimate and it's so comfortable and explain how a song they're about to sing is about themselves or their family going through hard times. And sometimes they're raising money for a mental health-oriented charity, and that goes down really well. So they can share their story and share why it's been a bumpy road and know that people will be accepting and supportive, super supportive in every way. So that's something that's really important for the artists. I think that so many of us on the planet don't know much about how our brains work and utilize so little of our brains and yet music lights up a large part of different areas of your brain.
And that's just being understood, whether it's someone with Parkinson's, who you play music for and they smile for the first time in a year. Whether it's curing people of depression, or whether it's simply bringing people together and connecting through old songs of any age.
I have one friend who has a podcast that's called... Oh, blog actually called Water and Music, because she feels that the most fundamental two things in the world are those two things. So that might be slightly exaggerating, but maybe not by much.
Tony Bacigalupo: Absolutely, love it. I feel like we need to hear music in real life with other people and that's a kind of important part of who we are. Is there much singing along that goes on? Have you ever experienced artists kind of inviting the participants to be more than just listeners?
Rafe Offer: Yeah. I love the singing along or snapping or clapping or stomping with your feet. We encourage the artists if they feel like it and it works with their music to be interactive as much as they can or want to be. We never force anyone because sometimes it just doesn't work with who they are, but I would hope that in many Sofars there's a bit of that. I find the more the better and sometimes they'll pop out a cover tune and everyone will know it and sing along and that's incredible. I mentioned the band Bastille. I don't know if you know them, but they're pretty well known here, especially and they have a very famous song called Pompeii. I will never forget that no one in the room knew who they were. No one had heard that song, which I think went on to become the most streamed song in the history of the UK at least at the time and everyone was singing along by the end of the song, which was remarkable given, and no one heard it, but we all were electrified afterwards.
Rafe Offer: Sorry. Just don't sit near me.
Jillian Benbow: Oh yeah. What's your vibe. What do you do?
Rafe Offer: I sing loud and awfully bad.
Jillian Benbow: That's the great thing about music, I think. Sure, we all wish we were the best at it, but you can still get joy out of singing or hitting something like a drum. Even if you have no rhythm and tone deaf, you are having an amazing experience. The people around you maybe not, from an auditory sense, but that doesn't matter because you're in your moment, right? It's like when kids just don't care. They don't care that people are watching and they just dance and sing and do whatever. That's soul joy right there. So it's all good. You sing, Rafe, you're allowed. Sing away.
Tony Bacigalupo: I've been a proponent for karaoke for a long time and so many times when people have resistance, they say like, oh I can't sing. I'm like yeah, that's the point. It doesn't matter. We could just all be silly together. It's great.
Rafe Offer: Then that one person gets up and sings like Adele and you're like, thanks.
Tony Bacigalupo: Exactly. That's what I tell people. I said, look, if you're too good at this, then that's not good. You don't want to be overly good.
Jillian Benbow: You need like instead of auto tune, like an untune in the microphones. Bring this person down a couple pegs. Bring them to the people’s level, please.
Tony Bacigalupo: The people's level. No, but it's true. I don't know. I feel like it's just so great to be able to share our voice. There's like a vibrational energy to it. That's so valuable.
Rafe Offer: We also will move and shake and sometimes dance and I also embarrass myself, well, at least according to my kids, when I start head nodding into the music dramatically. There's a video of a band called Sylvan Esso. There was their first trip ever to I think Europe and they rocked into the gig after having no sleep and they were still a amazing and you can see me in the video, it's like I'm praying. You know what? That means you're really in it, right? Whether you're singing or moving.
Tony Bacigalupo: Rafe, I'm curious about the different kinds of settings that you have had these gatherings in and I'm thinking about maybe other community organizers who might be in a position to either add music into an existing program or they have a space where they could do it. What kind of advice would you give for somebody who maybe wants to add a musical element to their community or to their space already? I imagine you guys have had to deal with a lot of adapting to different kinds of venues and different kinds of acoustic challenges and all kinds of things. How would somebody kind of get more comfortable approaching that?
Rafe Offer: Yeah. I mean, before the pandemic, we were approaching 1,000 gigs a month and we'll get back there it's just a mad number. So we have a bit of experience, and I would say the first thing is it's about the host, whoever that is. Are they somebody who's welcoming and receptive and can deal with the inevitable stuff that happens that's not so good during a live event. There's no such thing as a live event that is utterly flawless and so you have to find that whoever that owner of the space is and make sure that's acceptable. So that's why we always visit every single space and just get a sense for who that person is and make it clear what we're about.
So that's the first bit of advice. The second one is curation. I mean, we're obsessive about that and some people who bring music into spaces, don't give much attention to the quality of who they're putting on. It doesn't mean that you need somebody who's going to blow up in five minutes, but you do need someone that can carry a tune and that you think your audience is going to love, or at least like. Then there's the space. Are you shipping them all to a place that is dark and in a corner? Are you having them play while everybody's eating? As I said earlier, is the bar open? Are you giving them a space and a place of respect in whatever your place is? That's super important.
And then are you finding ways of shouting about it through the network of the musician, through your network, through any other partners so that you can fill the room. Because it is kind of soul destroying to be a musician and rock up and there's three people there and two of them are drinking in a room that fits 100. It's not a great look, and I would say less is more. Do an event where you can make the room light up. It doesn't mean it's full every time, that's hard, but at least a feeling of an actual gig happening with people. In terms of the sound and all that, we started out only with acoustic and that's a lot easier. Once you start being plugged in, it's the same thing. Have somebody go and see the room, check it out. You only have one shot at it and when you're revealing and adding music to your repertoire, yeah. Like anything in life, you need to rehearse and you need to prep and you need to preempt and think through what all the things that could go wrong are.
Jillian Benbow: What do you think is the most common thing that goes wrong?
Rafe Offer: You mean in our events or generally in live music?
Jillian Benbow: Just generally in live music.
Rafe Offer: I don't understand why gigs always are late and-
Jillian Benbow: Oh, like late at night.
Rafe Offer: No, they start late.
Jillian Benbow: Oh.
Rafe Offer: They start late. An extreme example, I went to see Prince. It was a secret popup gig and he started three hours late and there's expectation and everyone shrugs, oh, it's Prince. Oh, I'm going to wait, but it's ridiculous. So many gigs start late, and I don't get it. It's uncomfortable to sit crushed toward the beginning, waiting and waiting. Yet, it's more the norm than anything. And I'm sure someone who's listening has been to a Sofar and we started late and I'm sorry.
Tony Bacigalupo: At least you're apologizing though.
Rafe Offer: It just doesn't compute. That goes down to also the long line and you have to wait inexplicably. COVID is different because people are checking stuff and that's understandable and hard to deal with, but why don't you get a second person at the bar? Why don't you get someone else greeting you at the door? That also. And I know you asked me for one thing, I'll give you a third one.
Jillian Benbow: That's okay. Keep going
Rafe Offer: The lack of a friendly greeting at the door. Somebody grunts and they look down at the paper or their laptop to see if your name is there or whatever and it's like you're going into a cemetery. I mean, it's just no joy and this is the best part of your week perhaps, or month. Why is there a grunt and a tick box?
Tony Bacigalupo: It's also an extremely vulnerable moment for a person who might be coming, especially for the first time to a place they've never been, a band they've never heard. They don't know who they're going to be sitting next to. I completely agree how a person's welcomed into a space sets the whole tone for the evening, right? It sets that first impression and you don't get that right you might have people who leave early and don't come back.
Rafe Offer: 100%.
Jillian Benbow: It's funny because it's counterintuitive too, to what and part of your inspiration for launching Sofar is if you're waiting for three hours for Prince and you spend all this money and you got all dolled up, you're going to hit that bar for three hours and then by the time the show starts, you're not going to be fully there because you've been waiting so long and now you got a wicked buzz, probably have to go to the bathroom. It's a whole other set of issues.
Rafe Offer: You inspired a really important thought, which is, the venues where the focus is making money off drinks, they don't care. So it's okay to start late because people buy more drinks. And then there's that awkward moment, as you said, you've had your second or third beer and you look at the sea of people behind you and you're like, how do I get to the bathroom and then back here in the front?
Jillian Benbow: I mean, it's happens for both. For both identifying genders, but the women's bathroom lines are insane. I’ll just stand in misery versus deal with it. It's such a thing.
it sounds like for how you ensure this kind of consistency of what I would call excellence in your events, there's a lot of work and intention spent. So you know, going and checking out the venue, checking expectations to make sure it lines up with your values to do a show there, all of those things, who is this person that is doing this for you, because I know you're global pretty much, right? You've got multiple locations where you host events. Is this someone you've hired? Like how does it work to ensure as you have all these, and I'm going to call them cohorts, but I guess like locations, right? How are you keeping everything consistent with the Sofar style?
Rafe Offer: That comes down to finding a local, passionate fan and eventually team who you vet as best you can because you might never meet them, or it might be years. Let's say our leader in Mumbai or Melbourne, long way away, and it's incumbent upon the Sofar team, the core team to explain what a great Sofar is and to depict what the guardrails are and what's not okay and what is okay. That's super important and even better if that person in Melbourne has been to one in London or New York or somewhere where it's very clear what a good one is or what a great one is, then you've got to explain that if they do stuff that's not okay, we have ways of figuring that out and they'll have to learn and do it better or exit. We've had to shut down a number of chapters because it just went awry as somebody was just having their friends play or showing up drunk or so many other reasons.
So you have to make it clear we're going to watch in the nicest possible way. Most importantly, you've got to empower them and say go forth and put on a great event and here's the toolkit. In the beginning, it was just me talking to ‘em, and then there's literally a toolkit. Then to answer your question, we are commercial, i.e., we sell tickets in roughly three, maybe soon four countries, and then a bit more, but we're in more than 40 countries. So in the countries where are selling tickets, it's a staff, people are paid, they're a local team or regional team, but in a place like Israel with a leader in Tel Aviv, that person does it for fun. It's a sidebar. They might have a job in tech and they do it a little bit and they enjoy it. Part of our job now is to give anyone a chance around the world who's doing it for fun to keep doing it for fun, or to get paid if that's what they want.
That's kind of the plan, but it shouldn't matter whether you're that leader in a place where you're doing it for the love, or whether you're paid, it still should be the same product. I used to work for Disney and I learned a lot from how obsessive that company is about detail and that's was a big part of what I tried to lace into the culture, obsession with everything. Even today, like I'm going to a Sofar tomorrow, I will be looking at the little tiny things, Tony, to your point, like how good is the greeting? That are not great and letting the team know.
Tony Bacigalupo: What did you do at Disney?
Rafe Offer: I was a Mickey Mouse marketer.
Jillian Benbow: Oh.
Tony Bacigalupo: Literally?
Rafe Offer: Which sounds like the butt of a joke. Well, I was in charge of Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Daisy, Pluto, what we called the classic characters and how they showed up on t-shirts like the one I'm wearing. So licensing, and I did that around the world.
Jillian Benbow: Wow. You were Mickey Mouse's handler. That's amazing.
Rafe Offer: It was tough going. Sometimes he's a real prima dona.
Jillian Benbow: What a mouse. So I have a gazillion questions, follow up questions. I'll try to not for your sake, for everyone's sake, but I'm so curious and with that Disney little nugget of wisdom too, so you have a toolkit. I'm just so curious, what do you include in that you found makes everything consistent and how are you finding these people? Do they reach out to you? I live in a very small ski town, but if I was like, hey, I want to be your local guide or whatever for Breckenridge. Is that how it starts?
Rafe Offer: Yeah, I would say 90% of how it has started as people have come to us or been at a gig and said, I had an experience in Chicago and I've gone home to Milwaukee and there's no Sofar can I start it here?
Jillian Benbow: Nice.
Rafe Offer: In terms of the toolkit, there's some fundamental things that we've learned over the years like it makes sense to have three acts and it makes sense to keep them to about 20 minutes. Why? Because if you don't know who's playing and you don't like it, 20 minutes is about the limit before you start to really get annoyed. Also, it is like an appetizer. It's not a full on gig and if you like them, then you might go hear them the next night playing a headline set somewhere else. So think of it as three meaty appetizers, and that works and that's enough time to fill an evening and then there's in between, where you talk to your neighbor, you flirt with someone, whatever, get a drink, go outside. So the three acts with breaks and then hopefully a charismatic MC to be the glue.
So to bring the feeling up, to clap along at the beginning and get people going, to introduce with some fanfare the acts. That's really important too. We cover the room, we have a greeter at the door and that is very Disney in a way. Then we have somebody just watching over the whole environment, dealing and working with the host, making sure that they are happy. There's a squad of three to five people, depending on the space. Sometimes we go above 100, you need four or five people to manage that. Most of the time it's 100 or less, and you can do that with fewer. So there's that piece of it. Then there's the advice on the music and making sure that we have diversity, both with the music in every way, with who's playing, with their genres, with who they are, with their backgrounds, everything we obsess over that.
Then it's harder to insure diversity in the room because people are buying tickets or showing up, but we try to make sure we reach out to all the tribes in the city and make sure that people are represented. You want to walk in the room and feel safe and that means connecting with people like you. It doesn't mean they have to look like you all the time, it means just they have to feel a certain vibe, a certain camaraderie around music and more. So we really encourage people to make sure that there's that sort of sense of diversity in every way we can. Those are in the toolkit and sometimes maybe we'll encourage them to do a video and that then becomes another piece of it. That there's a whole nother thing behind it.
Jillian Benbow: I think that's so helpful because so many people who have their own community and they want to expand it geographically, not just digital, that's a huge piece is what are the parameters you give people to say yeah, you can have a chapter of this larger thing, but it has to be within some guidelines and just managing that and thinking about what's important to include in that. I think it's really helpful.
Rafe Offer: Totally. Then we learned, be careful who's hosting. Not be careful, just be aware as I said earlier, but one time in Madrid, there was this accountant who had this huge apartment and turned out he was a drug dealer at night.
Jillian Benbow: That kind of accountant. Oh.
Rafe Offer: Then we had all sorts of things happen that night, including police and I would say don't have a drug dealer host. That's probably not the smoothest [crosstalk]
Jillian Benbow: Put that on the checklist. Free snacks.
Tony Bacigalupo: Jill, I don't think we have that in our notes.
Jillian Benbow: No. I need to go check ours.
Tony Bacigalupo: Got to revise. The problem is—
Jillian Benbow: No accountants.
Tony Bacigalupo: Problem with the drug dealers is that some of them probably have really wicked cool places to host events. So it's tricky.
Rafe Offer: And funny postscript to that story, two years later when we advertised for a local leader in Madrid, the drug dealer, I guess former drug dealer applied to be our staff member, local leader. I guess forgetting that we had that experience two years before. That was interesting.
Jillian Benbow: He loves music.
Rafe Offer: Don't we all?
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. Oh, man. You probably have just such good stories. Will there be a book on the side of like crazy nights? Crazy Sofars?
Rafe Offer: There should be and someone has approached us recently about a documentary.
Jillian Benbow: Ooh.
Rafe Offer: It's good fun. That would be good fun. We've had a lot of interesting characters come through our nights.
Tony Bacigalupo: Including one story that I heard about somebody that you sat next to and talked to for a long time before you realized who they were.
Rafe Offer: I did and that [crosstalk]
Jillian Benbow: I read this too.
Rafe Offer: Gosh, that was[crosstalk]
Jillian Benbow: Would you like to tell our audience because it's a really good story. If you don't, we will.
Rafe Offer: Sure. I'd gone to a gig in New York and I was minding my own business. I sat down and sat down next to a woman who was by herself and we just started chatting. I asked her what she did for a living, making conversation. She said she was an actress. I said, "Oh, that must be difficult." I said that because just before going to the gig, I had dinner with a friend who's an actress in New York city and she whined and ranted for three hours about how difficult it was. We came up then with some ideas to help her feel better. So when I heard this woman say she was an actress, my first response was that's hard, right? She kind of looked at me and nodded her head politely. Sort of smirked and said, oh yeah, can be. Pause. Rafe jumps in with, well, I have some tips. I just had dinner with my friend. So I went on for what seemed like a long time and when I finished, she nodded politely and excused herself to the toilet because the gig was about to start.
My friend Jody runs up to me and says, do you know who you were just talking to? I said, I have no idea. Some struggling actress. That was Scarlett Johansson, Rafe. You were just giving, acting tips on how to make it to Scarlett Johansson.
Jillian Benbow: They let you do it too. What a friend.
Rafe Offer: Yeah. I did learn later that-
Tony Bacigalupo: Kudos to Scarlett for being gracious.
Rafe Offer: Right. Well, she was there to see a friend of hers perform and I did learn later that she loved that I didn't have a clue.
Jillian Benbow: That's awesome. She seems like the kind of person that would find it funny. Wouldn't be offended. I love it. That makes me like you a lot more too, because that's just such a... Not that I didn't before of course, but that's just amazing.
Rafe Offer: I am clueless when it comes to knowing anybody.
Jillian Benbow: Except for bands, you know any musician. You're like, oh yeah. Just not the Marvel Universe.
Rafe Offer: Yeah. So—that was a funny, funny night.
Jillian Benbow: I'm curious because again, you have the two sides of community, right? The people who come to experience the music and the people who perform, the artists. And so we just talked about how you communicate with those chapter leaders, whether it's staff, volunteers. How does it work on the flip side? I'm sure there's an endless amount of bands that would love to be a part of something like this. Is it the same kind of thing? Do they contact you and do they send you a demo tape? I don't know how it works in the biz.
Rafe Offer: It's super hard because musical taste is ridiculously subjective and I could think somebody's amazing and Tony could hate them and vice versa. And so for years we focused on just a vote and figured that if three to five people agreed that act would blow people away in a small space, go for it. We never cared and still don't, whether they're popular or not. It was really about do they strike us as having talent and being really interesting. And so that's migrated as we've grown, but there's still a team of people and that's all they do. They listen and they make a decision based on gut and some sort of sense for music because that's the best you can do with music. And then when we say that's great, that, have them play, then you just see how it went.
You get feedback. Were they good to work with? Did they impress some people? What did everyone think? So it's nothing more complicated than that. The reality is we can only have a few acts on compared to how many want to play and how much talent is out there. It's tricky and there's always more talent and there's always new talent. There's always new genres. So that's it. It's a local team or regional team. But like I mentioned Billie Eilish, when my friend Tom came and said, I've got this new act. She's really good. She only has one song. It's called ocean eyes. She's 14. I listened, played it to a few people who were like, this is good. Had her play. And it didn't matter whether she was going to blow up to become who she became or anything, it was just, let's just give this person a chance.
Tony Bacigalupo: Give her a chance you did, and wow.
Rafe Offer: Yeah. Well, I'm not going to take any credit for that, but it was nice to have her and her brother, Finneas, he's played on his own too. He has his own music and that's been kind of cool too.
Tony Bacigalupo: Absolutely incredible. Rafe, we are entering the ending phase of our conversation in which we are going to partake of a rapid fire. During rapid fire I'm going to ask you questions. You're going to give me a quick answer that's one sentence or less and I am going to try my darnest not to ask you follow-up questions. And then after that, we'll get your links and send you on your way. Are you ready?
Rafe Offer: My favorite color is blue.
Jillian Benbow: You passed?
Tony Bacigalupo: Wait a minute.
Rafe Offer: Yes.
Tony Bacigalupo: Okay. Question number one. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Rafe Offer: A chef.
Tony Bacigalupo: Hmm. How do you define community?
Rafe Offer: A group of people who have the same values and realize that what they're doing is pointing toward the same goal.
Tony Bacigalupo: Something on your bucket list that you have done aside from meet Scarlett Johansson?
Rafe Offer: Go on a trip of the south and just eat barbecue.
Tony Bacigalupo: Something on your bucket list that you have yet to do?
Rafe Offer: Go to New Zealand and role play that I'm in a movie.
Tony Bacigalupo: What is a book that you were loving either recently or an all-timer?
Rafe Offer: Life and Fate. Oh, my God. It's a Russian writer and I cannot remember his name, tripping over it. So I'm going to go with The Great Gatsby obviously by Fitzgerald, which I've read like five times and I'm blown away every time.
Tony Bacigalupo: Love it. We could look up Life and Fate.
Jillian Benbow: It's Vasily Grossman.
Rafe Offer: Thank you. Yes.
Tony Bacigalupo: If you could live anywhere else other than where you live, where would you live?
Rafe Offer: Boulder, Colorado.
Tony Bacigalupo: Ha ha. Amazing. And finally, how do you want to be remembered?
Rafe Offer: As somebody who helped build communities and left the planet a tiny bit better than it was.
Tony Bacigalupo: My man, after my own heart. How do folks tuning in find you and Sofar on the internet?
Rafe Offer: We are sofarsounds.com. Sofar is S-O-F-A-R S-O-U-N-D-S, like so far so good, but sofarsounds.com. If you want to book tickets, check out if it's in your city and when next. We have a YouTube channel, just type in YouTube. Instagram's another good place to check out. I am simply [email protected], which is R-A-F-E. Welcome to hit me up and chat.
Tony Bacigalupo: Why is it Sofar?
Rafe Offer: It was originally called songs from a room named after the Leonard Cohen album.
Tony Bacigalupo: Amazing.
Rafe Offer: Songs from a room. It was too long. Yeah. Then when we shortened it, we realized not only does it stand for songs from a room, Sofar is like so far so good as in emerging. You're just getting your start, which is that which is our jam. It's helping people out early on. So that's how the name's stuck.
Tony Bacigalupo: Sofar. That's a powerful phrase.
Jillian Benbow: That's a solid story.
Rafe Offer: Woohoo.
Tony Bacigalupo: Rafe, thank you so much for your time. So great to have you. Godspeed to you. Keep up the great work.
Rafe Offer: Thank you. This has been fun.
Tony Bacigalupo: All right. So hope you enjoyed our conversation with Rafe Offer of Sofar Sounds. That guy is, I think they would say he's a real one.
Jillian Benbow: He is a real one. I mean, woof, what a great episode. He's just a delight.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah. He has musician vibes. I know he says he is not a musician, but you can tell he spent a lot of time with musicians.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Tony Bacigalupo: I just love, so I'm a big fan of music, I'm a karaoke nerd. I really think that music is so important to our souls and sharing in music together in community it's a powerful bonding agent. I'm glad that we got to dig into it a little bit today.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. It's interesting because his whole concept is the opposite of what you think of when you think of live music and shows, it's like, oh, it's going to be super crowded and loud and smokey or used to be smokey back in the olden days and like stuffy and his whole vibe is nope. We're going to focus on the music first and create, and it's not about packing a venue and selling a bunch of drinks and having a huge wait for the artist.
Tony Bacigalupo: Again, the thread of zigging where people zag, right? The same way we talked to like Kelly Roberts about the run club for people who aren't super runners. This is like the live music shows for people who want to actually hear the music.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. It's not about the outfit and the festival Instagram, it's about sitting there quietly on your blanket that you brought and just really listening to the music and just the whole concept of it's 20 minutes and three bands. You know I got 20 minutes to experience this group and then it's the next one? It goes against everything you think of when you think of the music industry, but in the best way.
Tony Bacigalupo: Really the attention to the experience too. Knowing, and I'm sure there was a ton of trial and error here to arrive at 20 minutes, but being able to say, you know what, even if I really don't like this band, I could probably humor them for 20 minutes and just kind of I'll give them my attention. I would respect what they're doing and that's really neat, but that attention to detail of the experience, I think is such an important part of why he was able to scale it as big as he has.
Jillian Benbow: Absolutely. What he was saying about Disney and just his experiences and how he's taken past career experiences and put them into place at Sofar. It's just brilliant and such a great thing to think about, audit the process, right? Whether it's digital onboarding or you're having people come over, even for like a potluck, right? You can audit the process and see, Ooh, is this a friendly welcome or is it kind of is it the bouncer with the tude that's ready to get back to the gym and wants you to know that they hold the cards of you getting into this show or not. There's just a lot of touch points and just details. A lot of care over the details and I really appreciate that. I like live music, but I dislike a lot of the things that he seeks to avoid and so I'm really, really interested in checking out one of the shows just because it sounds like such a wildly unique experience and it shouldn't be, but it does sound like that.
Tony Bacigalupo: Sofar Sounds live music for Jill. Yeah.
Jillian Benbow: For people who don't want to be around other people.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah. And yet somehow that's led to what, 60 marriages, which is wild.
Jillian Benbow: Oh, that was such a sweet little sidebar, right? Move over here harmony.
Tony Bacigalupo: He has these killer sidebar. Oh, Billie Eilish. Yeah, before she was big deal. But really, I think a lot about what does it take to make a community capable of scaling because that's when you're able to have a much, much larger impact. You could have a really great program in your city, but if it relies on you being the dedicated, charismatic organizer, then your impact is limited, but if you're able to get to the root of why is this resonant and how can I document this and empower other people in other cities to do the same thing in their cities, then you can go from one city to 300 plus and that's personally one of the things I'm very passionate about in community is making it easier for them to spread.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. I think it's listening to Rafe, again, you can tell he cares so deeply about the experience about both sides, about the artists, about the people coming to the show and about the people putting on the show. There's just so many elements, and I think this is an important distinction in community building. If you want to be successful and you want to be able to scale in the way he has and for it to all be sustainable, sustainable growth, you have to give a shit.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah. You have to care.
Jillian Benbow: And you have to be invested. Just the fact that all of the... He knows the quality of experience transfers from chapter to chapter and that is because he cares deeply. He checks in on it. He has relationships with the people running the chapters, and that is what it takes to have that level of service and it's great. Yeah, he has a huge team. It sounds like. I mean, they have a whole company now, and I'm sure the work is shared with building those relationships. He started with one chapter and look at him now, obviously it's a good model.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah.
Jillian Benbow: I just love it.
Tony Bacigalupo: He got there somehow. One thing we didn't get to ask him about, but we observed, his shows look great. They have great cinematography and the videos that are captured, great imagery, and good images of a good community event go so far in carrying the message forward of what this experience is like. Oftentimes there are terrific community gatherings that just never get a good picture of what it actually is like, if any pictures are taken. So we'll talk more about that I'm sure in a future conversation with somebody, but wanted to point that out.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah. In the meantime, just go look at the YouTube.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah, seriously.
Jillian Benbow: “Go look at the YouTube.” I sound 100 there.
Tony Bacigalupo: Pretty neat how that community has translated online as well. Just a good experience, so.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Tony Bacigalupo: All right y’all, go check out Sofar Sounds, listen to the tunes on the YouTubes. Go find one in your city. Maybe start a new chapter. Goodness. Let us know if you do. We're @teamspi on the Twitters and until next time I'm Tony Bacigalupo...
Jillian Benbow: And I'm Jillian Benbow and we will see you next Tuesday.
Tony Bacigalupo: This has been the Community Experience. For more information on this episode, including links and show notes, head over to smartpassiveincome.com/listen.
Jillian Benbow: You can find Rafe all over the internet. Find him on Twitter @rafeoffer just like it sounds. @R-A-F-E-O-F-F-E-R. Also check out Sofar Sounds also on Twitter @sofarsounds and check out Sofar Sounds at sofarsounds.com.
Tony Bacigalupo: Our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Our series producers are David Grabowski and senior producer, Sara Jane Hess. Editing and sound designed by Duncan Brown, music by David Grabowski.
Jillian Benbow: See you next time.