It’s a windy Sunday night in Soho, and there are about 100 strangers camped out in Gregory and Diane Petan’s living room. They’re stretched out on couches, lounging on chairs and sitting on the kitchen countertops that overlook the living area of this spacious loft, full of exposedbrick walls and life-size paintings.
In New York City, where concerts can take place on rooftops, in empty buildings and even underground, someone’s living room seems strangely exotic by comparison. But for Sofar Sounds, a live-music promotion company that produces “secret” concerts, there’s no place like someone else’s home.
“I feel like it’s a privilege for us to have the space to host them,” says Diane, an app developer for private banks who has hosted five concerts in her apartment. She recalls one show where some guests stuck around after the performance, and she ended up inviting them to join her family to eat the dinner she was making for her two kids: hot dogs.
The idea of the house concert is not new, but Sofar Sounds stands apart with its secrecy. Getting into a concert seems deceptively easy at first — all you have to do is sign up for the newsletter and keep an eye out for the monthly e-mail listing their three upcoming shows. The hard part is actually getting an invite. More than 1,000 people might apply for tickets, but because the audience is never more than 125 people, it’s become one of the most exclusive tickets in town.
Margot Demere, 25, has RSVP’d “five or six times” but has only managed to land an invite twice, including the event at the Petans’ residence.
“It’s become a lot more difficult to get in,” says the full-time nanny.
As for being one of the chosen few, Sofar NYC leader Vanessa Lowe says lists are determined by a variety of factors. “New people we want to get in on their first show get a large percentage of the list,” she says. “Then we choose people who haven’t been in a few months.”
The location is not disclosed until midnight the day of the performance, and the performers themselves are not revealed until the show begins at the set time. Past surprise guests have included such famous faces as the National, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Pattinson, who performed at a show in London. But Sofar Sounds largely focuses on promoting independent artists before they hit it big.
At least one upcoming concert will be easier to get into, as the founders are planning Sofar +, a one-day, six-hour-long music festival slated for the end of May in New York. The event, says Lowe, will break from tradition in that it will actually be publicized.
Sofar Sounds began in London in 2009, after founders Rafe Offer, Dave Alexander and Rocky Start were looking for an alternative to the noisy venues they usually frequented to take in live music. They found their actual homes to be ideal. Others seemed to agree, and Sofar Sounds is now in 69 cities around the globe, with 40,000 worldwide members and 2,000 here in New York. The company came to NYC in 2011, and has grown from one to at least three shows a month.
At the show at the Petans’ apartment, guests were treated to an eclectic lineup of four virtual unknowns. Lynette Williams, a guitarist and vocalist, kicked things off with her ballads and a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Anthony Hall, another guitar-playing vocalist, turned things up a notch with his lively performance, closing out with a cover of Usher’s “Nice and Slow.” A nine-piece soul band, King Holiday, wowed the crowd with their ability to perform in such a tight space (the set was made all the more impressive given that frontman Leslie Kujo performed while jumping and dropping into splits.)
“The intimacy is really what’s so amazing,” says John Pita, leader of the trio City of the Sun, who closed out that night’s bill.
“No one is talking, no one is on their phone unless they’re snapping a picture, you feel like everyone is on your side.”
Sofar Sounds does not pay artists to perform, but donations are collected at each show with a good old-fashioned passing of the hat, and artists are given an edited video of their performance. (Hosts are not given any money for hosting, nor are they required to provide refreshments, as most shows are BYOB.)
Many of the artists say performing in such an intimate environment is its own reward.
“If you’re at a bar, sometimes you have to fight the crowd for their attention,” says Williams, who has played venues small and large, from Rockwood Music Hall to Lincoln Center. “Here, everyone who is there wants to be there.”
Kujo agrees. “Most of the performance I had my eyes closed because the focus was overwhelming me,” he says.
When Sofar Sounds kicks off their festival (at press time, a price for tickets had not yet been determined), they will aim to replicate the experience in a more open space; past nonresidential shows have taken place at the Cole Haan showroom and the Industry City Distillery. But Lowe, who has also held shows in her home, says the best gigs remain where they’ve always intended them to be: in someone’s private residence. “I’ve seen some of my favorite bands perform in my kitchen,” says Lowe.
“Nothing can compare.”
To Attend: Subscribe to the monthly newsletter at SofarSounds.com.
Cost: Free, and most shows are BYOB.
To Host: Submit your information at SofarSounds.com, and members of the Sofar Sounds team will schedule a time to visit your place and make an evaluation.
Portions originally published in The New York Post