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Sofar Sounds combines music, mystery in pop-up concerts around the city

Event startup combines music, mystery in pop-up concerts around the city. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Among the cozy couches and the plush pillows cushioning the tiered platform in the Inner Harbor lobby of Hotel RL Baltimore, Shirley Yan, 25, and Shruti Sharma, 24, settle closest to the stage and ready themselves for a concert. But they have no idea who is going to perform.

When they bought tickets to the kickoff of the Sofar Sounds Baltimore concert series in October, the location and the artists were withheld.

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“You don’t know anything before you get here, so it's like a hit or a miss,” says Sharma, a Maryland Institute College of Art student. “I was like, ‘Oh my god. I hope it’s not bad music. What did I sign up for?’ ”

Unexpected music, unlikely places and an air of secrecy are at the heart of Sofar Sounds, which launched in London in 2009 and has hosted shows in more than 350 cities around the world. The concert series is at the intersection of several trends catering to millennial consumers: musical gatherings in unusual settings and events with a patina of mystery about them.

For this debut performance in Baltimore, around 40 people listen intently to the acoustic sounds of local indie band Us and Us Only. Then Randallstown singer and musician Christen B. steps up to the stage, using a vocal looper to record and layer her voice into a sound she calls “ambient-electro-soul.” Quickly, she prompts audience members, many of whom had never heard her music before, to sing along. The night ends with these new fans dancing in front of the stage to Rufus Roundtree and Da B’more Brass Factory, which played boisterous songs full of references to city pride.

Sharma gives it “five stars.” Isaiah Winters, 28, of downtown Baltimore, says the event is “like a surprise,” a departure from the many shows he has attended.

Sofar Sounds, which launched a volunteer-based chapter in Baltimore this past summer, has attracted up-and-coming artists and bigger names like musician Ed Sheeran, who performed in a living room in Washington in September as a part of Sofar’s benefit event for Amnesty International.

The catch? Interested attendees must apply for $15 tickets through an online lottery — without knowing who will perform and where, said Sofar Sounds Baltimore lead and ambassador Christen B. (born Christen B. Taylor). If accepted, guests pay for their tickets and are sent the concert start time and location 24 to 36 hours before the event.

Similar “secret” gatherings, including surprise dinner series, covert speakeasies and pop-up concerts, have been growing in popularity in recent years, giving attendees a feeling of exclusivity and being “in the know,” often in an unusual location and for a reasonable price.

The trend of pop-up events and secret gatherings has largely emerged within the last decade as successful marketing tools and ways to build brand engagement, excitement and community among like-minded people, according to Amna Kirmani, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland.

While pop-up events are often made financially accessible and create meaningful interactions in hopes of inspiring a returning customer or fan, events that incorporate a “secret” element often aim to make attendees feel special or higher-status or privy to a level of “exclusivity,” Kirmani said.

With the development of new technology and social media, companies are better equipped with ways to reach certain groups and assess their interests, in hopes of inviting them to “share an experience that gets [them] closer to the brand.”

“It’s a big trend among young people,” and those well versed in social media, where it’s common for companies to selectively release details about events in hopes of bringing them closer to the brand, Kirmani said.

Locally, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has featured free pop-up concerts at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and at Pennsylvania Station, while the Peabody Conservatory has hosted free musical performances or “Peabody Pop-Ups” at local apartment complexes, hospitals, libraries and creative workspaces.

“There’s interest in grass-roots connection throughout society. … People want to break down perceived barriers,” said Tonya McBride Robles, vice president and general manager at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It speaks to an authentic and organic way for people to connect to musicians without the high price points for tickets and in a setting “that’s not the Meyerhoff or the Strathmore,” she said.

From a coffee shop to a furniture showroom, Sofar Sounds concerts can take place anywhere, said Christen.

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“We try to find spaces that are visually captivating, whether it's little knick-knacks or cool things on the wall, and kind of warm and inviting,” she said, with an emphasis on accessibility and nearby public transportation, so everyone is able to come. Since its October debut downtown, Sofar has also conducted events at the Impact Hub in Station North and The Music Space in Towson.The lineup — typically three performers — isn’t revealed until the event begins.

Rachel Newman is director of programming and the events of The Living Stage, Hotel RL’s living room-like performance space. She helped coordinate the Sofar Sounds Baltimore event there, aiming to expand upon the hotel’s mission to connect with millennials and professionals of all ages, and to “cultivate something in the lobby that feels like it's worth it to go down there.”

The concept of Sofar, which stands for “songs from a room,” was created by music fans Rafe Offer, Rocky Start and David Alexander. It started off simple, said Offer, 54.

“We wanted people to be more attentive and to focus more on the music,” he said. The trio began hosting performances in their living rooms in 2009 in attempts to bring exposure to up-and-coming bands and explore different forms of music in intimate spaces, without the distractions of beers clinking and phones beeping or worse — blocking views of the performers.

The idea later expanded to “other cool spaces where you didn’t expect gigs to happen,” said Offer.

As of early November, the company has 385 Sofar Cities. Cities like Istanbul are ripe with thousands of requests for performances that can only seat 80 people, he said.

And in turn, “we’re giving new artists both money ... and the ability to play to an audience that’s silent and focused on what they do. Consistently, that doesn’t happen enough,” said Offer, noting that most performers are paid $100 in cash.

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Christen B., who created the Baltimore chapter with the help of eight team members, said she first heard about the organization through a friend a few years ago. She performed for the first time in January in Washington and was sold, she said.

“It was just so different from typical concerts,” said Christen, 29. There are few distractions. Audience members were attentive and plugged into the performance, and between sets, concert-goers interacted with one another.

Similarly to concert-goers, artists looking to perform apply on the Sofar website, submitting their information, the city in which they are looking to perform, music and, preferably, live footage so Sofar staff and volunteers can view their performance style, Offer said.

“Everything about Sofar is a surprise,” said Rufus Roundtree, lead singer of Da B’more Brass Factory. After the band submits work for a performance, the Sofar website sends a message asking if the musicians can “show up to a secret location on a certain day.” The performances are often stripped down, allowing the artists to perform and express themselves in an organic way, he said.

Danielle Parnes, 26, of Barclay, who had been to a few Sofar shows in Philadelphia before moving to Baltimore, said sometimes performances at Sofar can be a hit or miss.

“There's usually a couple that you're like ‘This is awesome!’, and a couple that you're like ‘This isn't my cup of tea,’ but it's still a good experience,” Parnes said.

Roundtree attested. He never tires of Sofar’s “randomness.”

“It’s the Forrest Gump of all concerts,” he said. “You never know what you're going to get.”

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