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written by Candice Triche
Inspiration to pursue your passion can come from places we least expect. When I went to my first Sofar Sounds show, I was both impressed and in awe of how effortless it all seemed to go down. Putting together a secret show, wrangling a curious crowd and making sure the bands are set to go cannot be done without knowing a thing or two and hard work.
Matt Brooks is the City Director for Sofar Sounds Chicago market, and along with a stellar group of others, they put together awesome shows multiple times a month around the city of Chicago. I was hooked since that first show in October and have been to a few more since then. Discovering new bands, meeting new people, and dancing without a care (BYOB!), has made for many a great weeknight for me this summer!
From my first experience, Matt has been front and center, meeting and greeting, and making things happen. On Sept 20th, Sofar will be debuting a series of shows across the world, including 8 shows in Chicago, that will surely put them on top of intimate music venues everywhere and will be talked about for a long time to come. They are indeed changing the way we listen to live music, one show at a time.
Before the big show in September, I wanted to get his take on how he started and why he has such a passion for Sofar Sounds.
What was your first Sofar Sounds show/experience?
The first Sofar Sounds show I ever attended was in Chicago on International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2015. I was attending in preparations of starting up a new Sofar city in Indianapolis, and this experience immediately thrust me into the wonderful community that I have the pleasure of working with every day now. The show was a beautiful, unfamiliar, yet refreshing experience that only gets more special as time goes on. We hosted in the Sq3 Whiteroom, a beautiful studio space run by a friend of ours near Goose Island that is no longer in that location, though we certainly miss it. The artists were SKYLR, KSRA, and Quinn Tsan, some of which still perform with us today. I can remember this distinct moment that is not so uncommon at Sofar shows, when I felt like I had discovered the best kept secret in the city.
What’s your role? How did you get involved?
My role is that of City Director for Chicago. While Sofar Sounds is running in over 350 cities around the world, we have a few markets in the UK and U.S., hopefully soon to be Spain as well, that have a full-time team in place to host more amazing artists per month than would be possible otherwise. My involvement begun as nearly all Sofar employees do, as an ambassador. I stumbled across Sofar’s YouTube channel while interning at Do317 in Indianapolis, and upon realizing that the shows weren’t happening in Indianapolis, I interviewed a representative to help spread the word through the Do Stuff Network. I spoke with Dean Davis, Community Manager at Sofar at the time and he now leads Sofar in San Francisco, but by the end of the conversation, I realized that I didn’t want to spread the word to try and find a team to do the shows at all. I wanted to do them myself.
So that’s what I did. I built a team of close friends around the city that I knew would love to get involved in such a community-driven music movement, and we started hosting shows in May 2016. I was lucky enough to be considered for the full-time opportunity in Chicago in the new year and haven’t looked back since.
What has been your most memorable experience with Sofar Sounds?
My most memorable experience was when I spent a night in Athens, Greece during a layover on my way home from Cyprus visiting family. I had reached out to the local team a few weeks prior to see if they happened to be hosting a show, which is a very common instance in our community and is how I’ve been able to spontaneously attend gigs in London, Los Angeles, Dublin, Cleveland, and soon to be Toronto. In this case, there wasn’t a show happening, but that didn’t stop the leader, who at the time wasn’t in town, from connecting me with the rest of her team to meet up for a drink.
We set up a spot to meet near my hotel so I couldn’t get lost, and I found myself anxiously awaiting these mysterious music lovers on a tiny street across the world from home. Although I didn’t know what they looked like, I knew them the second I saw them, and we greeted with hugs that I could only compare to one with an old friend when you reconnect after years apart. We spent the evening talking over drinks and walking around viewing Athenian ruins, just like old friends, even though we had never met before. These moments happen all over the world every day, but this one is mine to share today.
This seems to be a pretty demanding job, do you work a 9-5 as well?
Sofar Sounds is, at its core, still a start-up. It takes a certain type of person with a certain level of passion and commitment to what we do to work at Sofar. We have an office space in WeWork Fulton Market where we spend at least some time every weekday, but given the nature of our work with shows, late-night meetings, and so on, it’s certainly a kind of job that you have to be available at any time. That’s how we like it though, because we know that’s what it takes to make a difference and support the arts in the way that we do.
What’s the main way you get artists to perform?
We have an artist application platform on the website that artists can provide us with the necessary pieces for consideration. We also commonly get references and recommendations from past artists, alongside of course artists that we like and reach out to ourselves. All artists go through an internal review team that is in place not only to ask is an artist is talented enough for Sofar, but if they are the right fit for the format.
It’s important to remember that the majority of our gigs are without any PA system or vocal amplification, so it’s a reality that some artists would be unwilling, and unfitting for that type of setup. That’s a very important distinction in what we do, because some artists that we really love wouldn’t work because we can’t envision them in a living room. It’s one of the things that makes Sofar even more unique in terms of the music industry standards.
What would you say is the main “mission” for Sofar Sounds?
The common tagline of Sofar is “bringing the magic back to live music.” While I certainly agree with that, I think Sofar goes beyond that. We are community builders. We are music discoverers. We have the ability to support the arts on a hyper-local and global level at the same time, with the platforms in place to expose those artists, no matter what level of following that they have, to anyone around the world. I think our mission is ever-changing as well, which is what makes the question so difficult.
In September of this year, for example, we will be hosting over 300 shows in one night, all to benefit Amnesty International and the world’s refugees. It’s called Give a Home, and we couldn’t be more excited because it is truly the first time we’ve been able to fully harness the power of our global community in the name of a cause. When I think about our mission, I begin to think about what this partnership can mean for what Sofar stands for in the coming years, and that’s truly exciting for all of us involved.
Sofar Sounds seems to be growing fast, what would you say is the end game? Is there one? How big would you want it to be, it being based on smaller, more intimate events across the world?
I think that the beauty is that there is no end game. Last November, we hosted 500 shows in one month for the first time ever, which was daunting to say the least when it was first brought up as a goal. A year ago, we would’ve been astounded at the idea of hosting 30 gigs in one month in Chicago, but now we will be doing just that in August. The partnership in September will be another one of those moments where we outdo what some thought was ever possible for Sofar.
As we grow, the intimacy of our shows does not change. Sofar gigs will always be in living rooms and other intimate spaces around the world, for anywhere from 50-150 guests, and the latter end of that is quite rare and only allowed in Chicago’s case for gigs like The Willis Tower or Brooklyn Boulders, which we have done a few times.
Beyond this, the hope is that Sofar can expand beyond just throwing shows eventually. Why can’t we do tour management for our favorite artists that we want to succeed? Why can’t we act as a PR agency for them? Why can’t we go bigger, like starting a hostel that hosts shows every night? The possibilities are endless, and the true magnificence of it is that not even someone in my position knows what our true boundaries are, if they exist.
As you can read, passion can fuel and propel you into a journey that can take you places unforeseen. Matt, along with his awesome team are doing their thing and it shows. The hard work and dedication excudes throughout each show and I’m excited to see the future for this company. See you at the next show!
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