October 26, 2012 by Tess Riley
Here’s today’s Guardian offering, up-close-and-personal, living-room style…
Living room gigs: a night in to remember
“There’s only three things we ask”, says Rafe Offer, as 40 or so people get comfortable in an East End warehouse apartment: “Keep quiet during performances, try to stay for all the bands and, if you like what you hear, go hear it again.”
With that, Offer heads into the crowd to find his bit of floorspace while Parisian three-piece Mina Tindle start playing melodious music to an enraptured audience.
Offer is the co-founder of Sofar Sounds, a group that organises secret pop-up gigs for new musicians and dedicated music fans in cities across the world. Since launching the concept in 2009, they’ve hosted performances in UK cities including Belfast, Glasgow, Oxford, Manchester and London, and abroad – in Mumbai, Sydney, Mexico City and New York.
Offer’s three-part request taps into what living-room gigs are all about – an alternative way to experience live music that prioritises quality. Pop-up gigs are the perfect antidote to merchandise-heavy, big venue performances that can leave you wondering whether you really like live music after all.
Living-room gigs themselves are nothing new. Even Noel Gallagher’s had a go. However, what was once a niche activity is spreading fast. It’s an opportunity for bands to do their thing without music industry constraints, while audiences get a chance to see a great band without the irritation of getting crushed in a massive crowd.
We’ve all been there: you arrive at the 4,000-capacity venue armed with your best mate to see a favourite band perform. Tickets cost £32 each but you make up for it by living off soup for a few weeks and writing your lecture notes smaller to save on notepads. You get there early enough to find a spot near the front, not stuck behind a row of 6ft blokes in their Doc Martins, so you won’t have to be on tip-toes all night. The lights go down, the band walks on, the music starts. Then the guy behind you starts singing. Loudly. And out of tune.
The living-room gig set-up is ideal for cash-strapped, music-loving students. Sofar Sounds is run on a donations-only policy, there’s an informal atmosphere, and you can bring your own drinks. What’s more, the “underground” feel gives the gig an edge that the O2 Arena could never pull off.
For Sophie, studying geography at Manchester University, it was the laid-back intimacy that she enjoyed: “We saw Stefan Melbourne play a living-room gig back in May. I loved it. There’s no physical divide between the musicians and the audience so you feel totally immersed in it.
“Clubs and bars try to promote this image of students constantly wanting to party hard until they’re total wrecks. It’s demeaning and it’s just not true a lot of the time. Sofar was quite the opposite – chilled out, really friendly crowd and brilliant music.”
The sentiment is shared by maths student Ollie, who is studying at UCL. “I’ve been to a couple of living-room gigs and can’t wait to go again,” he says.
“We saw The Staves play last year and I remember thinking how cool it was to see musicians in such a relaxed setting. Students don’t often get that luxury – it feels more like something reserved for those who’ve made it big. I guess living-rooms are the ultimate democratiser.”
But as their drummer Jon Willoughby points out, not all “living-room gigs” are actually performed in, er, living-rooms:
“We’ve performed gigs all over the place: a florist’s in Manchester, a tattoo parlour in Middlesborough, a bike shop in Brighton – as well as actual living-rooms of course. Settings like that are a great way to make fans feel involved and it’s pretty awesome for us too.”
Despite the band’s growing success and an upcoming UK tour, this hasn’t changed their affection for these low-key shows. For guitarist Ian Dudfield, “there’s something great about going back to doing it up-close-and-personal, living-room style”.
And it’s not just To Kill a King keeping it real. Leeds-based Hope and Social are a six-piece rock band who fit as many living-room gigs as they can into spare touring days. Often they end up staying the night once the post-gig shindig is over.
Ed Waring, the band’s keyboard player, says: “There comes a point when trying to earn money can disturb what you’re actually doing with the music you want to make. It’s a continual battle all bands have. For us, playing music and interacting with fans is what it’s all about. Living-room gigs give us a great opportunity to combine those things.”
Living-room gigs are a cheap way to get to know new bands and unfamiliar styles of music. “Everyone gets to have a good time,” says Waring, “and if there are people there who don’t know who we are, even better – that’s people learning about our music while having fun with their mates.
“For us, it’s a reminder that a band like us is just a few generations down from wandering minstrels. The only difference is we’re doing it in living-rooms.”