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Calling all Barcelona residents, nightlife lovers, and music fans: throw out the names of three or four small music clubs around town—and not just any small music clubs, but cool, intimate listening environments with a solid reputation. You know, places where on almost any given night, you can walk in and be treated to quality music in a quality atmosphere. No? Not too many spring to mind?
Barcelona used to be home to more such places, but in the past ten years, due to the financial crisis and increasingly restrictive laws, many have either been forced to cut back significantly on their musical programming, operate en negro (illegally) or close completely. The live music scene is suffering, and for every club that switches from bands to DJs, or closes down, it’s rare that another one opens.
The public has less live music options and musicians are hurting for the lack of small spaces in which to play. What do you do if you’re touring through Barcelona, or you’re a young band still building your base and can’t pull in 500 people on a Wednesday night? (Especially if there’s rain or football.) You obviously can’t play the Apolo or Sala Bikini. So, what options do you—and your fans—have?
A trend that’s been popular in the US for decades has slowly crept across the pond, made its way into the UK, and finally, into continental Europe. It is an alternative to, and arguably a replacement for, the small music club or listening room: the house concert.
The first ‘official’ house concerts are speculated to have originated in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, often with tie-ins to burlesque shows and the illegal sex trade. These days, a house concert is usually a little more mild and often exactly what its title implies, a concert in someone’s living room.
In the simplest format, people sit on sofas, chairs, on the floor, or wherever they can find a free spot. The host clears a space for the musician(s) to stand, perhaps sets out some candles and/or rearranges lamps to add a little atmosphere. The music is usually unplugged, or acoustic—no amplifiers, no sound system, just the old school method of projection; i.e., strong lungs. Sometimes house concerts aren’t even located inside a house. They might be hosted in a church, on a temporary wooden stage in the garden, or any unconventional private space that is not typically used for performance.
Usually there are food and drinks available, either provided by the hosts, donated by the guests, or available for purchase. There is normally a cover charge, which is how the hosts pay their expenses and pay the musicians, though there are many people who consider these events a hobby, a passion, or a labour of love, and choose to donate all the proceeds to the artists. The audiences are typically either part of a mailing list, or have discovered the event via word-of-mouth. Some are house concert devotees, and others had never heard of such events before their neighbour, girlfriend or roommate convinced and/or dragged them along for the show.
SoFar Sounds is the first example of house concerts that I’ve come across in Barcelona. Their system is a little different from a typical house concert, but they have made it work remarkably well. Considering that the house concert is an almost unknown concept in Barcelona, and that many houses here are actually apartments and are relatively small, SoFar has made huge strides in their first year of putting on shows in the city.
However, SoFar Barcelona did have a little help. The organisation was first started in London in 2009. Three friends, all rabid music fans, decided they wanted to create a live music experience that would be intimate, unique, and would provide an alternative to the local club scene. They would host ‘secret’ concerts in private homes around the city, and invite people solely by word-of-mouth and via online guerrilla marketing. First come, first served, a free show with limited capacity showcasing new local talent… and with the names of the performers kept under wraps until the night of the show, to deepen the element of intrigue. It worked. By February 2013, their project had expanded to 50 cities around the world, and had hosted its first concert in Barcelona.
American expat Mary Elizabeth Adams managed the team of six that is currently involved in organising the Barcelona concerts: Anna Fernández, Anna Ibarzabal, Victoria Niven, Roberto Esposito, Jordi Isern y Ainara Marañón. I interviewed Anna Fernández about her role in the SoFar Sounds production team. She commented: “Each of us plays an essential role in the process of putting on a SoFar concert. Selecting the artists, coordinating the crew who films and records the audio for each show, the photographer, the organisation of each event, the person who is responsible for promoting the event via the email list and social networks, inviting people... it’s a lot of shared responsibility.”
She says that she was attracted to working with the SoFar series for the same reasons as the UK founders: “Music is the main character. It’s a project based on passion and respect for music. Our mission is to revive live music on a global scale.” So far (no pun intended), SoFar has 17,000 active subscribers on their YouTube channel.
They mostly use social networks, especially Facebook, in order to get the word out about their events. Because the concerts are ‘secret’, traditional methods of promoting a club show are closed to them—posters, media and so on.Their biggest weapon is still word of mouth, and their ever-growing email list.
Anna says, “More than anything, we want to attract real live music fans, people who are excited about the opportunity to get close to an artist, people who are open to discovering new bands and who have the curiosity to come out to a show—even if they’re not familiar with the band that is playing.”
I attended the last SoFar Sounds show in Barcelona. We were emailed an address close to the main correos office the day before the show. When we showed up at 8.15pm—the show was announced for 8.30pm—the line of people stretched around the block. At 8.30pm exactly we filed in, and bought beer, wine in plastic cups, water, Coca-Cola, potato chips or boxes of sushi (sushi? yes, sushi). My companion and I managed to snag a seat on the black leather couch in the back of the room. Most sat on the floor. The room was cleared of furniture. One of the bedrooms off to the side was being used as a dressing room for the musicians. The ‘stage’ was the floor space in front of tall picture windows dressed in white curtains and sparkly fairy lights.
Three local bands played that night. The final act, a quartet called Las Suecas, stole the show. I was blown away that they were able to put on such a dynamic show without a sound system of any kind, because this was not your typical acoustic, appropriate-for-house-concerts act strumming chilled-out folk ballads. There was a (admittedly small) drum kit, played by a perpetually grinning guy with a huge afro, and a baby blue electric guitar played by a pretty girl with long, dark hair and a super-short dress. A variety of whistles, Theremins, toy keyboards and other gadgets were experimented with by another brunette with huge geeky glasses (geeky in the best possible way). To top everything off, Paul McCartney-style electric bass. This was played by the lead singer, a thin girl with chin-length honey-coloured hair, who looked like something out of an 18th-century painting in vintage pants. They all sang harmonies. They sounded like PJ Harvey and Nirvana and the Velvet Underground (in Catalan!), and it was awesome. They were so much fun, and I never would have discovered them had I not happened upon SoFar’s secret shows.
The night was a great experience for all involved. The music was fresh, the audience was generally young and excited to be there, and the crew was as professional (or more so) as any I’d seen.
If I am to be completely honest, the one thing I would usually find fault with is that SoFar doesn’t pay their musicians. Everyone who comes through plays for free, whether they’re touring, local, well-known or just starting out. Being a professional musician myself, this initially rubbed me the wrong way. Working musicians are out there trying to make a living, just like anyone else. That being said, no one—not the promoters, not the sound technician, not the video guy, not the organiser, not the emcee—gets paid. Everything is voluntary. At the show that I saw, there were at least seven SoFar team members working hard to make the experience a great one for all involved.
As a result, in this case I can’t complain. Though not typical of house concerts, their all-volunteer format works well for them, and the SoFar team is extremely dedicated. The bands who play are told in advance that they will be playing for free, and it’s up to them to accept or reject the opportunity to play in a welcoming environment in front of a potential pool of excited new fans. We all have to make a living, but sometimes (often), playing is about more than the paycheck.