Sofar Sounds
Photos: Jeff Krentel Photography and Kill the Light Photography

Sofar Sounds Brings Intimate Live Music Experience to DC

When some of Fitz Holladay’s friends were unable to play their gig at DC9 back in 2010, his first thought was, “Let’s do a house show.” He promptly hosted a concert for his buds and another band, solidifying his love of hosting intimate concerts in unique spaces. Six years later, the DC native is leading the city’s rapidly expanding chapter of Sofar Sounds, a global movement bringing the living room experience to live music.

Holladay has watched DC’s Sofar community flourish since accepting the role of city director in March of last year. But it wasn’t until this spring that Sofar really started to gain momentum in the city, giving his team the ability to organize and host multiple shows a month – from two in April to 15 this month. Now, DC is one of the newest members of Sofar’s growing contingent of cities – New York, Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. among them – scaling up to support more shows per month. Later this fall, the 33-year-old music lover anticipates Sofar will host 20+ shows a month in the District.
“As we’ve scaled and done more shows, we’ve been able to learn from each one,” he says. “We’ve found out about so many amazing artists, and we’ve gained more traction and visibility, so more people are finding out about us.”

Holladay is pumped, but pragmatic. While Sofar has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the local community, from artists to guests, and he’s been able to grow his team of volunteers and production staff to 60 people, he says the DC chapter still has a ton of potential for growing its audience and finding out about more new music in the area. He views this as an evolving process, where he and his team learn from the feedback provided by guests and improve upon the experience each time.

“We’ve refined out process to try to make each show really special,” he says.

So here’s how it works. Holladay and his team book three acts per show, with each musician usually playing a four-song set that’s about 20 minutes long. The shows, which run from about 8 to 10 p.m., are hosted in a mix of one-of-a-kind residential and buzzworthy commercial spaces. The target audience size for most shows is between 40 to 60 people, with an absolute max of 120.

“I’ll tell ya, the shows hosted in someone’s living room where we can’t have more than 40 people are always so powerful,” Holladay says. “That’s what Sofar Sounds is all about – that intimate experience. We just look for any non-traditional space that has a cool vibe where we want people to walk in and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m seeing live music here,’ no matter where it is.”

The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington National Cathedral, Kreeger Museum, Studio Theatre, Shake Shack at Union Station and the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain are just some of the notable spaces Sofar DC has hosted shows. Holladay is working to line up some upcoming gigs at the Freer and Sackler Galleries and maybe an all-Swedish show at the House of Sweden, and hopes to one day host a performance at the Hirshhorn or even at the White House Rose Garden.

The city director says as long as Sofar is able to keep booking quality artists, the sky is the limit for the amount of shows they’ll host and variety of venues they’ll explore. He’s quick to point out that Sofar DC pushes for an eclectic lineup at every show, encompassing all genres. From hip-hop and reggae to string ensembles, he wants it all for the District’s shows. His team is even exploring adding spoken word and comedy acts to the experience.

Holladay strives mightily to strike a healthy balance between highlighting local and national acts, and books artists who are stopping through DC while on their respective tours whenever possible. He’s also had great success with nabbing musicians who hail from Philly or NYC, since it’s fairly easy for them to come down to the nation’s capital for a show.

LA-based electro-pop duo POWERS, Philadelphia alt/surf rock band Bel Heir, pop rock songstress Vanessa Carlton and New Zealanders Broods (who just played a Sofar gig on July 30) are some of Holladay’s favorite artists from outside the city who’ve headlined Sofar shows. He’s got an impressive wish list for national acts as well, including Radiohead (he’d settle for just Thom Yorke), Red Hot Chili Peppers and LCD Soundsystem.

When it comes to local artists, Holladay gushes about the amount of talent in the District. While it’s hard to name just a few local Sofar performers that have stood out to him recently, he has no problem rattling off an enthusiastic list that includes queerpop artist Be Steadwell, American roots singer-songwriter Lauren Calve, ethereal pop duo Nuex and dynamic pop band Shaed (formerly The Walking Sticks).

“I think every show is special,” he says. “I swear, some of the talent that’s kind of unrecognized, sometimes those are the most exciting ones because you’re like, ‘Who is this person? They’re incredible.’ And then you can say down the road, when they’re headlining 9:30 Club, ‘Oh yeah? Well I saw them in a living room.’”

To learn about upcoming Sofar shows, go to  www.sofarsounds.com/washington. Each month’s performance locations and dates are announced two weeks in advance. If you’re interested in volunteering with Sofar, email Holladay and his team directly at [email protected]

Photos: Jeff Krentel Photography and  Kill the Light Photography