They’ve been hosting underground concerts for two years. Now you’re in on the secret.

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Photo by Trace Vangorden/The Charlotte Observer
Chicago band Sidewalk Chalk performs during a Sofar Sounds concert at Camp North End in Charlotte.

When you go out to hear live music, which do you prefer?

A. Chatting up my friends, texting, filming the band — preferably while blocking someone’s view with my phone … that sort of thing.

B. Listening to the band I paid to hear.

If you answered A, you’re in luck: There are many venues where you can half-listen to a band while going about your business. But if you answered B, you likely know how difficult it is to find a place where patrons pipe down and appreciate the musician.

Byron McClendon, 24, falls into category B. He moved to Charlotte for his job as a digital strategy consultant with EY soon after graduating from college. While in Atlanta as part of his EY training in January 2017, he went to a Sofar Sounds concert and loved the concept.

The intimate concert series, founded in London in 2009, encourages guests to arrive on time, turn off their phones and enjoy being in the moment. That’s one distinguishing feature. Another: the element of surprise.

Here’s how it works. You apply online (more about that in a bit) for an upcoming concert. All you know at the time you apply? The date of the show. If the algorithm randomly selects you for the event, you’ll get an email asking you to confirm your interest and pay $15 per ticket. There’s a ticket limit based on the size of the venues.

Twenty-four hours before the show, you’ll get another email announcing the venue. You won’t find out who’s playing until you show up. But this isn’t amateur hour. The musicians are carefully vetted.

McClendon — who played in bands in his hometown of Fayetteville, Ark., and at Wake Forest University — applied to bring the concept to Charlotte. He got his shot in March 2017, two months after experiencing his first Sofar show.

As with most new ventures, there were some snags in the beginning. McClendon was new to Charlotte and didn’t know where to host his first house concert. So he hosted in his uptown apartment. “The cops came,” he said. “Once I told them about the concept, they were very understanding and let the musicians finish. Lesson learned.”

Since then, other concerts have been held in private homes. They’ve also been held at breweries, art galleries, Camp North End and a rock-climbing gym. They always include three acts; one is generally a Charlotte act. At a recent Saturday night show in NoDa, the musicians included Charlotte-based folk/rock singer/songwriter Brit Drozda; Hembre, from Argentina; and Brooklyn-based R&B artist/rapper Royce Lovett.

Charlotte-based Of Good Nature, a reggae-rock band, has played two Sofar Sounds shows here — one was at the Harley-Davidson showroom on Independence Boulevard — and has done others in cities including Boston, Dallas and New York. (The concept has been brought to 429 cities worldwide, Sofar’s website says.)

The band is on the road up to 200 nights a year. Said singer and lead guitarist Cam Brown: “We work hard to fill a big room. A Sofar Sounds concert comes with built-in promotion. There’s a guaranteed room full of people probably hearing our music for the first time. We chat after the show. They may start following us on Instagram and download our music. And a house concert is a little more special, a little less ‘produced.’”

The artists are compensated “a little,” said Brown, 29, a graduate of Ardrey Kell High School. The real value comes from gaining exposure and from getting a professional-quality video of their performance they can use for promotions.

The big winners at a Sofar Sounds show — most of which are BYOB and nearly all of which sell out, McClendon said — are the audience members, who are generally reverent and attentive. It’s a win for the performer and the audience.

“Our largest show was 270 people,” McClendon said. “One of our smallest was held in February at Local Loaf in NoDa. There were 60 or 70 people there. Our sweet spot is around 100 to 200.”

Now, about how those 100 or so people find themselves in a room together. Sofar Sounds is trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, McClendon said: “There are about 70 to 80 percent new people at every show. These are in-demand events, and having an algorithm choose who’s invited — rather than taking people in the order they sign up — helps ensure we keep getting new people.”

If you apply and don’t get in, try again, he advised.

“Our goal in Charlotte is to have more concerts,” he added. “Not bigger ones.”

So far, so good

Visit www.sofarsounds.com/charlotte for more information and to apply to attend an upcoming concert. Upcoming shows are on Saturday (March 1) and March 22, April 13 and 25, and May 2.

This piece originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.

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