Sofar Sounds are bringing unique, intimate gigs to people’s living rooms and other mysterious locations – but are they for the artists, the audience, or themselves?
Sofar Sounds aren’t just a live sessions producer, nor are they quite a gig promoter – they stand in a league of their own. They launched just under 10 years ago with a passion for live music and a disdain for the rest of the live music experience – loud crowds, busy venues, sweaty smells, exorbitant drink prices.
Sofar Sound’s New York branch city director, Stephanie Mitchell, spoke on how the founders responded to their position on gigs almost 10 years ago in London. “They decided to have a house concert with a few friends, and they asked for a few simple things from the audience – to be engaged and not talk during the performance. That kind of attentive room left an impression, so they continued doing more,” she said to Forbes.
Since the very first intimate concert that inspired an entire platform and business Sofar Sounds is now active in 430 cities around the world. They’ve hosted over 20,000 mysterious shows where audience members don’t know where they’re going or even the acts that they’ll be seeing that night.
Audiences of between 45 to 150 people get picked out of a lottery type system after applying on their website. All 3 acts that they see will be a total surprise and each act will be given equal footing – whether playing first or last there are no headliners and no support acts.
They’ve created a unique live music experience that changes the formula for watching concerts that has become so standard. It’s no doubt a great thing, but are the artists benefitting from these gigs? and what about the people who are hosting them in their living rooms, cafes, basements, etc?
Sofar Sounds announced this week that they have raised $25 million in a new round of funding. With a whopping new investment behind them they will be able to expand with hopes of becoming the worlds favourite in alternative concerts. It’s a lot of money on top of what they make from each gig; audience members pay between $15-30 for concerts.
There are questions over how much Sofar are paying the artists that are getting involved in these gigs. It can be a great opportunity for up-and-comers but when the company behind the scenes are making so much you’d expect the artists to be fairly compensated in return. After all the concept is nothing without the music.
In the past they have paid artists nothing, citing the high quality recording of the gig as the artists payment – videos that Sofar Sounds upload to their own channel’s portfolio. Sure, it can make for great exposure but it’s a classic case of artists being expected to work for free.
When artists are paid it can be as little as $100 for the gig. When Sofar Sounds are making can make $1,500+ a gig, the artists chunk is comparably nothing. If there are lots of members in the band they can end up with pittance for playing a gig arranged by one of the most popular, new concert-makers in world.
But for a solo artist who doesn’t need to travel far $100 can be totally reasonable, particularly as each set is normally only 3-4 tracks per artist. Once artists have played 1 Sofar Session they are also inducted into a sort-of ‘inner circle’ where it’s much easier to get more gigs with Sofar, so they can be a valuable resource if it makes sense for the musician.
In regards to the ‘payment via exposure’ issue, it’s a tough debate. Sofar have nearly 900,000 subscribers on YouTube and a major online presence that they will promote the artists playing Sofar gigs to. There is serious potential for new fans and social media followers here but with their proliferation and popularity it’s easy to get lost amongst a sea of other videos and posts on their pages and channels these days.
What about the people who are offering up their homes and businesses to provide a unique and mysterious venue as an alternative to the bars and stages of the norm? They’re reportedly not paid a single dime regardless. The crew that work in cities across the world to help make them run globally beyond their in-house team of 50 are also volunteers.
Writing an expose for KQED, Emma Silvers shares the gripes of many artists who have worked with Sofar Sounds. Thanks to Tech Crunch for bringing it to our attention. Oakland singer-songwriter, Madeline Kenney said: “I think they talk a lot about supporting local artists, but what they’re actually doing is perpetuating the idea that it’s okay for musicians to get paid shit.”
Kenney shares how she didn’t even realise the audience were paying for the gigs until she had already played 4 Sofar sets. Likewise R&B artist Xiomara shared that it was a friend who informed her audience members were paying $15 for tickets, saying: “They’re projecting this kind of supportive community vibe, but that’s the complete opposite of what they’re doing.”
Many of the artists also find themselves unaware that Sofar Sounds runs a for-profit company when they sign up to play with them. It’s not that it’s undisclosed but they clearly aren’t upfront enough with the artists when they peddle the community, intimate vibe of their gigs to musicians.
Does this mean they’re the enemy of artists though? Well, no. They’re still providing a cool opportunity and a potential global platform for artists. But it does set a precedent that is already too rife amongst the music industry of musicians not being treated as professionals who are valued. Sofar CEO, Jim Lucchese even says himself: “I don’t think playing a Sofar right now is the right move for every type of artist.”
Lucchese says that, once you take into account all of their maintenance costs, insurance, performing rights payouts and their own labour, “a little over half the take goes to the artists”. But that just de-prioritises the artists position in the making of it all – and raises the question of what their own “labour” costs are considering they often use volunteers on-site.
With a massive round of new funding hopefully Sofar have the funds to take their business to the next step of re-compensating artists as well as building their business. We will have to see how they progress from here as they become more-and-more profitable.
One thing is sure though. We need to pay artists for their work so that we don’t perpetuate the idea that work for “recognition” or “content” is always a good thing.