Sofar Sounds: Why It’s Important to Boycott Them

Bastille — War Child Sofar Show, Feb. 23rd, 2015. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Joshua McClain is a cellist, composer, studio artist, writer, and filmmaker based in Oakland, CA. He’s best known for his unbridled solo cello performances — Find out more: www.joshuamcclain.net

In the late 2000’s, I cut my teeth playing live solo shows in loud and smokey bars in Northwest Indiana — right in the middle of the rust belt. After every show, my cello and furry Roland keyboard amp would reek of cigarettes and stale beer. While these were great times of “self-development,” I always longed for better performance experiences.

It wasn’t until I moved to Oakland, CA in 2012 and began playing with a community of seasoned, veteran musicians, several decades my senior, that I was able to experience real listening room environments. I think a lot of this had to do with the demographic of the audiences we were playing for, a lot of them in their 50s and 60s — from a different time than my own generation, from a time when people got together to listen to a whole record…like the entire way through, both sides.

As I started to play more and more listening rooms, and more relevant for this article, house concerts, the more I began to view appreciation for the arts as an essential part of community and community building. If we don’t have arts for the sake of arts, as a human collective, what’s the point? Furthermore, I discovered there’s a large community of passionate people doing just that — supporting artists and musicians. Not to mention, house concerts are good pay for musicians: every house concert I’ve ever played has done either a 70/30 split of the door, with musicians getting the larger part, or all proceeds go to the musician(s). And, the host typically brings a majority of the audience. These gigs are nothing less than coveted by most DIY working musicians.

Enter SoFar Sounds, a London-based start-up founded in 2009 that brings great musicians and excited audiences directly to your living room, art gallery, or other performance space. Without knowing who the performer is, audience members sign up to be notified of concerts near them, at which time they buy a ticket for $15–30. With a presence in 370+ cities around the globe and over 500 shows every month, SoFar is beginning to have a large imprint on the performing artists’ market — impressive, especially for such a young and lean company with relatively few salaried employees.

Elle Varner performing on November 16, 2011 in Brooklyn, New York for Sofar Sounds. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

On the surface, it appears that SoFar Sounds is the first startup to have actually gotten everything right with their business model: community, great music, big audience, intimate setting — they even give a pitch before each concert about the importance of seeing live music. All the stuff you want in a performance/listening room experience, not to mention a company in the morally-challenged tech arena.

SoFar, however, seems to be just fine with leaving out the most integral part: paying the musicians. This is where they willingly step onto the same stage as companies like Uber or Lyft — savvy middle-men tech start-ups, with powerful marketing muscle, not-so-delicately wedging themselves in-between the customer and merchant (audience and musician in this case). In this model, everything but the service-provider is put first: growth, profitability, share-holders, marketers, convenience, and audience members — all at the cost of the hardworking people that actually provide the service.

“Hold on just a minute there mister,” SoFar Sounds’ defensive PR team might tell you, “first off, we’re not profitable yet, and secondly, it’s great exposure.”

Yeah? First off, your profitability isn’t my problem and secondly, the bottom line is you’re still charging $15–30/ticket and paying the musicians nothing — until you start owning up to that, the elephant stays in the room and you’re just another one of the institutions that has yet-again exploited musicians for profit, for as long as there has been music, you chuckle-heads. A carpenter may be passionate about his work but he’s not going to build your house for “exposure” and “the sake of carpentry.” Wait until they build a carpenter-share site. If the shows were free, it’d be a different story and heck yah I’d like the exposure from a well-marketed, typically sold-out show.

In exchange for a Sofar Sounds performance, bands might get a free video, months and months later, with questionable sound quality. Or they’ll get $50, for the entire band, which literally translates into something like $3–5/hr, while SoFar brings in $1000–3000+ per show, multiplied by 500 shows per month. With an average of about 3 bands per Sofar Sounds show, that’s 1500 music groups or solo artists playing unpaid gigs, per month — with nearly all profits going to Sofar Sounds. Sure — when I’m booking my own shows, I don’t always have a completely packed house but at least I feel better, as a working musician, that I’m making a living with my instrument.

I will have to admit, it’s not all bad. “Really?” you ask — yeah, really. A lot of DIY musicians don’t get to play a show for 50–100+ pumped-up twenty-somethings that have never heard your music before, meaning potentially 50–100+ new Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook followers. Not to mention the potential merch you can sell. These are all huge pluses but also where SoFar’s justifications start to kick in.

But it gets stickier, not just because the number of my Instagram followers doesn’t pay the bills, but in addition to stiffing the musicians, the people that organize and run each show are part of a group called “volunteer” ambassadors — meaning a for-profit company is actually allowed to not just skirt minimum wage laws, but actually pay people nothing. How do they justify it? Well, they play on individuals’ passion for music, that and a wild lack of regulations — and while passion is exactly what house concerts are all about — I don’t believe that applies to multi-million dollar companies forming partnerships with like-minded middlemen and ethically challenged mega-companies like they did with Uber in 2015.

Today, it’s all about finding a market segment, whether that’s cab drivers or musicians, disrupting it, and vacuuming up as much of the cash as possible for your own parties and interests. That and scaling your company as quickly as possible or in Mark Zuckerberg’s words, “Move fast and break things.” And, I get it, these companies make everything more convenient, easy, and fast —sure, I know that Uber has questionable business ethics but I can get a ride in like 2 minutes — but at what point do we say “no”? For me, obviously, that time came when they targeted musicians, and the house concerts we rely on. I mean, what the goddamn hell? The god’s honest truth is that I’ll bet the Sofar founders had a good thing in mind, but when has money ever not-ruined a good idea?

If we don’t push back, corporations will continue to decide when, how, where, to whom, and how much we get to sell our own, hard-earned product — it’s already happening. As musicians and artists, it’s our natural-born responsibility to speak out against this type of corporate exploitation — especially exploitation of our fellow creators and performers. But, with more money, marketing, lawyers, and powerful partnerships, none of these companies will ever change, ever,until they begin to see a drop in their revenue — which is why it’s important to #boycottsofarsounds until their business model changes to work for all parties.

To be fair I love almost everything Sofar does, it’s almost the best concept, it’s almost the next best thing for musicians — just include us in your business model, pay us, and don’t exploit us. Or, apply for and slap a nonprofit badge on your website. Boom.

And for audience members — I highly encourage you to organize and produce your own house concert. Invite your friends and neighbors, invite people to contribute food for a potluck, move the furniture, maybe even change one of your light bulbs for a red one — create community all while supporting artists. I guarantee you won’t regret it and everyone will leave feeling better than they did before. Let’s start a grass-roots arts and music revolution…“sound” good? Get it? Sound…er, music….

Do anything but bring a corporation into your living room.

Joshua McClain playing an independently-produced house concert w/ Monica Pasqual and the Handsome Brunettes in Alameda, CA.

***It was brought to my attention by a fellow Bay Area music supporter that my article is very similar to this article, by KQED, which, to be fair, is better written than mine — and I love KQED :) Here’s my response to the email I received:

“Hey *****,

Thanks for reaching out and also for reading my article — are you with KQED?

To be clear, and I’m coming from a place of neutrality here, and again, thanks for forwarding the article: 1) I’ve never seen this article, quite literally. I’m glad it was written, and 2) I had no bad intentions with this article other than to educate the public on what’s happening to the concert scene due to Sofar Sounds propagating the unending poor pay for musicians. Has been happening for longer than that KQED article — and more people than the author of that KQED article hold the same opinion.

To clarfify, the image they use at the beginning is 1 of 2 you can find online for Sofar Sounds that is set for reuse under image rights — not a lot of options there. And the info I’m pulling is the same they are, from Wikipedia or directly from their site. Most articles I’ve read on Sofar Sounds, good or bad, start out with about the same stats and language, check it out.

It looks as though I’m not the only one with a very similar feeling — a fellow musician, Melody Walker, wrote a similar open letter to Sofar Sounds that facilitated a call directly with the CEO.

The rest I’m writing from my own experience working in Startup tech and as a musician having played Sofar shows and seen the email exchange/contract they send over.

My opinion is the more people that are writing about this, the better. With funding from Virgin, these guys will become the only way that people see music and in order to be seen, musicians, myself being one of them, full time, will have to take whatever they can get, from the only web platform that puts on concerts (because there’s an app and it’s now wildly convenient for audience members to see music) — with advertisements and endorsements from Uber and AirBnb — nothing short of a nightmare for a musician.

Happy to continue the dialogue though, let me know your thoughts.

Warm Regards,

Josh”