Elle Varner performs at a Sofar Sounds house show in Brooklyn. A new partnership between the house concert company and Airbnb has been criticized for providing musicians exposure but little to no pay. (Photo: Lesley Keller)
We’re sitting in the airy headquarters of the 13-year-old homeshare website Couchsurfing.com -- one of the earliest success stories of the sharing economy. Tonight, it's their office that's being shared, playing host to yet another company banking on this economic system's murky potential.
“Who here has been to a Sofar Sounds show?” asks a young man in a backwards cap, as a handful of the 100-plus audience members raise their hands. Nearly everyone here is in their 20s -- couples, collegial friends and coworkers in groups of three and four. Waiting for the show to start, they munch on salads from the nearby Whole Foods. They Instagram. They drink wine. They Instagram themselves drinking wine.
Despite knowing neither the venue’s location nor the identity of the evening’s performers at the time of purchase, each of these audience members paid $15 or $30 to get in, depending on whether they "applied" through Sofar Sounds’ website and in-house vetting system or bought guaranteed entry through Sofar’s new partnership with Airbnb. The element of surprise is a selling point, as is the secrecy and exclusivity, and it's worked; this show sold out days ago.
Sofar Sounds, named for “Songs From a Room,” is a for-profit company that hosts live music performances in 340 cities worldwide. Founded in London in 2009 by three friends who were sick of the loud, disrespectful audiences at bars and rock clubs -- this origin story is recounted before every show -- Sofar now has a full-time staff of at least 50, investors like Virgin’s Richard Branson, and a team of unpaid volunteer “ambassadors” in every Sofar city. The company has grown quickly over the past eight years, largely by marketing itself as a grassroots movement for and by like-minded music lovers. Its motto is "Bringing the magic back to live music."
But a contingent of local artists say there’s one increasingly unavoidable sour note: performers at Sofar shows don’t get paid. A first-time Sofar musician is instead compensated with a “high-quality” video of his or her four-song set; after that, a performer is considered a Sofar "alum" and offered a $50 stipend (depending on a room's capacity, as low as three percent of the door) for an unfilmed gig. At all shows, musicians have the chance to sell merchandise, promote upcoming appearances, and make fans and social media followers out of a captive, attentive and, increasingly, upper-middle-class audience.
In other words: it’s great exposure.
“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,” says Madeline Kenney, an Oakland singer-songwriter whose 2016 EP Signals landed on several critics’ year-end lists. Kenney played four Sofar shows before deciding they weren’t worth it -- and, she says, before learning they weren’t free to attend.
“They’re projecting this kind of supportive community vibe, but that’s the complete opposite of what they’re doing,” says Xiomara, a Berkeley-born R&B artist who, similarly, performed two Sofar shows before learning from a friend that audience members had to apply for $15 tickets.
“I think they’re taking advantage of artists who are at a certain place in their career, and purposefully not being upfront about [their finances].”
As a privately backed company, Sofar hasn’t released detailed public financial records. But the site Pitchbook.com reports that as of January 2015, Sofar Sounds LLC was valued at more than $22 million; by July 2016, the company had raised just under $6 million in venture capital. Founders then identified San Francisco as a “Tier 1” market and launched major scaling efforts here, jumping from one show every other week to 20 per month (still largely organized and executed by around 100 volunteers), increasingly holding shows in office spaces to keep that pace, and charging a flat $15 ticket rate for shows as opposed to their earlier pay-what-you-want donations. (The controversial Airbnb partnership -- more on that in a moment -- was introduced in January.)
Still, Sofar staff say the company isn’t profitable yet. “Our founders have been doing this as a hobby for the past five or six years, and we spend a lot more money than we earn,” says Sofar's San Francisco director Dean Davis. Asked if the company could simply pay a flat percentage of the door charge to artists -- the way traditional venues handle payment -- Davis says that at the moment, "we can’t offer that.” When the company does turn a profit, he says, one of their goals is increasing compensation for artists.
Laced clearly throughout the company’s marketing, however, is a familiar kind of philosophy. It’s one that views a jump in Twitter followers as interchangeable with rent money -- a model that treats artist pay like an afterthought, arguably normalizing the expectation that artists should work for free while co-opting the aesthetics of DIY house shows for profit. In the process, many local industry insiders say Sofar Sounds is taking advantage not only of struggling artists but unwitting fans -- many of whom are young, new to the city and unfamiliar with its live music scene.
They’re unfamiliar as well, perhaps, with a larger concept: much like you don’t need a wifi-enabled juicer to squeeze a bag of juice, you don’t need a tech company to go to a house show.
The tradition of performing music in private homes is, of course, as old as music itself, running from the Medieval period's wandering minstrels to the seeds of hip-hop, nurtured at Kool Herc's house parties in the Bronx.
The modern-day house show might look a little different, but it’s left its mark on nearly every kind of music. In 1970s New York, jazz flourished at "rent parties" in Soho’s former industrial loft spaces. The '90s punk and grunge movements would have looked much different without Olympia, Washington’s Phoenix House, which showcased early, scrappy versions of Nirvana and Bikini Kill; in cities around the world, punk houses still comprise much of the genre’s touring circuit. Folk music all but invented the term "listening room," and the tradition is still going strong: indie acts like Rocky Votolato, David Bazan and Langhorne Slim have all gone on national house-concert-only tours in recent years.
“I would rather play in someone’s living room to six or seven people that want to be there than to 200 people who don’t care in a bar,” says Dan Weiss, frontman for the San Francisco indie pop band The Yellow Dress. For one thing, “Often those six or seven people will cook you dinner afterwards, and maybe offer you a place to stay.”
From 2012 to 2016, Weiss helped run a house show venue in the Richmond District; he still regularly books shows and mini-festivals at other houses in San Francisco and Oakland. And when The Yellow Dress tours, he makes a point of playing roughly 80 percent house shows and DIY venues.
He recalls a show he played in Chattanooga, Tennessee a few years ago, where there were maybe 12 people in attendance. “The host didn’t ask anyone to give money at the door, but then he felt bad, so he went to the ATM and pulled out $400 for us. And of those 12 people, I’m active friends with all of them," he says.
"It’s a very organic and real fostering of community. It’s not forced,” he adds pointedly. “Or created by tech overlords.”
Weiss acknowledges that, in terms of compensation, a typical DIY house show may not pay much more than the $50 stipend Sofar offers alumni for non-filmed shows. On the other hand, there’s no middleman. Hosts don’t take a cut, and whatever’s collected at the door goes straight back to the artists at the end of the night, divvied up by the bylaws of punk and common sense: the lion’s share goes to the touring band, the people who need food and gas to make their next gig.
The local folk scene operates in a similar if separate ecosystem. A number of singer-songwriter house show series have been functioning (if not flourishing) in the Bay Area for years.
KC Turner might be their unofficial king. A promoter, artist manager and musician, he’s hosted an acoustic house concert series since 2006, booking primarily folk artists for living room shows in San Francisco, the East Bay and Marin. Though he also books at regular venues, Turner will be the first to tell you there's something special about the house shows. He still remembers the moment in 2006 when, sitting in a living room in San Rafael listening to Matt the Electrician, he felt so inspired that he decided to throw his own.
“It’s the lack of barriers between artist and the audience,” says Turner. “Especially with an unplugged living room performance, there’s the lack of a stage or a microphone -- you’re all on one platform together, the same playing field, connected. That’s hard to recreate in a music venue.”
On Turner’s website, would-be attendees can RSVP to house shows with a $20 suggested donation. His hosts don’t take a cut, and Turner says he takes only enough to cover a show’s basic costs.
“The rest goes to the artist,” he says. “Private shows are a direct fan-to-artist supporting system.”
Turner had mixed feelings about Sofar Sounds when the company first showed up in San Francisco in 2012. But he’s since come around, especially since attending a few shows -- initially, he notes, at the urging of friends who work for Facebook.
“The bottom line is I think I’m okay with it,” says the promoter. Their demographics are different, for one: Turner’s shows tend to attract people over 30, while Sofar Sounds taps a younger market. “I’ve had people come to my house concerts because they went to a Sofar Sounds show and Googled 'house concerts' in the area afterward. It’s helping young people discover this world, and this whole way of experiencing shows, and that’s great.”
He also appreciates Sofar's emphasis on attentiveness; the standard pre-show spiel about the company's founding is usually followed by directions not to talk or text during a performance. Turner thinks this atmosphere, combined with the average income level of attendees -- anecdotally, there’s a higher ratio of tech employees at Sofar Sounds SF shows than at, say, your average Friday at Thee Parkside -- is good for the music scene at the end of the day.
“They’re targeting the demographic that can spend money on shows and wants to, and if that trickles back down to me as a concert host, or a promoter of a show that’s a different vibe, that’s great too,” he says, noting that he booked the soul-rock band the Tumbleweed Wanderers for a well-paying club show after seeing them at a Sofar show in 2014. “I don’t think it’s the quote-unquote exposure gig. There’s a real connective experience.”
“My biggest critique,” he says thoughtfully, recalling a Sofar show he had to leave because it felt too crowded and hot, “is they don't rent chairs.”
He laughs. “My audience would shit their pants if there were no chairs.”
Sofar Sounds audiences, as my beanbag-dwelling friends might attest, don’t care about chairs. Sofar Sounds audiences, the company likes to say, care about community. The word appears constantly in Sofar’s marketing, and for diehard fans and volunteers, the shows do appear to be a major social connector: The company boasts at least one married couple who met through Sofar Sounds; on social media, ambassadors often refer to their “Sofar family.” When Fantastic Negrito, a Sofar alum, won a Grammy earlier this year, Sofar Sounds volunteers posted proudly about it on Facebook with an unmistakable sense of ownership.
Dean Davis, the city director and only paid staff member of Sofar Sounds San Francisco, believes in the Sofar community. An erstwhile drummer and graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Davis started Sofar Sounds Boston as a volunteer in 2013. He got hired as the company’s “global ambassador” the following year, and moved to San Francisco for his current position in August of 2016. That was around the time the company increased its San Francisco show frequency, and changed the ticketing process; the Airbnb partnership was announced in January 2017.
“The whole idea [behind the growth] was to make Sofar available to everyone,” says Davis. “We had 500 to 600 people RSVPing to shows that could only hold 60 or 80 community members. So we said ‘Let’s ramp it up.’”
Davis says that with 20 shows a month, Sofar SF still sees about 200 people applying for each show, which means each audience is selected -- “curated” -- by the company based on applications. In response to a recent slew of positive press, he says, they’ve seen a lot of new faces.
“We can see how many times someone has been to a Sofar show before, and we try to make sure 60 to 70 percent of each show is completely new,” he says. First-time applicants are also asked for their age and gender. Davis agrees that the shows tend to attract people who are new to San Francisco: “It’s a fun place to meet new people who are like-minded,” he says. “People definitely treat it as a networking event.”
Davis walks me through the changes in the ticketing process, emphasizing that “Our shows were never free." Previously, tickets were “pay what you want,” with a $10 suggested donation. Last fall, they moved to a flat $15 ticket fee, with an announcement to would-be attendees on the website. (No artist I spoke with recalled receiving word of the change.)
But what if you don't want to be "curated"? Never fear: via the four-month-old Airbnb partnership, attendees can also purchase a $30 ticket through Airbnb's new “experiences” platform. This ticket is aimed at out-of-town travelers, says Davis, and guarantees entry to a Sofar show. The company sets aside 20 tickets per show for sale through this platform; Davis says Airbnb takes no cut of the $30.
“All our Airbnb tickets have been selling out,” he adds, “which has been incredible.”
Airbnb did not return requests for an interview. But a person close to the situation who has worked for Airbnb confirmed that the company does not take a cut from one-off experiences listed on the new platform, which was introduced in November 2016. Single-experience “hosts” -- chefs, urban farmers, bike tour guides, and in this case Sofar Sounds -- reportedly also set the price point.
But while Airbnb might not be reaping huge financial rewards with Sofar Sounds, they’re certainly benefitting in cool points: the appearance of supporting independent artists is invaluable cultural capital for a brand like Airbnb. In the Bay Area, where an already crunched housing market has been impacted in recent years by the proliferation of short-term rentals (and related evictions), Airbnb’s positioning itself as a company on the side of the struggling artist is shrewd to say the least.
If Davis is aware of the potential PR drawbacks from partnering Sofar’s ostensibly grassroots community with a corporation seen by grassroots activists as predatory, he’s not saying it. (Sofar founder Rafe Offer previously held senior marketing positions for Coca-Cola and Disney; to those in the know, a corporate partnership can’t have come as much of a surprise.)
“The vibe of the room still stays the same, as our communities are so similar,” Davis says of Airbnb users. “The Airbnb customer is a very curious, global customer, and when they travel the world they’re looking for that global experience. There’s so much synergy between their guests and our guests, it just made the best sense.”
If either company is sincere about listening to artists -- Davis told me several times that Sofar welcomes feedback, with “an open-door policy” -- they might do well to talk to someone like Dan Weiss, who in 2016 actively campaigned for Proposition F, the legislation that would have further regulated short-term rentals in San Francisco. (You may recall Airbnb's snarky billboard responses.) For Weiss, who was already skeptical of Sofar Sounds’ unpaid-show business model, the Airbnb alliance was the final straw.
“It felt very weird not to disclose that [partnership],” Weiss says of the email he received asking his band to play a show. “You’re basically tricking people into working for Airbnb.”
Davis says finding a way to increase payment for musicians is part of the company’s long-term plan. Paying artists a percentage of the door is something they could “explore in the future,” he says, noting that they “are going to be an artist-centric organization.”
Some quick back-of-the-napkin math: The show I attended in Potrero Hill was at capacity with 150 people. About 70 percent of those people were paying attendees, according to Davis, while the other 30 were volunteers, employees of the host company, musicians or friends of the band. That means at least 95 paying customers, 75 of whom paid $15 to get in, 20 of whom paid $30. Credit card processing site Stripe takes 2.9 percent plus 30 cents of every transaction, which comes out to about $80. There was no A/V team to pay out at this show, which leaves an intake of about $1,650 for Sofar Sounds. Assuming each of the bands was paid the standard $50 stipend for an unfilmed show, this means $1,500 -- thirty times more than each band's pay -- went straight to Sofar Sounds.
Davis says that money goes back into infrastructure: buying equipment (they purchased PAs last year as opposed to asking musicians to bring their own), paying A/V teams, “artist relations,” and marketing. The company also pays for a basic event insurance policy that covers damages at shows, though they forego costly event permits. Hosts receive no compensation for opening their homes or offices.
Sofar Sounds also emphasizes the money that goes into training and hosting social events -- camping trips, happy hours -- for unpaid ambassadors. “These are people who work 9 to 5, and this is what they want to do in their free time," says Davis. "They’re learning how to book shows, they’re getting up close and personal experiences with their favorite artists."
It's natural that keeping volunteers happy is a priority, considering the venture seems to lean heavily on unpaid work.
“I was confused why all these volunteers would just help without asking questions,” says one local artist manager and DJ, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, of his first encounter with Sofar Sounds circa 2013. "[But] on some level this was a beautiful thing. I just assumed it was a non-profit organization, with community support on every level."
Then he went to an industry lunch with a “West Coast rep” for Sofar Sounds. “The question came up of how the company was structured, and when she said they were a for-profit company, a few of us at the table, myself included, had a jaw-drop moment,” he says. At that time, the company was beginning to seek investors; another potential revenue stream discussed, he says, was placements for music recorded at the gigs. (Sofar Sounds now says artists retain all the rights to their video and audio material from shows.)
Like others interviewed for this story, this source believed most local people involved with Sofar -- i.e., volunteers -- "have the best intentions." But he questions who all has been clued in on the big-picture strategy, and since when. (My request to interview a Sofar Sounds founder for more perspective on the company’s longterm plan went unanswered.)
On the day of our conversation, this manager has just received an offer for a Sofar show for a young performer he manages. “I’m leaning toward a pass,” he says. “Even though I know the show will offer real value to our artist.”
And there, truly, is the rub. What is the value of an unpaid gig? Of a video? Are Instagram followers as good as gas money?
There are certainly artists who say yes: performers who love the Sofar Sounds experience, and find the benefits outweigh the lack of compensation. Travis Hayes, an alt-country singer, has played about half a dozen Sofar shows over the past two years. After attending a few shows as an audience member -- it became a regular date night for him and his now-fiancée -- he submitted his band for consideration.
“Touring alone, you play so many shows where you’re in the back of the bar, playing to no one... It’s kind of soul-destroying,” says Hayes with a laugh. “So to have a show where everyone is there with the intent to actively listen to what you’re presenting musically is really phenomenal.”
Hayes has also seen Sofar shows’ value in terms of promoting larger gigs. Since the bills aren’t announced ahead of time, a Sofar show won’t break an artist’s radius clause. That meant when he played a stripped-down Sofar show a week before his band’s first show at Great American Music Hall last year, he was "playing for 50 to 100 people that had probably never even heard of me" without breaking the terms of his contract with the larger venue.
And on tour, looped into the company’s cross-country network, his band booked Sofar shows in other cities en route to and from South By Southwest -- sold-out rooms in places where they might not have otherwise had any draw. Hayes hopes Sofar's new ticket prices translate into better artist pay. But regardless of payment, he says, as a result of his experiences thus far, “I would never turn down a Sofar show."
Dean Davis says the company aims to pay artists more in the future. But he's also adamant that this focus on money is nearsighted.
“People are taught to think money is the only way artists can be treated well,” he says. “But as a musician, having had experiences on tour where we work tirelessly to bring people in and then you’re treated like crap, and the promoter just sits back and collects, there’s a ton in a Sofar show for artists. They get an incredible video, they get new fans, they’re connected to our network from then on, and they’re treated with respect.” Early on, he says, the company sought feedback from artists about what drives them, and “a lot of it really isn’t money. They just like being listened to.”
As for accusations that the company is co-opting elements of DIY culture for profit, Davis laughs. “You know, the thing about the ‘oh, we’re punk rock, we’re a real DIY scene’ -- DIY honestly just means that it has to do with the community,” he says. “DIY means a show that has a very warm, comforting intimacy to it, a connecting element, a scene. Sofar has all of that at our shows. We’re just a little more organized with it.
“What is DIY?” he says. “It’s an interesting question to ask.”
It's 2017 in San Francisco, and much like there are now about a half a dozen apps that help walk your dog, Sofar isn't the only tech company dealing in house shows. Relative newcomer Roomtone, which launched here last year, also offers artists videos of their performances, plays up the secrecy and exclusivity element on social media, and has partnered with Airbnb, adding value to their "experiences" platform. In one recent outreach email to a local band, a Roomtone booker also promised show attendance by "top brass" from the homeshare company.
Scott McDowell, a recording engineer who worked as a Sofar A/V team member for a little over a year, stepped away from the company just as it ramped up operations in San Francisco. But he remains conflicted on the value of this dangled carrot from the tech world.
"You do get a room filled with San Francisco’s young urban professionals, and if you connect with these people...They’re the non-music-scene people your band needs to get to the next level. And they’re going to pay attention," says McDowell, who has also run live sound at traditional venues. "Do you know how hard it is to get people to pay attention if you’re the main support at Bottom of the Hill?”
On the other hand, “Part of the reason bands are being exploited is there are bands that are willing to be exploited. If you’re an artist who comes from money or you have a job and you’re just doing this for fun, great. But not all good bands have that financial security," he says. "We need to be working to make sure music isn’t just an upper middle-class hobby."
Exposure gigs, he adds, create an uneven playing field for artists trying to make it in an already-ruthless industry. "You can say a band that’s really good is going to get big based on merit [anyway], and in the short term maybe that's fine," he says. "But in the long term? You're basically ruining the scene."
Some artists spoke to me about their philosophical opposition to or negative experiences with Sofar, but didn’t want to go on the record, citing possible backlash or loss of other opportunities for gigs. Others, like Lalin St. Juste from the electronic soul band The Seshen, told me they felt conflicted about Sofar gigs, but have kept playing them anyway.
“It’s helpful in new regions, like when I was in London -- because the shows are always full and you get to meet a new audience. And the video is okay,” says St. Juste, who’s done two Sofar shows. “But overall, this whole artists not getting paid thing is ridiculous. I don’t think the model can last.”
Several artists interviewed for this piece were unaware that Sofar Sounds was a for-profit company.
“I’m confused, because SoFar is supposed to operate on a free model,” wrote Nate Salman of the band Waterstrider on an online thread about Sofar ticket prices in March 2017, noting that he’d always had positive experiences with the company despite not getting paid. “Tickets are a lottery but they are supposed to always be free," he wrote. "When did they start charging money for these gigs?"
In the same thread, Sonny Smith of Sonny and the Sunsets recounted his experience of his band's Sofar New York show, and the introduction they were given by a Sofar emcee: "She asked us, with the mic on, who we were after she called us something else, which felt a little embarrassing. Once that happened, and as I looked around and took in that we were playing a free show at a generic boutique in Manhattan that sold $400 jeans and not much else, I just figured it wasn’t an experience that had much soul or had much to do with anything that matters."
“I feel duped,” says Lia Rose, a singer-songwriter and activist who makes a point of playing benefit shows, paid and unpaid, for social justice causes. As a performer who prefers intimate spaces to loud bar gigs, she’s played three Sofar shows since mid-2015 and says they’ve been mostly positive experiences.
She was under the impression, however, that the company was not-for-profit. “If you’re trying to build an empire on the backs of artists, at least be transparent about it,” says Rose. “You’re dealing with a vulnerable population: a lot of artists are so hungry for a space where people will listen that they’ll do anything.”
That is, until they can't take it anymore.
When Madeline Kenney played her fourth Sofar Sounds show in January, she decided halfway through her set that she would never play one again. It was about a month after the Ghost Ship fire, she says, and she was thinking philosophically about the whole nature of secret shows, what it meant to put her “heart and soul out there,” and what she was getting in return. So when it was her turn to play, she decided to say something.
“I think it’s great that you guys like this type of thing,” she remembers saying to the crowd of 40 to 50 people. “And you should also know there’s a lot more where that came from -- there’s a big DIY community in Oakland and in San Francisco, and artists really need your support.”