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The pandemic delays Sofar Sounds’ planned Madison chapter

The worldwide house-concert company wanted to have its first local show in March.

The worldwide house-concert company wanted to have its first local show in March.

The live-music business in Madison has changed a lot over the past few years, from the opening (and sometimes closing) of a range of small independent venues to the growing role of Live Nation. Recently another international player has been trying to establish a Madison footprint: Sofar Sounds, a company that brings a slick, tech-sector approach to intimate shows in living rooms and small shops. People have called it the Airbnb of house concerts, the Uber of house concerts, and the Blue Apron of house concerts.

Sofar planned to have its first Madison show on March 21, just after public events of all sorts started shutting down as Wisconsin began to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. Like most other live events, Sofar programming is on hold for now, except for some live-streamed performances the company is hosting. Sofar’s Madison coordinator, Tommy Ottolin, doesn’t want to say who was scheduled to play the March 21 show or where it was going to take place, other than to say it’s “a local shop specific to Madison,” because he’s hoping to work with that location and those artists in the future. The Sofar Sounds Madison Facebook page had only 159 likes as of this writing, so clearly Sofar has a ways to go in creating a real footprint here.

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The audience at a Sofar show generally pays $10 to $25 a head and doesn’t know who’s playing the show until they get there. Ticket buyers get the address for the venue a day ahead of time—usually someone’s home or a business that isn’t a conventional music venue. This is supposed to add up to a “magical” experience that brings people into a “global community,” as music writer Liz Pelly explained in a 2019 Baffler piece breaking down the cultural contradictions of a startup mining the traditions and rhetoric of DIY music scenes through a lens of analytics and social-media marketing. “It is largely another creation of tech middlemen where music is devalued in order to bolster a brand,” Pelly wrote.

Madison already has its share of house concerts, from basement punk shows to living-room folk shows to the impressive rock and country lineups of Kiki’s House of Righteous Music. House shows have also given experimental music a home in Madison at different times over the years, at spaces including Cult House, Shockrasonica, and the recently launched Common Sage. Lou Barlow played a show in a Madison backyard in 2018. For the most part, house concerts are a nice escape from the conventional live-music business: friends or fans set them up, audiences love the intimacy and communal feel, and the artists get most or all of the money. 

Lots of public pressure, some improvement

At a time when musicians have to get creative about making money, house concerts can be a pretty good deal, especially for independent artists with niche followings—minimal gear to lug, low overhead, an audience that’s willing to pay a little extra and listen attentively. There are some apps, online services, and even booking agencies that focus on helping artists book house shows. One small agency that focuses on house concerts is Undertow, whose artists, including Damien Jurado and David Bazan, have played house concerts in Madison at Kiki’s and elsewhere.

Sofar stands out for trying to make house concerts into big business, and making money for artists is not the priority. Founded in 2009 in London, the for-profit company has raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital and brought its model to hundreds of cities around the world. Until a few years ago, first-time Sofar performers were not paid at all but instead compensated with a video from their sets, as KQED’s Emma Silvers wrote in an in-depth look at the company’s business practices in 2017. Such reporting and a fair amount of public shaming from musicians, including calls for boycotts, has spurred Sofar to gradually improve its compensation: Now, artists can get $100 and a video. As New York City-based drummer John Colpitts (Oneida, Man Forever) pointed out in a 2019 piece for Talkhouse, the company relied for years on volunteer “ambassadors” to do a lot of the on-the-ground work it takes to put on shows. In January, Sofar reached a settlement with the New York Department of Labor, agreeing to provide about $460,000 in back pay for some of these workers.   

Sofar has responded to these problems with at least some attempts at transparency and pledges to do better, offering higher guarantees at its larger shows and setting base pay for artists at $100 per show. CEO Jim Lucchese claimed in December that the company’s average earnings, after paying artists and the paid staff the company now uses, come out to $176 per show. The financial breakdown Sofar offered, though, doesn’t factor in revenue streams outside of ticket sales. For instance, the hundreds of videos on Sofar Sounds’ YouTube page earn ad revenue (and if you’ve ever Googled a smaller artist who’s played a Sofar show, you know these videos are a marketing dynamo for the company), and Sofar also has formed marketing partnerships with companies including 20th Century Fox and Hyatt Hotels. Sofar also has a monthly membership program. It also doesn’t factor in that the artists are almost certainly getting paid as independent contractors, which means that $100 is pre-tax.

The plan for Sofar Madison

Ottolin got involved with Sofar Sounds’ Champaign, Illinois chapter while attending the University of Illinois. He moved to Madison in 2018. He got excited about Madison’s arts and music offerings and figured he’d try to make Sofar happen here. He officially started his role with Sofar last fall. “Madison’s always been on their radar, I guess—they just needed someone to start things up,” Ottolin says.

Ottolin hopes to focus his booking on Midwestern artists, and wants to book local artists “If it’s an artist that’s local that I think that people are going to be able to relate to.” He says the smallest venue he’s working with holds about 35 to 40 people, and the largest is a rooftop space with a capacity of 80 or 90. Ideally, he says, Sofar shows in Madison would take place once a month, with each featuring three artists, each of whom would play about 20 to 25 minutes. He’s good about not tipping his hand about which local acts he might be excited about. He did mention enjoying Madison psych-pop outfit Kainalu‘s show last summer at the Shitty Barn in Spring Green, and he hinted that he’s got an eye on hip-hop and Americana artists from Madison and Milwaukee.

Ottlin was also open about compensation.

“Standardly speaking our artists have got two options,” Ottolin says. “We either can give them a $100 cut from our ticket revenue, and/or we can give them a video from the set itself. It really is just…what do they find more beneficial, what do they need more?” Asked if the artists who were booked for the March 21 received any kind of cancellation fee, Ottolin replied that Sofar offered them inclusion on some of the company’s Spotify playlists. The company has also launched a COVID relief fund for musicians.

Better than a day off?

I couldn’t track down very many Madison-connected acts who’ve played Sofar shows. The most prominent would probably be Phox, who played one in London in 2014 while enjoying breakout success. By that point the band had already put out a self-titled album on Partisan Records, played the iTunes Festival in London, and toured the United States, so it’d be hard to argue that Sofar did much to help Phox build an audience.

I talked with a few musicians and music-business people in Madison who’ve worked with Sofar in the past. Singer and guitarist Page Campbell (a solo artist and member of Dream Boat) played a Sofar show in Atlanta in 2013 with her sister Claire in their band Hope For Agoldensummer. Campbell says they made $45 that night, even though the show was packed, with people paying $15 a head, and organizers even turned people away. They never received the promised video (it doesn’t seem to be online either). 

Campbell raises the point that playing a Sofar show in your hometown doesn’t make much sense if you’ve already built up a good local following. She lives in Madison, but Atlanta and Athens, Georgia are Hope For Agoldensummer’s home turf. At the time in Atlanta, Campbell says, “we could sell out a venues and make 10 times” what Sofar paid.

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“If you only play four times a year so that each show is special and gets a lot of promotion, then Sofar wouldn’t be the right pick, Campbell says. “And really, paying $100 + a video is one video more than most festivals pay, so I guess it’s really not that bad.”

Madison resident Ankur Malhotra spends a lot of time abroad running Amarrass Records, a label that focuses on folk musicians from India. When not pressing small-batch vinyl in a New Delhi workshop, Malhotra also manages and travels with several of the label’s touring artists. Two of the acts, Barmer Boys and Lakha Khan, have played Sofar shows in Odense, Denmark, and Barmer Boys have played one in Toronto.

When Malhotra looks at Sofar shows in the business context of an international tour, he sees “filler” but not much else. That is, playing a Sofar show is slightly more advantageous than a day off when an artist otherwise wouldn’t be making anything for performing, but would still be spending money on food and travel. If you luck out and sell some merch too, you could have a break-even day instead of a lose-money day.

Malhotra’s experience suggests that artists can get a little more out of Sofar if they’re able to negotiate or have good managers or booking agents in their corner. He says that for one of the three Sofar shows mentioned above, Khan made $350, plus food and accommodations, but it was “all negotiated from starting point zero, since they offer a video.”

I can tell that the video doesn’t really impress Malhotra—he’s a photographer and Amarrass already creates plenty of its own video. Plus, Sofar’s video isn’t really making money for his artists. “One of the Barmer Boys Sofar videos has over 700,000 views on YouTube on their channel, but ad revenue goes to [Sofar],” he says. That video is also the first thing that pops up when you Google the band.

“I have noticed several variations of the Sofar-themed shows start (house concerts, etc.), all of them normalizing the [idea of] ‘no money to artists, instead they do it for the opportunity and for the visibility’—kind of like what’s now happening in the online streaming world,” Malhotra adds.

Justin Kibbel, manager for Madison duo Seasaw, has also found Sofar to be a useful booking stopgap here and there. “Every time I’ve booked shows through them, it’s been while booking a tour across the country and I’m down to no other options to fill a date,” Kibbel says. “I’m pulling my hair out at 3 a.m. trying to get a few last dates on the tour schedule before we announce. That’s when I hit up Sofar, and they’ve come through a lot of the times with a show.” (Kibbel also works for FPC Live, which runs several large Madison venues and is controlled by Live Nation, but wasn’t commenting in that capacity.)

Another advantage Kibbel points out is that because Sofar shows are usually “surprise” shows, it’s easy to use them to double-dip in a given market. That logic can only go so far, of course, but it can be a way to promote the “main” show in a given city, a bit like an artist playing a last-minute in-store at Strictly Discs before playing at the High Noon Saloon. On one tour, Kibbel says, “we had a show booked in NYC for a date, but were having trouble filling the day before. So we just stayed in the city and booked a Sofar the day before and tried to convince people at the Sofar show to come to the show the next night (only one person did).”

Kibbel is glad that the company now offers artists both payment and a video, rather than one or the other. He also makes a fair point that touring artists don’t often make very good money. “I see both sides—on one hand they are a multi-million dollar Silicon Valley company, so I feel they can step up and pay a fair amount to artists,” Kibbel says. (Sofar was founded in London, not Silicon Valley, but is very much a tech startup, with all the dubious utopian zeal of that culture.) “The positive side is they are an option when all other avenues to book a show in some city you’ve never played before have failed and you’re guaranteed $100. $100 may not seem like a lot, but it’s a pretty average payout for playing a show on tour in a market where you don’t have history. You also have to literally do zero work promoting it and you get a room full of people. Is it shitty that $100 is the average? Yes.”

With or without Sofar Sounds, we’d be living in a world where musicians usually don’t get paid what they’re worth, or have to negotiate, fight, work the system, and eat a whole lot of shit to get paid what they’re worth. The music business has always had its share of unscrupulous people who rip off musicians, and plenty of well-intentioned people who try to treat musicians fairly under tough economic conditions. Even when people go about it as fairly and honestly as possible, there are struggles, lousy payouts, and failures.

Money in music also changes a great deal with context. Paying a musician $100 for a night’s work isn’t fair or sustainable in the grand scheme of things—not if we want a world where artists can survive and afford to put adequate time and energy into their art. Then again, $100 might be generous coming from a scrappy local promoter, especially if turnout was poor. Then again, $100 might be stingy coming from the same promoter if the show was packed. Then again, $100 might be downright exploitative coming from a company that charges $15 per ticket, has raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, and has the capacity to build up its name recognition and earnings through not just ticket sales but also marketing partnerships, membership programs, and the aforementioned ad revenue from web videos. 

At the moment, of course, not much is happening with Sofar Sounds in Madison anyway. From my conversations with Ottolin I get the sense that he means well and is genuinely enthusiastic about putting on shows and supporting up-and-coming artists. It’ll be up to audiences and artists to decide whether Sofar has a place in a city with (pre-pandemic, at least) an abundance of music offerings. It will also fall to artists and audiences to think critically about what kinds of actors they support in the music business and why.

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