John Colpitts, aka Kid Millions is a drummer, composer, drum teacher and writer based in Queens, NY. He is best known for his work in the experimental rock band Oneida and his percussion group Man Forever. His latest album with Oneida, Success, is out now on Joyful Noise.
The thousands-strong group of volunteers, performers, hosts, employees, and investors who make up the Sofar Sounds universe love it with a passion bordering on devotion. It is celebrated by just about everyone who participates within its ecosystem, yet causes paroxysms of indignation and outrage from musicians in the DIY community who exist outside its orbit. (Emma Silvers’s 2017 piece about Sofar’s meager artist compensation practices introduced negative attention to the brand that they are still trying to live down.)
For the past decade, Sofar Sounds has delivered “secret gigs and intimate concerts” to bigger and bigger audiences, fusing a well-funded corporate structure to an old concept: the DIY show. The company puts on small shows all over the world, every day of the week, attracting adventurous music fans who pay between $10 and $25 to be surprised by stripped-down sets from emerging — i.e. mostly unknown — artists.
Supporters argue that Sofar is helping small artists to develop, and providing them with an eager, open-minded audience. Detractors decry the relatively low pay that musicians receive for playing Sofar events. But there’s one aspect that few people have paid much attention to: This remarkably well-funded company staffs its events almost exclusively with unpaid volunteers.
As this article went to press, a source at the New York State Department of Labor indicated plans to investigate Sofar Sounds’ labor practices, which may have wide-reaching repercussions for the company’s activities in the state and beyond.
The Origins of a Movement
Sofar Sounds Executive Chairman Rafe Offer is no longer the CEO of the company he co-founded in 2009. Instead, he has transitioned into a kind of traveling proselytizer for his “glorious community of music-lovers from Mongolia to Idaho and everywhere in between.” The company celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a series of worldwide concerts this May, and announced another round of $25 million venture capital investment from big names like Richard Branson and Union Square Ventures. Offer and Sofar Sounds are on a roll.
Offer — who was a marketing executive at Disney, Coca-Cola, and the UK alcohol conglomerate Diageo — started the company with investor William “Rocky” Start and musician David J. Alexander. Sofar was set up as an alternative to noisy London pubs and their disrespectful audiences: Shows took place in people’s homes to small groups of carefully vetted music lovers. Attendees were asked not to talk or text, to stay for the entire performance, and to support the artists by following them on social media and buying their merchandise. Offer found that these simple etiquette rules helped transform these gatherings into magical concert experiences for the audience and performers alike.
Demand for Sofar shows eventually outpaced the ability to operate them as a hobby, so the trio sought ways to transition the passion project into an actual business. 10 years later, after three rounds of capital investment, the company is still growing. Of the three original founders, only Offer is still involved day-to-day.
These days Sofar concerts rarely happen in homes but instead are held in non-traditional concert spaces that Sofar Sounds accesses for free: offices, non-profit establishments, retail spaces, or bars that do not normally feature live music. The performances are often acoustic, the audiences average around 70 people, and the overhead is low compared to more traditional venues.
The Sofar Event
In the four countries where the business is incorporated — US, UK, Canada, and Spain — potential audience members can browse the Sofar website, select a city (and sometimes a neighborhood within that city), and apply to purchase a ticket. Within a few days, the consumer is sent an email link to buy tickets through the Sofar proprietary ticketing platform for $10-$25 apiece. A day or two before the concert, the venue address is revealed to ticket-buyers, though the performers are kept secret until the audience arrives. Through a source at Sofar, I learned that the average paid ticket count is 58 and the average price for a ticket is $19.
In contrast to a typical alternative-space show, Sofar gigs are branded — though in a millennial-minimalist style. A recent show at the NYC company headquarters in Soho featured strings of white Christmas lights and wooden letters spelling out “Sofar” on the windowsill behind the performers. The Sofar logo was also printed on white computer paper and posted at the entrance and at a few strategic spots throughout the office. A trained MC asked, “Let’s see a show of hands: Who’s never been to a Sofar show before?” More than half the audience raised their hands. Sofar has only recently started experimenting with advertising, and their growth up until now has been almost exclusively through word of mouth. At each concert I attended, audiences were friendly and open; it was an environment that supported strangers connecting in real time.
The audience at the three concerts I attended skewed young — a source at Sofar told me that 75% of their audience is 18-35. At a recent concert at the Langston Hughes House in Harlem, most attendees sat on the floor, which is a Sofar brand expectation (the email confirming my ticket purchase noted, “At the majority of our shows, you will be sitting on the floor, so please bring anything you need to make yourself comfortable — pillows, blankets, etc.”). As such, the floors were covered with woven blankets and the atmosphere felt a bit like a ‘50s or ‘60s bohemian “happening” without the subversive tenor.
Each Sofar concert includes three performers or groups, doing short, four to five song sets. It is a model that the founders and investors feel is highly scalable — so much so that they imagine a time when, as early investor Saul Klein put it in 2015, “[Sofar Sounds could] grow to 3001 or even a thousand cities, with up to 20 shows a night per city. That would rival Live Nation who already sell hundreds of thousands of tickets a night.”2
Artists are paid $100 per concert and are sometimes offered the option of a professionally produced Sofar branded video as a substitute for cash.
Volunteers: “The Heart of Everything We Do”
Sofar concerts are operated largely by volunteers, who are also referred to as “ambassadors.” Volunteer titles include “show lead” (basically the day-of production manager), “artist liaison,” “MC” (Sofar calls their hosts “the fourth performer”), “guest list manager,” and “social media coordinator.”
According to the Sofar training documents shared with me, in between acts the MCs are encouraged to, “tell guests about how they can get involved in Sofar as an artist, ambassador, or a host.” At a Sofar event I attended at Union Square Ventures, the MC encouraged anyone interested in volunteering to speak with him after the show.
Sofar uses thousands of these unpaid volunteers worldwide. Sofar does daily concerts in about 10 cities in the US, and concerts often occur without any salaried employees in attendance. Los Angeles-based ambassador Erika Quinn told me, “In LA, there’s a Sofar show almost every single night and on the weekends oftentimes there’ll be two… Sometimes the people that work full time [for Sofar] will come to the shows, but there’s just no way they could come to all of them.” Currently there are four full-time Sofar employees in Los Angeles and six in New York directly involved with putting on concerts. In other words, volunteers are vital to the Sofar operation.
The latest Sofar Sounds media kit includes the paragraph, “Sofar is powered by our community of ambassadors and volunteers. From vetting potential acts to serving as emcees for the evening, our ambassadors and volunteers work behind the scenes to organize each Sofar [event] and ensure it runs smoothly day-of. Our community of passionate and dedicated ambassadors are the heart of everything we do, enabling Sofar to host hundreds of shows per month in 350+ cities around the world.”
I had an opportunity to talk with CEO Jim Lucchese about the use of Sofar ambassadors and he told me, “I don’t think we have any plans to evolve away from it… I think if we stay true to how Sofar grew to this point, I’m definitely hopeful that the thousands of people who play a part in bringing the shows together keep wanting to do that.”
What is saved by using volunteer labor? Let’s take the Sofar concerts in New York City which, depending on the day, represents 12-18% of the company’s worldwide docket. I worked with coder Adam Benzan and was able to take daily snapshots of scheduled concerts from the Sofar site. On June 26, there were 200 concerts scheduled in NYC over July, August, and September.
To be conservative, we calculated based on three volunteers working three hours each, multiplying those hours by New York City’s $15-an-hour minimum wage. Extrapolating to a full year, the company would save over $100,000 in New York City alone — and probably closer to a $1 million across North America.
I spoke with a number of California and New York employment lawyers on background and one of them told me, “[Volunteer labor] is a risk for the employer. The volunteers could turn around and claim that, ‘we did expect compensation and we’ve been tracking our hours.’” When I mentioned that it seemed as if New York State and California law forbade for-profit company from using volunteers, the lawyer replied: “I think that’s a fair assessment… It’s a lot cleaner to pay your workers.”
Some further research into New York employment law brought me to an FAQ from the New York State Department of Labor — Division of Labor Standards, excerpted below:
“Q: Can for-profit and non-profitmaking institutions have unpaid volunteers?
A: By definition, the term volunteer means a person who works for a non-profitmaking institution under no contract of hire… and with no promise of compensation, other than reimbursement for expenses as part of the conditions of work. A person may do volunteer work in a non-profit organization, if that organization is set up and operates strictly for charitable, educational or religious purposes. For-profit organizations may not use unpaid volunteers (who meet certain criteria) except for a short-term recreational or amusement event run by that organization.”
A spokesperson for the DOL further clarified: “The exemption referred to in our FAQ applies to one-offs or seldom occurring events (like parties or gatherings related to a holiday) but is not applicable where workers are regularly engaged in the activities that support the core of the business model… As Madison Square Garden cannot use volunteers to check tickets at the door, concert promoters cannot use volunteers to host a concert.”
Leveraging volunteers, even if that labor is offered happily, seems to be a legal gray area. A source at the New York State Department of Labor was less circumspect: “[The Sofar model] is completely unlawful in every respect, the way the labor law is organized — all people that perform work are covered by the labor law. There is no such thing as volunteer work, intern work, or anything like that for a for-profit company. The company is out of compliance.” If a for-profit company wants to use unpaid labor in New York State, these unpaid laborers must meet all 11 criteria found in the compliance guidelines. Per a source at the Department of Labor, providing information on background, Sofar does not meet at least some of those guidelines, including the requirement that the business does not depend on the work of the intern.
What if the workers signed an agreement defining their volunteer relationship with Sofar? Would that affect the legal status of the relationship? Per a source at the NYSDOL: “No. Because you can’t sign away your rights under the law. Some people sign a document, ‘I understand that I’m a volunteer.’ They can sign anything. It has no legal effect on their right or entitlement for their compensation for work.”
When asked about the legality of the company’s use of volunteers, CEO Jim Lucchese directed me to Sofar’s PR department, from whom I received the following official statement: “Sofar started out not as a business, but as a passion project that spread organically and grew into a global community. Because of how Sofar has grown, Sofar takes the interests of each community member seriously. We also take labor laws seriously. Based on discussions with legal advisors, we are comfortable we’re doing the right thing in compliance with local regulations and serving the interests of our community members.”
The Benefits of Volunteering
I spoke with volunteers in a number of different US markets and they generally speak about their Sofar experience in glowing terms.
Ori Blitstein, an LA-based music professional, spent about 18 months between jobs from 2017 to 2018 volunteering extensively for Sofar. At his peak, he would work at eight to 12 concerts a month, and would occasionally have to run shows by himself. He was happy to do it. “It’s a really good way for entry-level music industry professionals to get their feet wet and to build that early stage professional network,” he said.
Troy Carson, a musician and volunteer who transitioned recently to a paid audio engineer position — $75 per show — with Sofar LA found a community among the Sofar volunteers that helped with his musical aspirations. He recently started a band with a person he met through his time with Sofar. “For me, as a musician, it’s been the best thing that could happen to me since I’ve come to LA. There are a lot of people who work in music or are aspiring to; it’s been really great to meet that community. I would say [Sofar] is a community of respectful people all there to enjoy the gift of music and want to be surrounded by that.”
Anna Sebourn, a volunteer who was recently promoted to a paid contract “show runner” position,” first learned about Sofar through its YouTube channel. After speaking with the ambassadors at her first show, she asked how she could get involved, was interviewed by the Sofar Boston city director and was slowly integrated into the community. Sebourn has extensive experience in arts management and has a masters degree in the field. She told me, “I love the personal connection I get from the artists who come through [Boston].” She compared her time in non-profit arts administration with her Sofar work and believed that Sofar was more attentive to their volunteer staff. “I come from a non-profit world, I’m used to putting in what I can put in with very understandable expectations. I actually feel privileged to volunteer. If I felt taken advantage of at all, I wouldn’t be doing it. The amount of creative capital I have received is golden for me. The lack of a paycheck is not a determining factor.”
New York-based ambassador Anjor Khadilkar, who also interned at Sofar during the summer of 2017, will be a senior this fall at Hunter College. She told me, “No part of what I’ve done feels inauthentic to me. I don’t think the company is trying to profit off the ambassadors in any way. At no point during my experience with Sofar have I thought that I should get money for it. When I wanted to be a part of what was happening, it was never in the equation. I love the community and I love what happens at the concerts.”
Ms. Quinn, an ambassador from Los Angeles, loves the Sofar experience but she is not clear about the legality, “I don’t really understand if it’s legal that we are all volunteering our time and not getting paid. I enjoy it, I’m OK with it and I get a lot out of it personally but at a black and white standpoint, it is a little shady, and that’s why we have to be called ambassadors and not volunteers, because you can’t just be volunteering for a for-profit company.”
Sofar is conscious of the community of volunteers and making them feel appreciated. Jim Lucchese told me he is spending a lot of time speaking with each sphere of the Sofar community to learn why they give their time so generously: “It’s just really about understanding [the ambassadors] more and why they’re doing it and making sure that if we could do a better job, we’re doing it.”
Benefits for Musicians
Many performers swear by the Sofar experience, and insist that the compensation is adequate. Former ambassador Blitstein, who currently works in concert promotion in LA, explained how the Sofar model can serve an emerging artist.
“I will never, ever, ever advocate getting paid in exposure. You should get paid in cash. But the value of Sofar Sounds-branded exposure specifically for emerging artists that are developing their audience is arguably unmatched… Sofar Sounds has more brand strength than almost any promoter I’ve ever encountered… [They are] guaranteeing you a net new audience that is intrinsically captive. Where else are you getting that?”
For an unknown artist, this concert experience has a lot to recommend it. Artists are not expected to promote the show at all — in fact, Sofar would rather they did not, as the performers are a surprise until the audience arrives. Imagine a world where you book an appearance, do absolutely nothing to promote it, and when you show up, the room is packed with an attentive, excited audience. Outside of the Sofar universe, this is an unheard-of experience for a touring or gigging musician.
Jeff Gretz, a drummer and NYC-based professional musician does not fall into the category of “emerging.” He’s been playing and touring the country in various progressive bands for over a decade. He sees Sofar gigs as complementary to his band’s regular shows, and part of a wider array of promotional work. If his band is booked at a traditional NYC venue, he will also schedule a Sofar show and promote the more traditional concert heavily to the captive Sofar audience. He’ll usually play a stripped down solo set without a full drum kit or amplification, so there’s no arduous schlep involved. Because the show is secret and not promoted using the band’s name, he’s not violating any radius clauses that might be in the contract for an upcoming club concert. The $100 compensation, depending on the context and situation, is not much less than a standard opening slot fee that a local band might get supporting a national touring act. Mr. Gretz has played countless shows for less, and as long as he keeps the number of musicians in the band low, the benefits of doing a Sofar show vastly outweigh the negatives.
“It’s really no different than doing a radio in-studio performance. It’s a PR move. If you know the system and you work the system, it’s far less work than your average show.”
He felt conflicted about the venture capital investment in Sofar; “It’s sad, but if I don’t participate, am I short-changing myself? Is it any more insane to throw thousands of dollars to a publicist, who comes back and says, ‘No one wants to write about you?’ Or I could get a hundred dollars [for performing a Sofar show] and connect with people who want to buy merch and take our record home.”
Noni Rene, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Philadelphia, has played about 19 Sofar gigs over the last year. Since she often loses money playing Sofar concerts away from Philly, she looks at the shows as an investment in her career. If it’s feasible, she will perform at any Sofar city that offers her the opportunity, even traveling as far as Denver and Seattle on her own dime. The $100 per show isn’t much help financially speaking, but the prospect of reaching more fans is valuable to her: “I’m getting Instagram clips, people are tagging me, they’re following me and playing my music, and buying my merch. If I’m just doing some concert venue in New York, people don’t really pick up on the merch. They get their drinks, they hang with their people and then they [leave]. With Sofar there’s an attitude of ‘Let me come up to you and let me ask you [questions] and let me offer something.’ Sometimes people just donate.”
“There’s a part of me that romanticizes it a bit,” continues Rene. “But as someone that is out here trying to make it… compensation is definitely necessary. You can’t really sweep it under the rug how important that is if you’re giving your time and your labor. I do hope that with the $25 million investment that [Sofar] allocates the funds properly. I trust that Sofar will.”
CEO Lucchese told me, “I think about it like an opener in a small cap room. You’re going to play four, five tunes, you do not have to draw a person, and then you have a chance to connect to that audience afterwards. If that opener slot is something you would consider, then you should probably consider Sofar, whether that’s in your hometown or when you’re starting to branch out. It’s probably the best apples-to-apples comparison.”
Assembly and the Economics of the Small Concert
Economically, Sofar has some advantages over traditional promoters: There’s no cost for venue rental or staff, for starters. Each city also has its own set of unique and sometimes esoteric regulations surrounding live performances, many of which Sofar seems to have side-stepped by classifying their shows as private events. Sofar events are frequently BYOB, which are technically illegal in New York City, though that regulation is difficult to enforce.
Even though they exist in this gray area, Sofar seems to be aware of the risks they have taken on with this business model. Recently they enacted a “curator program.” They advertise the possibility of making $300 a week running a Sofar small business. The Sofar Curator Program Terms and Conditions published in February of 2019 includes this paragraph:
“The Curator is solely responsible for understanding and complying with all laws, rules and regulations that may apply to running Sofar Events in the Territory, including but not limited to those concerning safety, employment and other local regulations. The Curator is also responsive [sic] for obtaining, and confirming that the Venue has obtained, any required licenses, permits, or registrations prior to posting each Event on the Event Management System.”
In a May 2019 interview with founder Rafe Offer on the Music Innovation Podcast, host Florian Wilisch asked about the potential legal impediments to Sofar’s concerts, to which Offer replied, “We ignored all that. And I think the key is that we never thought of it as a business. But if we thought about it as a business you’re right — we would have been scared away by things. But also anything that is disruptive, Airbnb, Uber, other types of businesses that are doing something that the world wants but is different is going to have elements that are new, and that are gray. And so we just did it because we thought it was important for music. And ignored or at least were aware of the risks but just kept going.”
The participants in a Sofar gathering abide by a set of rules that benefit the performers in many ways. However, the structure is predicated on free labor. At a traditional music venue, the staff is paid and the musician is paid based on a percentage of ticket sales. Performing for the door at a random club usually equals less than $100 per artist.
I had a number of conversations during the research of this piece with members of the NY Musicians Union local 802. At first, the expectations expressed in their statement seemed to me to be impossibly out of touch with reality.
“Sofar Sounds has cynically built a business based on the exploitation of musicians. They are betting that enough musicians will accept ‘exposure’ in lieu of actual wages and health benefits. Their investors, who are four multi-billion dollar venture capital funds, expect and demand a high return on their investment. That return can only be achieved by not paying the people who do the actual work – the musicians. We urge Sofar Sounds to pay musicians the livable wages, health, and pension benefits they deserve.”
Sofar is a powerful model for people to discover new music, and a good opportunity for emerging artists. There was absolutely zero equivocation among the Sofar performers with whom I spoke. Artist Shilo Gold told me her first Sofar experience was “life-changing.” Sure it’s not perfect, but have you ever played a Monday night in Memphis and been paid nothing? In the months I’ve spent researching this story I have played shows in which I’ve made $0, $10, $50 and $250. If those shows were instead Sofar events where I performed solo, I would have made more money and potentially made some new fans.3 Sofar has solved a market inefficiency by getting thousands of people to pay real money to see virtual nobodies through the reputation of the Sofar brand. You will see talented performers at a Sofar gig. That’s one secret behind the Sofar universe (and for that matter, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, The X Factor and similar platforms) — there is an infinite deluge of talent out there. Talent creates an easy path to fandom, which then lubricates the audiences’ wallets. It would be hard to find another entity invested in this unknown segment of music makers on this scale. But Sofar Sounds is not a charity and not a non-profit.
Sofar has positioned itself as a purveyor of unique music experiences, and it has largely succeeded with this goal. They have identified some problems in the traditional bar/concert model and have created an experience that explicitly addresses these issues. It is a model that is clearly working for its participants. Like so many start-ups of its kind, Sofar will likely soon have to decide what exactly it is — a tech company, a community for artists and fans, a “disruptive” concert promoter, or perhaps a sort of hybrid of these things. But until the labor issues are resolved, the company may be at risk for regulatory problems in a number of US cities where they currently operate.