When I Played a Sofar Sounds Show

A personal essay from Adam Schatz on Sofar Sounds and the creator-creative dichotomy.

I’m going to get to it, I promise. I’m going to tell you about the day I played a Sofar Sounds show. It was May 20, 2016; I will get there. But first a few words about the tech company Spotify. 

Spotify and the rest of the streamers gobbled and digested the music recording industry. You know it, I know it. But that isn’t where my outrage lies. I like streaming music, it’s convenient as hell and has no doubt led me to discover new great sounds. No, my outrage lies in the gratitude that’s expected of artists in spite of being kicked in the groin and bonked on the head, figuratively of course. 

If your song gets thrown on a playlist, and your numbers get goosed, you’re expected to thank Spotify, and say ten hail Apple-Musics. “Thank you Spotify for including my new song ‘Growing Up Is Hard, But Getting Down Is Easier’ on the Algorithm & Blues Weekly playlist!!” I’ve seen it all before. I have even been the thanker. We the creators (not creatives) are backed into a corner and even when our shoelaces are tied together and our eyes are poked out, figuratively, we still have to thank the poker for the exposure. Now more people than ever will know that we used to have eyes, even if they now have been poked. 

But we the creators (not creatives) have made no mistake in seeing Spotify and the others for what they are: technology companies. Technology companies like Spotify employ employees titled “Creatives” who are valued for occasionally using their brains outside the box, as long as the outside of the box still has a positive effect on their bottom line. 

Spotify and their creatives did not invent music (though Sweden did perfect the lifeless pop song), but they did invent the best possible way to get music to our phones, and transitively, our lives. Seamless isn’t a restaurant. Uber isn’t a car. These tech companies get us these things but they are not these things and we forgive these tech companies for being scummy because we are hungry, or can’t hail a cab because we never learned how to whistle. We understand these tech companies’ choices because they’re running a business and businesses are run on money and money doesn’t care whether or not you feel good. 

We, the creators (not creatives), don’t feel good. We feel bad. We feel outrage. 

Sofar Sounds is a tech company. The service they’re providing is one that nobody asked for or needs. When I played a Sofar Sounds show in 2016, which I will get to in a moment, their company slogan was “Bringing The Magic Back To Live Music.” That mantra has since been toned down and replaced but the message remains the same. Seeing live music in a concert venue can be so frustrating, What if the band is too loud? What if the band is too quiet and the bartender scooping ice is too loud? Sofar Sounds solves all that by presenting house concerts. 

Sofar Sounds didn’t invent the house concert. The house concert was invented by Genghis Khan in 1205, when, having grown tired of conquering, he instead sang a few of his favorite traditional songs in a cave for his closest friends and colleagues. Before his last song, Khan passed around a hollowed out skull of an enemy warrior and asked everyone in the cave to please “give what they can.” 

Since then, for hundreds of years, the house concert has been a not-so-secret way for anyone to bypass the often needless overhead of a bar venue and get back to basics. Humans in a room, sunning in the magic of live music. These shows are all ages. These shows are ramshackle. Sometimes there’s a ticket price, sometimes there’s a donation bucket, but always, always, always the money goes straight to the artists. The hosts do it out of love. The hosts do it out of a need to make something happen. The economy of music as a bait and switch for drink sales is erased, and the night is pure. Until someone pukes. 

The service Sofar Sounds ultimately provides is it plans your night for you, the consumer. You sign up on the app or website, they tell you when a show is happening, you RSVP and attend in a surprise location with a surprise lineup. They mine your data and you and your date get to see a house show without having to try too hard to make a plan.

The rich founder of Sofar Sounds is named Rafe Offer who is the former marketing director for Coca Cola, who once hosted a house concert and reconnected himself with that human feeling that rich people tend to lose sight of, the joy of just being in a room together when you’re not looking at a quarterly chart or telling Alexa to pick up your kids from boarding school. So Rafe Offer did what rich founders do when they stumble upon a human feeling: he tried to monetize it. And after a few rounds of angel investors and actual ticket sales happening at most Sofar Sounds shows, the creators (not creatives) are still being paid crap. And that makes me mad. 

I was suspicious even in 2016 when I was asked to perform at a Sofar Sounds concert. A friend of mine was tasked with curating a few shows for them and so I knew at least the line-up would be strong, and sometimes that’s enough, just being in a room with talented people doing our thing. It isn’t all about money. It almost never is. But I knew my band Landlady couldn’t perform, there are four of us and I try to set a standard of paying my friends for their hard work whenever possible. So I offered to perform solo. I was told that the Sofar Sounds model was you would receive $50 per group or you’d receive a video, which they would film, post on the Sofar Sounds youtube channel, and own. I took the cash. 

I pulled up to the venue in my minivan. The venue was a very, very nice loft apartment in Tribeca, a Manhattan neighborhood that formerly housed the Knitting Factory. I organized my first concerts in the city at the Knitting Factory and it was nice to be back in that neighborhood. It was not nice to spend $10 on meter parking. So now I’m making $40, but that’s OK. It’s not always about the money. 

The elevator opened into the apartment. It was the nicest New York City apartment I’d ever been in. The family who volunteered to host the show were just living there temporarily. Their real home needed repairs due to a burst pipe and so this was their momentary housing solution. It was a mother, father and their daughter who was a musician. There was immediately a murmur of a jam session at the end of the night but I pretended not to hear.

The text “Sofar Sounds” was printed on computer paper and masking taped to various walls in the apartment. I met the Sofar Sounds representative, a nice enough lady who told me that she volunteers to be at these events because it’s fun, and I believed her. I asked a few times where I should put my merch that I was told to bring, and eventually she showed me a table that would work. She told me some pizza was coming and showed me where to set up. 

As the guests arrived I was surprised by the sheer number of them. Around one hundred people all in all had signed up to attend the secret show, excited to be a part of an intimate happening that I assume was not too far from where they worked, because eavesdropping led me to conclude that many of them were in advertising. 

After everyone had arrived, the Sofar Sounds representative stood up and made some announcements. She asked who had been to a Sofar Sounds show before, and some folks raised their hands. She described what Sofar Sounds was and why it was so great. She talked about how great tonight’s show was going to be. Then she introduced me, Adam Sanchez.

My name is not Adam Sanchez.

I began my set. I love performing at house concerts because I can get one step closer to the intimacy I already aim for when I’m on stage. My silly banter can become more organic and spontaneous. My moments of musical intensity can become more earnestly confrontational. When I can sing a cappella, then move to solo saxophone in the next breath, and shift my body towards and away from the audience, knowing that we’re all on the same level, standing on the same plane, free of a stage,  I am joyous. I thrive from these connections, I eat and grow from the magic of live music. This is my sweet spot and I’d stay in it forever if I could. It really isn’t always about the money. Money has nothing to do with those moments.

My Sofar Sounds set was full of those moments, a claim I can make in earnest because I work very hard and have been doing this a long time, long enough to know what works and what makes what I do unique to me, what gives me value. Not a dollar amount, but a three dimensional value. My worth as a performer, as a creator (not a creative) and as a human who drove my minivan there to do my thing the way that I do it. That value gets chipped away at even by the simplest of acts, like getting my name wrong. It makes me mad and even that micro-outrage effects my ability to do my thing and enjoy myself. And if there isn’t any money, I better fucking be allowed to enjoy myself.

I made a joke during my set about how I steal a different valuable piece of cutlery from every house I perform in. The host mom brought over a big meat cleaver and I continued the rest of my banter holding this big knife next to my head and waving it around. It was a ridiculous and authentic moment, the kind that can’t happen in a nightclub. 

After I played, two other groups played who were both great. The night did end with a jam session led by the family while many of the advertising folks hung around and chatted. I didn’t sell any merch, I loaded out alone, and I left. I left feeling funny, not because the set wasn’t good, but because there were 100 people there, and even if each of them paid $5 it would have gotten me $166 from a three-way split at a classic house show.  And I know they paid more than $5. It isn’t always about the money, but somehow it is usually about fucking over the artist. Even when everyone believes they’re doing a good thing.

And this is where the tech company expects me to say thank you. To express gratitude for getting to play my music for an attentive crowd. For even getting to be in such a nice apartment without having to get a house-cleaning job! Traditional house concerts end with a bucket of cash (often mostly singles) which is then handed to the artist to lovingly count and flatten. I was emailed after my Sofar Sounds gig to tell me that as long as I sent in my invoice properly, I would receive payment on PayPal within 14 days. There’s some exchanges technology just can’t improve upon.

Outrage can often lead to needless behind-the-back shit-talking which I believe is a terrible waste of time. So a week after my Sofar Sounds performance, I wrote to a Sofar Sounds representative to express my frustration with the event and how they’re carrying on. They wrote back saying they were sorry to hear about my bad feelings and would love to meet me in person to hear my concerns. A lower-rung Sofar Sounds representative met me in my neighborhood, paid for my lunch, and heard me out. 

I told him about value. About how there are so many different ways an artist can be taken advantage of, but a house concert is pure, and to interfere with that purity and somehow add new directions for where the money can go before it reaches the artists feels completely antithetical to the core of the house concert ideal. I told him their promise of exposure via their YouTube channel was nonsense, due to the over saturation of videos on there, numbering in the thousands, and how the highest viewed videos were of artists who were already quite successful. I told him about how putting me in front of a Sofar Sounds logo on tape is using my art as the score in an advertisement for your product, and that use deserves fair compensation. He nodded and said he understood. 

I suggested they hire actual artists as consultants so that they could keep from making these mistakes in the future. A very talented musician friend of mine was interviewed for a job at Spotify, and when the interviewer bragged about the perk of every Spotify employee receiving a free Spotify Premium account, my friend asked why every artist on Spotify also doesn’t receive a free Spotify Premium account?  

That idea was not taken and she was not hired, and thus is the continued cycle of these places run by these people, who call themselves creatives. Creatives never work for exposure in lieu of pay, and creatives don’t take the advice from the creators they exploit, because if you give a mouse a cookie, they’re going to ask for fair royalties and performance fees. They don’t consider that without music their jobs wouldn’t exist, just like Rafe Offer’s job before founding Sofar Sounds wouldn’t exist without that sweet, delicious Coca Cola and the endangered polar bears they milk it from. 

Not too long after my meeting with the Sofar lackey, their performance fees were raised from $50 per group ($12.5 per musician in a quartet) to $100 per group (you can do the math, come on). Not including parking. It’s enough for a back-pat in the boardroom and not much else. That was still in 2016, and when the news hit this year that Sofar Sounds raised an additional $25 million from investors, the artistic community on the internet got mad again. And we were still mad at a bunch of other folks so we really didn’t have time for this. And that outrage lead to Twitter threads and Facebook posts and a handful of folks writing articles (whoops) and I’m just not sure where it gets us.

It’s hard for me to figure out just how to be properly outraged at outrage fatigue. But I’m trying. I’m trying my best. Sofar Sounds is not going to go away, not until the owners decide to cash in. The time I’ve spent being upset is a drain, on time better spent being creative or honestly even making a sandwich and then eating that sandwich. The continuous toll of outrage on our bodies and minds is tangible. Even throughout writing this piece, I’m toast, and I’d rather be playing. And so I don’t know what the moral is. I’d like to be less angry about being so angry, and I’d like to spend more of my energy on putting music into the world. 

The solution is perhaps a balance of shouting about what makes us mad, and ignoring the tech companies by doing our best and proving that the magic of music is not improved upon by the ideas they cooked up without our input or consideration. Magic can’t be made more efficient. Magic can’t be delivered to my door while I watch on a map to see when it will get here. Creativity comes from sparks, surprise, dealing with pain and communicating with mystery. Maybe if more creatives really understood that, they would hear us out. Maybe they would even say thank you.

Adam Schatz is a musician. His band Landlady has three records out and another on the way, find them on Bandcamp or in boxes in his apartment. He runs a recording studio in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn where he produces records for other people he likes and makes his own sounds that get regularly released on his Patreon. He is devoted to baking sourdough bread and fine tuning his donut recipe. Find him on Twitter here and hear Landlady here.

(Photo credit: Sasha Arutyunova.)