As college students, getting out to concerts is tricky. We always face that dilemma of whether we should spend money that could go towards necessities such as food to splurge on a show, or to stay in and save money. Plus, when you do get out to a concert, you have to deal with large crowds, people talking during the performance, blocking your view by taking pictures and videos, and getting way too drunk while you're trying to enjoy the show.
What happened to live music that felt real, that allowed artists to be heard without outside interference? What if we could go to a performance for under $20 on a whim, with a small audience and no distractions? The organization Sofar Sounds seemed to have just the solution.
The London–based startup was founded in 2009 by Rale Offer, Rocky Start, and Dave Alexander. The idea was generated by its founders, who were irritated by the lack of intimacy at popular concert venues. One day, they decided to host a concert at Dave Alexander’s North London apartment, inviting only a few close friends to listen to his music. Soon after this experience, they set up gigs in major cities including Paris and New York City. Ten years later, Sofar Sounds is established in more than 300 cities worldwide, featuring more than 500 gigs per month.
Every Sofar Sounds concert features three local artists who aren’t announced until the audience arrives at the concert venue. The venue itself is usually held in niche locations, such as barbershops and breweries, all over a given city, and isn’t revealed until the day before the concert. Each act lasts between 20 and 25 minutes, and audiences are encouraged to put away their cellphones in order to be totally engaged in the performance.
The biggest perk of Sofar Sounds for college students is its price, which usually ranges between $15 and $20. In addition, concerts are usually BYOB. Around 40 out of 25,000 artists who have participated in Sofar Sounds sessions have been nominated for Grammy awards, including Billie Eilish, Bastille and Leon Bridges.
Although Sofar Sounds does provide exposure for local musicians to an engaged audience, the organization has been under fire recently for its compensation towards employees and artists. At Sofar Sounds shows, performers are paid $100 each, with the CEO claiming that the main value of Sofar Sounds concerts is in the exposure the artists get. The audience, although small, is more invested in the performance than at an average concert. This pay rate for artists was a reaction to a 2017 KQED report that revealed many musicians only received $50 per gig.
Recently the New York State Department of Labor investigated the labor practices of Sofar Sounds, specifically in relation to the fact that the majority of those who “work” for the company are unpaid volunteers. The company also doesn’t usually pay the concert venue, which ranges from distilleries to living rooms. In an interview with Talkhouse, a source from the New York State Department of Labor states that Sofar Sounds “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.”
Sofar Sounds is ideal for college students who want to attend a concert while exploring different venues within the city on a budget. The founders definitely achieved the intimate concert experience: when only a few dozen people are at a performance, it makes it much harder for the audience to get distracted and look at their phones. The audience becomes a much more integral part of the performance in such a small space.
However, these controversies taint the idea.If the organization claims to be useful for local artists in terms of exposure, it doesn't really make sense to announce their names right before the show. Sofar Sounds does post videos of performances on their Youtube Channel, but most average less than 1,000 views. A better, more ethical alternative is to take the time to seek out smaller, DIY venues in the area to check out, who pay their artists properly and still create an intimate concert space.
The concept of Sofar Sounds is an intriguing one, because it breaks the norm of going to a concert for one specific artist you have in mind. Instead, you get a unique musical experience that will never be repeated. But, good ideas need good execution, and Sofar Sounds needs to make sure it's giving artists both the exposure and money they deserve.