Sofar Sounds to pay $460,000 to unpaid workers
Sofar Sounds will distribute more than US$460,000 among people who worked its concerts for free between 2016 and 2019, after agreeing a settlement with New York state’s Department of Labor.
The department opened an investigation into Sofar – which promotes ‘secret gigs’ in living rooms and other intimate, non-traditional concert venues – last September, amid concerns it violated local laws by using volunteers to staff its events.
New York labour standards dictate that a person may generally only do unpaid work only for non-profit organisations, with exemptions for certain “short-term recreational or amusement event[s]”. Virgin-backed Sofar is a for-profit company, and raised a further $25 million last May.
A Department of Labor spokesperson tells Variety that Sofar now uses only paid employees, or ‘ambassadors’ for its shows. “The settlement came in the wake of a Department of Labor investigation which revealed that 654 Sofar Sounds ‘ambassadors’ were never compensated for work performed at SoFar events between 2016 and 2019,” they say.
“When the Department of Labor opened its investigation, Sofar cooperated fully and immediately changed its business model. Sofar now staffs all its events with paid employees. The company also agreed to immediately compensate ambassadors who provided any unpaid work.”
“Sofar now staffs all its events with paid employees”
Founded in London in 2009, Sofar Sounds is active in some 450 cities worldwide, including London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Buenos Aires and Seoul. It has hosted over 20,000 shows over the past decade, including early performances by Billie Eilish, Bastille, Leon Bridges and Hozier.
“Today’s agreement with the New York State Department of Labor stipulates no admission of guilt or wrongdoing and confirms our operating model is fully compliant with New York state law,” reads a statement from Sofar Sounds. “We thank them for working collaboratively with us in New York, Sofar’s biggest US market.
“We are excited about resolving these issues and moving forward in 2020, with a continued focus on connecting local and independent musicians with passionate music fans.”
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Sofar Sounds raises $25m…but are artists being short-changed?
Sofar Sounds, the ‘secret gig’ platform which stages shows in people’s living rooms, has secured a US$25 million funding round, bringing total investment to a reported $31m.
The new funds, announced in a blog post by Sofar founder Rafe Offer, will give the UK-born company – which specialises in concerts held in “unusual, spontaneous places”, with show locations kept under wraps until the last minute – will go “directly back to our mission of helping artists and fans connect in a true and meaningful way”, says Offer, including growing the opportunities available to participating artists.
“Ten years ago, when I founded Sofar as a hobby with some friends, I never would have dreamed we’d be where we are today,” he comments. “Today, Sofar Sounds announced a $25m fund raise, led by Battery Ventures and Union Square Ventures, with existing investors Octopus Ventures and Virgin Group also participating in the round.
“It’s absolutely mind-blowing, and I’m excited for the opportunity this creates for Sofar to grow, creating new products for artists and tools for our global community to deliver on our collective mission to support developing artists.”
The new investment has raised questions about Sofar’s business model in the US, with tech news site TechCrunch among those to have condemned the way in which Sofar Sounds remunerates artists.
“You’ll see us investing in a new website, and ramping up our artist-focused team to provide artists support”
In an article entitled ‘Sofar Sounds house concerts raises $25m, but bands get just $100’, TechCrunch writer Josh Constine attacks what he sees as the under-payment of the musicians who form the core of Sofar’s business:
[Sofar’s] goal is expansion – to become the de facto way emerging artists play outside of traditional venues. The 10-year-old startup was born in London out of frustration with pub-goers talking over the bands. Now it’s throwing 600 shows per month across 430 cities around the world, and over 40 of the 25,000 artists who’ve played its gigs have gone on to be nominated for or win Grammys. The startup has enriched culture by offering an alternative to late night, dark and dirty club shows that don’t appeal to hard-working professionals or older listeners.
But it’s also entrenching a long-standing problem: the underpayment of musicians. With streaming replacing higher priced CDs, musicians depend on live performances to earn a living. Sofar is now institutionalising that they should be paid less than what gas and dinner costs a band. And if Sofar suck in attendees that might otherwise attend normal venues or independently organised house shows, it could make it tougher for artists to get paid enough there too. That doesn’t seem fair given how small Sofar’s overhead is.
By comparison, Sofar makes Uber look downright generous. A source who’s worked with Sofar tells me the company keeps a lean team of full-time employees who focus on reserving venues, booking artists, and promotion. All the volunteers who actually put on the shows aren’t paid, and neither are the venue hosts, though at least Sofar pays for insurance. The startup has previously declined to pay first-time Sofar performers, instead providing them a “high-quality” video recording of their gig. When it does pay $100 per act, that often amounts to a tiny shred of the total ticket sales.
“I’m excited for the opportunity this creates for Sofar to grow”
Sofar CEO Jim Lucchese, formerly of Spotify, says the $100 fee “for a showcase slot is definitely fair”, given that Sofar pays venue insurance and local collection society tariffs, for example, but concedes that Sofar shows aren’t “the right move for every type of artist”. (Many shows in other markets, he adds, operate on a pay-what-you-want model, and artists keep “the majority of the money.”)
Speaking to MBW, Lucchese says Sofar plans to further invest in artist services, as well as a new web presence. “You’ll see us investing in a new website, and ramping up our artist-focused team to provide artists support,” he comments. “We also see lots of ways to make touring of Sofar cities more organic for the artist.
“Sofar is […] a global community which will we will continue to build and support, but it should also be seen through the lens of an artist development platform.”
Founded in London in 2009, Sofar Sounds is now active in 430 cities globally, including London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Buenos Aires and Seoul. It has hosted over 20,000 shows over the past decade, including early performances by Billie Eilish, Bastille, Leon Bridges and Hozier.
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UTA partners with Sofar Sounds for London shows
United Talent Agency (UTA) has shared footage from three intimate live performances filmed at its London office earlier this year in partnership with Sofar Sounds.
On 18 January, UTA London hosted a Sofar Sounds show featuring Press to Meco, Casey Lowry and Laura Wright playing short sets to an intimate audience. Sofar Sounds is a ‘secret gig’ promoter which keeps show locations under wraps until the last minute, though the agency has revealed its London office will host another Sofar concert in the coming months.
Press to Meco’s show can be viewed above, while links to the other performances (along with bios for all three UTA-repped acts) are linked below.
Press to Meco
Press to Meco’s unconventional take on riffs, pop hooks and three part vocal harmonies have become their trademark. The debut album, Good Intent, was shortlisted for the 2016 AIM Independent Album of the Year, alongside Radiohead, Frank Carter and Skepta. The band recently finished a sold-out acoustic run of dates in support of their new EP. They are currently working on a new album.
At the age of 19, Casey had already been featured as BBC Radio 1’s ‘Artist of the Week’ and sold out some of the UK’s largest and most well-known venues, all before releasing his first single. His Radio 1-playlisted debut single ‘Trampoline’ achieved huge success in its first few weeks of release, charting at #2 on Spotify’s UK Viral 50 charts, hitting #28 in the iTunes singer/songwriter charts and gaining over 500,000 streams since release. Now 22 years old, he has already toured with the likes of Jack & Jack, Lany, the Hunna and Saint Raymond. Lowry has a UK tour coming up this April and will play a number of festivals over the summer.
Singer, composer and sporting ambassador, Laura is one of the best-selling classical artists of the decade and has released three solo albums with Decca/Universal. Known affectionately as the nation’s favourite sporting soprano, Laura is a familiar face at worldwide sporting events. She has performed with the likes of Alfie Boe, 2Cellos and Andrea Bocelli, and this summer brings her new show, Bach to Bjork, to London.
Budd: “Staggering support” for Give a Home gigs
Artist manager, festival promoter and former MMF chairman Stephen Budd has hailed the “staggering support” given by the music industry to his new Give a Home charity concert series, which last week announced its biggest name to date – Ed Sheeran – for an intimate living-room show in Washington DC.
Give a Home, part of Amnesty International’s I Welcome campaign, is a joint venture between Amnesty and promoter Sofar Sounds, with Budd and Sofar’s Tom Lovett as executive producers, and aims to show solidarity with refugees and raise funds for Amnesty through a mass day of concerts on 20 September. More than 500 events are lined up in 30+ countries; other performers include Billy Bragg, The National, Lianna La Havas, Rudimental, Zero 7, Frank Turner (pictured, right, with Budd), Hot Chip, Public Service Broadcasting, Daughter, Oh Wonder, Gregory Porter, Kate Tempest, with a further 150 due to be announced on 8 August.
All will perform in intimate, under-100-cap. venues across 60+ countries – typically houses or small commercial spaces, although Budd reveals one act will play at the top of the Shard, at 1,016ft Britain’s tallest building – with all proceeds from tickets going straight to Amnesty. Tickets are allocated on a lottery basis, with fans paying £5 (or $5, €5 or equivalent) per chance to win one, with the venue for each show kept secret until closer to the time.
Budd tells IQ he wants Give a Home, which follows his work with War Child on the Passport Back to the Bars charity shows, to tap into the “repoliticisation” of British youth evident in last month’s general election.
“What’s been lacking in the music industry recently is artists willing to get political, to put their balls on the line,” he explains. “But there’s definitely a scent in the air: In a subtle way, I think young people are getting more political.”
“The coverage might have died down, but these issues are still occurring”
Budd also hopes the concerts will “lower Amnesty’s age demographic” and garner more support for the charity from a younger audience. He praises the work of older ambassadors for Amnesty, such as Elton John and Sting, but says the aim of Give a Home “is bring it [the age] right down”.
To that end, many of the Give a Home shows will also be streamed live, via Vice and Facebook Live, with post-gig footage appearing on Vevo. Budd says “all the major [labels] have been helpful” in assisting Sofar/Amnesty with securing the necessary rights to do so, and the industry as a whole – including the management community, who he’s spent the best part of four months ringing around – has shown a “staggering support” of the initiative.
The refugee crisis – which once dominated headlines across the globe – has in 2017 largely faded from public attention, as the international press turns its attention to the likes of Isis, Turkey, France, the Brexit negotiations and the sorry state of American politics. This, says Budd, is why Give a Home, as well as initiatives such as I Welcome, are so crucial to putting the crisis back on the agenda.
“The coverage has died down, but these issues are still occurring,” he explains. “It’s a massive experiment, but Give a Home is about putting the world’s attention back on the crisis – and pressuring governments to do something about the 20 million refugees who still don’t have safe passage.”
Gig economy: Airbnb debuts Music Experiences
Airbnb has partnered with ‘secret gig’ promoter Sofar Sounds to launch Music Experiences, a concert and music event series on its new Trips platform.
The online lodging service, known primarily as a way for those with spare rooms or vacant homes to rent them to holidaymakers, recently launched Trips, which lists experiences and excursions hosted by local guides. Music Experiences, initially available in 13 cities, launched on 8 March in London with an event hosted by Reggie Yates and featuring performances by Emeli Sandé, plus Clean Cut Kid, and Jodie Abacus.
In addition to live music with Sofar Sounds, the 100+ current Music Experiences include vinyl shopping in Tokyo, violin-making in Paris, a guide to grime in London, film-making in Miami and DJing in Nairobi.
“We’re excited to welcome Airbnb travellers into our community, allowing them to discover and get closer to the best music experiences that cities have to offer”
“Music is an incredible way to bring people together,” says Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. “We’re launching Music Experiences to give people access to exclusive and immersive music events, from intimate live performances [to] special pop-up gigs, underground music sessions and meeting local artists and performers. Through the platform, we’re able to support up-and-coming and local artists by connecting people to their events and bringing their music to even more fans around the world.”
Rafe Offer, co-founder of Sofar Sounds (which recently secured investment from Sir Richard Branson), adds: “Sofar Sounds, like Airbnb, is all about global community: the magic that happens when people come together around the universal things that really matter, like music. We’re excited to welcome Airbnb travellers into that community, allowing them to discover and get closer to the best music experiences that cities have to offer, every night.”
Hotel chain Ibis in November launched its own concert series: Ibis Lates.
Richard Branson invests in ‘secret gig’ promoter
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson has invested in Sofar Sounds, a British start-up that promotes ‘secret shows’ in 263 cities worldwide.
Branson, who started a record retail business (now Virgin Megastores) in February 1971 before using the proceeds to found Virgin Records, says Sofar – Songs from a Room – offers an an antidote to “soulless” modern venues by putting on concerts in “unusual, spontaneous places” and creating “new, engaged fans who have been immersed in an authentic, eclectic night, and maybe met a new friend or two as well”.
Writing on his Virgin blog, Branson says: “Like all the best ideas, Sofar Sounds started life as the solution to a personal problem somebody was facing. Co-founders Rafe Offer, Rocky Start and Dave Alexander were fed up of going to gigs and hearing people talk and play on their phones rather than engage with the artist. So they began organising secret, intimate gigs in their living rooms with the simple idea of making every show magical. They quickly discovered that many, many more people wanted the same thing.
“The average Sofar show is oversubscribed by 10 to one. This is the main reason I am excited to be investing: the opportunity to help it expand and reach even more music fans”
“Before long Sofar expanded from secret gigs in London living rooms to secret gigs everywhere from Thailand to Turkey, Brazil to Belgium, Kenya to South Korea. [Over] 260 cities are part of the Sofar community, with music-loving US destinations the fastest-growing, from New York to Los Angeles, Chicago to Dallas, Washington, DC, to San Francisco. As I’ve heard from the many friends and colleagues who have been going to the gigs, every show is different and each city puts its own spin on the distinctive Sofar experience.
“So far there have been more than 4000 Sofar Sounds events featuring over 12,000 artists, and they are growing fast. There will be 290 events this month, and the average show is oversubscribed by 10 to one. This is the main reason I am excited to be investing in Sofar – the opportunity to help it expand and reach even more music fans. By creating more events in its inimitable style, they will in turn be able to support even more artists.”
The involvement of Sir Richard brings Sofar Sounds, founded in 2011, to a total of four investors. The London-based company has secured two previous rounds of investment: seed funding from Index Ventures and LocalGlobe, and seed and series-A funding from Octopus Ventures.