As Sofar Sounds raises $25 million in funding, musicians call out its poor compensation practices

Amit Gurbaxani

Jun 04, 2019 10:08:25 IST

If you’re a regular follower of the Indian independent music scene, then it’s likely that you’ve aware of Sofar Sounds. For those not familiar with the popular gig series, here’s how it works: attendees have to apply for a chance to get in, and both the location (typically somebody’s home) and the line-up (usually three acts that play half-an-hour sets) are secret. At the show, audience members pay what they felt the experience was worth.

The format has been so successful that Sofar Sounds, which originated in the UK and completed a decade earlier this year, is currently operational in over 400 cities. The reason I’m writing about it is because it’s recently been the subject of much online chatter following the news that its parent company has raised $25 million in venture capital funding. The announcement has evoked some sharp reactions from musicians around the world who’ve called out Sofar for paying artistes poorly.

When I did a piece on house gigs a couple of years ago, the head of the Mumbai chapter told me that in India, where Sofar was launched in 2015 and is now present in over a dozen cities, performers are given two options as compensation: $50 or one-third of collections on the day or a video recording of any one song they play at the event, which is put up on Sofar Sounds’ 850,000 subscriber-strong official YouTube channel. In some countries such as the US where Sofar has been around for a long while, the flat fee offered is $100.

Most artists and bands programmed by Sofar are, more often than not, upcoming acts that pick the video over the nominal fee. Even established ones would rather get a video than a sum that’s way below their market rate. Blues-rock composer and guitarist Blackstratblues aka Warren Mendonsa, who headlined the first Sofar in Mumbai (not counting its brief one-gig run in 2012) in May 2016, told me he choose the video over the choice of a Rs 5,000 performance fee.

As Sofar Sounds raises  million in funding, musicians call out its poor compensation practices

An April 2019 Sofar gig at Bengaluru. Photo courtesy Asmita Upadhyay for Sofar Sounds

“Almost everyone opts for the video because even though it doesn’t take much to shoot stuff these days, it’s a way for them to showcase themselves plus there’s a prestige value attached to the Sofar brand,” said singer-songwriter Tejas Menon (who prefers to be referred to only by his first name). Tejas is already a veteran of the series, having played editions in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Dimapur and Imphal over the last three years.

Some artists believe that by expecting them to play for free for the benefit of “exposure”, Sofar, which was conceptualised to give musicians the respect they don’t often receive in traditional venues such as bars, is exploitative. They also find it problematic that the content filmed at the shows is hosted on the brand’s channel, which it can monetise without passing on the proceeds.

Also read — Sofar turns 10: With a decade of music under its belt, the living room gig series has big plans for the future

The backlash is understandable. Not many people are aware that Sofar is not a non-profit organisation but a for-profit company. This is because at the gigs, the audience is told, repeatedly, that volunteers execute the entire exercise and that everybody from the person hosting the show to the photographers and the videographers filming it are doing it for the love of the music. An equipment manufacturer usually donates the PA system and the only costs are those of transport and the fee of the artist who makes the poster given to all the performing acts (and sometimes even they provide their services for free).

To set the record straight and to get the other side of the story, I reached out to Prarthana Sen, the Bengaluru-based global community development lead at Sofar Sounds and the company’s only actual employee in India. Sen put me in touch with their headquarters in London, which organised an interview with Sofar’s US-residing CEO Jim Lucchese who took over the role from co-founder Rafe Offer in February.

“[Sofar is a] for-profit entity that’s operating in India without taking any money,” said Lucchese. “I can completely understand where some of the confusion comes from.” Lucchese explained to me the different models under which Sofar works. The first is pay-what-you-want, which is how Sofar has functioned since it was launched in 2009 inside Offer’s home. “The vast majority, about 370 of the 420 cities” including all of those in India are still way Sofar was "in living room in that it’s a lottery-based system, local teams decide to put on the shows and it’s a pass-the-hat type approach”, Lucchese said.

The donations are used to pay artists and expenses. "The exact split varies but our understanding is that in most cases the majority of that money is going to compensate the artist,” he said. "Sofar takes no cut on that at all. We’re not making any money but there’s brand value in it.”

The second model, which they began experimenting with two years ago, is ticketed concerts. These are held in about 50 or so cities in the US, UK, Spain and Canada. “Tickets on average are 20 bucks [and] the average number of paying customers is about 60 people,” said Lucchese. The third format is sponsored events, commissioned by and bankrolled by a consumer brand. “If it’s sponsored, the average compensation is $1,500 per artist and if not, it’s $100 for each of the three who perform,” said Lucchese.

He believes the controversial $100 figure is justified because “we market and fill the room for the artist [who] nobody in that room has heard before”. Musicians can also sell tickets to their other gigs, said Lucchese, citing the example of Denver-based folk-rock act CovenHoven who he saw last month at a Sofar session in Boston where the singer-songwriter peddled an upcoming engagement in the city. “That opportunity to play to 60 people [who are] paying and getting $100 [in return] is absolutely fair. It’s fair from the standpoint of what [the] other options are in the town.”

Here’s where it gets slightly complicated. A couple of Sofar India alumni said that sometimes, the possibility of receiving cash — however little — instead of the video, is not made obvious, or offered at all. A well-known singer-songwriter who played an edition of Sofar Pune shared a screen shot of an email they received from the organisers in the city that said: “In return for your performance, you will get an HD video of one song…which will be published on the Sofar Sounds YouTube channel”.

The email goes on to say that while accommodation will be provided they “usually (italics theirs) do not cover conveyance expenses”. “Since are our gigs are not ticketed events, the only proceeds we receive by way of donations go in covering production-related costs”. Notably, they were given Rs 1,000 for travel.

Tejas, who obtained a similar amount for conveyance when he performed in Pune, said that when an act is booked, payment isn’t usually discussed. Instead, the Sofar team sends the musician an email, which includes “a deck that tells you what Sofar does and stands for and [an] offer to make a video for you or [give you] a $50 compensation”. Some Sofars, he said, don’t even put out the video.

Suggested read: What Tips-Wynk legal row, invoking Section 31D of Indian Copyright Act, means for music fans

The discussion around Sofar brings up the question: Should musicians have to make a trade-off between the quality of the listeners and the quantity of the remuneration?

Most often, the other options Lucchese referred to are restaurants and pubs where the crowd talks over the performance. About two years ago, after having growing tired of such bad behaviour, I found myself attending fewer and fewer shows at bars and restricted myself, as far as possible, to outdoor concerts where the music is loud enough to drown out the chattering.

The arrival of house concerts such as Sofar, where the audience is open-minded — you don’t know who’s playing until you get there — attentive and appreciative, was game changing. “For the artist, it’s the perfect environment,” said Tejas who added that “musicians often find that the gigs that you don’t get paid for are the best and the gigs that you get paid for are crap.” His comment reminded me of a conversation I had with a singer-songwriter who said they occasionally play restaurants where they know few people will watch them perform because such places remunerate better than those that have a proper stage and market themselves as live venues.

On the other hand, a Sofar patron is more likely to search for and stream your tracks and follow you on social media — what Lucchese described as “fan conversation”. What does the funding mean for fans in India? We can expect sponsored shows wherever “there is a substantial lot of demand”, said Lucchese. In Mumbai, for instance, they receive between 1,100 and 1,600 applications per gig, Arul Kacker, the outgoing leader of the Mumbai chapter, told attendees at last month’s instalment.

That’s good news for artists, as Lucchese said the average payout of between $1,000 and $1,500 per act “will be the case in India as well”. The financing will also be used to provide local teams with “more tools and capabilities" to be more efficient. “If we can decrease the number of hours it takes for someone to bring [a concert] together, hopefully that means they’ll feel comfortable putting on more,” he said.

While more money would be great, Tejas said musicians like him would greatly appreciate if the funds were utilised to “make the experience seamless for an artist” by taking care of everything from gear to travel and accommodation, “even if you’re paying them the basic amount”. Right now, a band is expected to bring in their own equipment including amps, DJ consoles and drum kits.

“I’m okay with Sofar not paying the industry standard,” said Tejas. “Because what they’ve cultivated is far more valuable than a fee. I’ve seen what happens especially in this country: the moment you get paid your quote, you’re owned.” That said, Sofar does feel like a much better deal for the audience than the acts. Never mind that occasionally, we barely have legroom on the floor.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 09:35:59 IST