Sofar Sounds Labor Practices Under Investigation

Niche market events promoter Sofar Sounds is quietly cultivating its intimate concerts empire. Though active for a decade with backing from Spotify, Virgin Group, and 20th Century Fox, they remain unfamiliar to most. The company’s business model seems to imply a level of complacency with that notion. Certainly, a new $25 million influx of investment capital illuminates that inference. In other words, they’re fully content promoting concerts you can’t get into featuring artists you’ve never heard of. While that may be true, however, that content likely has ties to matters currently under investigation by the New York Labor Department.

Misguided Outrage

If you’ve never been to a Sofar Sounds event you’re not alone. Even if you know of the company, there’s a good chance you still haven’t caught one of their private shows yet. That could be the result of capacity limits which hover around 75-150 at many shows. Or, it could be that your town hasn’t held a Sofar event yet. Furthermore, none of the events are promoted in traditional ways, nor do they enlist big artists to draw crowds. In brief, their approach to event promotion completely contradicts the norms of today’s music industry.

This promotional video highlights Sofar Sounds’ unique approach to the live music experience.

The KQED Report

In fact, that blatant disregard for typical industry practice never actually fools anyone. A report from KQED ArtsEmma Silvers swiftly exposes issues regarding how Sofar compensates its artists. To enumerate, it details how the company plausibly makes a $1500 profit from events virtually free of overhead. Meanwhile, the artists, some of whom are unaware Sofar Sounds isn’t even a non-profit organization, pocket a mere $50 stipend. Understandably, the report makes jumping to conclusions very easy.

The Talkhouse Report

Equally important though are the arguments neglected by the KQED report in its haste to advocate for the artists. Certainly, the industry unanimously upholds support for artist compensation as do global trends in intellectual property legislation. Likewise, it’s hard to ignore how beneficial Sofar events are for up-and-coming artists. John Colpittsreport for Talkhouse explores this perspective comprehensively. Namely, a quote from a former Sofar ambassador exemplifies sentiments common among Sofar artists:

“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?”

Beyond this, it’s important to remember that these are unknown artists getting unique opportunities. While the pay obviously isn’t ideal, it’s hardly unreasonable relative to the traditional industry standards. Especially when you factor in all the intrinsic value Sofar Sounds brings to the table.

Sofar Sounds is on a collision course with the NY State Department of Labor and the implications could cost them millions.

SoFar They’ve Gotten Away With It

Consequently, the misguided outrage allows an equally important issue to slip through the cracks. Interestingly, the Talkhouse report addresses the issue rather studiously. In essence, Sofar is doing the same thing any other underground or DIY outfit is doing- just on a larger scale. Seemingly, free labor is the key to its organizational structure. Moreover, it’s likely the thing they willingly try to conceal. In designating their event hosts ambassadors instead of volunteers, it’s increasingly evident of deliberate attempts to circumnavigate pesky workers rights. Despite those apparent efforts, those rights cannot be negated- regardless of title, unbidden consent, or written agreement. Thus, with a NY Labor Department investigation underway, new questions arise about Sofar Sounds’ underlying motives.

Labor Pains

In his report, Colpitts goes into detail about the various problems looming for Sofar Sounds pending the investigation. In particular, he highlights various NY labor standards the organization appears to be violating. Specifically, laws prohibiting the use of volunteer work for primary business operations. Also, his research indicates Sofar’s for-profit designation poses a major problem with regard to its usage of unpaid labor. For instance, his source alludes to a stringent list of unpaid labor criteria which Sofar is already not complying with. On top of all of that, their DIY methodology for hosting their events can potentially blur the lines of legality as well. Consequently, the terms of the new curator program seem extraordinarily reactionary. With this in mind, it’s unclear how the company didn’t see this coming. However, in a May interview, founder Rafe Offer dubiously clears that up in a potentially damning quote:

“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.

Rafe Offer speaking During the Music Innovation Podcast with host Florian Wilisch-

In conclusion, it looks like Sofar Sounds is in for a fight. Indeed, their future and momentous rise amid savvy industry moves are in flux. To this point, their controversial business model has them on the fast track to changing the event promotions game as we know it. Not to mention the endless potential innovations that await the countless aspiring artists. Nevertheless, unless they can overcome these new hurdles before them, this may be the final curtain call on Sofar Sounds events as we know (or don’t know) them.


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