September 3, 2020
Siana Altiise was planning her first European tour when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the live music industry to a standstill. Venues closed across the globe, album release dates stalled, and millions of musicians like Siana Altiise were left in limbo.
In an environment where nearly 91 percent of musicians are undiscovered, where some record labels may give a majority of support to a select few and where some venues ask artists to play for free to noisy partygoers, there is actually hope for artists like Siana. It’s called Sofar Sounds, and what started as a house show in a tiny London flat, is now an international network of musicians, engaged fans, resources and supportive communities. But now, with live shows on hold indefinitely, Sofar Sounds founder Rafe Offer has had to further reimagine his groundbreaking model and support artists at a time when the world needs them most.
A world of small gigs in intimate spaces
Back in 2009, Rafe attended a concert that would change his life forever. All around him, beer was being spilt, people in the crowd were pushing past one another, attendees were shouting and phones were held up to record every minute of the show—all while the band was playing its heart out. Rafe had enough. So, he asked a musician friend to come over to his flat in North London and play a small house show. It was the genesis moment of Sofar Sounds.
Since that first house show, Rafe has developed an alternative to the live music industry by connecting captive, caring audiences with emerging artists via intimate shows in nontraditional venues: barbershops, rooftops, empty pools, trampoline parks, lakefront saunas, alpine ski jumps, libraries—you name it.
From Manila to Milwaukee, in more than 300 cities around the globe, local hosts offer their space for the evening, and three diverse musical acts play stripped-back sets. There’s no opener or headliner. In fact, attendees don’t know what acts will be playing or even where the show will be until Sofar Sounds’ digital platform sends them the secret location 24 hours before the event. In this way, attendees are more focused on the format rather than the hype of a big-name artist.
You might see guests sitting on floor pillows, a string of festival lights overhead, and a small team of Sofar Sounds volunteers setting the stage and expectations. Talking and texting are discouraged. The idea is to connect with the artist and give them your full attention. Between the three 20-minute sets, the emcee will often talk with the artists or the audience about the themes of the music or the significance of the venue. Attendees pay $10 to $20, and artists are paid $100 to $175. Sofar Sounds splits the remaining revenue with the local Sofar chapter, and the venue hosts usually donate their space.
Sofar cities have held more than 10,000 of these shows over the last 11 years—featuring 20,000 emerging artists each year—for hundreds of thousands of guests. Before making it big, artists like Billie Eilish and Leon Bridges played Sofar shows in living rooms and retail shops.
For Rafe, Sofar Sounds is an answer to a broken music system. “I was trying to solve a problem simply as a fan and a friend of artists,” says Rafe. “The lack of respect and attention to the music was infuriating. With most shows, the emphasis is on making money for the venue, charging at the door and charging for drinks inside. The disregard for the details like dirty toilets and uncomfortable seating—it all distracts from the music. And for emerging artists, it is soul-destroying to be playing to an audience full of people who are not there, not focused.”
And that’s assuming that people show up at all. The average emerging artist doesn’t have the following to fill a room on their own.
Support for artists on the verge
Rafe recognized a gap in the system that gave almost no support to new artists. “Much of the industry is about getting an artist to the point where they’re famous and making lots of money for their handlers and the people around them, and that’s OK, too. Everybody’s got to make a living and dream big. But what about all the other people who might not make it there but want to sustain themselves through music? What about all the people who may not be interested in playing a stadium but just want to make cool stuff and be valued?”
In the music scene before the COVID-19 pandemic, Siana was stuck performing cover songs. “They didn’t want to hear original music,” she says. Siana is an emerging artist from Atlanta who uses a unique form of instrumentation called a loop station. When she performs a song, she builds it piece by piece, right in front of the audience. She establishes the beat with her voice, breathing rhythmically into the mic, and then clicks a button to loop the beat. She sings a whisper-soft melody, and then clicks a button to loop the melody. Layer by layer, Siana composes a dreamy, symphonic mix that changes the way people listen. It’s trancelike, even meditative. Her process of building the song from the ground up, in front of the audience, is an act of intimacy in itself. As if to say, “This is how I make magic.” It opens doors for listeners, invites them into her creation and ultimately connects listener to artist in powerful ways. As a result, live performances are where Siana’s music thrives.
“Before Sofar,” she says, “I was performing in places where people were having their conversations in the background, playing loud games and drinking. It was more of a party environment. And my music was an option. I was just an entertainer.”
Siana found Sofar Sounds in 2018 while trawling YouTube. She first applied to host a show in her Atlanta home, and within a month she had 70 people in her living room. The next month, she was on the lineup to perform. She was hooked. “I would host a show, then volunteer at a show, then perform at a show. Host, volunteer, perform, repeat.” It was those first few shows that taught Siana how to connect with an audience.
“I had no merch,” she says. “I didn’t know how to talk to people. After my first show, I hid in the bathroom. But Sofar is more of an engagement. Listeners who are ready to listen, hearts that are prepared, minds that are ready to interact. The energy feedback in the room. Sofar showed me that people actually want to support artists.”
To land a gig at a traditional venue, most artists have to submit an electronic press kit and hope that the venue selects them. Siana wasn’t there yet. “I had very few YouTube videos,” she says. “I didn’t have any songs on Spotify, but I was still considered for a Sofar show. And that completely changed my trajectory. It completely changed my personal confidence in my work.”
Seventy Sofar shows later—in more than 15 cities—Siana was ready for more. She built a Sofar tour across Europe. Then, the COVID-19 crisis hit. And everything stopped.
A digital place to play, connect and get paid
“We reinvented the whole company within a week to just support artists,” says Rafe. Thousands of planned shows were canceled, but Sofar Sounds paid those artists who were relying on that money to get by.
Artists had no place to perform, so Sofar created it. It’s called the Listening Room. Every day, an artist from across the globe plays a Sofar Sounds set, streaming it live from their own intimate space. Global audiences tune in via YouTube and type their claps in the chat.
Over 45,000 people have watched the shows live. And another 350,000 have viewed the uploaded videos on YouTube. Siana is one artist who recently performed a Listening Room set, as viewers connected from as far away as Austria, South Africa, Russia, Brazil, Singapore and France.
Siana Altiise livestreams a performance from her living room to a global Sofar audience during her Listening Room set. Photo credit: Lex Dominguez
“Normally, going live on social is my least-favorite thing,” says Siana. “There’s a dissonance in how the listeners are feeling versus what I’m able to recognize they’re feeling. But going live with Sofar was great because I knew that they were listeners who were ready to listen.”
In the middle of her set, Siana scrolled through the chat to check in on her audience. “There was a listener who wrote, ‘This is exactly what I needed right now.’ That propelled me to keep going. It’s something you don’t get at a regular venue. It eased a little bit of anxiety around the question, ‘Is anybody even listening?’”
More than 5,000 people were listening, and that connection and exposure has had a huge impact on Siana’s following. Her Spotify plays went from 30 to 1,400 overnight.
Each artist is paid for their set, and viewers are given the opportunity to donate directly to the artists via Venmo, Cash App and PayPal. As an additional response to the pandemic, Sofar launched its Global Artist Fund, a fundraising campaign with the goal of raising $250,000 to help 1,000 artists through grants of $250 each. Artists need not apply to receive a grant: Sofar is reaching out to them. Siana’s grant went directly to her bills. “These people can’t create for free,” says Rafe, “and we need to support them now.”
“Since COVID, it seems like people are more open to recognizing others’ needs,” says Siana. “The ‘one-anothering’ has been magnificent. The increase in direct donations has been really beautiful. People are thinking a lot differently financially.”
Re-upping during the great pause
Paying artists for their art—and what they go through to produce that art—is one thing. Helping them learn and grow is arguably more beneficial.
“Right now,” says Rafe, “there’s this great pause that we can take advantage of. While we’re all sitting in our living rooms and doing less, while live music is at a standstill, let’s give artists a chance and a resource for education and growth in their careers. We based the series on a need, on the times and on what kinds of things folks value. Then, we made it free so there are no barriers to anybody.”
Sofar Sounds launched its In Session webinars to cover everything from music publishing and setting up a home studio to advice from pros like Tom Windish—a world-class agent who discovered artists Lorde and Billie Eilish—and ways to get your music playlisted in the digital age.
“Now you have to be an entrepreneur, not just a musician,” says Rafe. “The internet has been a game changer. It has at least allowed everybody to put their music out into the world. And back in the day, before platforms existed, you really were at the mercy of being signed and maybe getting on the radio. So it’s become more democratic. But then all of a sudden it became even harder because you were in a sea of it. How do you stand out? How do you get listened to?”
For artists like Siana, Sofar Sounds is helping them become savvier marketers of their music and artistic brand. “People want to hear your story,” says Siana. “That is the one thing that I have picked up the most from Sofar. People are looking to connect. I remember one show—I did this experiment and just told people that I’m selling shirts. ‘I'm selling shirts, guys. Come to the table and buy them.’ I knew that I wasn’t gonna sell any shirts that day. I was just going to bite the bullet just to see if I was right.
“And then at the next show, I told the story about why I made the shirts, why I used the slogan ‘Let's just slow down.’ I talked about what encouraged me and how I even got to the place of being able to make the shirts. People were like, ‘I need to buy one for my boss. I need to buy one for my mom. I need one!’ I sold all my shirts that night.”
The In Session webinars help artists navigate the emotional toll society takes on artists, too. Like a conversation with Melia Clapton—Eric Clapton’s wife and founder of Turn Up for Recovery—that speaks to addiction and mental health stigmas in the music industry. These conversations are important as we ask artists to carry the burden of interpreting these difficult times.
“During COVID,” says Siana, “It seems like artists are bearing the weight of the emotional response to social isolation and the traumas of illness. Society is leaning heavy on artistic expression. I don’t know that artists have had a place to rehabilitate themselves. When we’re bombarded with death and sickness and race wars, artists are in a constant state of depletion, because we’re giving out but not being refilled. And so finding somewhere to be refilled is so important.”
“Artists are so vulnerable,” says Rafe. “Through their work, they share their stories of struggle, and then the rest of us get more comfortable sharing our stories as well. If you look across history, we remember art more than almost anything. And there's a reason for it. It makes us feel alive and human. It points out that other people are going through the same things we are.”
Embracing artistry, paying accordingly
“We're all born artists,” says Rafe, “and then society beats it out of us in some way. Either because of the pursuit of money or because we go to a school where the arts are not a priority, or parents say you need to grow up to be an engineer.
“One of my dreams is that people will grow up and think ‘I can be an artist’ because they can make enough money to live. People start to look at the world and see this path of being a creative person, being true to themselves, because society embraces it in every way.
“They realize that they can grow up not to become Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift, but their own person who is making money and can support themselves and—if they want—a family, too, because society says, ‘Yes, you deserve to be paid and paid appropriately for what you’re doing. You’re changing the world in some way that is small and personal—or big, as in, it helps us point the light on massive existential issues like racial injustice or climate change.’
“At Sofar Sounds, we have more than 20,000 artists play a year. But a couple years from now, we’ll be able to help hundreds of thousands of artists plan a hundred Sofar gigs at the press of a button, or perhaps have them play virtual gigs and still pay them enough to be sustainable.
“Further out, it could be artificial intelligence, with emerging platforms—something like Star Trek, beam me up!—you could get a gig on Mars one night. Why not? Technology can accelerate this dream.”
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