Sofar Sounds or Come On-A My House

Most readers of Bluegrass Today are by now familiar with the house concert. If you aren’t, I’ll just explain that it’s a concert—and you may want to be sitting down for this—that takes place in a house.

Some people like to compare it to other branches of the “sharing economy” like Uber, Airbnb, or (the new service in which people take violent felons into their homes instead of sending them to the state pen).

The house concert pre-dates these other services, though, and in some ways it’s a more straightforward concept: It’s simply a privately hosted concert that in most cases relies on invitation as opposed to public advertising for its audience. If the members of the audience don’t know the organizers or hosts personally, they’re probably connected in some way. This makes it not much different from a public bluegrass concert in which almost everyone knows everyone else anyway.

The house concert has been very beneficial to both bluegrass artists and fans of the music. Artists get to play in a warm, intimate setting, often making almost as much money as they would at a smaller public concert, and sometimes more than in some clubs. For fans of the music, they get to see and hear musicians they admire in an up-close and informal setting,  sometimes enabling them to sit close enough to the band to see them wince when making a mistake or see the mandolin player give the bass player a dirty look for dragging. It’s the kind of thing you miss out on in a festival environment.

Then in some cases there’s the potluck, and if there’s one thing musicians appreciate even more than a welcoming atmosphere to play in, it’s free lasagna.

One of the beauties of the house concert idea, and this is a characteristic of the sharing economy, is the directness of it. Host welcomes artists into home, host invites friends, friends give money, possibly bringing covered dish. Host and friends enjoy music and have good experience. Pretty nice arrangement for all involved. And, most if not all of the proceeds go to the performing artists because there is little to no overhead, and these concerts were not inspired by a desire for profit.

And yet, it seems, someone always comes up with an idea to commercialize, and therefore taint a simple and successful idea like this. Enter a company called Sofar Sounds, an organization estimated to be worth over 20 million dollars, that acts as a “middle man” (exactly what our business needs more of), taking over a lot of the concert production and publicity role, adding a more professional touch, including some videotaping of the show (because there just isn’t much of that going on at other shows these days). This removes some of the burden of the organization of the concert from the owners of the house, and best of all—and you professional musicians will love this part—it removes the burden on the artist of making any of the money that comes in for the show.

Yes, you read that right: in this business model, the artists actually performing the music receive nothing, because suddenly there’s a lot of overhead to take care of, and it seems there really isn’t anything left over at the end for the pickers, and we all know that the people playing the music should be last on the list of people who are owed anything for their services.

What the artists receive is the thing that we artists crave above all, we’re told: exposure. They also receive a “high-quality” video of their performance, which I guess serves the purpose of providing visual proof of their exploitation.

Gone, then, is the direct relationship between the organizer (or house owner) and the artist. Gone, too, is the financial benefit to the artist. The members of the audience are still paying the same or more than they would for a traditional house concert, but the money is no longer going straight to the artist, or to the artist at all. There are web site designers to pay, offices to maintain, logos to design, business lunch checks to pay. People can’t be doing this kind of thing for free, you know.

Whether the audience’s house concert experience is still similar to how it was, I couldn’t say, having never been to one of these events. It’s possible that it still has that intimate and homey feel, with the exception of a few strangers being present, and the musicians looking a little more beaten-down by life.

It really isn’t fair to consider this part of the sharing economy. I realize there are people and businesses who act as managers for Airbnb locations, serving as a middle man between the customer and property owner, but I don’t think any owners are making nothing for their customers’ stay, merely renting out their property for the exposure (and a professionally-recorded video showing the renters brushing their teeth in their bathroom). I also don’t know of any Lyft drivers giving people rides in exchange for a video of their excellent driving skills. Call me economically old-fashioned, but it seems to me that you can’t call it “sharing” if no one’s sharing anything tangible with the people providing the service in question. Yes, I realize a DVD in a paper envelope is technically “tangible,” but could you trade it for food in a pinch?

To be fair to Sofar Sounds, there is apparently an allowance in the budget to pay the band a lifestyle-altering $50, if they opt to turn down the video at the end, so I guess to say that the artist is making nothing isn’t 100% accurate. I apologize if I was at all misleading on that point.

I believe the musicians are also still offered some food, too, but only the appetizers, and only if they turn down both the video and the $50. If they take this option, they’re encouraged to eat in the kitchen. A video of them eating will be provided for a modest fee.


Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or views of Bluegrass Today