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Sofar_NheetuDha_ForDiscorder_June2017 copy

In Response

Sofar The Middleman Or Caught In The Middle?

author
Jasper D Wrinch
illustration
Neetu Dha

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Response is a new-ish column that directly responds to another piece of writing or broadcasting. The following interview with Sofar Vancouver’s Catherine Hodgson is in response to “A New Guest at Your House Show: The Middleman” by Emma Silvers, published to KQED Arts April 28, 2017.

 

In Emma Silvers’ article, Sofar Sounds is revealed to be a multinational $22-million company that hosts exclusive house shows in 350 cities around the world, profiting off musicians that don’t see even a sliver of that wealth, and actively perpetuating the idea that getting paid in “exposure” is adequate compensation. What the article fails to reveal is that only a fraction of the cities that host Sofar shows operate under that model, and most are actively trying to undo those harmful frameworks.

Only eight Sofar cities, including San Francisco — about which the article was written — have paid employees. Sofar Vancouver and the other 341 cities are entirely volunteer run, with Vancouver’s team hosting 1-2 shows per month. While technically under the umbrella of Sofar Global, the team in Vancouver is largely independent from the organization, and operates with little guidance from its global namesake, aside from occasional check-ins from Sofar’s Global Community Manager, Chris Winfield-Gryt.

“What surprised me about the article was the lack of communication that it sounds like other cities are having with their artists,” says Catherine Hodgson, director of Vancouver’s Sofar Sounds chapter. “I felt so bummed out because that’s been something I’ve worked so hard on here.” Sitting down with Discorder, Hodgson breaks down the realities of the Sofar model in Vancouver, both economically and ideologically.

The financial breakdown of a Sofar show is just about the most sour note within Silvers’ article, because it shows the organization to be so unabashedly exploitative of the musicians upon which it depends. Silvers calculates that at a particular San Francisco show, Sofar took in approximately “$1,500 — thirty times more than each band’s pay.” While those figures are abhorrent, there are stark differences between the finances of Sofar in San Francisco and Vancouver.

Sofar The Middleman Or Caught In The Middle? || Illustration by Neetu Dha for Discorder Magazine
Sofar The Middleman Or Caught In The Middle? || Illustration by Neetu Dha for Discorder Magazine

First, Sofar Vancouver tickets are still pay-what-you-want, with a suggested donation of $10, and no one turned away for lack of funds. From what is collected at the door, “money is taken off the top for expenses specific to that show,” Hodgson says — things like audio equipment rentals, compensation for artists’ transportation, and $50 for the audio person.

“From there, we split the money 70-30 — 70 per cent goes to the artists, 30 per cent to our Sofar bank account, which goes towards our running costs in Vancouver, like banking fees, Google storage, lights,” she explains. “It’s an average of $30-$60 that we keep at any given show.” The remaining 70 per cent is divided evenly between the three acts. They are then given a choice between their cut or a professional live video of their performance, in which case their money goes to the video and video editors.

While it’s not the highest paying gig, for the artists and those who put on the show, Sofar Vancouver makes a deliberate effort not to keep anyone in the dark over their finances, let alone profit at the expense of artists. Hodgson says that around “one artist every four months chooses the money over the video.” For most artists, the value of getting a professionally-made live video exceeds what their share of the door would be. “I try really hard to be open and transparent about what Sofar is, and what the options are for them,” she explains. “They are in control of saying yes or no, right off the bat. We give them all the details up front, so they can decide what’s best for them.”

The main source of revenue for Sofar Global is not from shows, apparently — it’s from Youtube ad revenue. “That’s always been the way they see profit,” says Hodgson. The videos produced from all the shows across the globe are uploaded to Sofar Sounds’ Youtube channel. And because they are all combined together, that money isn’t filtered back to the cities that produce the videos, let alone the artists performing in them.

Sofar The Middleman Or Caught In The Middle? || Illustration by Neetu Dha for Discorder Magazine
Sofar The Middleman Or Caught In The Middle? || Illustration by Neetu Dha for Discorder Magazine

Hodgson acknowledges that there is a need for improvement within the Sofar model. “In terms of business, it’s still really young — it only started in 2009,” she says. “The way I see it, they were making videos and putting them up, just riding that wave for so long. But now, it’s this gargantuan thing, and I don’t think they even know where it’s going. They have to take a serious look at how to keep it sustainable and transparent.” The disconnect between Sofar Global and many of its cities across the world, including Vancouver, is apparent — those who are producing the vast majority of the content through which Sofar makes its money don’t see it returned.

While one might think of breaking away from the Sofar name and all the controversy surrounding it, Sofar Vancouver is still hesitant. Despite their independence, Sofar Vancouver is inherently connected to groups of likeminded people all over the world through the brand. “That, to me, is the main thing I’m holding on to,” says Hodgson. By cutting ties with the name, they would be distancing themselves from a vast network of valuable contacts, that they often call on to help local artists plan tours abroad.

Hodgson still believes that “Sofar can viably be a for-profit company as long as we’re giving that profit back to the people that deserve it and make it happen.” That means paying artists who perform in living rooms across the world; that means compensating the thousands of volunteers putting in countless hours of work to make these shows happen; that means calling out the inequity within the company wherever it springs up; that means maintaining communication and dialogue between every level of the organization. Hodgson says, “I’m constantly sending Sofar Global emails with my thoughts on how it can work better and be more sustainable for everyone involved.”

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You can learn more about Sofar Sounds Vancouver by visiting sofarsounds.com/vancouver. For Emma Silvers’ “A New Guest at Your House Show: The Middleman,” kqed.org.

Sophia_Lapres_June_Discorder copy

No Fun Fiction

Static

author
Wendy Chan
illustration
Sophia Lapres

There’s an orange kitten grasping a branch, superimposed onto a sky-blue background. Hang in there, the poster tells me. Underneath someone scribbled “stay pawsitive.”

I chuckle every time I see it. If Cass were here, she would have already ripped it down.

The rest of the walls are littered with posters of bands I’ve never heard of, stickers stuck on top of stickers, and a haphazardly painted banner proclaiming “Go, Manatees, Go!”

Most of the college was ransacked long ago. The only things I found were a few cans of tomato soup that fell behind the cafeteria’s fridge and a moldy blanket that I repurposed into a bed.

But the station had been relatively untouched, tucked in a corner far from the rest of campus on the edge of town. Hundreds of CDs still lining the shelves, empty coffee cups scattered everywhere. I propped all the chairs against the door and covered the window with cardboard. Home sweet home.

The broadcast light is on. There’s still power, but no one knows for how long.

I press play. The small room fills with the sounds of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.” For the next four minutes, Shaggy tries to convince his partner that despite being caught in the act of fornicating with the neighbour on the counter, sofa, and shower, it was not, in fact, him.

When the song ends, I skip back to the beginning. Maybe today’s the day Cass will hear it.

Cass and I wore the same Sailor Moon shirt on the first day of kindergarten. That’s how we became best friends. In third grade, we put on puppet shows that only Cass’s dad would (grudgingly) watch. In sixth grade, she whisked me out of gym class when everyone saw me get my first period in the middle of dodgeball. In ninth grade, I bought three cartons of extra-large eggs and 12 rolls of toilet paper after He-Who-Must-Be-Named-DoucheDick spread a rumour that it wasn’t just a first kiss that Cass gave him.

In between that, we planned our escape. We would move to Paris together, open a bakery. Or maybe New York and revive our puppet show. Or literally anywhere that wasn’t here. We were going to blow this popsicle stand, Cass would say. I always told her melt made more sense.

Shaggy wraps up his plea, and I skip the track back to the beginning.

When Cass’s dad passed away, he left her his old radio cassette player, a box of mixtapes, and a note that said, “To get you through the hard times. Love, Papa.”

Static || Illustration by Sophia Lapres for Discorder Magazine
Static || Illustration by Sophia Lapres for Discorder Magazine

After his funeral, Cass and I laid on her bedroom floor. I put in one of the tapes and pressed play. We were silent for a minute as Shaggy’s smooth beats reached our ears.

Cass burst out laughing. “He’s dead, and he’s still a troll.” Cass sat up and wiped the tears from her face. “I can’t wait to get the hell out of this place.”

Yale had given her a full scholarship. In the fall, she would move 4,000 kilometers away. I only got a pity acceptance from the local college. Go, Manatees, Go.

I nodded, rearranged my lips into what I hoped was a smile. When the song ended, Cass put her head on my lap. “Play it again,” she said.

I was planning on wearing a red dress and black sneakers to graduation. Cass would have been valedictorian. We would have spent the summer at the beach listening to Shaggy, and then Cass would have left.

Instead I’m sitting on a carpet coloured by years of stains — dirt, puke, blood, and more I don’t want to think about.

But it’s just a matter of time before Cass hears the song.

After she finds me, we can figure out what to do next. They told people to head east — more people there, more resources. It’s supposed to be safer. Cass and I would go that way together. Most people seem to have already left. Headed east long ago. That was the smart thing to do.

Shaggy finishes making a case for his innocence. I skip back to the beginning and play the song again.

 

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Wendy WL Chan is a Vancouver-based storyteller. Her writing has appeared in print in Shoreline and on stage at Brave New Play Rites Festival. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from UBC and tweets occasionally at @wndwlc.