Sofar Sounds will begin hiring paid part-time “Sofar Crew” members to work its intimate, surprise lineup concerts, says CEO Jim Lucchese, augmenting the network of unpaid volunteers that have largely supported Sofar since its founding a decade ago.
The announcement made to Sofar staff today (Sept. 16) comes amid the New York State Department of Labor’s ongoing investigation into Sofar’s use of unpaid volunteers, which was first reported in a recent, widely-shared Talkhouse essay by musician John Colpitts (aka Kid Millions) and confirmed by Pitchfork.
While the timeline reads like cause-and-effect, Lucchese says that talks to launch Sofar Crew began in October 2018 — shortly before he came on as CEO in February 2019, taking the reins from founder Rafe Offer (now executive chair).
“Sofar Crew is a way to make sure that as Sofar continues to grow, we can support that growth, and actually improve the quality of the experience,” he tells Billboard. “We want to make sure that what happens in that room doesn’t degrade.”
The new paid staffers won’t replace Sofar’s “Ambassador” volunteer network, though. Instead, Sofar Crew will soon join volunteers at all ticketed shows to take on heavier duties, like manning merch tables and actively driving email and social media sign-ups from attendees.
“Sofar started as everyone coming together and volunteering, and people are always coming up at shows and asking how they can get involved,” adds Lucchese, who is an avid drummer himself. “The Ambassador Program has always been that answer, and it’s one of the reasons why what happens in that room is as special as it is. It’s another reason why Sofar stays so connected to the local music scene, and that’s something that we absolutely want to continue.”
Lucchese declined to comment on the Department of Labor investigation, but a representative for Sofar provided the following first official statement on the situation:
“The New York State Department of Labor has requested information about the Sofar Ambassador program and we’re fully complying with their request. The New York State Department of Labor hasn’t made any findings or assertions of non-compliance against Sofar. We look forward to answering any questions they have and resolving this matter.”
According to an FAQ page on the New York State Department of Labor website, for-profit organizations may not use unpaid volunteers, except in the case of one-off, short-term events like a holiday party.
Meanwhile, Sofar recently announced $25 million in new funds from investors, led by Battery Ventures and Union Square Ventures, along with existing investors Octopus Ventures and Richard Branson‘s Virgin Group. The company now holds gigs in donated spaces in more than 400 cities worldwide, which guests pay between $15 and $30 to attend.
Performers are paid $100 per show, regardless of group size, and are often offered professionally-shot performance videos in place of payment.
Asked why the company is hiring paid staff instead of putting that same cash in artists’ pockets, Lucchese maintains that boosting revenue for artists is still one of his top priorities. Back in May, he says that he and Offer set a goal to “deliver more value” to artists six to nine months after closing the financing.
“I’m still absolutely committed to delivering on that timeline,” he says. “I’ve been talking to a lot of artists to get feedback on some of the things that we’re thinking about, and we’re running really hard to make sure that beginning before the end of the year, we start delivering on our promise.”