At a Sofar, you are sitting on the floor in a room full of mostly strangers, listening to artists you’ve never heard of, perhaps in a city you’ve never been to before, and yet it’s possible to feel comfortable and content. Why does this work, and at scale? Recently, we’ve been thinking about what goes into building a trusted brand and why that matters to people.
Trusted experiences often reveal themselves slowly, over long periods of time. Perhaps trust is enabled through aligned incentives between a service and its users. Or, in delivering the consistency of a user experience. Or even, in creating a feeling of safety. We were first introduced to Sofar Sounds almost 7 years ago and have watched them build their network of artists, guests, and venues slowly and steadily, maintaining their trusted promise: intimate shows in unique venues around the world. As of today, we are also an investor in the company alongside Battery Ventures and Octopus Ventures.
Sofar fits the USV thesis on three fronts: network effects (between users, artists, and hosts), trusted brand (consistently high NPS), and broadening access to well-being (getting people to live events in person). The scale of the Sofar community, to us, is an example of “unspoken” value that Sofar has created for over one million people in 430 cities across 65 countries including London, Paris, New York, Sydney, Bangalore, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, and Seoul. In fact, more people will attend a Sofar in 2019 than will attend Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and Coachella combined (also, 13 Sofar artists are playing at Coachella this year).
Each Sofar has a few known constraints that make the show feel familiar: it will be in a unique space where you wouldn’t expect to see live music, an MC with a loose script will encourage you to get to know your neighbors, three performers will each play three to four songs, the address will only be revealed a day before the show, and the show will end early, by around 10:30 pm. This is what we call “the Sofar container”. The natural outcomes of the container are less tangible; for example, you will hear great music, you will feel safe and comfortable, you might make a new friend or you can attend solo, you won’t be judged. By bringing people together and creating spaces where music matters, Sofar broadens access to well-being – a core part of our investment thesis.
The beauty of creating a simple container, with known constraints, is that what goes into the container is dynamic. You don’t know who the artists are, who you’ll be sitting next to or what the venue will be like, but we believe that the essence of Sofar lies in trusting the container.
Sofar expands the live music market via its bottom-up network of venues and also expands the number of places artists can perform. The participants also comprise a network: guests, hosts, and artists all create a Sofar together. These roles are fluid: audience members often become volunteers, volunteers become hosts, hosts become employees, and so on. In fact, 75% of Sofar’s full-time staff has come from its community. The strength of the network is derived from the fact that there is a high-level alignment between all three groups.
Artists get a full room of engaged audience members and a chance to be discovered, and even support to play in other cities where Sofar is present. Sofar artists have received over 220 million views on YouTube. Further, Sofar has created a global community of 25,000 artists and over 3,000 volunteers who are expanding the same model into new cities. In 2018, there were almost 6,000 Sofar shows globally; this month alone there will be over 600 shows. More than 40 Sofar artists have gone on to win or be nominated for a Grammy, 29 have been nominated for or won a BRIT award, and 22 have been nominated for or won a Mercury Prize.
We don’t believe that people wake up every day seeking “curation”, “trust”, or “experiences”. Instead, maybe people just want one moment of happiness, a chance to discover something new, to have a meaningful conversation, a human connection. It’s hard to put into words but maybe we don’t need to; eight couples, that we know of, have met at a Sofar and gone on to get married. Through its unique interface — the Sofar — Sofar Sounds brings people together, gives people a chance to feel part of something bigger, and provides a comfortable space to interact with live music. Live music that is completely stripped away, where you can quite literally feel every vibration in an intimate setting, from guitar strings and vocal cords to hands clapping in unison. We can’t think of many things better for mental health, well-being, and fun.
We are excited to welcome Sofar Sounds to the USV family.