May 23

It is Rational to Play Sofar; It is Irrational to Attend Sofar

Should musicians play a Sofar event? The answer is that they should, if it is rational from an opportunity cost standpoint. For most musicians the answer to that question is probably yes, independent of whatever investment monies Sofar happens to secure. [Note: Investment is neither revenue nor profit]. If your average Sofar musician were to set the show up themselves they would make a lot less money and have drastically less turnout. The opportunity cost calculation suggests that for most musicians, it is rational to play a Sofar show.

But the reason it makes sense to play a Sofar show is because audience members are drastically irrational. The fact of the matter is that many of the musicians that perform Sofar shows already perform shows locally, sometimes even in a listening room setting. Attending a Sofar show amounts to paying a middleman a drastic markup to see something you could see locally for much less money. In that sense, attending Sofar shows seems drastically irrational.

So why do people attend Sofar shows then? What Sofar offers is a sense of branding and curation. As it happens, people need a guarantee that they’re going to see something that’s “good”. It’s not just because they want a security against the possibility of paying money for a bad show, they also need someone to provide them with guidance on what good local music is, in the face of an admittedly intimidating onslaught of new music.

So, I understand how the idea of Sofar appeals to audience members. However consider that decision-making over what you listen to is a form of expressive agency. This is what it means for the music you like to be an expression of yourself. And when you cede control over those decisions, particularly to a corporate taste maker, you give up on your agency as a listener. The listening experiences become less a form of self-expression and more an expression of corporate guidance. Owning your listening decisions by navigating a music scene on your own can be frightening – after all you can be judged for your listening decisions and not have the security of a corporate guide to save you. But I submit it’s a much more rewarding experience in the end.

Separate from this guidance function, the appeal of Sofar is grounded in the irrational phenomenon of familiarity breeding contempt, which I classify as a form of self-hatred. The idea is this: You are nothing special, and local musicians playing local venues are in your zone of familiarity, so they cannot be special either. Sofar games this irrationality by hiding the familiarity of these very same musicians behind a veil, so that for all you know, they are special. After all, they’ve been curated by a corporate tastemaker! Note that the veil aspect of Sofar shows has nothing to do with the purported goal of offering a listening-room setting. Yet, it is a necessary part of what drives the appeal of the Sofar show. Consider what would happen if Sofar publicized the musicians in advance. You would look them up and see that they play familiar venues near you. Perhaps they are playing a familiar venue in the near future at less than half the cost. Maybe the musician even lives in your area. Maybe you run into them at the supermarket. Having all of this knowledge, the desire to go to the Sofar show fades into nothingness.

On the other hand, why not ditch the self-hatred of the familiarity-breeds-contempt mantra? Consider that maybe you are special. Consider that maybe your life is filled with tiny wonders at every turn. Consider that at any moment you might have a chance encounter with someone at the supermarket who turns out to be an amazing musician. Consider looking at the offerings at a local venue that you pass by on the regular, and going to see a new musician that you’ve never heard before. Consider that you just might have the time of your life.