Sofar transforms everyday spaces - like a living room or retail shop - and turns it into a captivating venue for secret, live shows, creating an immersive experience that brings guests and artists closer together. Each Sofar is small, and typically features three diverse acts, with no headliner. I started seeing social media posts about Sofar Waterloo last summer. I got a better idea of what they were about when they were present at the holiday social/open house at One King North Waterloo in December of last year. That was also when I signed up to get notifications about their next shows. There are over 400 Sofar cities in the world. 10 in Canada. There are two types of Sofar cities. The majority are volunteer cities and then there are about 9 or 10 that are ambassador cities. Ambassador cities are doing this full time. For example, New York does 5 shows a week. KW just started moving towards two a month and is one of only three cities in Canada doing more than one show a month.
I met with Waterloo Team Lead Amit Mehta earlier this month to talk about the growth of the Waterloo chapter and his goal to facilitate a collaborative culture between arts and tech in Kitchener-Waterloo (KW).
Mehta got involved in Sofar Toronto about four years ago as a guest. As a musician himself (he's a percussionist and also taught drums) he started out watching the Sofar YouTube videos and that's what hooked him. After attending several Toronto shows, the Toronto lead suggested that he just start his own local chapter, so he did. Sofar Waterloo launched in September 2017 and has experienced rapid growth. He estimates that he probably puts in 15-20 hours/week into Sofar activities. Having a volunteer team that initially consisted of mostly university students proved challenging due to school and co-op schedules. The team has since grown from 10 people to 26 people that includes a mix of students, professionals, and some older team members. As lead for KW, Mehta is looking for collaborations. The Waterloo chapter is not likely to do more than two shows a month because they are a volunteer team and he can't ask his team to commit more time than they already are. He says that what they can do, if the goal is to truly bring arts and tech together, is do as many collaborations as possible.
Artists can apply online to perform, or will be recommended by a Sofar scout. It's 60/40. The 60 is artist applications and the 40 is scout recommendations. Once artists apply or are scouted, the team goes through an internal vetting process where at least 50% of the team has to approve. They know that everyone is going to interpret music differently, and at the same time, it's not just about the sound. They take into consideration stage presence and how the artist interacts with the audience. The whole point of Sofar is creating that intimate one of a kind experience. They are learning with practice how to arrange artists from diverse genres and different skill levels so that each one shines. He says that they've had very successful shows.
KW operates on a net zero. The door cover of $15/person goes towards covering gear costs and the rest is split between artists. Minimum $100/30 minute set. That artist fee is raised if there are three people or more. Typically any profit made is tips, donations, or drink sales, and that gets rolled back in to purchase gear. Main costs are paying artists, and renting gear. Mehta says that he's not willing to pay artists less. Venue hosts donate the space, although there are some instances where Sofar pays because it's giving back to the community. For example, if a show is in a non-profit's venue, if they are running a surplus, Sofar will pay.
KW is a very tech centric community. Sofar is trying to play that to their advantage and Mehta feels that it has worked out well and is part of what has helped to sustain their growth. The majority of the team is tech based, but the whole team is a pretty diverse mix of locals that allows them to pull in networks to help support the shows. He says that if we want to bring culture to the forefront, we need to leverage tech and do that by taking it to where people already are, which means physically bringing arts and culture and tech together by hosting local artists in tech spaces. It's worked well so far. The first show was hosted at Ten Thousand Villages in Uptown Waterloo. Some house concerts are planned for the summer, but previous tech hosts were Terminal, Hive.co (described as their hidden gem venue), 44 Gaukel, and most recently Smile.io.
Mehta noted that some tech companies are having a hard time hiring local talent. Potential candidates don't want to stay in KW and are citing a lack of culture as the reason. He disagrees and says that there's no lack of culture, it's just not as prominent. Arts and culture are two different realms and people in them tend to communicate differently. He thinks that KW has a lot of people that are involved in both arts and tech and they are just now starting to understand that they can leverage that to help bring both of those worlds together. We chatted about how in bigger cities, like New York for example, it's considered a worthwhile investment to commit funds towards arts and culture and wondered why people in KW aren't doing that as readily. He said that most people look at value in terms of how much money they will make, but in reality the value is being a part of our Canadian community. He think that's what we need to build out and that as tech starts to understand that more, there's going to be more investment in local arts and culture but it takes those few people to be the bridge to get that going.
Have you been to a Sofar show? Do you have suggestions on how to bring arts and tech together? Click here to find one in your city, or my local readers can follow Sofar Waterloo to sign up for the next show and see pictures from past shows.
Story and photos by Glodeane Brown
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