A martial arts studio, an indoor hockey rink, a pole-dancing studio: These are more than just businesses in Boise, they are the locations for some recent Sofar Sounds concerts. An international organization, Sofar Sounds creates curated, intimate performances in unique locations in 441 cities around the world. Starting in April, that list has included Boise. Each gig is secret (attendees don't know the location until the day before a show) and features local bands, giving the whole thing an underground, word-of-mouth vibe and a sense of privilege for anyone lucky enough to get a ticket in the exclusive Sofar lottery.
The shows are exclusive, and in the City of Trees, they're organized by Sydney Lyon, 27, who works for vacation rental outfit Vacasa and plays in a local band. She first heard about Sofar in September 2018 from a friend living in New York who was curious if the phenomenon had made it to Boise.
"I hadn't heard of it, but she told me the concept of secret concerts and intimate spaces and weird locations, and I thought it would do well here because Boise's such a music town," Lyon said.
With her interest piqued, Lyon went to Sofar's website to see if there was anything for Boise. There wasn't. So she applied on the site to see if the organization could expand into the area and found herself interviewing with Sofar's onboarding team, pitching Boise as a concept to them. Lyon got the job, and now she is responsible for selecting the dates of each show, booking the artists and getting everything off the ground.
Sofar Sounds has recently been scrutinized in the media for allegedly inadequately paying artists. According to TechCrunch, Sofar pays bands $100 for a 25-minute set, and hosts and curators get nothing while Sofar takes home the profits from ticket sales. The company pushed back against the TechCrunch article, saying in Boise, Sofar takes a 35% cut of the proceeds after the band or artist has been compensated—with the rest going to the curator, who can use their share to pay for expenses like promotion, sound engineering or giving more money to the performer.*
The structure of a Sofar Sounds show features three artists playing four songs each. Often these are up-and-coming bands for whom playing a $100 gig that they did not need to advertise and where potential fans are sitting quietly, enraptured and appreciating the music is worth it. But other shows in Sofar's portfolio include Karen O performing at Sofar NYC, Leon Bridges at Sofar Dallas and Billie Ellish at Sofar LA, all playing for $100.
"It's definitely been a topic since I started working with them," Lyon said. "It's a valid concern and I'm glad when artists want to talk about it and bring it up. Now that Sofar has received this new grant and all this money, it's going to be put directly into the system to make sure artists are paid first and foremost, above anyone else."
Andrew Martin of Up is the Down is The, who performed at Sofar show at the martial arts studio, found the experience to be positive, with the small space encouraging a relaxed vibe. He also found the compensation for the performance to be appropriate.
"We played a 20-minute set and I think were were generously compensated for that," Martin said. "Everything was set up and very smooth and organic. We had a full crowd that could possibly buy merch but if anything, is listening to your music and now know who you are."
But Martin pointed out that this is coming from a working band perspective, and that if he were, say, Moby (who has performed with Sofar), it wouldn't be as important to get people to learn about your music.
Between her regular job and playing in her own band, Lyon dedicates many hours to making sure Sofar shows are memorable for both the audience and the bands, saying the experience is worth it to her.
"I just do it for the love of putting on a show," Lyon said. "In Boise, I want it to be super clear to anyone who wants to play that bands get paid first before anyone else. Being in a band myself and managing a band, I know what it takes and how hard it can be to make it as a band."
Lyon puts together one show each month with, with the next taking place Friday, Nov. 8, at a secret location. Another is slated for Friday, Dec. 13.
Despite the hard work, Lyon finds Sofar to be a genuinely fun experience and continues to put on sold-out shows to music fans in Boise.
"I don't want anyone to come in and think our shows are cookie cutter and could be seen anywhere," Lyon said. "I want it to feel authentically Boise with our arts and for the artists."
For more information on Sofar Boise, visit sofarsounds.com/boise.*Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Sofar Sounds curators are not paid. That is incorrect. Boise Weekly regrets the error.