The Dirty Word at Folk Alliance 2010: Sonicbids

I recently attended the Folk Alliance International Music Conference in Memphis and was shocked by the reaction to Sonicbids in panel discussions and with artists I spoke to. It caused me to question the company, and whether it was still helping indie artists. Had the company “sold out”? Were they now “The Man”? Well, here’s what I found out...

 

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A little context:

The Folk Alliance is significant in my life as I filmed several key interviews for my documentary “What is INDIE?” while at the FA in Montreal (Derek Sivers- CD Baby, David Wimble- Indie Bible, Suzanne Glass- Indie-Music.com), and then premiered the film 2 years later at the FA in Austin. But the FA conference in Montreal in 2005 is also where I first met Panos Panay, the founder of Sonicbids.

I’ll admit, when I first met Panos, I wasn’t sure what Sonicbids was all about, what it did, or if it was even a good idea for indie artists to join. But I knew one thing: Panos was passionate and enthusiastic about helping independent artists, so I felt it was worth digging deeper.

So I kept in touch with Panos, and over time we developed a friendship, as we were very much on the same page with our views on the music industry. In the process I got a much better sense of Sonicbids and what it did for musicians. Essentially, Sonicbids removed the gatekeepers and middlemen and allowed indie artists to connect directly with promoters, festivals, conferences, film licensing opportunities, consumer brands and more. No doubt in my mind: just like CD Baby was when it first came onto the scene, Sonicbids was a game changer.

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OK, back to FA 2010. I was going to a music conference for first time in almost 3 years. After promoting my film until late 2007, I became hyper-focused on my local Montreal music scene the last few years, helping to create and program a new artist-friendly folk music venue in Montreal (http://www.myspace.com/centrestambroise).  So I felt a bit rusty, but it didn’t take long to get right back into it as I scheduled a ton of interviews with artists. My film had essentially taken a snapshot of the experience of being an independent artist in 2004/2005, and I was curious how things had changed in the last 5 years.

In those interviews, I asked artists how they were using sites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, ReverbNation, and of course, Sonicbids. To my astonishment, the only website that received a worse reaction than MySpace was Sonicbids (more about MySpace in a future blog post). Sonicbids? But they’re awesome! Then in panel discussion after panel discussion, whenever Sonicbids was mentioned, it was usually followed by nervous laughter, like a hot potato that no one wanted to take. When people finally did talk about Sonicbids, nothing positive came out.

I couldn’t believe it. What had happened in the 5 years since I first met Panos? Had Sonicbids changed? Had they lost touch with their original mission of helping indie artists? Well, it turned out I would have an opportunity to ask “the man” himself, as Panos was scheduled to speak at Folk Alliance.

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It had been a few years since I last saw Panos, and a lot had happened with Sonicbids in that time. Membership on the site had essentially doubled to 210,000+ artists, they were now working with SXSW, one of the biggest music conferences in the world, and they had received roughly $4.5 million dollars in venture capital funding. Combined with all of the negative feedback I was hearing at the conference, even I was starting to wonder if they had lost their way.

Well, it took all of 30 seconds in talking to Panos to put my mind at ease. He was still the same guy I met in 2005, super nice, super enthusiastic, and extremely passionate about helping indie artists. I had a very good conversation with Panos and Tess Cychosz (Member Relations Manager at Sonicbids) about what I was hearing about the company while at Folk Alliance. It was clear that they had heard some of these things before, and they invited me to come to a Sonicbids Member Dinner that night to continue the discussion.

Sonicbids hosts these member dinners all over the world, and many times Panos is there himself. The atmosphere was laid back, and I watched while Panos & Tess hung out with the artists, ate ribs, drank beer and got to know everyone. Every so often the conversation steered towards Sonicbids, it wasn’t a survey, it wasn’t structured, but you could tell that they genuinely wanted to get feedback straight from their members. It was amazing to watch. Panos could have been in any number of meetings/places, but the founder & CEO of the company chose to spend a few hours with Sonicbids members, which speaks volumes about who Panos is.

And although the feedback from the members wasn’t as strongly worded as what I had been hearing at the conference, they were rooted in the same frustrations: pay to play, spending lots of money and not being selected, etc.  It was a very open and honest discussion. Panos listened to the artists, and responded to each criticism with his point of view, then asked their opinions on how they would improve Sonicbids. It’s almost too bad that Panos can’t speak to all of the Sonicbids members (and sceptics) directly, because if you hear him talk about helping indie artists with such passion, and when you realize how open he is to getting feedback about Sonicbids for the sake of improving the site (and further helping indie artists), it would no doubt help reduce some of the Sonicbids-bashing that goes on.

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Obviously this whole experience at Folk Alliance got me thinking about Sonicbids, so here’s my take on the company:

  • Before Sonicbids, if you wanted to apply to a festival or music conference, it still cost money to submit. You either had to send a check/money order/online payment before sending your promo kit (which cost money for the physical CD, one-sheet, postage, envelope, etc.). I think sometimes artists forget this, or maybe since Sonicbids has been around for 9 years, it is very possible that many artists weren’t around in the days when you had to snail-mail a money order to pay your submission fees along with your physical CD and press kit (i.e. time consuming, not eco-friendly, and expensive).
  • Sonicbids does not keep all of the money from submission fees for opportunities. This seems to be a great source of misunderstanding in the artistic community. In most cases, 70% goes to the promoters, although sometimes it’s a 50/50 split. And Sonicbids is adamant when they take on a new promoter, that if there was a fee before, the fee remains the same as it was.
  • Before Sonicbids, it was nearly impossible without an agent, manager or inside connection to gain access to many of the opportunities found on Sonicbids, most notably film licensing, video game licensing, and working with large brands like the GAP, Delta Airlines, to name a few. They not only make it easier to connect to opportunities, they also actively create new opportunities for artists, sometimes spending their own money to do so. They literally put their money where their mouth is, which is pretty damn cool.
  • Sonicbids offers partial reimbursement for international travel expenses, so if you do get booked at an overseas festival/conference but can’t afford to go, Sonicbids might help get you there. In other words, they take an active role in not only helping to create opportunities for artists, but also in helping to get artists to those opportunities. Again, I think this is pretty awesome. (*Update: they just did this very thing, helping to send a band to tour China: http://panosbrew.sonicbids.com/sonicbids-china-tour-artist-announced/ )
  • One criticism of Sonicbids is that it is a monopoly, and I guess in some ways it is. There are festivals and conferences that now book exclusively through Sonicbids, but there is a reason for that: from a promoter’s point of view, Sonicbids is a dream come true. Simply put, Sonicbids saves an incredible amount of time for promoters in finding/selecting artists. But because certain festivals & conferences use Sonicbids exclusively, it in a sense “forces” artists to use the site (and pay the monthly subscription fee) if they want to apply to certain opportunities. Even I can admit that this is not ideal. Although I think there is tremendous value in what Sonicbids offers to artists, I can understand how artists might feel bitter when they have to use the site to apply to a particular festival (and pay the monthly fee).

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So even though I am big fan of Sonicbids, there is always room for improvement. Here is my personal wish list for changes that Sonicbids can make to improve their service:

1. Pay-to-play & the monthly fee: I personally feel that Sonicbids should offer 2 membership options on their site: Regular membership and Premium membership:

  • Regular Membership (Free): Artists can sign up for an account for free and create an EPK, but they would still have to pay to submit to opportunities. This would be geared towards artists who play mostly their home town and just want to apply to a few select opportunities every year, i.e. “lite” users.
  • Premium Membership (Subscription): Artists pay the $6 monthly membership fee and are allowed to apply to a set amount of opportunities per month for free.  There are no doubt opportunities that would not have had a submission fee before Sonicbids existed (certain radio shows, Podcasts, smaller clubs/venues for example) which could fall into this category. But there are still certain conferences and festivals that always have, and always will, charge a submission fee. So both Regular & Premium Members would still have to pay to submit to those opportunities. The Premium Membership option would be for “heavy users” of the site; touring artists or artists looking to apply to many clubs/venues/festivals, etc. So they would pay $6/month, but get free access to a set amount of opportunities per month in exchange. Maybe other premium features could include things like embedding your Gig Calendar and e-mailing out your EPK.

2. Eliminate Supersonic EPK: I’m sure everyone at Sonicbids has heard this many times before, but in the age of YouTube and Vimeo (and countless other free video hosting sites) I would love to see Sonicbids stop charging artists to upload a video onto their EPK. If it’s a server issue, then maybe they could let artists embed a video from either YouTube or Vimeo in their EPK. It might be easier said than done, but I think it would be the right thing to do.

3. Make Sonicbids THE place where artists update all of their sites: MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Right now ReverbNation and ArtistData are battling it out for supremacy in this field, but Sonicbids has the membership base and resources to win outright, and they could add incredible value for their members in the process. This could even be a service offered in the “Premium” membership in the scenario I mentioned above.

4. Make most EPK elements visible on 1 page: It is clear that most artists are tired of MySpace, but they can’t close their accounts because there are still people who use MySpace as their main reference. And who are those people? Many of them are venue bookers, and as someone who booked a folk music venue for 2 years, I can attest to this. MySpace was the first place I visited to hear an artist because of the (relatively) uniform look and ability to find a photo, music, calendar dates, bio and maybe a video all on the same page, in essentially the same place as on every other artist page on MySpace. If Sonicbids tweaked the look of the artist EPKs to incorporate most of the key elements onto 1 page, venue bookers might be more inclined to use Sonicbids in the same way they use MySpace, and in the process, allow artists to finally let go of MySpace once and for all (wishful thinking?).

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So I hope for any artists that read this it gave you some insight into Sonicbids and gave you a better sense of the company, and of Panos. They are not perfect, and yes improvements can be made, but they are certainly not “the man”. They are there to help, and are always looking for ways to improve. And if this blog post made me sound like I am a cheerleader for Sonicbids, well, I will admit that in some ways I am (Tess Cychosz, the Member Relations Manager, even joked that Panos and I are “BFFs”). But I call it like I see it, and as long as Sonicbids stays true to their original mission and keeps creating opportunities for indie artists, then I will keep waving my pom-poms ;-)

Cheers,

Dave

P.S. - What do YOU think about Sonicbids? Do you use the site? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? What would YOU do to improve it? Please feel free to comment on this blog post.

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