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Sonic Bids - Don't Get Me Started! Part 2

A couple of years ago, I set out to test SonicBids, and the opportunities it presents, and to see what kind of gigs we could turn up. If you don’t play, you can’t win.

My band, The Folk Unlimited Orchestra, is a pretty good test case. While not a top-tier attraction in our niche, we are well established and have played at many of the top venues that specialize in our genre (folk/Americana/acoustic) such as Club Passim, McCabes, The Freight and Salvage, The Point, the Boston Folk Festival. We have been reviewed in Performing Songwriter, twice in Sing Out, received airplay on more than a 150 radio stations and been featured on at least a dozen major radio programs. Our band has also been featured in the Boston Herald, the SF Chronicle and NPR’s All Things Considered. So we are not new at this, and we have proven that we have something to  offer to presenters and audiences.

We’ve had a SonicBids account for about since 2003. We first used it to submit to Folk Alliance, a national conference, and then to FAR-West, the Western regional conference. It turns out that for FAR-West, we were selected for a slot. But as the co-founder of the organization, we were well-known to all the judges in advance, and it is hard to attibute our “win” to Sonic Bids.

In order to put S0nicBids to the test,  I decided to apply for as many gigs as I could find that had a focus on folk, Americana or singer/songwriter performers. I applied to small festivals, coffeehouses, major festivals and even the granddaddy opportunity of them all Milwaukee summer fest. All in all, I applied to 22 “opportunities.” There were 9 or ten festivals, 8 concert series, and 3 or 4 miscellaneous opportunities, such as an internet radio station, a management company looking for acts, and a PBS TV show looking for music to include.

Now, normally, given our level of talent and experience, if we were to research, contact and send a booking package to 22 promoters, we would expect to land 4 or 5 gigs, depending on scheduling and budget issues.

With Sonic bids, we got just 1 affirmative response. From an internet radio station, which claimed to have 2400 independent artists in rotation. It was a worthless exposure and not a real gig.

So was the SonicBids campaign worth it? Absolutely not. We spent $151, plus our annual subscription fee of $50 to generate on play on a unknown internet radio station. Perhaps there was a time that Panos, the founder of SonicBids really thought he could provide a vibrant and effective market for musicians to present themselves and find gigs. But he must have discovered early on, that just as in the real world, in this virtual market place, supply far exceeds demand, and what is really for sale here is hopes and dreams that pay for the designer furniture at Sonic Bids swank offices.

It’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for a company who siphons millions of dollars from what is already a marketplace that is stacked against artists. You may wonder, if SonicBids isn’t adding value to the marketplace, why do musicians continue to buy in? My guess is this: like gamblers in a casino, there will always be bands that will wager on hopes that go against the odds. Sonic Bids is selling hope.

I can only compare this to CD BABY, another web site that started around the turn of the Millenium. At CD BABY, Derek Seivers clearly built a tool that made musicians money by setting up a central web site for ordering independent music. Indeed, there is barely an indie musician alive that does not depend on CD Baby to fulfill and ship orders, taking about 3 dollars a CD, a small price to pay for enabling easy ecommerce for even the most tech-challenged musician.

Perhaps Sonic Bids could be remade to deliver more value to the community it purports to serve. Here are my ideas:

The SonicBids Performers Manifesto

  1. Shift the financial burden from bands to presenters and advertisers
  2. Provide contact management, contract management tools for outgoing submissions
  3. Provide better tools for targeting opportunities by identifying the actual type of music presenters are selecting
  4. Work harder to make sure promoters meet certain minimum qualifications, and make sure that entry fees are in line with the financial payoff of the gig.
  5. Allow performers to see who has viewed their EPK, how much time was spent listening to which song on what date.
  6. Allow performers to see how many people have entered (to date) each opportunity.
  7. Provide more customization opportunities for EPKs with better links to other web assets.

Better yet, someone, or some company will come along with a better system that adds value to the music marketplace instead of exploiting it. Let’s hope!

Reader Comments (20)

I am the founder of Sonicbids and like any other owner of a business worth their salt, I pay attention to what folks say about our company. I also posted this comment on Bruce's own blog.

First off, thanks for the article — and thanks for the performer’s manifesto too. I agree with much of what you articulate in your manifesto and we’ve either done or are about to do many of the things you suggest.

I founded the company with one simple mission: to give tools to a group of artists that were under-served by the traditional gatekeepers in the business, so they can create careers based on their own terms. Each day thousands of artists get their music on stages and in places that just a few years ago would have been impossible. We spend over $500,000 each year sponsoring bands to tour the world and just this Saturday we awarded a young band from Texas called Jaci and Those Guys a $20,000 scholarship at Berklee. You can also read how we spend money supporting indie music here

We believe in what we do and who we serve (this artistic middle class) and if we just wanted to run a business just to stock up with “designer furniture” trust me, it would get pretty empty and pretty boring quickly. Plus, you can’t fool all the people all the time, right?

Like every company (and every performer) we’ve gotten many things right and got some wrong. We want to improve and we want to keep making the site better for the people that we consider the core of our customer base, the artists.

I am always open to listening to new perspectives. Feel free to reach out to me at


June 23 | Unregistered CommenterPanos Panay

Sonic Bids is a great way for a sleazy promoter to generate a separate revenue stream from people they have no interest in booking to pay for the acts they already have lined up. I've got "Festival #$%" and have booked 15 bands, I put up on sonic bids and "exclusive" opening 30 minute slot promising "exposure" with a bid cost of $20. If 500 acts are foolish enough to submit I've got the $10G I need to do the whole festival off the backs of a bunch of foolish basement dwellers who live on nothing but ramen noodles. I've seen a few worthy gigs I've wanted to apply for, but when I see the a sonic bids process to apply for them I know they are looked to leech off some poor broke ass musicians and they are not people I want to loan my talents to.

June 23 | Unregistered CommenterCrowfeatheR

Generally speaking, paid submission is the only way to narrow the mouth of the funnel. There are way, way, way too many artists vying for a limited amount of exposure slots. NOBODY has the time to evaluate 10,000 free submissions.

Ideally, the submission process would work in reverse. Gig promoters / festival operators would seek out the artists they want to put on stage. There's a problem with this vision: "seeking out" implies that there's a reliable and trusted method that would make this dream come true. Unfortunately, data driven analysis (if used to find new artists) is going to skew toward the artists that know how to promote; perhaps missing the artists that don't promote themselves well, but are more appropriate for a target audience.

Humans are the only reliable filter. I would also submit that expert (humans) are an even better filter. The only way you are going to get a group of humans (especially experts) to sift through 10,000 bands - is if you pay them. There's just no way that you are going to get this done for nothing; you would get what you paid for (nothing).

That brings me to my next point. Think about this: Perhaps the fees that SonicBids / promoters charge are far too low. In essence, you are getting what you paid for (described in detail above). There only so much that can be bought / delivered for the fees that are charged. It costs a lot of money (overhead) to open up 70,000 gig opportunities! (SonicBids numbers from last year - correct me if I am wrong), and it costs a lot of money to process all of the submissions.

SonicBids exposes opportunities. Paid submission narrows the funnel. Both are valuable services. There's nothing (IMHO) sleazy or unethical about it.

The bitch you should be having is (perhaps) over the price / value relationship. You want more for your money, OR you should be able to purchase more value (it depends on what you can get, what it costs, and what the competing alternatives are).

I have been to SonicBid's office. There's not a pile of people sitting around trying to figure out how to siphon money out of your wallet. It takes a ton of effort to find 70,000 opportunities, and ton of effort to service hundreds of thousands of submissions. You can complain about the value (Panos addresses this above), but you shouldn't hurl insults and expletives until you understand the TOTAL effort involved and the alternatives... And just to clear (and repetitive): free submission and evaluation in this industry will never be a reliable, trusted and viable alternative.

June 23 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Warila

Bruce, you’re way to easy on SonicBids. My beef is with the value proposition. It's a tool that artists pay for. It just doesn't work that well, and it doesn't add value to the marketplace from the musician’s point of view.

You may be right about one thing: by reducing the barriers to submission, the marketplace gets bogged down. It’s just too easy to click. And so the competition for gigs that are submitted through SB is fierce. And it the tools there are not very optimal for differentiating oneself.

I suppose you could say: “Why not let cost of screening be borne by musicians? That’ll weed them out.” But it’s obvious you’re not an artist. It’s cold-blooded business thinking that says ”Lets make the party with the least revenue pay even more of the pie to a corporate entity.” I don’t know a single musician who feels the pay to apply opportunities are even a remotely cost effective to find gigs.

BTW, the 70,000 gigs booked is overblown. When you fill out your gig calendar, you can mark any opportunity as having been generated with your SonicBids EPK. This increments up your “gigs booked” counter, making you look more happening. So I always mark a gig as being SonicBids generated, even when it wasn’t. I surmise that many others do this too. So there are at least 50 gigs that I got the old fashioned way (emailing targeted venues, word of mouth, conferences, friends of friends) that are included in that number. My guess is that the real number of live performance gigs actually contracted primarily through SonicBids is closer to 7,000 than 70,000.

Secondly, how about screening the opportunities? Many of them are so insubstantial as to be worthless. Of course musicians should do their due diligence. But many people are desperate for something to put in their bio. In any case, there is a lot of crap that gets through and it is just noise.

My feeling is that SonicBids has not put enough of the revenues back into R&D. There are numerous ways they could make it a better tool for booking yourself, following up on inquiries, managing contracts, stage plots, filtering venues that are a good match, managing fans, and music/video assets. But this is not a priority for SonicBids.

Nor is SonicBids a very good tool for screening in a committee type situation. I happen to be involved with as a member of municpal concert series production group. So I have been there, "servicing a hundred submissions" to pick the best 10. There are no tools for managing group scoring and comments, and it is not a brilliant interface for assessing the various digital assets of a band. But better than nothing from the presenters point of view.

I spoke with Panos, and suggested quite a few ways SonicBids could improve the site. Maybe he’ll work harder on it, if we keep on pressing for better value. We’ll see how it goes.

June 23 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Kaplan

Bruce - Just to recap.

- Aggregating opportunities and making them accessible through a point-and-click interface has value.

- Humans are the best filter of artists and songs.

- Nobody is going to weed through thousands of artists to find the most appropriate choices unless they are compensated somehow. Somebody is always paying for the sifting.

- Financial barriers to submission are a perfect pre-filter. If an artist cannot pay, or if they cannot shift the burden of paying to fans (now there's an innovation), then too bad.

- I don't buy into the myth that all artists are broke, noodle-eaters living in their mother's basement; that stereotype denigrates all artists.

- There are few people on earth that put as much time into solving problems for struggling artists as I do. I get it.

- SonicBids certainly has some work to do. However some artists fail to look at the big picture (a world without services like the one SonicBids provides); it's just easier to shift the blame for lack of success to the big bad corporation than to carefully examine their own shortcomings. (I am not implying this is you. You did an excellent job making your point and following through with some honest dialog.)

- On any service there are always going to be some shifty, shady, bullshit offerings. I don't respond to all the spam email that comes into my inbox, and I don't get angry when Google (gmail) lets an offer for Viagra slip through. If the utility provider enables comments and ratings, it's the communities job to police the opportunities. I do agree that some pre-screening is somewhat of a responsibility of the service, but look at the shit-storm Apple runs into by filtering iPhone apps. It's a double-edged sword.

Great observation on the need for better collaborative funneling tools. That's the focus of my work. I hope to launch something that makes the process of group funneling of anything digital (any industry - not just music) far more efficient and transparent later this year.



June 24 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Warila

in my experience, as with most tools, it doesn't work well if you don't know how to use it. you need to be able to recognize and filter out the shallow, useless stuff and do your homework about an opportunity before submitting. ive only submitted my bands music to 10 opportunities, but we landed 6 of them...and at all 6 we met interesting people and have kept in contact with them since. well worth the submission price of a few bucks for each.

June 24 | Registered CommenterChris Bracco

I was shocked at the low percentage of "successful" pitches that Bruce managed through SonicBids, but as a presenter I wanted to respond to a couple of the points on the manifesto. Other than FARWest, I haven't been involved with any situations where artists paid to apply for things through SonicBids, but I often get artists contacting me via email, with links to their SonicBids EPK. That aspect of SonicBids works pretty well.

I can see it being a problem if the festival or gig isn't legitimate. Unfortunately, that kind of thing exists. I perform as a storyteller, and I have been offered more than one phony gig over the years, generally someone wanting me to travel to some exotic place to perform for a surprisingly high fee. Upon examination, there is a con game of some kind involved. These scams existed long before SonicBids.

Of greater concern would be any kind of scam that's made easier by the mechanics of SonicBids. I haven't heard any concrete evidence of a festival or venue deliberately advertising non-existent gigs to cover their other costs, but it could happen, if there's no enforcement or oversight. I agree with what I see as Bruce's point, which is that SonicBids needs to police the gig offerings to reduce the chance of such dishonesty. Unfortunately, the mechanism for enforcement may not exist, if a dishonest venue or festival IS found out. I suppose SonicBids could employ a fabulous team of lawyers to sue the pants off the crooks as being in violation of their user agreements, but would it work?

About the idea of having the venues cover the submission costs, instead of the artist...Bad Bruce, no cookie. All that does is invert the funnel, and make it easier for venues to get inundated with unwanted submissions, the same way that we do with email pitches. Would the venues pay for each incoming pitch? Or by the month or year? In either case, if the artist has no financial stake in choosing who to submit to, the venues have no filter, and the floodgates are open.

Even though our concert series is clearly labelled as "folk music", we get email contacts from entertainers of all sorts, ranging from Balkan punk rock to midget wrestling [no, I'm not kidding about either one]. Now, imagine if every musician signed up on SonicBids could send us a pitch, with an EPK link, at a cost to us. Would it be worthwhile for us, as a venue? Of course not. It would be like having to pay for every email you receive. How much would you enjoy that? Any value added by access to the EPKs would be drowned in the flood of wannabes with no clue.

A better solution is contained in Bruce's other suggestions, which involve refining and improving SonicBids to make it more likely that an artist can target the right markets and get a good return on the time and money invested.

June 24 | Unregistered CommenterNick Smith

- Bruce vs Bruce! I'll recap too. Aggregating opportunities and making them available has value. To venture capitalists. It simply is not an effective booking tool for 99.9 percent of independent bands, and few signed bands would use SonicBids. I prefer the chaos of a booking environment not controlled by SonicBids. I can do better with a higher barrier to entry. Not a cash barrier, but a research and effort barrier.

- Sonic Bids filtering tools are weak.

- Many opportunities are marginal, though the site does do a cursory check.

- Yes, not all artists are broke, but their business model is challenged. I have co-owned and sold two businesses for more than $1 million. I didn't earn what I have by wasting it on stuff that doesn't work, and if I want to continue to play music in a limited niche (eclectic folk/americana) I am going to have to maximize revenues and control expenses.

- Finally, thanks Bruce for your good work on this site. It has been of the more intelligent places on the music web.

June 25 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Kaplan

Last but not least re: filtering. On-Stage uses audience filtering. Essentially using free interns to screen talent. According to mass taste, however. Not sure how well this would work, and how you screen the screeners.

June 25 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Kaplan

Sonic Bids is a total ripoff. I'm sorry but that is it plain and simple.

And it is not just Sonic Bids that is perpetuating the rip-off but all these music conferences and festivals that have aligned themselves with this company as well. Sure they get value for using the site. They get a filter and a profit or if you want to give them the benefit of the doubt seed money to run their festival from all the submissions. However, artists/bands get very little especially in todays age of the internet where one can have an EPK for free with a bit of effort and using word press or any other free medium.

We were added to sonicbids because we submitting to a festival with a physical submission and were selected to play. My band has built a pretty solid resume just as this author has in his genre. We decided to do the same test and came up with the same result except we didn't bother waste our money submitting to any internet radio stations just gigs and festivals.

We came up some 0 - 13 or something like that. Complete waste of time and money!

Anybody new to the music business and considering if they should join that site should aviod it like the plague. IF a music fest doesn't take submissions on their own you don't want to play it!

June 25 | Unregistered Commentersowait

^^Not only that but if a music festival DOES take submissions on their site, it's probably booked already. In terms of workflow, web promo comes after booking, so they're generally scouting for the NEXT year when they're talking "submissions"

June 25 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Count me among those who understand the pain Sonicbids is trying to solve for venues. Even though I groan when I see a coffeeshop open mic has decided to use SB to tame their slushpile, I can appreciate the fact that a filter is sorely needed at that end of the pipeline.

In my short time as a Sonicbids user I managed to book only a few targeted opportunities, one of which covered the SB fees and then some. SB also refunded me for an opportunity that was abandoned by the sponsor. And I made some good relationships with the talent bookers which made it unnecessary for me to submit thru SB the following year. So I can't say it was a bust for me.

It seems to me that the worst criticism of SB comes from artists who try to use SB as a replacement for hustle. Filters are a necessary evil, but artists with hustle will be looking for ways around those filters, or establishing themselves to the extent where they don't need to pass the filter to find success.

June 25 | Unregistered Commenterscottandrew

Filter my ass.

I'm here to defend my brother and sister in art, the performing musician.

A Festival using SonicBids as an exclusive "filtering" method is doing it for one reason, revenue. Skimming operational cash off the backs of the needy and desperate. it is enough to make a super hero want to spit.

Now for me, I've played to over 8 million people, I have my own TV and Radio shows and I don't need to play at some fucking scam bag festival to a mere 1000 people if they want to black list me. So go for it scum bags, make my day.

Filter my ass.... punks.

June 29 | Unregistered CommenterCrowfeatheR

Paney, your a screw up. You make a living by stealing everyone else's money. Your ship is going to sink and soon.

January 23 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I've only just come across SonicBids and came upon this site whilst researching it.

It has been interesting reading.

I have come to the conclusion that SonicBids is morally wrong.

There may be value in EPKs and this may be worth paying for.

However paying to be considered for a gig is just wrong on so many levels.

I would never do a pay-to-play gig, that scenario is bad enough.

Now they want artist to pay to be considered for a gig!!!

They seriously need to reconsider this approach.

Needless to say - I will not be using SonicBids services and artists should boycott any promoter that will only consider you through paying for such a service.

March 1 | Unregistered CommenterReclueseau

1) You were not selected...blah blah blah...
2) The deadline has expired and the lazy turd that has posted this has lost interest after the 1st 8 dozen epk's he looked at. They'll keep it on file but you will never hear from them again. This "gig" was a no fee deal so we'll refund you the $0.00...
3) You have been selected to be upsold on some ambiguous product that isn't even a convincing scam. Or a gig opening for a band that hasn't actually got a show booked. Or for an interview that you will have to hassle a guy to get you to write for him, & it won't even be worth putting in your press kit.
4) You have been selected to be played on the internet in some sad dude's basement shoutcast. No one will be listening. Not even you.

July 10 | Unregistered CommenterNicola Tesla

I believe that if you are going to charge bands a monthly/yearly fee to have an EPK sonicbids should also charge the promoters a monthly/yearly fee. This way the monthly fee for artists could be lowered to half of what it is. It's a simple solution that would weed out the bogus "promoters".

August 24 | Unregistered CommenterLp

I have a question on how this works - as a festival co-ordinator - every band that wants to play at our festival submits his EPK and he must pay a submission fee to each venue he submits to? When is the money collected by the venue - does each venue receive that submission fee, even if they don't sign a contract with that band? If so - when and how does this submission fee reach the venue? G

October 17 | Unregistered CommenterGloria Simpson

I don't see why if there is money being exchanged than expectations can not be given - if you're PAYING sonic bids money, it shouldn't even be a case of 'maybe' finding a gig, they should find you a gig period. and one worthwhile.

I could care less about their self initiated 'struggle' of trying to sort out all the customers of their website - that is their duty that they've chosen, and they clearly don't fulfill it properly.

Thank you for the review, as an aspiring musician this is very helpful. And to Sonicbids, for shame.

July 23 | Unregistered CommenterArtist

I have been a member of sonic bids since I made my first CD in April 2005. I've been a professional lead guitarist, singer and songwriter in the roots-blue genres mostly part time for many years. I have a solid EPK on my website, good reviews from well known and credible music critics in Vancouver, BC and Seattle, WA and I have played a number of high profile festivals and regularly play at venues from Vancouver to Seattle. I have an excellent new CD and I am one of very few female lead guitarists around. While I lost interest in applying for opportunities via sonicbids over the past couple of years, I applied enthusiastically for opportunities for the first several years after I had joined. I've never had any opportunity through sonicbids - ever. I'm not sure who sonicbids works for, but it hasn't worked for me and I feel as though I've wasted about $1,000 for nothing....should've bought that new amp I've been wanting instead.

July 12 | Unregistered CommenterJill Newman

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