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Is Sonicbids Problematic?

Is it worthwhile for musicians to pay a third party for the ability to apply to play in a coffee shop?

by Tom Avis
Feb 9 2015, 8:10pm

Founded in 2001, Sonicbids is an online platform designed to connect musicians with opportunities that will help to advance their careers. Their “unmatched network of opportunities” allows paying subscribers to apply, sometimes for an additional fee, to play concerts, have their tracks played on radio shows, receive media coverage, and showcase at festivals like SXSW, NXNE and CMJ. The company was bought for $15 million in 2013 by Backstage, who intended to turn it into a “LinkedIn for non-traditional jobs,” but the acquisition is somewhat surprising given how virulently Sonicbids is disliked by a significant portion of its target audience and how poorly its services are received.

Issues with Sonicbids bubbled up at the fringes of the controversy that surrounded last year’s NXNE, and was discussed at the much publicized “Why NXNE Sucks” panel prompting the festival to announce that they would no longer be working with the company. NXNE subsequently walked that back, resuming their relationship Sonicbids, but the waves of negative feedback have prompted other festivals, like Sled Island, to move away from Sonicbids and others, like CMW, to diversify their application processes to accommodate the people who object to the company. These objections tend to stem from the perception that the company facilitates a “pay to play” model that exploits naive people who are eager to “make it” in music.

The company’s website is full of copy insinuating that Sonicbids is the key to music industry success, promising “career changing opportunities,” and featuring images of musicians who have supposedly benefited from using the service under the tag “Sonicbids Success Stories,” but over their 15 year history the company has almost no track record to back up these claims and many of their “Success Stories” are more than a little dubious. Take this post about “Sonicbids Artists Who Rocked NXNE.” It features PS I Love You, TOPS and two artists you’ve almost certainly never heard of, and stops just short of claiming credit for their recent success while strongly implying it. The post (as with most “Sonicbids Success Stories”) is light on details regarding the band’s use of the platform, instead focusing on what they’ve achieved since Sonicbids helped them “land performances at NXNE.” When reached for comment on the post PS I Love You’s management responded “Ha!” and Jane Penny of TOPS said that the band doesn’t have a Sonicbids account and has never used it to apply for a show but that her old band briefly had an account.

“Sonicbids actually automatically charged my credit card for two years after we signed up,” says Penny, “I wasn't able to contest the charge the first time because I guess I agreed to automatically renewing our account when I accepted their terms and conditions, but the second time I was able to get refunded through PayPal because I had actually cancelled the service.” The Sonicbids website is still set up to encourage these kinds of charges, asking for a credit card when you sign up for a free trial account that will be charged automatically at the end of the month long period for a year’s subscription to the service ($119.18 USD), and the account will renew every year. As to whether new bands should consider the service Penny is unequivocal, “No, you’re way better off playing for your friends or contacting local promoters” she says.

Perhaps these kinds of sleazy tactics are to be expected from a company struggling to maintain a niche in a rapidly contracting music industry, but when you examine the “opportunities” that Sonicbids wants you to pay for the privilege of accessing, it seems clear that their business model preys on people too naive to recognize how little Sonicbids has to offer. If you’re a paying subscriber it’ll only cost you $5 to apply to play the Monroe Street Hash Bash in Ann Arbour Michigan. The Hash Bash hasn’t gotten around to updating it’s website to reflect who played in 2014 but in 2013 there was a drum circle and one of the guys who used to be in D-12 was there, so clearly a hot bed of music industry activity! $5 too steep? No worries! Your subscription buys you the right to apply to play at the Spin Dessert Cafe in Vaughan, Ontario. This chain outlet is located at the Woodbridge Square strip mall across the parking lot from the Party Packagers, a prime location, and the 4 Sonicbids bands who are selected to play this esteemed venue will split 100% of drink ticket sales! Maybe, with the help of Sonicbids, you’ve already filled your concert calendar for the next few months. There are still lots of opportunities available to you! You could apply to have your music licensed (for no compensation obviously) in Hickey: The Hillbilly Vampire Web Series. Presently, a Google search returns no relevant results when you look for the name of the series, but you never know, a comedy web series about a redneck vampire will probably catch on—and then think of the exposure! Speaking of exposure, its only $10 to apply to be considered for a feature on musiczeitgeist.com. The site only has 101 Facebook likes and they post about twice a month but you can rest easy in the knowledge that you might get coverage in a publication with the ethical standards to know there’s nothing wrong with charging people for coverage and not disclosing it.

“All the jobs are curated significantly, so they’re definitely valid opportunities and slots that we’re getting,” says Sonicbids COO Josh Ellstein, who stressed in our conversation that he sees the site as a “professional platform” for musicians and repeated the comparison to LinkedIn. Ellstein was with Backstage when they acquired Sonicbids in 2013 and is quick to point out that the company is moving in a different direction under it’s new leadership. “We want to align ourselves much much more with artists,” he says, “there’s a big difference between what someone’s booking for a primetime slot and what someone’s doing for an opening act or an off night, and that’s the opportunity we’re trying to fit more and more into, finding talent for these other slots that allow people to build up their resume and allow people to move forward in their career and eventually get the prime time slot.”


Via SonicBids website

The idea sounds plausible enough, but it remains difficult to understand why playing a dessert cafe in a suburban strip mall is something a musician would want on their resume, and the company seemingly has no plan in place to bring aboard music industry players who could make the service viable. The comparison to LinkedIn sounds potentially promising, but while many large employers use that platform, outside of the showcase festivals, major promoters and bookers on the local and national level have very little presence on Sonicbids, and of course, while people find employment on LinkedIn most of the opportunities offered by Sonicbids don’t pay. In a sense, Sonicbids has almost the exact opposite revenue model as LinkedIn, which generates 50% of it’s revenue from employers and recruiters posting jobs and accessing its database, 30% from advertising and just 20% from selling premium subscriptions to its users. In contrast, posting “opportunities” is free on Sonicbids, and while they take a cut, both Ellstein and various festival representatives claim that most of the application fees go directly to the festivals, making Sonicbids appear less like a service built to aid artists and more like a conduit to funnel money out of their band accounts.

For their part, representatives from NXNE, CMW, CMJ and Sled Island have all asserted that the money received via Sonicbids from application fees represents a relatively insignificant amount that mostly goes towards, in the words CMW programmer John Kastner, “paying the bills as far as having four people sit down and listen to those band [applications] all the time.” This makes a degree of sense. Obviously there’s a lot of labour involved in processing these applications and for festivals that receive less applicants or that have lower application fees it seems believable that they are primarily covering costs (though for a festival like SXSW, which by Sonicbid’s accounting receives over 10,000 applications annually at $45 a piece, this argument strains credulity), but even if we accept that the festivals aren’t profiting directly from Sonicbids the question remains why they would want to associate themselves with such a generally embarrassing company.

The answer seems to be some combination of “it makes our lives easier” and “we’ve always done it.” According to NXNE Creative Director Crispin Giles it helps to streamline the festival’s listening process. “Each submission has the same water marks, its the same template so it helps us identify the markers we are looking for out of the gate instead of us having to search,” he says, adding, “I think we’ve worked with them for so long that there’s a relationship we have with them where I’m able to, or people on my staff are able to, get them on the phone and say ‘hey guys this isn’t working for us’ it’s good to have established that.” The problem with this is that, rightly or wrongly, the festival’s involvement with Sonicbids, especially the exclusive arrangements that NXNE and SXSW have with the company, lend it a degree of legitimacy that it very clearly doesn’t deserve and would not otherwise have. It’s also worth noting that while for much of it’s existence Sonicbids was the only game in town managing festival applications, there are now many more options available.

This was part of the reason why Sled Island ended its relationship with Sonicbids last year. “eight years ago Google Forms wasn’t a thing” says Petsche, the festival’s director, “there is a lot of free submission form software out there now that is pretty good and also has a history of reliability.” The festival had used Sonicbids from 2008 to 2013 and he acknowledges that “from a festival’s perspective there are huge upsides to using Sonicbids,” but the pressure from applicants, who had for years been telling the festival they disliked the platform, persuaded them that it was time to move on even if it was going to make their jobs more difficult. “We’re always gonna look at all processes whether it’s the best in terms of workload and for financial reasons but we also ask ‘is this the best thing for us in terms of the way we’re presenting the festival and the way that artists view us?’” says Petsche, “so much of our choice came down to artists telling us over and over that they don’t like applying through Sonicbids and we just thought, rather than have a debate about it and let them know our side of the issue the smarter thing would be not to talk but to listen and to try to accommodate what they wanted.”

A representative from CMJ suggested that that festival is also examining its relationship with Sonicbids for many of the same reasons, and while they still accept Sonicbids applications, CMW has established its own internal application system as well, so perhaps the showcase festival’s long entanglement with the company is drawing to a close. If so it can’t happen soon enough. It doesn’t take a great deal of skepticism to recognize that the company isn’t the career-making magic bullet it purports to be. Its business model is crassly exploitative and increasingly it has little to offer anybody. There is no reason for it exist, and as festivals continue to find alternatives, that may soon become the case.

Tom Avis is a writer living in Toronto. He does not have a Twitter, because Twitter is also problematic.

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