Sonicbids, Run by Former Music Talent Agent, Brings Band Gig-Booking Into the Digital Age, Adds San Francisco Presence

After graduating from Berklee College of Music in the mid 1990s, Panos Panay started working at a music talent agency in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, and was eager to book his first tours. So eager that he mailed bands’ press kits across the globe and incurred an Airborne Express shipping bill in excess of $4,000 one month.

“As early as then I started thinking there could be a better way,” Panay, a Cyprus native, says of the early inspiration for his startup Sonicbids, an online platform for booking band gigs. He wanted to find a way to sell bands to gig promoters using the then-young consumer Internet.

A few years later, Panay got fired up by the 90s hit flick “Jerry Maguire,” and wrote his boss a memo resembling Tom Cruise’s character’s manifesto, which called for sports agents to demonstrate more compassion and care for the humans underneath the team uniforms and endorsement deals. Panay’s message was a bit different: he was mainly calling for his agency to modernize and accept the digital world, or else go out of business.

His boss didn’t follow the suggestions, though, and much like Maguire’s superiors and coworkers remained uninspired by his impassioned document. So Panay worked on a business plan during nights and weekends for the next year, paid for a prototype of his site, raised about $50,000 from family friends, and left his job in late 2000.

“The vision was: what if I create a marketplace that enables any band regardless of who they are, to come and connect with anyone out there looking to book music,” he says.

Sonicbids has grown from a one-person company run out of Panay’s apartment into a trendily decorated suite in Boston’s equally trendy South End neighborhood, housing about 50 employees. But its vision has remained much the same, Panay says. (In his original memo, he proposed the revamped company would make money through advertisements from companies such as Gap—a partner Sonicbids signed on last year.)

Sonicbids_Panos_PhotoPanay launched Sonicbids in February 2001, as somewhat of a band’s version of career site (whose founder Jeff Taylor sits on the Sonicbids board of directors.) Bands pay between $50 and $100 a year for the service, which enables them to compile electronic press kits—giving promoters responsible for filling slots at clubs all the content they need to review an applicant. Sonicbids charges promoters for advertising gigs, and also takes a cut when artists apply to a specific venue or event using the site.

Earlier this month the company announced its first acquisition: the purchase of San Francisco-based ArtistData, a startup that helps bands spread word of their upcoming gigs to fans. “If a fan doesn’t show up at a gig, the gig doesn’t exist,” Panay says.

ArtistData’s CEO, Brenden Mulligan, will stay on as Sonicbids’ vice president of strategic development, and will head the San Francisco office for the company. The acquisition of ArtistData, which allows bands to publish gig information to a slew of social media outlets through one user account, is one way Panay is furthering his company’s mission of improving the dialogue between fans and artists, he says. “If Sonicbids is all about getting gigs, ArtistData is about helping bands promote those gigs,” says Panay.

Panay first drummed up support for Sonicbids at a Berklee career fair in 2001, by entering bands that signed up on the Sonicbids’ site into a drawing for a guitar signed by The Police guitarist Andy Summers (an artist he knew from his talent agent days). Panay continued to build support for his site by partnering with music festivals across the country, offering Sonicbids as the main submission platform for bands who wanted to apply to these venues. “I violated every spam law in humanity,” he jokes.

He continued to accrue band and promoter users for the site using many of the same business tactics he honed in his talent agent days, he says. “It’s all just an issue of discipline and volume,” he says, noting the not-so-secret sauce for success as an agent and entrepreneur is willingness to make as many calls as it takes. Panay also exhibits this sense of activism in his personal life: he started a local support group known as Boston Young Entrepreneurs, chairs Berklee’s Presidential Advisory Council, and sits on the board of Boston World Partnerships, a committee out to attract top global talent to the city.

Sonicbids raised its first institutional funding in 2007, a $4.5 million round led by Edison Venture Fund. And it already had some traction in the marketplace Five years ago, the company received a call out of the blue from Jeep, which was looking to harness music to attract attendees to its annual off-roading event Camp Jeep, Panay says. The automaker used Sonicbids as a platform where customers voted on the band they wanted to play at the event. Two years ago, the company launched a division called Sonicbids Brands, and has run similar contests and promotions with consumer brands out to build better relationships with customers through music, including Zippo (manufacturer of lighters), Virgin Megastore, car maintenance company Midas, and retail giant Gap. The company also powers an indie-band radio station on Delta Air Lines.

“We really see consumer brands as being the new record labels,” Panay says of companies’ roles in sponsoring music tours or serving as a platform for promoting smaller bands. He says the corporations benefit from interacting with bands on Sonicbids, which form a more tightly knit community with their fans than bigger headliners do. “They’re the younger, more passionate, early adopters,” he says. The website now has 245,000 bands and 21,0000 promoters signed up, and booked 71,000 gigs last year. It’s on target to bring in about $10 million in revenue in fiscal year 2011, Panay says.

In the old-world music industry (read: pre-Internet), a talent agency wouldn’t bother booking a band unless it earned upwards of $3,000 at a gig, Panay says. But he views the technological advances over the past decade as making the music business more egalitarian, and creating what he calls “an artistic middle class,” populated by numerous smaller bands. “We see it as a viable growth stream for the business,” he says.

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