Never Give Up on a Good Thing

Panos Panay left Cyprus for Boston armed with a guitar and primed to be the next George Benson.

But he realized he had a serious problem in 1991 when he got to Boston's Berklee College of Music: "I just didn't have any innate musical talent."

Not wanting to leave the community he loved, he switched majors and graduated from the college's first degree program in the business of music.

Panos Panay founded Sonicbids, a Web site linking bands with promoters. (Photo courtesy of Panay)

Panay said the whole experience was eye opening. "I came from a country that had no copyright legislation and the notion of something like intellectual property was mind blowing."

He started an internship booking jazz artists around the world. "I eventually wouldn't pay attention to anyone making less than $3,000 or $4,000 a night," he said.

But because there are thousands of bands out there who only dream about bringing home that figure, he started wondering "how do smaller musicians find gigs without an agent to represent them?"

He mused over the issue and quit his job almost exactly eight years ago today. Panay holed up in his apartment and spent a year writing a business plan; a year he characterizes as very important to him because he was able to outline not only his company, but his values as a person, the kind of company he wanted to create and the culture he wanted to foster.

"I knew that if I could build Sonicbids, any band could go there," said Panay. "I wanted a big open community that artists can go and find any gig listing they like by connecting with the ideal promoter on the other side."

After about a year of working in his home office, he decided that if he made a commitment to outside office space and had to pay rent toward it, it would give him the incentive he needed to really dig into the business. He moved into a small, shared office and that "made an enormous difference" in his commitment to the business.

He officially launched the site in February 2001. Although he didn't have any programming experience, Panay built the first incarnation of the site by corresponding with a programmer based in Bavaria.

"The economy was terrible and there probably was no worse time to start an Internet business. They were shutting down left and right," said Panay. "It took a lot of perseverance, rejection and self-belief to get the first deal." In August 2001, a music festival out of Nashville, Tenn., agreed to use his service. "It all just snowballed from there by putting one foot in front of the other."

Today, Sonicbids employs 53 people and has reshaped the way many bands and promoters connect. The firm now does all of the submissions for big music festivals like CMJ, South by Southwest and Lollapalooza. More than 160,000 bands and 14,000 promoters use the site, which has facilitated more than 60,000 deals.

Musicians pay $5.95 a month for a basic electronic press kit up to $10.95 for more bells and whistles.

Aleksis Bilmanis, who runs a small record label and is a singer-songwriter based in Takoma Park, Md., has used the service since 2005 to find gigs through his Sonicbids online press kit. Through it, he's found gigs at clubs and private parties, work for independent films and licensing opportunities with Internet and broadcast radio stations.

Aleksis Bilmanis, a Takoma Park singer-songwriter who runs a small record label. (Photo courtesy of Bilmanis)

Bilmanis said he's also found it helpful if he wants to fill in some extra dates while on tour and for use as a professional contact point.

"It adds to my professional credibility because it's become an industry standard," he said, adding that he directs fans to his MySpace page but business contacts to his Sonicbids page. "It has helped me further my career as a businessman while I can continue to be an artist and have access to more opportunities."

Blood, Sweat and Tears

While Sonicbids and its members are enjoying growth today, it wasn't easy getting there.

By July 2002, Panay had gone for almost three years without making any money. "I used to joke that there were two pools of money - company money and personal money - and I used to bet which would run out faster on a regular basis."

When things had gone from tight to grave, Panay said two events propelled him to continue with Sonicbids. When he was just about out of cash, he sold a piece of land in Cyprus that he had inherited from his great grandfather. "I felt a tremendous sense of conviction. I thought this is a piece of land passed on to me with the hope that at some point I would build a house on it to live on. I felt as if I was severing ties and taking a fairly big step, but it reinforced my whole belief in what I was trying to do," Panay said.

Secondly, when cash was low, he managed to pay a lot of the bills in the early 2000s by booking artists on the side, including the prolific, Grammy award-winning Chick Corea.

Panay told his wife, whom he met through Sonicbids, that he had a feeling that Corea was going to move on and eventually Panay and Corea parted ways. Panay recalls Corea saying that he knew Panay really wanted to focus on Sonicbids. "It really hurt because at the time Chick was responsible for more than 60 percent of my money coming in," said Panay. "I told my wife that either we fold or we use the situation to cast our lots with the online business."

Panay, who says his wife's belief in the business helped him plug away, realized that "sometimes what appears like a devastating blow - if you react to it correctly - can give you a new sense of momentum. We took off after 2004. Those events really helped me focus on the core mission of the business."

Panay talks openly about his struggles as an entrepreneur and empathizes with many of Sonicbids' member musicians, who often turn to the site for advice. "They still think of a stereotype of a promoter of a big fat hairy guy with a cigar, but most promoters are musicians and they're huge music fans," he said.

Many non-celebrity musicians hear from their friends and family that it's time to "get over this band and join the real world. There's lots of reasons to give up [a music career] at some point. You think, my friends have jobs, maybe I should go and get a job," said Panay, who says he still owns a guitar but doesn't play as much as he'd like.

Part of the success of the Sonicbids business model is due to changing attitudes toward the Internet, said Panay. "When I started there was a lot of skepticism of this venue. A lot of the early message of the company was that you can find someone faster, better, cheaper than by sending a press kit through the mail."

But, he acknowledges, he was trying to get people to change their way of doing business and that's not easy, especially since the company was started before sites like Facebook, Myspace and YouTube, now frequently used by bands for social networking and publicity.

"People weren't really ready for it, but this change of mentality [and acceptance of the Internet as a level playing field for bands] really helped the company go forward. It was really a marketplace change rather than a technological change."

About 20 percent of Sonicbids' members come from outside of the United States, and Panay would like to see that number double within three years. "I believe in this power that the Internet has to bridge cultural divides," he said. He's proud of the fact that through his service a band from Rwanda played in Spain and an American band toured China. "As a band today, you may be in Boston or D.C., but ultimately you're competing on a global basis because of companies like Sonicbids."

The company also recently signed a deal with the National Association for Campus Activities, which will bring 1,200 colleges to the Sonicbids community.

"A while ago you needed a [record] label with a lot of money to make an album. You needed money to have ads in newspapers and lastly you need a ton of money for bookers, and managers to make those connections," said Panay. "The Internet has brought about this cataclysmic change. It's like the French revolution. Pre-Internet all services were geared toward the top of the pop charts but post-Internet you have a middle class that collectively makes more money. This emerging artistic middle class looks at a niche following rather than the masses."

By Sharon McLoone |  August 7, 2008; 12:24 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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What a great article. It is so refreshing to see that in an industry that has always been "who you know and how much money you have" that there is still some hope out there for talented musicians to carve a name for themselves. That is one of the really great things about living in america. Wonderfully written and some great links! That Aleksis fellow has some great music! Maybe I can book him through sonic bids! :o)

Posted by: Arts lover | August 10, 2008 2:46 PM

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