Feature Stories

Bands Rail Against 35 Denton's Pay to Play Entry

“Fuck SonicBids.” That was one of the first phrases local legend Paul Slavens uttered about the music networking site, which purports to connect artists with gigs and promoters to grow their careers. Last December, when 35 Denton announced its first round of artists for 2016, Slavens posted on Facebook about his disappointment that the festival was forcing artists to go through SonicBids to apply for consideration for this year’s installment.

Much to Slavens' surprise, at least 93 of his Facebook friends liked the post and many joined in on the discussion, which included the touchy subject of “pay to play.” And there it was: In a community as supportive of its artists as Denton, with a festival as known for its inclusivity as 35 Denton, why is SonicBids still a thing?

“Pay to Play.” For those not familiar with the term, it means that a band or artist pays for the opportunity to play at a festival or on a certain bill. A good example would be if a band gets hit up by a promoter and is offered an opening spot for a major band with a huge following. Sounds awesome, right? Except in a lot of cases, promoters tell artists they need to sell X amount of tickets and hand the proceeds over — and if the artist fails to sell that amount of tickets, the artist pays the difference. Now, there’s definitely something to be said for playing for exposure, but as many would probably agree, local musicians are not known for their expansive touring budgets.

That’s where the concerns of Slavens and his friends are grounded. Requiring musicians to sign up for a SonicBids account strikes many onlookers as another kind of pay to play. SonicBids currently allows users to enjoy a free 30-day trial, but after that, they must opt for a monthly payment of $12.99 or a yearly membership of $119.88 in order to access features like submission. And not only that, but it has been alleged that SonicBids has charged unsuspecting users the full annual amount upfront.

Slavens signed up for a SonicBids account a few years back to apply for 35 Denton. Then, when it came time to do his taxes, he realized that SonicBids had been charging him a monthly fee for the last year, while all SonicBids communications had been routed to his junk mail. “I only have a very limited experience with them [SonicBids], but it was so bad and it cost me money,” Slavens says. "And I’ve got nothing but love for 35 [Denton] and want it to prosper, but that [the SonicBids requirement] makes it all the more galling to me.”

Slavens’ Facebook post didn’t go unnoticed by 35 Denton. One of Slavens’ many Facebook friends, Andy Odom, is the marketing director of 35 Denton, and when he saw the post he attempted to ease the tensions.“True, it's not a perfect system," he wrote. "Rumor has it the fest is always open for alternatives and other ideas.”

One thing to consider here is the fees and overhead associated with renting spaces, security and safety measures. When you're talking about a locally owned and operated festival — 35 Denton is volunteer run, in fact — those costs can begin to stack up quickly.

In an email, Odom said the use of SonicBids is more a way to streamline the application process for a smaller, locally run festival. It's a process, Odom says, which can include anywhere from 450 to 700 applications at a time — all of which must be reviewed and discussed by multiple staff members. “We have a small booking team, so any tools or resources we can get that help manage the massive number of bands interested in performing at 35 Denton is helpful,” says Odom. 
“Considering SonicBids bundles different information, file types, et cetera from artists in one place, it helps keep things orderly for the team to review and manage in one place, instead of trying to hunt down a band's content from all over the web,” Odom continues. “SonicBids also lets us discover artists from all over the world, and vice versa. Our team would have never had time to search through all the hip-hop acts in Haiti, for example, but thanks to SonicBids, we were able to host Dedkra-Z and Princess Eud last year at Dan's Silverleaf.”

For Slavens, at least, this makes some sense. "There’s just so little money in playing music locally, especially these days," he says. "And then it starts tipping to this thing where you’re paying to play. I understand that, but I also know how much it costs to facilitate these things."

As for being considered a facilitator of pay to play, Odom doesn’t believe 35 Denton qualifies. “Artists are not required to have a paid SonicBids account. For artists creating a SonicBids account for the first time, they have a 30-day free trial, which is plenty of time to create their EPK [electronic press kit] and submit to any fest they choose.”

In addition to the SonicBids account setup, for the upcoming installment of 35 Denton, the festival also charged an application fee between $10-$15, depending on when the application was submitted. The idea of charging artists for the privilege of applying is certainly not exclusive to 35 Denton, though. Many larger festivals like South by Southwest also use SonicBids and charge an application fee.

But not all local festivals charge for submissions; some don't accept applications at all, hand picking their lineup instead, as is the case with Homegrown Music Fest. Co-founder Josh Florence says that if Homegrown did institute an application process, he doesn't believe they would charge bands to apply as it would feel like they were "gouging" the artists. As Florence puts it, "I think 'pay to play' in any circumstance is pretty lame. We've never done it at any of our clubs and we don't do it for the festivals. I don't think that's the best way to curate the best possible collection of bands, either."
Granted, the Deep Ellum Arts Festival allows submissions via SonicBids, as well as through their website, but the application itself is free. But 35 Denton's fellow Denton festival Oaktopia does not use SonicBids, nor do they charge an application fee — and the festival's founder Matt Battaglia has some pretty strong views on the matter.

“From the beginning, since we can’t really pay a lot of local acts, we aren’t going to make you pay to get turned down or to play, because that’s essentially pay to play," Battaglia says. "As long as I have the power to do it, we will never make somebody pay to apply.” Battaglia adds that Oaktopia too has a small booking team and they can also get around 700 applications in a given year. He attributes his team’s application sorting prowess to their ability to follow the local scene closely.

To the bands struggling with the idea of pay to play or how they should navigate the festival waters, Slavens says it just has to make sense for you. "I’m a performer myself, and have been for the last 25 years, and it’s hard," he says. "There’s something to be said for the experience of playing a festival, where you get to play on a big stage and with people who have better careers going on than yours right now. You get to be seen and get your name on the poster — that’s the whole exposure side. I’ve done a lot of stuff for exposure or just for the experience. You just have to weigh those things for yourself."

For now, submissions for this year's 35 Denton Festival are closed. But there is hope for next year: While Odom reports that when the festival began, the SonicBids application was $20, the coordinators have since lowered the fee to make it more affordable for the artists. Odom also insists that the festival is always open to new ideas or alternatives, based on feedback from the community. "We haven’t made set plans for next year yet, but our booking team is always looking for opportunities to improve the process, both for the fest and for artists."

After it was all said and done, Slavens was able to work out his differences with 35 Denton, but he stands firm in his defiance of the man — er, website. "Everybody’s always talking about how bitching doesn’t do you any good," Slavens says. "Fuck that. Bitching does a whole bunch of good. And yeah, fuck SonicBids."
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