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Chicago's musicians as entrepreneurs

As the music industry continues to change, several Chicago artists are embodying the entrepreneurial spirit, building a business around their personal brand. Finding an alternative to the major record label trajectory for a career in the music business, local musicians are using tools like Sonicbids, social media and merchandizing to make a living making music on their own terms.

One tool that has emerged to help musicians promote themselves and book gigs is Sonicbids.com. A Boston-based company, Sonicbids was founded by an entrepreneur himself, Panos Panay.

"Our mission is to empower the artistic middle class," explains Panos, still CEO of the company. "There's a new class of musicians emerging that may not have the resources of a Madonna or KISS, but they're also not living in obscurity. They are making a career online by their own definition."

As a former talent agent, Panos saw a need for a match-making tool that would connect anyone making music with anyone who wants to promote music. Today, 130,000 bands from more than 100 countries use SonicBids.com, and 71,000 gigs were booked through the site last year. These gigs were hosted by the 20,000 music promoters who use the site to book acts for festivals, coffee houses, video games and advertising campaigns. Just recently, the site signed a deal with the City of Chicago to book artists for its public festivals, including the Taste of Chicago, Blues Fest and the Viva Latin Music Festival.

Panos sees sites like Sonicbids fulfilling some of the roles major labels have traditionally offered. These days, several sites can help artists with covering production costs for their album, distribution, promotion and bookings. For example, Sonicbids has partnered with CDBaby to help artists distribute their music and Jango to help artists get radio play on various streaming sites.

One local artist who has successfully used the site is Emily Hurd, a performing songwriter who has booked 53 gigs through Sonicbids.

"Sonicbids is helpful if you know exactly what it is you want. It should be a facilitator to your existing business plan," says Hurd.

Speaking to her success with the service, Hurd explains, "It comes down to exactly knowing your genre. If you don't know how to describe yourself in words, it's going to be tough."

Part of knowing yourself is realizing what level you are at in your career. Hurd started off submitting to smaller folk venues and doing well, gradually gaining notoreity and submitting her music to bigger venues and clubs. By choosing the right venue type and size, she was able to greatly increase her chances of booking the gigs she applied for.

"Lots of times I'll find myself getting a bigger gig through Sonicbids than I'd be able to book myself," adds Hurd. "Bigger venues don't take cold calls."

The site also helps artists get the chance to open up for tours, which can be difficult if a band is not on a lable. That was how Chicago-based I Fight Dragons got their big break. The band used Sonicbids when they first started out about a year ago.

"Sonicbids could be a valuable tool, but more as a long-shot tool. Most of the opportunities worth getting there are the hardest to get," says Brian Mazzaferri, lead singer and guitarist for IFD.

That being said, IFD got to play on the Warped Tour in Chicago thanks to a bid submitted through Sonicbids. The band made the most of the opportunity and recently signed a deal with Atlantic Records.

In addition to Sonicbids, IFD uses many social media and online channels to grow a strong fanbase, including Twitter, Facebook and a growing email list.

In speaking to the challenges of pursuing a music career, Brian says, "No one wants to tell you about the monetary challenges when you're pursuing an indie career. What other business would expect you to start with no start-up money? You have to invest in your own stuff."

For Hurd, while 75% of everything she does is online, she stresses that there's nothing better than booking gigs and playing live. Her biggest source of income remains CD sales at live shows. Aside from that, gig pay, digital downloads and some licensing deals allow Hurd to make music her full-time career.

Hurd is releasing a new album, Daytime Fireflies, in a couple weeks.

I Fight Dragons is going on tour at the end of April.

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