Ask Candace: Artist Submissions

Dave Curtis writes:

I’d love to hear some feedback, particularly from presenters, regarding the usefulness of sonicbids. For those who hire musicians, do you prefer to get a submission from Sonicbids or get a real cd in the mail? Is either method more likely to result in a gig? Do most presenters wait until after the submission deadline to make decisions, or are most spots taken before the deadline such that it becomes less likely to be selected as you get closer to the deadline?

One could spend a fortune applying to various events and some understanding of the process might help musicians get more bang for the buck.

In this case, I can only speak specifically to my personal preferences, but I’ve spoken to other Artistic Directors and presenters about this, and here’s what I think:

Mail = Waste

Though I used to love it (free new music every week in the mail?!  Awesome!), getting submissions in the mail is now my least-preferred method, for several reasons.

PFFMailOur festival has made many efforts to lessen our impact on the environment, but this is one of the few areas where our efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle are largely fruitless.  Bubble envelopes and CDs can’t be recycled, and though we could possibly do some reusing, it’s not that practical.  I get hundreds of CDs, and though some festivals do, we have no space to store them;  I take those that I’m not keeping to the university radio station in the hopes that they’ll find their way to new ears and create new fans.

I also feel that the expense for the artist – a couple of dollars for postage, plus packaging, CD, and promo materials, is at least as much as our Sonicbids fee, and much more expensive than the Flash Your Folk fee.  Some artists may argue that one, and most fees to submit EPKs are higher than ours.  Most artists send too much information; reams of paper, photocopies of articles in which the artist is mentioned 3/4 of the way in and the section isn’t highlighted; 8×10 glossies, extra discs with logos and pictures and video.  And then there’s the weird extra stuff; buttons, stickers, a suncatcher, confetti, chocolate bars.  None of that stuff is useful or necessary.  I know that the argument is that it makes your package stick out, but in truth, I strip all the packages I get into a pile of CDs and one-sheets, and by the time I make it to your submission, I will have forgotten that you were the one who sent the chocolate bar.  I do that to stay organized, but in addition, I don’t want my irritation at the amount of stuff you sent to sway my opinion against your excellent music.

I get that when you’re applying to 60 festivals and umpteen venues across the country, you don’t have time to stop in at every festival website to look up their submission guidelines, but I’m going to guess (not having looked myself) that most presenters want at most a one-sheet and a CD in the mail.

So I’m not a big fan of the mail-in submission.  But I know many presenters who prefer it; some aren’t as comfortable with technology, or some listen to CDs as they commute in to work or make dinner.   If you check a festival’s website, it will probably become really clear which they prefer; for example, on our festival site, the options are listed as Flash Your Folk, Sonicbids, and Snail Mail.  That’s my order of preference, and it’s very deliberately listed like that.

Why I prefer electronic submissions

When you’re going through 800 submissions, it’s nice to be able to get into a rhythm, and the consistency provided by Sonicbids and Flash Your Folk is fabulous.  I get all the information I need in one clear, easy-to-navigate spot – your music, your photo,your bio.  I don’t accidentally misplace your one-sheet, or end up with a CD with no contact information.  It’s easier for me to hear you, read about you, and make a decision. There’s no garbage, I don’t have to curse at shrink wrap, and the artist gets immediate feedback (though usually a form letter) about what I’ve decided.

With mailed-in submissions, I generally end up on the computer anyway, because I want to find you on YouTube to see if your music is the same live as it is recorded, or I want more information, or I want to contact you.  With electronic submissions, I’m usually one click away from your website, your videos, more of your music.

But as I say, not all presenters have been surgically joined to their computer as I have.  Many find an electronic interface cold, impersonal, or inconvenient.  And certainly lots of artists have valid complaints about electronic submission – some see them as a fund raiser for presenters, some are shocked by the fees, some see a lot of investment for a little return.   And I won’t argue with those opinions.  As an artist, if you assess your overall costs and find that electronic is worse for business than a physical submission, by all means, give’er on the  snail mail.  That’s the only reason I keep accepting submissions via mail.

The medium is not the message

I think I can speak for most presenters (and all of those whom I respect) when I say that it doesn’t matter which method you choose for submission; in the end, it’s the music and you, not the medium.  I’ve booked people who submitted CDRs with hand-scrawl song info in Sharpie, as well as people with the slickest, most expensive production and beautifully fleshed-out EPKs.  It makes no difference, if the music is right (I would, however, give a lot of thought before booking anyone who has not at least made an attempt at a professional presentation, which I’ll discuss sometime in the future).

Decision Time

Again, I can’t speak for all presenters, but I book acts here and there over the Fall and Winter (I’ve only booked two for 2010), and knuckle down to make my final, really difficult decisions right after my deadline in February.  There are usually a rush of last-minute submissions, and I feel it’s in bad faith to fill up all of my slots before the deadline has finished.  That being said, my shortlist after the 2009 deadline was 150 acts, all of them artists I could imagine at my 25-act festival.  But even though many, many artists didn’t make my lineup, I keep them in mind in case of a last-minute cancellation.  And if I liked you enough to short-list you, I’ll remember when other gigs come up, when talking to other presenters , and for the next year’s festival.

I find that there’s often a lag between applying and getting booked; many presenters have a backlog of people they want to hire, and sometimes you get added to the end of that mental list.  So just because you didn’t get booked this year doesn’t mean I didn’t like what you’re doing, nor that I’m rejecting you outright.  I know how difficult it is to maintain a sense of equanimity when it’s your music, career, and livelihood on the line, but there is no such thing as an overnight success.  If you apply to a whole whack of festivals and venues for the first time this year, don’t expect 2010 to fill up with gigs.  Give us some time to get used to you.  Polish your performance, build your fan base, write new music.  And if you’ve been applying for a few years without success, maybe it’s time to re-examine your presentation.

As I said earlier, I can’t speak for other presenters, but I hope that reading about my thoughts helps you gain a little perspective.

Candace Shaw is the Artistic Director of the Peterborough Folk Festival, a member of the Board of the Shelter Valley Folk Festival, and a longtime booker and supporter of folk and roots acts. Candace’s candid advice for musicians will be a regular feature on this blog.

Got a question you’d like to ask Candace?  Contact her at candace@rootsmusic.ca

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  1. avatar
    Liz 21 December, 2009 at 11:28

    Thanks — this is a totally useful entry point — info we can really use!!
    Liz @ Dulcimerhead World Headquarters

  2. avatar
    Eric 21 December, 2009 at 13:15

    Thanks for the viewpoint…digital is better than snail mail for sure…but sonicbids? Is that only useful because most artists dont seem to know how to organize themselves online and via email?

    Sometimes I think it would be better if these kinds of articles were written anonamously, that way you could be really honest about the process.

    We know its unlikely that anyone would get booked on a sonicbids submission that wasnt already under consideration. Can someone just come out and say it?

  3. avatar
    Candace 21 December, 2009 at 14:07

    Hey Eric,
    Everyone has an opinion on Sonicbids, and for myself, I really like it. It is indeed very well-organized, and much easier to navigate than most artist websites, in part because most artist websites are designed for fans, not presenters, and that’s probably how it ought to be.

    Just a note about the Sonicbids process – I sign an agreement with them that says I will only accept online submissions via Sb. I find email submissions are generally the worst, and come from artists who didn’t read my submission guidelines, and I felt that way before I worked with Sb. So for me it was a relief to find a service that allowed for online submissions.

    Honestly, I’ve booked artists I’d never heard of before via Sonicbids, and I treat those submissions exactly the same as the ones I receive via snail mail. I don’t understand why it would be otherwise – what’s the benefit to my festival if I don’t book the best acts, no matter how they submitted? If anything, Sonicbids submissions should be given more weight, because funds raised through submissions fees go straight into my operating budget and the whole process is much more convenient for me.

    I hope that clears a few things up!

  4. avatar
    Graydon 23 December, 2009 at 13:49

    Thanks for the enlightening post! I’ve heard stories about unscrupulous promoters and musicians investing a small fortune with not much to show for it. I’d been debating on whether to sign up with Sonicbids, but with so many festivals only excepting submissions via Sonicbids there’s not really any other option. It’s great to get a insiders perspective on this issue.

  5. avatar
    Dave Curtis 28 December, 2009 at 21:09

    Hey Candace, thanks so much for you posts. Very helpful!

    The pricing issue is an interesting one. Of all the links in the chain, the musician is probably the least able to afford significant outlays of cash to make submissions, particularly after investing in recording a cd. And yet many promoters have set a submission fee that is quite far above the cost to send them a cd and promo material in the mail, making me think they are using sonicbids and musicians as a form of fundraising. I have no problem with an event keeping what I would otherwise spend on making a mail submission, and there’s a great value in the convenience of sonicbids. But anything over $5 or $10 – with the exception of some contests – makes me hesitate, and not just because of the cost. Like many I’m still trying to figure this all out. I’m guessing that songwriting contests, for example, have higher submission fees because they have fewer alternate sources of funding. Otherwise there are a lot of gigs on sonicbids that just cost way too much.

  6. avatar
    John Marlatt 25 January, 2010 at 15:12

    The part I love and hate most about booking artists is there is such an incredible wealth of talent.
    It is truly impossible to include/showcase/provide an opportunity for every deserving artist that asks to play and that we would love to accommodate. That’s speaking as a venue, where we have a whole year to try and do it.
    I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for A.D.s of festivals to not be able to book everyone they’d like to and everyone they know would be a positive addition to the roster…

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