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Do Gig-Finder Web Sites Really Work? Local Musicians Sound Off

If you've been lucky enough to catch Rhonda Roberts in concert, you heard a confident voice singing original, Beatles-inspired indie-pop. She spices things up with a little Tin Pan Alley while masterfully plucking away at ukulele.

And, if you have seen her in concert, there's a chance you saw her because she booked the gig using ReverbNation.

ReverbNation is just one of the Web sites today's independent musicians use to promote their work; others include Sonicbids, GigMasters and BandWagon. All offer various services, but a major component is connecting musicians with promoters to book shows.

These sites offer artists and booking agents a virtual conference room to meet in, with the goal of possibly working together. Sometimes artists reach out to venues that subscribe to the sites, sometimes the sites promote shows and festivals by inviting bands to apply for spots on the bill.

All this may sound advantageous to artists eager to play for audiences, but many local musicians, including Roberts, prefer to do things the old-fashioned way.

"I'm really just getting started and a lot of my best support has come from word of mouth and networking through friends," Roberts says, adding she's booked only about five percent of more than 100 shows through ReverbNation and similar sites.

"People would rather take a friend's advice than make a random bid on someone they've never heard of," she offers, "especially if you don't have a high-gloss pro package to sell yourself in."

That, in part, is the rub against these sites. Most require artists to purchase annual subscriptions or electronic press kits for submitting purposes. The fees aren't typically exorbitant, but they can be taxing for go-it-alone musicians. Moreover, just paying the fee is no guarantee an artist will get booked. It's hard to let go of the money made selling merchandise or earned at a show when there aren't assured dividends.

"Paying 10 or 20 bucks to submit your music I don't think is any big deal, but paying for promoting is a different story," says Galveston singer-songwriter Chris Durbin. "I think if someone believes in you and your talent, then there should never be any out of pocket expense for the artist."

Durbin began writing songs as a form of self-therapy after losing his 3-year-old son in a tragic accident. That was 16 years ago. He's put all those years of writing and performing together Timeless, what he calls his first "official" CD release.

He said he uses Soundcloud to give listeners a feel for the deeply personal songs he writes. He's used ReverbNation the same way, to upload MP3s to broaden his fan base, but he's never booked a gig through the site.

"I've played over 100 shows over the last five 5 years," Durbin says. "Every one of my shows has been hustled up just from word of mouth. The Soundcloud account is a great reference tool, but as far as pulling gigs from it, it doesn't happen. The same goes for ReverbNation. I'm more of a get out and beat the pavement type of guy."

If these sites were contrived with the busiest and the laziest musicians in mind, Scissor Dicks considers itself in the latter class. The Baton Rouge punks, who describe their sound as "the ringing in your head when you get drunk and make bad decisions," have booked Houston shows, but always by way of friends they've made in the local scene.

The band's bassist, Scoops Martin, said they've used YouTube to book out-of-town dates, primarily because it gives promoters a visual for the mayhem associated with their performances of songs like "I Want to Fuck Taylor Swift," a Scissor Dicks original.

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He says the band uses "Facebook, mainly. It'd be a better experience if we tried harder, but we are some of the laziest people you'll ever meet, and kind of forget about anything other than just playing music most of the time.

"It's way better when you can get a number to talk to someone in person, but it's not impossible to use social networking at all."

Stacey Steele has a 21-year career in the music industry, witnessing the business change from label-driven to Emersonian self-reliance. He says he's played nearly 4,000 shows as a solo artist, with past bands like Toy Subs and Arrival and with his current group, Nervous Rex.

Steele's music is straightforward country and western. In the past, he's performed or recorded with Blue October, King's X, Pantera, Motley Crue and others. If you don't think a longtime musician with industry contacts finds these sites useful, think again.

"I do subscribe to Sonicbids and ReverbNation," he says. "The results have been fairly good, especially to get my music heard, more so than just getting gigs."

He also uses Facebook's band page and figures the combination of sites have helped him book about 250 shows. Not bad, but a drop in the bucket if the total number is 4,000.

The jury is out among these artists on paying to submit for gig opportunities through these sites. Many offer bands chances to play festivals or at music conferences. The submission fee can be as little as $5 and many are free, excluding the price of an electronic press kit. In recent years, Free Press Summer Fest has used Sonicbids to get submissions at $25 a pop.

"I personally don't "pay to play", or pay to submit my band to play festivals," says Steele. "I can't say it's a scam, but I just don't do it. I seem to play very consistently without having to do that. I'd say that around 85 percent of my work is either through word of mouth, being asked back to play, reputation or from someone seeing me live and asking me to play their venue, festival or event."

"I wouldn't mind paying a little money to get honest exposure, but I think there's a lot of free exposure to be had," Roberts agrees. "I'm not entirely sure what happens to the money if your band doesn't get booked -- does it go towards booking bigger-name acts? If so, the little guys aren't helping themselves out to pay for the opportunity and the bigger acts aren't necessarily better acts.

"I think there's a lot to learn about the way our new techno-centered social media-fueled music industry operates," she adds.

Whatever their thoughts on these sites are, all agreed on one point.

"In my opinion, there is no substitute for getting out and doing as many shows as you can to make yourself known to agents, promoters and the public," says Steele.

"There's no substitute for playing live," agrees Durbin. "Getting that instant gratification or criticism. Both have to be welcomed or you will never grow as an artist."

"I still think nothing beats face-to-face, personal contact. For some acts, they have to be seen to be believed," agrees Roberts. "Word-of-mouth advertising works both firsthand and secondhand this way. It's still a lot more productive than cold-calling and unsolicited press kits. At least it has been in my own experience so far."

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