In 2017, Vancouver-based, SOCAN and JUNO award-winning singer-songwriter Dan Mangan and Halifax-based music promoter Laura Simpson opened a side door. Actually, it was a company called Side Door, an innovative marketplace for shows in alternative venue spaces. Then the COVID-19 pandemic came along, and the duo were forced to adapt to the new reality.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had run about 350 shows in various alternative venue spaces – living rooms, curling rinks,” says Mangan. “We had a partnership with South By Southwest. We had a big campaign to push into the States, and everything got cancelled. Much like everybody, we tried to figure out how to move our operations online.”

Using Zoom, Side Door arranged a number of ticketed online concerts by SOCAN members like Danny Michel, Big Rude Jake, Whitehorse, and others, accessible all around the world. Throughout the process, Mangan said Side Door wanted to honour its responsibility for SOCAN licensing, so that music creators and publishers received their fair share for their work

“We didn’t want our hosts to hear from SOCAN, saying, ‘Hey, you owe [the songwriters] money because these artists are declaring and submitting set lists from playing in your living room,’” Mangan explains. “We thought, ‘Okay, if we just have a direct deal with a performing rights organization, then that’s a service that we can provide.’

“We already had a relationship with SOCAN for the in-person concerts,” he continues. “If the artist was in Canada, then everyone got their usual percentage [based on the performance royalty rate]. Then, we started getting calls from other performing rights organizations around the world, saying, ‘Well, now you’ve got a streaming platform.’ And then it got really confusing. Who do we pay? How much? Everybody’s got a different royalty rate… You’re looking at different, variable rates based on the country and location.

“It’s a whole different world, figuring out how to carve out the pie for online shows,” says Mangan. “It’s been a whirlwind of tech, and figuring out sophisticated arrangements; building the [HTML] codes so they can manage the technology and report these things. I’m thrilled that we got there, and we are totally compliant.

In an effort to keep Side Door concerts “very connected, intimate, and visceral,” Mangan and company provide artists with several options: “In-person shows on your own, or with a space you find on Side Door; an online interactive show; or Zoom, where you can do an online broadcast show, using our livestream tech. There are several different avenues by which you can bring your show. We want it to be sort of a business-in-a-box for artists, so they can do various types of shows that they want to do.”

“We want it to be sort of a business-in-a-box for artists”

He feels he’s filling an under-served niche, one that could be quite lucrative for artists in the long run. “What we’ve come to know is that the vast majority of touring acts don’t yet have an agent,” Mangan says. “So, only a small percentage – the very top of the crop – are getting their way through to the gatekeepers, promoters, agents, labels, and managers. They provide a valuable service because they keep venues full… mitigating the risks for them. So they can stay full and open, which is great.

“We don’t want to take away these real, traditional venues. But the majority of touring acts are having a hard time trying to gig, a hard time making an audience, and they burn out. They give up. My argument is that if these artists could have small but meaningful shows, they could have viable careers. They could make $100,000 a year, even if they’re never famous. And that’s what we’re really trying to get to.”

Side Door has had help: with a number of angel investors on board, including Slaight Music, the company now employs 20 people. “We’re not even remotely close to profitable at this point, and [without investors] there’s no way that we could build the sophisticated platform that we have,” says Mangan. “We have five developers at Side Door and that talent isn’t cheap, but what we’re trying to do is build up a sort of marketplace where all the various different stakeholders can find what they’re looking for.

“It’s a three-sided marketplace: You’ve got artists. You’ve got hosts. And then you’ve got audiences. It’s a big, lofty goal, and not easy, but if we do it, it’s going to be a grand slam for all three sides of that marketplace.”

Including music creators once again, as Mangan is contemplating adding a set list uploader “which would allow us to report the show for the artists, and report what songs they played, etc. Just trying to make life easy for artists in general, and then they can make a living doing it. We want to make sure that those royalties are going out, and that those songwriters are getting paid for their work.”

Holly Fagan-Lacoste, SOCAN’s Digital Business Lead, views the Side Door business model as a significant innovation, especially when it comes to adding a revenue stream for members.

“It’s ground-breaking that our own SOCAN member, Dan, is operating an online concert service, based out of Canada, with global reach,” says Fagan-Lacoste, “Side Door is clearly going above and beyond, and doing what it takes to assure creators and publishers are being paid. SOCAN wants nothing more than the digital landscape to thrive for creatives, digital services, and music fans alike. By protecting the value of music in this landscape, and assuring the licensing requirements are fair and accessible, we can deliver the service level to our members for which we strive.”

Mangan says he’s pleased that Side Door worked out an arrangement with SOCAN. “Even from the earliest days of my music career, every single interaction with a SOCAN representative was exceedingly positive,” he says. “It was very clear that they were trying to help me get paid and advance my career. It’s a wonderful organization.”