Portishead
Sonic Angels? Bart Becks (foreground) and Maurice Engelen (a.k.a. Praga Khan).

Online music platform SonicAngel is crossing borders, signing distribution deals with the majors, and promoting and marketing musicians with an unusual business model. Just last week, the company signed a deal in Germany. On March 1, a SonicAngel affiliate will launch in Los Angeles. Not bad for a company co-founded by a former member of a post-industrial, acid-house techno group.

SonicAngel was founded in January 2010 by veteran Belgian label-owner/musician/producer Maurice Engelen, a.k.a. Praga Khan, of the group Lords of Acid (video below). His partner in the venture is Bart Becks, former CEO of Belgacom Skynet, Belgium's leading ISP, and a well known European internet entrepreneur.

"The idea to launch SonicAngel came to me when I was on the jury of 'X-Factor' talent search show," says Engelen, "and Tom Dice, one of the finalists, was not given a recording contract. That's when we decided to go ahead with SonicAngel. We combined the best of both worlds: my long time experience in the 'traditional' music industry [he ran the Antler-Subway label] and thorough knowledge of A&R, promotion, distribution, publishing and media deals with Bart's expertise on new media and direct communication between artists and fans."

By leveraging crowd funding and a series of corporate sponsorships, SonicAngel bands are able to pre-finance their releases and not go into debt straight out of the gate. "This means there will be no recouping!" Engelen exclaims. "This fundamentally changes the music industry's principles. Artists, the fans and the label each get one-third of the net profit -- contrary to the traditional 90-10 label-artist share."

So far SonicAngel has set-up sponsorships with the AB-Inbev brewery, Hewlett Packard, Sony Ericsson, ING, Deloitte and Randstad. In return, partner companies have access to SonicAngel artists and their music for various marketing and promotional purposes.

Sony Ericsson phones, for example, feature free downloads of SonicAngel artists. Some on the roster may play the AB-Inbev club tour and/or the summer concert series for ING and Randstad Interim. Hewlett Packard is offering free downloads and web-based behind the scenes visits with SonicAngel artists.

The other key component of SonicAngel's business model is fan investments. "Fans are invited to invest in the artists in increments of ten euro (about $13.50) FanShares," Engelen explains. "Our first signing, Tom Dice (video below) hit number one on both the singles ("Me and my Guitar") and album ("Teardrops") charts. The first payout to fans was labelled 'investment of the year' in the press here and returned a net profit of 26 euros (about $35) for every 10 euros invested."

For Elke Jacobs, singer of the alternative band Mastercab, signing to the label helped him creatively. "The SonicAngel formula brings more color and life in the music industry," he says, "because, contrary to the traditional record company, it is all share-driven and takes the pressure of sales-figures off artists' shoulders so they can concentrate on the creative process."

Empowered by the success in its Belgian home market, with 10 artists who raised between 15,000 and 45,000 Euros (about $20,000 to $60,000), SonicAngel is spreading its wings abroad. It is launching strategic partnerships in Germany and the U.S. (March), France (April) and Holland (May).

"A thorough knowledge of the market is crucial, so we prefer to work with local partners, who have an eye for emerging talent, " Engelen says. "We supply the platform for their artists. In the U.S., where I had my own company for 15 years, we will launch SonicAngel ourselves. We want to go beyond what Kickstarter, a pure funding platform does: Kickstarter is not involved in the music production process, whereas we set up a joint venture between artist, label, publishing and touring.

The label, which employs a staff of 12 in Belgium, negotiated a distribution deal for Tom Dice, with Universal in France and Germany.

To highlight the launch of SonicAngel in the U.S., the SonicAngel will sponsor a March tour (poster below) of the States, starting at the Los Angeles Nokia Theatre (March 2nd) with the newly signed electro dance artist Radical G opening for the Lords of Acid.

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