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Side Door founders Laura Simpson and Dan Mangan.

Lindsay Duncan/handout

Seeking US$2-million in seed money, the Canadian startup Side Door ended up raising US$3-million instead. Not a bad investment for a $10-billion notion.

“I want to see 100,000 artists who people have barely or never heard of making $100,000 a year,” says Dan Mangan, musician and co-founder of Side Door, a Halifax-based online hub that facilitates do-it-yourself concerts. “The idea is to develop a global, thriving middle class of artists who are not beholden to the industry gatekeepers in order to have a viable career.”

The timing for Side Door couldn’t be better. Coming out of long live-music lockdowns imposed because of COVID-19, cash-starved touring artists will soon be fire-hosed into the marketplace. There have always been more acts than rooms. Now, because not all venues were able to ride out the pandemic, the imbalance will only be intensified.

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With Side Door, Mangan and co-founder Laura Simpson are filling a gap by connecting touring artists with mom-and-pop concert hosts who present ticketed shows in such unconventional spaces as living rooms, backyards, town halls and bookstores.

Traditionally, a network of managers, promoters, agents and record labels curates the talent that gets into the major venues for touring acts. Those industry gatekeepers keep the clubs, theatres, arenas and amphitheatres booked with the artists who can sell enough tickets to pack the rooms with alcohol-consuming and merchandise-buying audiences.

“The system works well,” concedes Mangan, a successful singer-songwriter, “but not for the touring acts who don’t have an agent to help them book shows.”

Enter Side Door, established in 2017 to provide artists and organizers with the tools to produce their own “any space is a venue” events. The company’s quick-and-dirty description of itself is “an Airbnb for gigs.”

Some 90 per cent of the shows facilitated by Side Door are music concerts (both in-person and livestreamed digitally), but the service can also be used for presentations of dance, comedy and theatre.

Side Door chief executive officer Simpson is a music industry professional who in 2011 began hosting house concerts – intimate shows by professional musicians, typically presented at private residences in communities underserved by traditional venues.

“Those concerts were the only place I saw where the artists actually made any money,” says Simpson, speaking from Halifax.

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The Sorority during a Side Door show at House of Strombo.

Lindsay Duncan/handout

While Simpson comes from the industry side, the Vancouver-based Mangan is a working musician. He’s currently signed to Toronto indie-music label Arts & Crafts, but in 2007 he was a nobody looking forward to playing a show at Calgary’s Ironwood Stage & Grill.

“Only four people showed up,” Mangan recalls. “It was my first time in town. I had no publicist. I had no manager.”

Six months later, Mangan was back in Calgary, playing in the backyard of a guy named Doug with singer-songwriter Lorrie Matheson. Some 60 friends and relatives of the host were there. Mangan and Matheson made a few hundred dollars each and sold a healthy amount of CDs.

“More importantly, I walked away left with feeling that I’d made an actual impact,” says Mangan. “I’d left a footprint in Calgary.”

Mangan went onto win two Juno Awards. More relevant to Side Door, he would create a network of house-concert hosts to help the artists on his own boutique Madic Records label. That small-show series was the blueprint for what is now Side Door.

To the minds of Mangan and Simpson, Side Door doesn’t compete with traditional concert promoters and venue operators. They work with upstart and middle-class artists – “everything from your uncle’s cover band to just below Beyoncé,” says Mangan – who need help finding places to play.

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“It’s a wide swath of artists whose needs are not being met,” says Mangan. “We see what we’re doing as democratizing live entertainment.”

Side Door’s first show was in 2017. Halifax’s Stewart Legere and Montreal’s Tanya Davis played Red’s Kitchen, a private residence in rural Quebec with a sink and stove, but no sound system. The company’s biggest show had singer-songwriter Matthew Barber in front of 120 people at an old, repurposed church in Chelsea, Que. The smallest shows happen in CEO Simpson’s living room, capacity 15.

Though Simpson and Mangan are industry disruptors, the traditional concert operators who spoke to The Globe and Mail do not see Side Door as a threat.

“It’s an artist-first service,” says Jeff Cohen, concert promoter and co-owner of Toronto venues Lee’s Palace and the Horseshoe Tavern. “The way in which they’ve gone about building their business complements our own DIY philosophy and fits right in with the traditional independent live music venue.”

To use a professional sports analogy, Side Door is a minor-league farm system that assists artists in moving up the venue ladder to the major leagues.

“It facilitates even more performance opportunities for artists and access for fans,” says Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, an advocacy group. “There is more than enough room in the ecosystem to accommodate new ways of reaching audiences.”

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Side Door has more than a dozen employees dedicated to technical development, customer support and liaisons with some 5,000 artists and 2,000 hosts. The new round of funding (led by Vancouver-based Rhino Ventures) will help the company spread more meaningfully into markets outside Canada.

“By playing a guy named Doug’s backyard 14 years ago, I was able to subvert the system until people took notice of me as an artist,” says Mangan. “But there’s a Doug in every city, and we want that success for all the artists on Side Door.”

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