Every couple of years, a comedian will pop up in a local area and proclaim that comedians need to join together and form a union so pay can increase. It rarely gets far (beside the one or two situations when it did), and that is for a lot of reasons. I am not going to write about all of them, but just a few.
Since the 90’s, the pay scale for stand up comedians have roughly been the same. (the following are one night show rates. Rates differ in clubs and such) $200 for the headliner, $100 for the feature and various numbers for MC’s ($25-50). Now, if you adjust for inflation that is 358.64 to headline and 179.32 to feature. So why hasn’t the pay gone up, but everything surrounding comedy has? The cost of a ticket has gone up. The cost of food and beverages has gone up. The price of gas, rent, utilities and the like have gone up. So why hasn’t the pay? Well, the first reason, and a big reason why a union would not work is because that is just what businesses say you are worth. In the 90’s $200 for the headliner was good. People were going out to bars and actually seeing comedy. Not for the person telling the jokes, but because that was what you did. There wasn’t Netflix and video games on your pocket phone. Now, a bar looks at comedy a lot different. They can throw any number of entertainment options that will be cheaper and keep the crowd in longer. So, the price has stayed this way because (among other things we will discuss in a bit) that is how much a business owner thinks it’s worth. I have gotten more than the usually amount listed above for shows at a bar, but eventually they start looking at what kind of business the shows are drawing and adjust accordingly. Art, in my opinion, isn’t valued as higher because we have constant access to it, making the value in people’s eyes lower.
It’s not just bar owners not valuing your comedy, its other comedians. There are way to many comedians for the amount of work out there so that means what you don’t snatch up, some other comedian will. Say you are in a city with 100 comedians. Out of that 100, 40 get work frequently and the other 60 for whatever reason does not You and the other 40 guys decide to unionize to get $250 a show for headliners. That is all well, for the 40 of you, but the other 60 has no incentive to adhere to that. Every comedian you meet, is a comedian looking to obtain the next level, that next brass ring, and if that means taking $200 or less for that same show then they will do it. If you are a comedian that can’t get a paid show, anything is better than nothing. Even if it hurts the collective. A union would actually be worse for the 60 that don’t get regular work because they have nothing to differentiate themselves from the 40 that do get work. If there is no union they can at least undercut the other comedians, which drives prices down. That is why comedians will go to a place one year and get X amount and then the next time they go there the pay has gone down. Why? Because who ever is putting the show together is just trying to get something greater than zero.
In a perfect world a union wouldn’t even be needed. This is not the perfect world. We may not be bargaining collectively, but we can do things to help each other out. Knowing what the usual rates are is important. That way you know what you “should” be getting. Try to get connected with working headliners. I work regularly with headliners that make sure I get paid decently and that is a great way to get the people cutting the checks educated on what quality live entertainment cost. There is nothing wrong with saying “No” to an offer. If they ask why tell them! The only way to make more money is to set your own prices and sticking to them. Comedians are like nomads and a union for comedians would not work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get what you think you are worth.