Why Merchandise Is Important

If you read last week’s article, then you know that it is already very hard to make a living as a stand up comedian.  One way to balance the low pay is to sell stuff.  I have been doing this for awhile now and I will tell you want I have learned doing this.

When I first started going out on the road, I had nothing but jokes.  I was in Montana working with a comedian, and he told me simply:  You need to sell stuff!  As time went on, I went from CDs I would burn hours before the show to having them professionally produced.  Now, I let other comedians (especially feature acts) know how important it is to have something to sell.  Not only does it add to your base income, but it allows you to engage audiences and form a following.

At first I never had anything to sell, just like any other comedian out there, I was just happy getting paid.  It then became clear that the money I was getting from the performance itself, was not going to pay the bills.  So, I produced a DVD of a performance I recorded in a dimly lit room.  I drew the artwork myself and begun to sell it.  The thing was I would be standing there with other comedians, trying to sell my stuff and they had shrink wrapped, professional looking CDs and I had a walking etsy store.  That is the first thing you need to know about selling merch:  Make it look nice.  Just because you are in the basement of a Holiday Inn, doesn’t mean you have to skimp on the presentation.  I learned that spending a couple of bucks to make things look professional and nice paid off because it showed that I was really a comedian and not a guy just trying to take your money and move on to the next town.

Why did I pick a DVD at first?  It was the thing I had.  I later took just the audio and sold that because I figured that I was not important enough for someone to sit in front of their TV for 50 minutes, but they may listen to me while on a road trip.  The sound quality sucked so I had to get a real recording of my act.  I had a friend (shout out to Will Gilman) produce and edit my first real recording.  It sounded great and I had better cover art, so I did not feel weird selling the stuff.  It sold really well but I learned a couple of things from having a real product to sell.  First, I had to get over selling things to people.  Not everyone will enjoy your material enough to want to take it home, but they will not buy it if you are not telling them about it.  I had to ensure I was setting stuff up and at least presenting my product.  Second, A lot of people just wanted to talk after the show and if I was posted somewhere they could come by say hello, and most of the time they would buy something!  It was odd to see people who didn’t have money out all of a sudden laughing with me and now they are buying multiple CDs!

Now, just because you have a product to sell, doesn’t mean you will all of a sudden start making all this extra money.  I have been selling merch for awhile now, and I have no idea from show to show who is going to buy something and who isn’t.  I’ve had shows where I thought they really liked me and not sell anything, and then shows where I thought I was not my best and leave selling stuff.  The only way to be increase your odds of selling stuff is to have more stuff for sale.  That is why I made a t-shirt (not the whole shirt just the stuff on the front).  CDs are a hard sell nowadays.  I have a CD player in my car, but I haven’t used it!  That is why I also have download cards that they can get instead of just the CD. T-shirts sell well because it is something you have to wear anyway, so might as well have something funny on it!  I have seen comedians make thousands in a weekend from just their t-shirt sales.

Maybe you don’t want to sell a t-shirt or a CD (maybe you don’t have an hour of material).  Well, you can go with just about anything!  The idea is to sell things that are easy to carry around, and that will make people think of you.  I have seen everything from buttons to baby onsies!  What is important is having something that when someone looks at it they say, “Damn, I want that!”.  Now, instead of paying for things like gas and meals with the money I am getting for the show, the merchandise I sold can pay for it.  I am not saying just slap your name on a shirt and then you can lease a cigar boat, but when it comes to road comedy, every little bit helps!

Why Getting What You Are Worth Matters

It is always weird to me when I hear comedians talking about getting paid and they are so comfortable with just taking whatever they can get.  It may be due to their awkwardness in asking someone for money, but I think it is due to something much bigger:  not knowing what they are worth.  You can sit down with a comedian and tell them how much everyone else is getting, but if they don’t know why it matters it will go in one ear and out the other.  I will try to explain as best as I can.

Now, your worth as a comedian changes from place to place.  In the Midwest, the money comedians are getting is different than in the Northwest.  It can also vary depending on if it’s a one night performance in a bar or if you are at a comedy club.  It can also change depending on demand.  If you have a market that is flooded with comedians, it may be harder to get as much as say, someone who lives in Spokane, WA.  So, the very first thing you need to do if you are a working comedian (or trying to be one) is that you need to ask other comedians what is the going rates in your area.  That way you are not undercutting yourself out of ignorance.  It is important to know that, for example, if you are tasked with hosting a show at a bar, it usually pays a certain amount.

Okay, now that we took care of that, let’s look at why it is important to get paid what you are worth.  If you ask any comedian that has been doing it for 20-30 years, they will tell you that the pay hasn’t really increased since they started.  With the price of inflation, that $100 that was seen as great in 1990 is almost $200 in today’s dollars!  That means that the market has not kept up with inflation.  Why?  Because so many comedians are insecure and love comedy so much that they will take the $100 and be happy.  A lot of comedians think it is weird in the first place to get money for something that they enjoy, and that gives the people handing out the money an advantage in that they use this against you. They know that the average comedian will take that $100 bucks and if that one doesn’t then the next one will.  Because there is no union and for a lot of comedians, work so infrequent, they think it is better to get something rather than nothing.

This is all well and good until you think about all the other aspects of comedy other than just performing.  You have to get there.  That cost.  You have to eat.  That cost.  If you take that $100, after you have paid for gas and food you maybe down to $60.  Now, that means much more work on your part.  This is why there aren’t that many touring feature acts. You can’t afford to travel and perform.  If you are traveling and performing in comedy clubs, that may soften the blow because you don’t have to jump in your car each night, but a lot of clubs don’t give features hotel rooms, so that means you will either have to have a friend in that city, or get a hotel room and that eats into more of your pay.

Getting what you are worth is important because if you want to do it full time, you will have to maximize your pay while minimizing the cost.  So, if it cost you $150 to go perform, you may want to make sure you are getting enough that you are not constantly doing expensive open mics.  It is also important because it adds value to not only your comedy, but comedy as a whole.  Some of the worst crowds I have ever perform in front of are crowds that got in for free.  They see no value in it so they don’t care what they get out of it.  If a booker knows he can pay you $25 to feature, he is not thinking of your comedy as a valuable product.

People make fun of me because I am always trying to get more for my performance.  The reason I do that is because I feel like even though I am not a big comedian or famous, my time and my comedy are worth something, at least more than what others are getting.  I know I am not going to raise the amount everyone gets paid because it is only me looking for more pay, but it does add value to my comedy.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to make it seem like while others get $100 I get 400, but I try to make sure I am getting what I am comfortable with so that after I am done paying for expenses, I have money for silly shit like bills and drones.  That is also the reason I have kinda moved away from mostly bar stuff to corporate stuff.  I can get paid what I am comfortable with and I don’t have to drive all over the place.  Getting what you are worth is not greedy.  It’s just smart.

Why Being A Great Show Producer Is Important

It may seem easy to just throw a couple of your funny friends on stage and rack in the millions, but it is much more difficult than that.  If you are going to put on shows there are some things you have to be aware of.

You would think that being a comedy show producer is all about gathering talent and making a flyer, but that isn’t the case.  At the very start, the producer has to make sure that the place they are performing is suitable for what they envision the show to be.  Are you looking for intimacy? Then doing it in a large theater is not going to work.  Are you planning on bringing a person that has a following?  Then you will be be served to not pick your uncle’s bar and try to charge people $25 bucks.  The venue is very important to how people perceive the product before they even get to actually witness the product.  It’s important that the producer see the venue.  That is hard to do if you are several states away, but if you are producing a local show, it is pretty simple to just walk into the place and see if it has functioning lights, or if the stage has dark spots (places left unlit on stage). Does the audience sit far away from the stage?  That is important to who you bring in.  Does the venue even have a stage, or are you just huddled in the corner of a dark ass bar?

When it comes to talent on the show I have always been of the mind set of leaving them wanting more.  There is no need to have 10 comedians on a stage if three or four will do. When you load a show with talent, it does several things to the audience.  It can wear them down because they are seeing comedian after comedian, and it makes it seem as though this is the only way this show could have been pulled off is with a bunch of comedians doing five to ten minutes of material.  You want to make the audience want to see your next show, not wish the current show is over.  Make sure you know the talent getting on stage.  Don’t give someone you have never seen before enough time to tie a noose around their neck.  Don’t pad the show with a bunch of open mic comedians thinking that it adds value to the show because it doesn’t (not ragging on open mic comedians, but they tend to be less experienced and thus should be dealt with carefully).

If you are going to do advertising, please ensure you proofread!  I know this blog has mistakes in it all the time, so I am not saying I don’t do it, but when you are making something that is supposed to attract people to your event, you have to make sure that the venue’s name is spelled right at the very least!  Do you have everyone’s name spelled right on the flyer?  Does it have the date and time?  These are things that separate the  professional from the unprofessional.

Let’s talk about the show itself.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine, but START THE SHOW ON TIME!  If you say 8pm and you don’t start until 8:30, you now have an uneasy audience that has probably been drinking for those thirty minutes and by the time the last comedian gets up, people have been waiting to leave.  Don’t do your audience like that!  They made it to the show.  The least you can do is give them the show in a timely matter.

I think the last thing to discuss is compensating the comedians.  There are a myriad of ways to go about paying comedians, but one thing is for sure: Pay the comedians!  Nothing will shorten your comedy producing career faster than not paying comedians.  That is why it is important to tell them up front what they are going to get.  Do they get a couple of drinks or a meal?  Let them know beforehand.  You are the producer it is your job to make sure the talent feels like their time was valued.  We had an incident here where there was bad communication between us, the show producers, and the talent.  They thought that a guest set pays, and they were upset that we did not pay them.  I offered to pay the person because they do not live nearby, so they may not have wanted to do it if they knew they would not get anything like gas covered.  I also let them know for future reference what a guest set meant.  These are things you have to do because nothing spreads faster than negative news.  You want to make sure you have a good reputation with comedians so sometimes you may have to take a bullet, but it is better than being the type of person that is screwing over the talent.

Making Those Summer Moves

Summer is approaching and that means the kids will be getting out of school, bathing suits come out of the closet, and you…will not be getting much work.  It happens.  There is this thought that no one wants to see a comedy show because the weather is so good.  I talked about how it is pretty much a myth here, but if you think it is a thing and have to keep the money coming in so you can feed your slurpee diet, then I will tell you things that I have seen that work pretty well.

If you don’t have any shows lined up during the summer months and you want them, then you may have to line them up yourself!  The summer is a great time to plan a tour.  The weather is good, so you can drive to the snowy parts of the country, and because people are usually looking for spectacles during the warmer months (movies, concerts, monster rising from the ocean to devour a famous landmark), you can go and make a nice little chunk of money.  Here is the thing though, you can’t aim for the big cities.  You have to look toward the smaller towns in the country.  Why?  Because everyone ignores them.  While all the bigger comedians are playing a show in a big theater in some fancy city with their fancy motor cars, you can be in a bar in a small town making a nice little bit of money because when the sun goes down, people still want to do stuff, so that means being there with your notebook full of cat jokes.

You can also try to diversify yourself, and target niche markets that you never thought of going after before.   I have a number of shows during the summer that would be considered corporate gigs.  I looked at retreats and ceremonies that may be happening and I put myself out there and I got a few bites from people that are looking to spice up that boring ass summer team building meeting you always see signs for in hotels when you are there to bang in the swimming pool.  They pay pretty well, and depending where you have to go for the gig, they may be willing to pay for travel expenses (YAY!!).  It’s not all bubble gum and hover boards though, you will have to be working in the PG or PG-13 area of content.  Remember, these are stuffy suits, not cool ass trend setters like you, so if you want this work you might have to lay off the taint talk for a bit.

Both of the above methods of keeping money in your pocket this summer involve a lot of prior planning.  I didn’t plan the stuff I got, it just worked out with the first couple then I started to move when I saw that it was a thing.  Another method, that may not require as much work is starting up a show in your area.  Try to make it a big deal.  The old club here in town would close during the summer, but once or twice a month would put on a show and a lot of people would turn up and money was flowing like Pepsi through the streets. You can do the same thing.  Do you have a comedy club nearby?  Ask them if you can promote a show on one of there off nights.  You may have to rent the room, but if you try to sell it as a great event, and an awesome way to get out of the sun for a bit, you may see a nice turnout.  It beats having a bar give you a set amount because you may make enough money that those one nighters seem silly (for now at least).

If your area is having an event, then you could piggyback off that and produce a show.  In Spokane, WA, there are a couple of events during the summer:  Bloomsday and Hoopfest. Both of these days brings in a lot of people and when they are done running and breaking things on their body, they will want to be entertained.  That is where you can slide in and help them.  The amount of promoting will change because if you do a little footwork (maybe flyers where the event is going to take place) then you can have a nice turnout which means cold hard cash in your pockets.

I hope this helps you out.  I had to suffer many summers before I got information and started seeing what other comedians were doing.  If you are not a name where you can just go anywhere this summer and keep the lights on, give it a try and let me know how you do.

Treating Comedy Like A Full Time Job

If you are looking at a career in stand-up comedy, you have to realize that there is more than just writing and getting on stage.  Those are the fun parts!  The tedious parts, the parts that separate the successful comedians from the ones that never get it together are not fun at all, and can be down right embarrassing at times.

Unless you lucked out and got picked up by a touring act after your second open mic, you will learn that being a full time comedian means talking to lots of people.  Bar owners, promoters, bookers, event organizers, you will be talking to all of them.  Most comedy is booked because you have a relationship somehow with the people putting on the show. You meet them at a festival or competition.  They saw you perform and wanted to add you to their roster.  80% of my work comes from people that know me and my work before hand.  20% is generated by me without any prior knowledge of the other party.  That can be private shows, or special events.  It can be a spot that I contacted about comedy and they thought it was a good idea.  No matter what, you will be answering emails and taking calls.  I usually prefer emails to calls because then you have all conversations in writing. Trust me, this can save your butt.  This is at least 3-4 hours a day of me returning emails, or sending emails and playing phone tag with folks.  This is a big part of comedy for the non agent, non sought after comedian.  You have to generate the work.  It doesn’t come to you.

Then there is the driving.  All the driving.  Unless you live in a congested area, you will probably have to travel to a lot of shows.  I am not a big time comedian getting big time money so there are not that many plane rides in my budget.  The longest I have driven in a day was 13 hours, and it was during a snow storm.  It has gotten to the point now that a two hour drive is a plenty little Sunday stroll.  This adds a lot of time to your “work week”.

And with all of the above, you still have to keep writing new jokes and staying relevant.  The last thing you want to do is start getting your career going, but the one thing that is feeding you slowly starts getting more and more dated.  I feel it is important to remember why you wanted to be a professional comedian.  You wanted to be one because you liked to tell jokes.  If you liked to drive or answer emails for a living, then you would have gotten you CDL or kept your day job.  It is important to keep these things in mind because it is a tough road from getting booked every other month to trying to pay your bills with the money you get from performing.  I am lucky in that I can barely get by on the money I make from comedy, but that comes from a lot of work, and I have much to do if I want to feel good about my comedy career.

Can You Make A Living As A Feature Act

The answer to the title is:  You can!..If you work at it.  Being a feature act is hard. You travel a lot and you are usually tasked with warming the crowd up, and at the end of it all, you get paid a tiny amount of money.  It is hard to make the money stretch to the point that you can make a living off of it as a feature, but I am here to give you some ideas on what you can do to help make it happen.

MERCH!

If you are a feature act and you want comedy to be your career, then I suggest getting things to sell after the show.  I sell CDs and buttons, but you don’t have to do that (especially if you don’t have the material to record a CD).  Do you have a cool joke that would look good on a t-shirt?  What about bumper stickers?  You have to be smart though.  Don’t just sell a shirt with your name on it because people may not want to wear that.  The reason you want to sell stuff is simple:  the pay is crap, so you need to supplement that income as much as possible.  You can easily double or triple the money you are getting from the venue by sales of merchandise.

When I first started out, I got this advise from a great comic Morgan Preston.  He was selling t-shirts and making hundreds of extra dollars.  He knew how much feature acts were making so he told me to get something to sell or I would be doing this for nothing.  Now, you can’t be 100% sure that you will get that money every night, but it will help in the long run.

RIDE SOME COATTAILS

If you are a feature act, the BEST thing you can do is work with a headliner that has a lot of shows and is willing to take you along.  Headliners are peculiar creatures.  They like to be comfortable in knowing that the feature is not going to crap the bed and mess the show up.  So, if you help make the show great, they may be willing to take you along.  What this does is keep travel cost down, if you are travelling together.  If they are really big comedians then they may get travel covered so that is more money you don’t have to spend.

For the past four months, I have been the feature act for John Caparulo (off and on), and it is pretty sweet.  Having money for travel means more of the money you make from shows stays in your pockets.  The fact that John is a big name helps me sell more CDs which means even more money to keep in my pocket.

BOOK YOUR OWN STUFF

If you are mainly doing bars and the occasional club, you may want to think about booking your own shows on off nights.  There are many bars that have nothing going on so you may able to sell them on doing a show.  More shows equal more money.  This is more work for you, but if you are looking to fill dates this is a great way to go about it. And it is not just bars!  Look at wineries or coffee shops and well.

Being a feature act is hard, but you can make it work.  Get out and talk to comedians and don’t be afraid to ask headliners to think of you when they are in need of an opener.  I just went to do a show with John Caparulo and he asked me if I would be willing to feature for him more when his regular can’t do it.  I said yes because why not.  He is a great comedian, and a really good dude.  I did not know that it would change my income.  With the pay and selling merchandise, opening for John pays more than being a headliner in a bar!  This will not work for everyone because not everyone knows a John Caparulo, but get out and see, and hopefully you can make a nice little living being a feature act.

Successfully Running Your Own Show

I have been involved in the running of shows in the Spokane area for about six months and from my experiences with that and my observations with other independently ran shows, I have seen what works and what doesn’t.  Here are some of those observations.

Everyone needs to be on board: If you are running a theme show or just a normal comedy show, everyone that is participating needs to on board with what you are trying to do.  If you are doing a show where you tell jokes and then dress like a dinosaur and then tell more jokes, you need everyone to be comfortable with putting on a dinosaur outfit.

Promotion: If people don’t know you are doing a show about telling jokes dressed as a dinosaur, how are they gonna pay you to see you tell jokes in a dinosaur outfit.  This goes with the first point:  Get people on your show that are excited to do the show.  That way, they will want to let their fans know about it.  This also means that you as the show runner need to be on top of things.  That means getting flyers ready and the events made.  Comedy is filled with folks that just want to get up on stage in front of a sold out crowd, and not do the little things to ensure there is a sold out crowd.  Don’t book those people!  Book people that will work with you to make sure it is a success.  I don’t know how many times I have worked with someone that did no promotion for the show, but then sat there and wondered why the pay was low.  This does not apply to out of town comics because they may know less people in that area than comedians that work in that town.

Properly review the venue: I have helped put on shows that were not suited for the venue we had access too.  If you have hints that your show involving dressing like a dinosaur and telling jokes is gonna be a small event, then putting it in a 600 seat theater is not good.  You loose money and you give off the impression that it is not a success.  If you would have just locked up a nice place that had 70 seats and you sold 50, you look better, and you don’t have the extra cost involved with renting a large venue.  Make sure that the venue has a competent staff.  The last thing you want is to have a great show, but the bar didn’t make money because the staff was too slow.  Can they handle an influx of people?  If they can’t then you might have to look elsewhere.

Keep your promises:  If you promise to pay everyone a certain amount, then you better have the money to pay them!  Nothing kills your rep faster than telling people one thing and then doing another. Not ever will be in it just for the dinosaur suits. I would rather leave the show with no money in my pocket then to short change the performers and have them tell people that I can’t give them what we agreed upon.  The reason this is an issue is because most people that are putting on shows like this have high hopes that it will sell out and they can pay people well.  What I have learned is to expect the worse and be surprise if it turns out different.

Make it an event: Make it seem like this is the show that you want to see.  Make it seem as though those are the only dinosaur costumes in the state and they will be set ablaze after the show.  You have to SELL the show!  If you are not excited about it, then why should someone that has to pay five bucks to get in?  Sometimes you have to put your modesty to bed and pull out your inner cheerleader and pom pom the shit out of your show.  The best promoters make their monthly shows seem like events that will rock the town to its core.  That is what you want.

I hope this helps.  I am not an expert promoter at all.  I just observe and see what works best and what doesn’t.  The biggest take away is that if you want to run your own shows you have to treat it like if you don’t make it a success, they will take your kidney.