As 2016 rapidly approaches its conclusion I am reflecting on a year that has been by far my most successful financially as a comedian and also in some ways the most frustrating. I have made the most money of any year, in part thanks to royalty payments for my albums, in part thanks to President-Elect Donald Trump and in part thanks to 13 years of diligence in trying to get booked as a feature at as many comedy clubs as I am able. I had an album reach #1 on iTunes and have made repeated performances on the top podcasts in the country. All done on my own with no representation. However beneath the veneer of budding success lie harsh truths. I have been unable to build an infrastructure for my career. Unlike a regular job, having a good year does not guarantee anything of the sort next year. There are no linear promotions in stand up comedy, at least not for the unrepresented among us. Having a good year in 2016 simply means I will have to redouble efforts in 2017 just to maintain the level I achieved this year and hope for recognition, notice and/or opportunity in 2017 that may allow me to surpass where I am currently. But the difficulty is that even if you double the money I made in comedy this year I would still need another source of income to continue living the pleasant, but month-to-month existence I have had for the last several years. So what that amounts to is that as I approach my 14th year in comedy (and look up the lyrics to Guns N Roses’14 years for a solid description) in what at times feels more like compulsion than enjoyment, I will have to work at a pace that didn’t fatigue me when I was working as a full time attorney and open mic comedian 10 years ago, but now exhausts me. And unlike the comedian I was in 2006 a lot has changed since then. In 2006 I had to worry about stage time, writing and getting clips to bookers. Today there are a dozen social media platforms, YouTube videos and podcasts all of which help you expand a fan base, but all of which take time and energy (in some cases money) and are not stand up comedy. And without a larger platform, media presence, or gatekeeper, you are only likely to expand linearly (my podcast has grown from 200 to 1000 listeners a week since I started it over 4 years ago, which is nice and from a larger comedy business perspective, completely irrelevant) and in this business exponential growth is needed and is still almost always controlled by powerful players in the business. However, just like state lotteries, the powerful in and around comedy have no qualm feeding the myth that the average guy with some pluck and a $1 can be the next success. So as we approach the conclusion of my most successful year as a comedian I offer some words of how comedians can help themselves and how the business can help comedians. Do I expect any of these to take hold? No. But I need this Starbucks coffee to cool off so might as well write.
Comedians Need a Guild
Having attended law school and practiced as an attorney I wish I were more well versed in labor law, but I am not. But I do know that stand up comedy needs a guild. Now I would not expect it to wield as much power or prestige as the Screen Actors Guild, nor provide certain things like health insurance because the economies of comedy clubs are not what they are for film studios, but certain protections and rights need to be enshrined for comedians at some point. For example – the fact that feature acts continue to be the most squeezed of the three comedian levels (emcees – often locals, entry level, middle acts – who have to do the travelling of headliners and perform more time than emcees for a fraction of the money headliners get). The pay per show of feature comedians has not gone up in 30 years. Half the clubs now do not provide lodging for feature acts. That means a feature act, who presumably is the next decade’s headliner (after he or she waits for the Vine stars, Instagram stars and MTV2 stars to leapfrog him or her) must find a way to travel and lodge themselves and hope that frugality and merchandise sales can help them make a little money. And of course the real reason to do it for net gain of maybe a few hundred dollars is to make contacts, hone your act and possible make some fans. But this is no longer really a viable path for people to earn a living and become great comedians. Therefore a Guild should guarantee lodging and/or increased pay for features. Now clubs can be organized by levels (colloquially we call them A or B (or C) rooms – based on crowds, location, prestige, etc. and those levels can be required to pay features a certain level. For example if no lodging is provided then an A room would have to pay a feature $150 per show instead of the standard $100 per show. These are just figures meant to illustrate my point as several clubs already do pay $100 per show plus room, but obviously there is something wrong with a job that is paying the same or less than the same job in 1986 (in real dollars, not adjusted for inflation). Like America, the Middle Class of comedy has been the one most decimated by cutbacks at clubs. In fact, I would argue that they are the only ones paying.
Another issue I would want a comedy guild to address is an outright ban on clubs managing talent. SAG for many years (I could not find out if the rule was lifted recently) banned talent agencies from producing content because of the obvious conflict of interest. I manage you; I make a movie; I cast you ahead of other talent and then I collect 10% of the salary I pay you for being in the movie. However, there are clubs that manage talent, allow that talent to monopolize spots at their club or clubs and then force feed their talent on showcases for networks under the guise of presenting a cream of the crop of talent for networks to select from. In this age of everyone telling comedians that gatekeepers don’t matter – they still matter a lot. We can keep producing free content while being sold a false dream or we can wake up and realize that for every Bo Burnham there are 10,000 people producing free content, some of it good, with no shot of breaking through without an established entity or gate keeper paving the way.
These are just two ideas I have regarding a comedy guild, and I realize they, along with other ideas, would require a collective action that the comedy community may not be capable of. I have said this with some scorn and also some self-blame, but it is hard to organize a labor force when the majority already act and think of themselves as scabs. New comics are afraid of ruffling feathers, comics with some heat and opportunity are afraid of squandering what feels like a shot at the dream and big time comics are too removed from their struggling days to relate or care about the diminished outlook for comedians today. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but with the Internet demanding more of comedians than ever, having a business that is increasingly stacked against the middle class of comedy cannot and should not be tolerated by comedians at any level.
Facebook is not Your Friend
I have a buddy who is a comedian, but also owns and operates a hugely successful non-comedy Internet company. He has over 2 million fans on his business Facebook page. And over the last couple of years, as Facebook has approached 2 billion users worldwide it has become more and more difficult for him to reach his fans with posts because of the algorithms Facebook has instituted. Facebook has become immensely profitable and their answer to that has been to squeeze the people, business and creators that have helped make it successful. Google pays successful video makers and Twitter does not hide posts – there is still an egalitarian spirit in their business model, unlike Facebook, which basically holds its creators hostage. Facebook, as many of you know, discourages YouTube videos from being seen. As an example, 3 years ago I had a YouTube video link go viral. It had 81 shares and 200,000 views in 3 days. Last year I had a video get 80 shares and it had 5,000 views. There are other factors to explain some disparity, but none to explain that large a disparity other than Facebook’s algorithm. Now Facebook wants its users to directly upload through Facebook and your reward is the ego boost of more views, but nothing else. No compensation, no credits for ads. Nothing.
Facebook is a media giant. Make no mistake about it. They deserve to be treated like CBS, ABC and NBC and I hope the criticism from fake news stories being spread finally gets them to wield the power they cultivated with more responsibility. And as their ads continue to cost more and more money it will reach a point where your feed will be flooded by only the companies and entities that can afford to advertise on radio and television. So like many things in this country, they are driving their success on the backs of content creators, but making it unaffordable for those creators to get exposure (get exposure and make no money or upload a YouTube clip and get no views). Once again, at least Google pays people (there are plenty of issues with Google as well, but trying to keep this under 3000 words). My solution, as unrealistic as it is, would be for comedians to not upload any content directly to Facebook. Once again, this would have to be some sort of hashtaggy moment to draw attention, but we are now addicted to likes and clicks like a digital heroin, so I know it is unlikely. Facebook is just another big, bad company, except they actually don’t make anything. They steal ideas from other apps and they use free content from its users. And comedians should consider themselves one of the main foods on the plate of the social media parasite.
Do Not Use a Label to Produce Your Album(s)
I have self produced 5 albums and self producing has had real financial benefits. This year I will make a little over $15,000 in royalties because I am both the artist AND owner of my material. I have produced good content, but I have never been able to get a label to produce any of my albums. Now this comes with a caveat before I continue. If you are a major artist you can negotiate a deal that works for you. Like most things in comedy (and America) if you come into a deal with power you will leave with power and lots of money. Or if you are an up and coming artist and Comedy Central wants to work with you and produce your album that relationship has immense value for your career because of their reach and their numerous platforms. However, if you don’t fit into these categories I would advise you to take to heart what you half-heatedly tell yourself when trying to justify continuing a rocky career path: do it yourself.
This is one of the few areas where there is an ability to do it yourself (this assumes you are at a level of skill and talent where your material is at a point where it is worth putting down in an album and can find, if not an audience, at least respect, if people hear it). I get the breakdown of my royalties each month and it is roughly 47% to the artist and 53% to the rights owner. Now I probably make a decent amount relative to most no name comedians, but let’s say you are a comedian with one kick ass album. Maybe your label even negotiated a good deal for you, but bottom line is they will make half of your money in perpetuity of your album(s). Why? Because they put up the up front costs for you and got you a nice venue – it may not be a deal with the Devil, but I assure you it is not angelic either. Once again the lure of a top notch production and immediate gratification lures comedians to wager their long term benefits. These labels aggregate albums from big time people and dozens if not hundreds of no-namers like myself. So while you make $500 a month they may make $550 a month x 100 (or more) comedians. Individually, like class action lawsuits, you have no reason to really challenge, but as a collective comedians could change this industry.
If you look at the iTunes comedy charts you will usually see albums from 5 labels dominating and they will also occupy the “New and Noteworthy” spots with high profile placement. My album Israeli Tortoise hit #1 on the comedy charts in August, but it had no backing, no label and never got placement as new and noteworthy, even though one might think reaching #1 in its first week might make it both new and noteworthy. The point is that the only way to change the business is to practice what we preach, or at least pretend to believe. In an era where music labels, television studios and movie studios face increasing competition, comedians continue to be a reliable source of entertainment slave labor where large companies feed the narrative that “gatekeepers are not necessary” to encourage free content, while simultaneously benefiting from their monopoly on real and concrete opportunity as… gatekeepers.
Of course I must admit that I do not know how each of the major labels operate or the nature of the deals they sign with comedians. I can only extrapolate what I know from my payment breakdown, how I see working no name comics treated by the business and the general lessons of history when powerful interests and business operate without restriction or restraint.
And In Conclusion…
America recently elected Donald Trump president. This was the insane result of many things and one of them was working class people willing to buy a lie wrapped in a fairy tale because they were desperate to believe something that catered to their anger and diminished clout. In comedy there is no need for a Trump because it is already run as if Trump is in charge. Contradictory policies, false promises and the middle men and no-namers buy in against their own interests. As my friend Mike Payne said perfectly (and hopefully now famously?) “Comedians talk about the world like Karl Marx and then become Paul Ryan when speaking about comedy.” I am not here to say that I am going to burn myself in front of a comedy club like a monk during Vietnam, either literally or metaphorically (though some might say this blog is doing just that), but there is no better industry more emblematic of income inequality and a rigged system than the broken backs of the middle class of comedy. The question is – will comedians ever band together and do anything about it because it is only getting worse.
Get J-L’s new stand up albums KEEP MY ENEMIES CLOSER & ISRAELI TORTOISE on iTunes, Amazon & Google.