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An open letter from a comedy producer to audience members

comedy Jul 14, 2020

By Carrie Hardie, producer at and owner of Serious Comedy, a small independent production and touring company specialising in live comedy (and occasionally dabbling in other genres and formats).

As the lockdown eases across Australia and New Zealand announces that it’s now COVID-19 free, I think we’re all experiencing a new sense of hope and relief that we can finally relax a little.

Without wanting to kill the mood too much, I think it’s also a good time to explain where the live arts and entertainment industry in Australia sits amongst all of this. As well as being one of the first industries hit when coronavirus arrived, it will also be one of the last to recover when it leaves.

In much the way my (former) accountant was taken aback when I described my fairly-typical-for-comedy business model, most audiences don’t really understand how the biz side of show works – and why should you? Your job is to buy a ticket, come along, watch our art (and ideally tell everyone you know about it so that they too, buy a ticket and come along and watch our art) and enjoy yourself.

Your job is to buy a ticket, come along, watch our art... and enjoy yourself.

It’s taken a lot of effort to become a producer and someone who works full time in the live entertainment industry[1]. In the space of three days in March, I lost every single piece of work I had for the year in Australia and the UK, as did the artists with whom I was working, and my colleagues who work in production, publicity and venue management. According to I Lost My Gig, individuals have lost approximately $340m due to the impacts of COVID-19[2].

In the space of three days in March, I lost every single piece of work I had for the year in Australia and the UK.

This doesn’t even touch on the situation in places like the UK, which is still recording double digit deaths every day. Normally, I would be spending part of my year in the UK for work, and collaborating with colleagues there.

Instead, I’ve spent the last two months transforming my living room in Melbourne into a pop-up broadcast studio every week and working with performers and writers and TV directors figuring out how to adapt shows written for a theatre venue into a digital medium for audiences stuck at home. I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of that, and will continue to develop that endeavour, but I also want to be producing live shows in physical venues again. I want to see my colleagues and friends put their talent, skills and enthusiasm back to work where they belong.

This industry exists on a mix of funded, partially-funded, and commercial operations and each has its place. In the short to medium term it will be necessary to increase funding levels and the scope of those being funded, which is an economically sensible move. You, as audiences, need to understand this as well, because without your understanding of this situation and your support going into the future, there’s no hope of the industry recovering and developing into the future.

... without your understanding of this situation and your support going into the future, there’s no hope of the industry recovering and developing into the future.

I’ve written this from my point of view as a producer who’s worked in a large agency, run a small agency, been employed as a freelance tour manager, production manager and marketer. As someone who has worked in live comedy, live theatre and live cultural and educational events. Someone who has worked in Australia and the UK, on small shows in a pop-up tent, and shows in 2000 seat theatres. And as someone who’s currently an independent producer running my own small business with a core group of other creatives and production people.

The economics of the arts

Now why wouldn’t you just expect shows, projects and organisations to just operate commercially? If they can’t sustain themselves, they shouldn’t exist, goes the rhetoric.

But paradoxically, for an industry in which many participants struggle to make a reliable income, one of the strongest economic arguments in favour of funding is the enormous contribution it makes to the economy. The Australian Government estimated that cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7bn to the economy in the financial year 2016-2017[7].

It’s just that the better part of that revenue generated goes to people across countless different fields – from hospitality, to tradespeople, to marketers, logistics operators, and more. If you look at the revenue (not income) that is generated when an event is staged, all of that revenue doesn’t go to the producer or artists – in fact most of it doesn’t.

If you look at the revenue (not income) that is generated when an event is staged, all of that revenue doesn’t go to the producer or artists – in fact most of it doesn’t.

Taxis, Ubers, public transport, parking stations all get a work out. The babysitter you hired to look after your kids while you went out. The trip to get your hair and nails done or the new shirt you bought for the night out. Whether you ate a fancy dinner at a hatted restaurant, had a counter meal and a pint at the pub near the show, or got a snack pack from the local kebab joint on the way home, the hospitality sector benefits greatly.

It all seems very obvious when people talk about the economic benefits of large one-off events like the Australian Open, AFL Grand Final, or the Olympics, but these same benefits accrue thousands of times every day around the country when people attend arts events.

Arts and live entertainment directly generates a lot of that cash movement, and although it costs a lot of money to put those events on, live entertainment doesn’t proportionately reap all the benefits – but quite importantly, it still incurs the entire risk of staging that event or production.

Live entertainment doesn’t proportionately reap all the benefits – but quite importantly, it still incurs the entire risk of staging that event or production.

So, it is to the benefit of governments and society generally to help keep these events happening. Funding is a way to reduce the financial risk for venues, producers and artists to make putting on that event less risky and more attractive.

The model: A risky business

Of course many shows do operate and succeed on a commercial basis, but what a basis it is!

When producing a live show, most times you (the producer) are underwriting the project. You pay all the expenses and hope that the revenue generated in ticket sales is enough to cover those costs. That’s just to break even. If there’s enough left for you to earn a living income after that, all the better. Sometimes there isn’t enough money, and you lose a significant part of the money invested.

When producing a live show... you pay all the expenses and hope that the revenue generated in ticket sales is enough to cover those costs.

Oh, and you also have to be okay with most of those expenses being paid out in advance of the show. Then you wait the four to 12 months when the final curtain falls to receive the settlement for the tickets you’ve sold. Because that money gets held in trust by the ticket seller until the end of the season to cover refunds in the case of… well, cancellations.

Stand-up comedy is probably one of the cheapest forms of live entertainment that can be produced. Its technical requirements tend to be pretty simple, there’s usually only a single performer and most of us have no idea how hard it is to work in the industry so we adopt unhealthy lifestyle choices from the beginning to save money (sleeping on a friend of a friend’s couch while you tour to another city, working 16 hour days anyone? So. Much. Glamour!).

It’s also a wildly unregulated industry where the basis of your employment means you sometimes work on a profit share, a negotiated fee, for free with the hope of paid work further down the track[8] or some other strange arrangement[9]. A contract with payment at an award rate is what we refer to in the comedy industry as a Kerrigan[10] – if it comes your way, you’re dreaming[11]. And for one of the cheapest art forms, stand-up comedy is still expensive.

A contract with payment at an award rate is what we refer to in the comedy industry as a Kerrigan – if it comes your way, you’re dreaming.

Without presenting an entirely costed budget for a show at a festival such as Adelaide Fringe or Melbourne Comedy Festival, allow me to give you an idea of where some of the money you pay for tickets goes.

Tables of fun

I’ve picked $35 as a ticket price (the upper end of a moderately profiled show at a fringe or comedy festival). This example show is doing a four-night run in a venue that can seat 200 people[13].

Below is the first look at revenue projections, but it’s just the first stage of budgeting a show:

However, you’ve still got these hard costs to pay regardless of how many tickets you sell:

So depending on how well your show sold, this is how much the artist and producer walk away with to pay themselves for the 3-12 months it’s taken to develop, plan, and perform that show:

Most shows sell between 30-70% of their total potential capacity (in the yellow highlighted section).

Of course, you can increase the chance of making more money by increasing the venue size or the number of performances you have, but that also increases your risk. You can tour the show to multiple locations, but most of these costs will be duplicated and you have to have enough cashflow through savings or other streams of work, to be able to pay all of those upfront expenses.

The main takeaway from this is that presenting any form of live entertainment is a significantly risky business. You need capital to be able to pay a lot of expenses upfront and still be able to live and carry on the business until the show season has finished and get paid out the ticket money minus all the deductions specified above.

Presenting any form of live entertainment is a significantly risky business.

Many of us in the arts have depleted our reserves during COVID-19 (financial, but also mental and emotional). Some of us need to take a break and build those reserves back up to be in a financially and socially secure enough position to create, perform or produce shows. This will see a lot of people drop out of the industry for the medium term and possibly forever.

From conception to completion it takes an absolute minimum of around four months to successfully present a moderately profiled show in a venue[14] and for comedy shows, that’s being conservative. Festival seasons are usually in planning for six to 11 months. Many theatre shows plan their seasons 18 to 24 months in advance.

Difficult current circumstances

The overheads in live entertainment are too onerous for a gradual or partial re-opening. It still costs the same to open, staff and produce a show in a theatre – seating people 1.5 metres away from each other just means there’s a bigger financial risk and you, as an audience member, get a very weird experience of watching a show.

The overheads in live entertainment are too onerous for a gradual or partial re-opening.

In these current circumstances, once someone takes the leap of faith and announces the first post-COVID tour, they will be confronted with extra risks and costs. What’s the plan if there’s another outbreak somewhere and venues have to shut again?[15] Who pays? Will insurers cover that? (Spoiler alert: they won’t.)

Do companies need to build in extra budget for performers and production staff to isolate for two weeks once they arrive in a different city or country? For any reasonably sized touring company that will wipe out any prospect of profit. And that is just the view from the production side. Live Performance Australia has developed a $345m plan to assist in re-establishing the industry and helping venues’ doors open, although this plan still needs funding somehow and it will likely only touch part of the sector.

There is also the issue of you, the audiences. COVID-19’s economic effects have been ubiquitous. If the current income supports are withdrawn in September but under- and unemployment remains high, people may not have the disposable income to come out and spend money on shows. And if audiences do come out, will you experiment with seeing new artists and shows that don’t have an established media profile? Or will you be more conservative with your limited funds and see an act or a show that costs more but is already a known quantity from radio or TV?

From a health perspective, will you as an audience member, be confident enough to sit in a theatre with 500 other people immediately? A study from the Australia Council for the Arts released in May reports that 56% of surveyed audiences aren’t yet comfortable with the idea of attending shows in crowds of more than 100. That’s over half of people who are already engaged with the arts and live entertainment – what hope is there of new or casual audience members seeing a show?

From a health perspective, will you as an audience member, be confident enough to sit in a theatre with 500 other people immediately?

It’s a lot of effort and expense to undertake just to realise that the market isn’t there. Confronted with an already risky business model, now with added uncertainty and expense, companies will surely err on the side of caution when deciding to resume business.

But when the pandemic is over

Everyone has been voraciously consuming content while we were all locked inside – whether that be Netflix, or Stan, podcasts, YouTube, books (paper and audio variety) and any other number of things created by people in the arts and entertainment field.

Most of that content exists and is available for free[16], on a subscription model (not directly paying money to the creators, but via the platform like Netflix) or by asking for donations. As a producer or artist, it’s a scary prospect to focus your attention, experience, knowledge and resources into producing and performing a show, only to have an indication after an audience has seen it and you ask for donations, of whether you'll lose or earn money. That’s no way to work or live[17].

Asking for donations relies on an audience understanding that a donation shouldn’t necessarily be based on whether you liked the show[18] but in recognition of the skill, effort and resources that are involved in staging that production. I don’t think Australian audiences are that well versed in the ‘business of show’ – and why should you be? It isn’t a common conversation to be having out loud, even within our own industry.

So what's an audience to do?

While you might be back to some sense of normality (especially if you’re reading this in Australia or New Zealand), know that everyone who works in the arts is still going through major upheaval and uncertainty. So support live artists where you can, and while people are producing content online, take the chance to discover a new show, artist or project (remember, you’re saving money on dinner, drinks, parking, babysitters). And pay them for it. You might just find your new favourite. Or you might really dislike it. Every genre has shows that are good and bad and shows to different tastes. You won’t know until you try and it’s all good experience for being an interesting person.

So support live artists where you can, and while people are producing content online... pay them for it.

When you see live shows in venues being announced (especially smaller shows!) buy tickets. Buy them in advance! (We see ticket sale reports once shows are on sale and adjust our levels of stress accordingly). Limit how often you take advantage of free or heavily discounted tickets according to your means. As producers, we use those offers as a way to generate word of mouth and to encourage people to take chances. Which means if you do take up those offers, at the very least, encourage friends to come with you or encourage them to organise their own groups.

As a producer, there is nothing more exhilarating than standing backstage and unprofessionally sneaking a peek around the curtain as a show is about to start to see a full audience, smiling and excited to see what’s about to happen on stage. And knowing that I can pay my rent and do it all again.

Be generous. Value art. Plan events. Take chances. Solidarity got us this far. It can take us the rest of the way too.

Be generous. Value art. Plan events. Take chances.

This article was originally published on Serious Comedy and has been republished with permission, edited slightly for length. Click here to view the full article including references.