The first part of this question popped up on an online forum today, and I was also asked it a few times over the last month - so with the tax return not yet completed and the desire to take a nice long break from that terrifying boredom, I thought I'd dive into this for this month’s blog.
Gig offers often mention "progression" as opposed to payment. What do they mean by this?
Essentially if you do well your reward is better slots at better shows.
A decade or so back most progression gigs worked on the lines that if you did well in a 5 you'd get asked back for a 10, then if you did well at a 10 you'd move on to paid 15-20s or MCing. That process used to take between a year and five years depending on how good or lucky you were.
That system sadly does not exist any more. We all know there's too many people (albeit mostly short term) trying comedy as a hobby or without the very clear aim of improving to get to professional standard. That guilty by association stigma is only part of the problem for the newer act with talent and determination. The opportunities have reduced too. I'd say the reality is until you have some kind of TV profile or real circuit kudos there really aren't any paid London 20s anymore. Free gigs and veteran acts doubling, tripling and quadrupling up on weekends in town have kind of killed off that entire next step for acts like you. "Out of town" is better, but with places like Brighton, Birmingham, Liverpool and of course Manchester having self sufficient scenes, they have less and less need to see / progress / book acts from far away unless they have same profile or consistency as the ones how can make bank in that there London any way.
A good promoter / booker probably, even with weekly gigs, only needs 50 professional acts they are willing to pay and have a regular business relationship with to fill all their slots with a variety every year. Maybe another 50 they take a chance on every now and again or who are so in demand you are lucky to get them come preview season. Give me a pen and a sheet of A4 paper and I could rattle out 100 names who fit that criteria in five minutes and I doubt any other booker would look at that list and disagree with the standard. But that's a 100 slots for at least a couple of thousand bodies gigging with some regularity at the moment.
So how does one make it easy for a newer act to join that list? When I started Comedy Knights as my full time income I wanted to make sure that progression was possible. I set up the Comedy Knights Fresh Comedian Competition to see about 150 acts a year in a live environment, meet them personally and see if they could consistently entertain the crowd and impress me. 5 minutes at a heat, 7 at a quarter, 15 at the semi and then 5 again at the final in front of an independent panel of judges. To make the final dozen meant I'd be considering you for paid work whether you win or not.
More importantly for my peace of mind to not make the final meant I was comfortable in not rebooking you ever again having given you a shot, not having to reply to your never ending mail outs, not feel guilty that your amazing talent was yet again being ignored by those idiots who know nothing about comedy yet seem to make a living running gigs.
Has that panned out? Have I progressed all 24 finalist so far onto paid 20s or MCing?
No… Most, yes... but some haven't worked out. A couple from the 2012 final have quit - scarily I've never heard from two again. Most have been offered some paid stuff from me. An opener slot here, an MC slot there. But they're still finding their feet in the main. Still working towards a bankable 20 of material, still figuring out who they are on stage in some cases. I'd say about seven finalist have comfortably slotted into regular paid work for me and are capable of delivering.
So out of 300 acts seen I've progressed 7 genuinely. Maths fans and incurable gamblers will know that makes the odds of going from open spot to regular paid act with me 43 / 1. That's a horse I would not back, a hand I would not double down on.
Achieving progression in an environment where the best can take up two or three fees a night, the middle is overcrowded and the bottom has a talent crisis requires strong degree of luck. So here's my tips on how you can give yourself some serious edge.
GOLDEN RULE: This overrides anything else you read. Be consistently funny. If you are always killing in a 10, with a set that doesn't change massively everytime I see it, and doesn't contain any thing so experimental or controversial that I can see a venue pulling the gigs if you did happen to die in a paid slot. Then I HAVE TO progress you. But to be clear "Be consistently funny" = "always killing in a 10". Not doing alright most times, not always having a good excuse about the room or audience, not doing as well as the opener - Always killing in a 10. I know if you consider this honestly that will explain why 99% of you have not moved forward with most promoters yet. It has little to do with your occasional deaths, or even your occasional triumphs, and more to do with the fact you haven't mastered the discipline of stand up to get to the point where you guarantee the goods every time you walk on stage. Be consistently funny.
Now for the other things that are easier to achieve.
Be a nice person offstage. There are very few gigs you do alone. At some point in the evening you need to meet the promoter, other acts, the venue staff. More often than not you might need to spend a couple of hours with these relative strangers in the close proximity of a car share or a green room or a nearby cafe. You have no idea whose ear they have or what gigs they themselves might run (a large minority of industry people are failed acts). Come the cunt and you have no ideas what opportunities you have killed for yourself now and further down the line. I'm not just talking about being aggressively rude or stand offish. I'm talking about being easy to work with, not dominating the conversation with yourself and your CV, not telling jokes in an environment everyone else wants to relax in, not bitching, and listening to the information someone is taking the time to communicate to you. One of the reasons I like to meet an act personally at the comp before I book them elsewhere is my relationship with the venue or the act willing to drive or the act whose name does sells tickets is far more important than my relationship with the act who has not got twenty minutes yet. If I get the feeling you cannot get along with those people, I don't want to inflict you on them. There's no need to be false, complementary or generate false bonhomie. You don't have to be the greatest mates ever with everyone. Some of the quietest people offstage on the circuit are the universally most liked and respected. It's not a popularity contest, but being a dick comes with so many downsides.
Learn to drive, buy a car. Now owning a car is a licence for everyone to steal money out of your pocket - MOTs, speed cameras, road tax, insurance, parking fines. And I very much doubt owning a car pays for itself in your first few years. But here are all the benefits. You can get to a gig. Any gig. At a moment's notice (distances willing). You can give other acts lifts which reduces your petrol costs and makes you an asset to the promoter. You dictate when and how and where from you travel which late at night is a commodity you can't put a price on. Come tax return time a lot of your cost is rebated. Currently that is calculated very favourably for drivers. When you do turn pro you can get to all the gigs in your diary. You cannot drink, which means you do not waste half your fee at the bar killing time. A lot of acts reading this and a few promoters will be of the opinion "I don't care if someone drives the funniest act available should be booked" Nonsense... if the funniest act available cannot get to the gig they are then not available and you are booking an inferior line up for the sake of not organising a car share. The more acts who have the flexibility to drive and give lifts the better the bills we put on will be. Any other opinion is just someone not willing to figure out the logistics for everyone getting to the gig safely and cheaply. Owning a car gives you an edge. In some situations you know and I know will you only have gotten the gig to transport those three people sitting in the passenger seats rather than based on the merits of your set. But being the weak driving link on that bill will only make you better so don't take it to heart. This about progressing, not your ego. I can promise you most driving acts on my bill are the strongest link onstage and offstage.
Quit your day job. No... not really. Please don't. This is about being available to gig at late notice which having no other work commitments gives you. But before you draft your resignation letter consider the fact having a dayjob as long as possible is something to be proud of. You can pay for Edinburgh, that car and rent and groceries and bills. You can save for your first year, for the empty diary weeks and the cheque to follow months. Stay in your day job for as long possible. I guess what I really mean is you cannot have two careers. If you already are in your dream job, then stand up is just a hobby for you no matter how often you do it. You are not available to gig at the drop of the hat, cannot put setting off to Cumbria for £60 ahead of staying at work until 5.30. If you want to straddle both worlds, I understand the need for security but temp, find a role with flexible hours. But if you have no intention of quitting your well paid accountancy job then essentially every time you pick up a £100 gig that's £100 you are depriving someone from whom stand up is their sole income and only goal. Being flexible means you can pick up last minute work and being paid by a promoter really is the best the way to further paid work. Some promoters will always see you as an open spot no matter how much you improve. But once someone has paid you and you've done the business it is very hard for them to demote you back to middles - and more often than not that rare chance to jump up a level is not handed to you on a plate with months to plan, it is a one shot deal based on the promoter having no other option but needing to take a chance on you. Having nothing but comedy as part of your working day means you have time and the mindset to write and always be online for your comedy admin. That's one hell of an edge. But if you are not consistently funny then all the manners, cars and spare time in the world will not bring in the minimum wage worth of bookings. So don't quit until you are.
Get a web presence. My business is I essentially sell acts onto people and businesses. I sell acts onto audiences. Or I sell acts onto venues who then in turn sell those acts to their audiences. Or I sell acts onto groups that want their own private performance. Once you are good enough, what makes my job easier is if I can show someone who has never heard of you something that proves you are worth buying. A website that doesn't look like it has been hobbled together on a Amstrad 464. A ComedyCV that clearly shows all your credits and achievements, good quotes and wins. A twitter feed with lots of followers that shows you being funny and pushing the gigs you are booked for to those followers. A high res photo that they or I can use for posters and press. And most importantly a youtube clip that looks professionally shot (even if it isn't) at a gig that's professionally set up with you do a set and killing from the off. If you are good enough to pay then none of these things should cost you anything but time to achieve and put online. When you don't have these things you are a harder sell to my customers and I might end up choosing the act who has ticked those boxes.
Reply to your emails. If I make you a gig offer then you should really get back to me within a day. Even if its to say "I can't say yes just yet, do you mind waiting while I confirm something else?" or even "No - Sorry not available" I hate having to wait a few days and then chase to hear a "no." A few of these in a row really clogs up the booking process and serial offenders eventually find themselves at the bottom of the list no matter how funny they are.
Never cancel a booking. You will cancel a booking - there's some good reasons (death in the family, bed ridden by illness, booking on a panel show on an actual TV channel, a corporate paying a grand cash). These are good reasons as if the promoter did get the hump with you for pulling out and decide not to book you again you know you did the right thing. For anything less by cancelling you are essentially saying "I'm willing to risk never working for you again for whatever I'm doing instead." Think long term, is that a promoter you really can afford to write off?
Be confident in what you do - whatever that is. Let's say you have a tough one or die. Falling apart as well as not having a belter is a guaranteed way for me never to pay you again. People who act professional get paid. I can justify to a punter or a venue someone "they did not find funny." I cannot justify someone "who did not even act like a comedian".
Finally, every gig you do ask yourself "Is this a progression gig?" If you want to progress you have to use your time wisely. Look at the gig you are at. Are you being paid? No. Is there someone here who has the ability to book you for paid work? No. Is any act on this bill getting paid regularly (and that I mean making a living from comedy, not splitting a few buckets and beer tokens a week)? No. Chances are that gig is waste of your time after a point. If no one is getting paid it is gig set up for someone's ego. It is nibbling away at the audience from a promoter who might pay you, it is giving you the wrong impression of what works at a well run professional gig. Even if you are still working for free, at least start giving it away at gigs that matter, not those that book everyone and anyone. Stop devaluing yourself. If no one is getting paid at a gig you are doing, there's no chance of you ever getting paid for doing that gig.