Money – how much should you ask for?

Hi Dave – The talent booker for a comedy club sent me the following: “How long is your routine and how much would you want to come to (city) to do a show?” I do 45 minutes to an hour, but on the money question I have no idea how to answer them. Obviously, I’d want enough to cover airfare. Between you and me, I’d stay with my grandmother who lives near the city. Any ideas? Thanks! – B.K.

Hey B.K. – I know the club you’re referring to. They’ve been in business for a long time and have a good reputation. And since you didn’t mention this being an offer for a one-time gig – like a holiday party, private or corporate show – I’ll assume it’s for a weekend worth of shows at the club.

Let’s negotiate…

It’s really a tough call for me because I don’t know what the club manager / owner pays his acts. It’s not an “A” room like The Improv and too many others to mention (think of the top clubs in your area), so a good guess is his price will be lower than what comics are paid in those clubs. But honestly, I don’t know that for a fact.

The bottom line is the talent booker asked you a wide open question – putting you on the spot. Between us (and readers) the guy asking you is playing his strength off your weakness. He books a club that operates every single weekend – and has for years. He knows the going rate for openers, features and headliners.

He has to because he’s been paying them.

So for him to ask YOU this question means he’s hoping you’ll come in lower than someone else just because you want to “get in” with the club.

And the fact of the matter is he’s probably right. Comedians that have yet to really establish themselves will hesitate to quote a high price. They want to work at the club, but don’t want to ruin their chances by asking for too much. The thought is that later they can negotiate a higher price when they’re a proven audience attraction.

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This is part of the continual game played between bookers and newer talent. Entertainers – in our case comedians and speakers – riding high on popularity with solid credits and drawing large audiences can pretty much name their price as long as the club can still make a profit.

For example, years ago when I was booking talent for The Great Lakes Comedy Festival I contacted talent reps for two HUGE television stars (think top-rated sitcoms) for two theater shows. Hey – sometimes it’s “think BIG or go home,” right? I’ve known both comedians personally, but when it comes to business you always deal with agents and managers.

The fee I was quoted for each was even HUGER than expected and completely out of the price range for a small, start-up comedy festival. And one of the requests included use of a private jet to fly in before the gig and leave immediately after. It was part of “the fee” and not negotiable.

When your career reaches the stratosphere – that’s how you can do business.

In the case of a newer comedian or speaker, you need to have the business sense (no fear!) to ask for more information. The first question:

“How many shows do you want me to do?”

If it’s a series of shows – for instance, five shows over a weekend – ask what they pay per show. Headliners at small local clubs (think Holiday Inn on a weekend) can get anywhere from $100 and up per show. Even the major clubs have different pay rates depending on the night. For instance, they might bring in a cost-cutting headliner for a Thursday night and pay HUGE bucks for the star headliner on Friday and Saturday. It depends on the club reputation and size of audiences.

The next question:

“What do you usually pay your first-time headliners or first-time features, (or openers if that’s what you’re going for)?”

Also, do you know anyone who has played this club? Are you on good enough terms that you can contact the comedian and ask what he or she was paid? If so – do it. Comedians don’t have a union, so at least in my opinion you need to find a way to work together. Otherwise the club bookers will always have the upper hand.

* But don’t “push” this last question. Many business people (and that’s what you are as a paid performer) are very private about their earnings. Basically, it’s nobody else’s business. So please note the stipulation above: “Are you on good enough terms?” If you are and it won’t damage a friendship, then ask.

Instead of throwing an open question at you – again, hoping you play low ball – the booker should make an offer. He should come right out and say, “This is what we pay our headliners and/or features and/or openers.” And then ask if you want to work the club. Of course that’s in a perfect world and we don’t happen to live in one…

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But as far as asking, “How much would you want?” That’s what they say in the corporate and college booking worlds. And when you’re working in those markets, you should already have a price. You throw that back at them and leave room to negotiate travel, accommodations, food, merchandise and other $$$ stuff.

There are also other factors, especially in doing club gigs.

Comedians, speakers and any type of performer will need to consider his/her own track record. For instance, if a comedian consistently gets $1,000 per weekend – that’s his price. Options are plus airfare, hotel and food. The comedian tries to get his price up – and bookers try to get it down. It depends on the performer’s current popularity. If you were on TV starring in a Comedy Central special last week, you can ask for more than if your face hasn’t been seen on TV in over a decade.

In the case of a newer comedian or humorous speaker there are different considerations. Would you want to do this club as a chance to visit your grandmother? Would this club be a great credit on your resume? Are you going to make new contacts that will lead to more work?

All things you need to think about.

Your best bet is to be up front about it. Send back a message asking what they are offering. Mention you’ll most likely be happy to work within their budget, but let the booker make an offer. Then you can negotiate if necessary.

Hitchin’ a ride

For instance, he might pay you more if you don’t use a hotel room that the club would normally provide. You can stay with grandma. You might also use grandma’s car, so there’s a few more bucks you’re saving the booker that (maybe) can be passed along to you.

You also mentioned airfare. A lot of clubs today are not paying airfare – and they used to. So yes, the bottom line is that you need to cover your expenses. When you’re working a club for the first time, come up with a total you need for expenses. Then see what they offer you and if your expenses are covered. The amount of profit on top of that… well, since you’re a first-timer and weren’t on Comedy Central last week, your negotiation power might be limited.

In the end – if the club booker makes an offer – the decision is all yours. Is it worth it? Only you know for sure.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing.

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