The Deep Six: Six Reasons Booking Agencies are Becoming Irrelevant in the World of Standup Comedy

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First off, let me once again preface another comedy related article by saying I am not a standup comedian.  However, I am a huge fan of the art form and have been for some time.  I used to be a musician.  Well, sort of.  I was never a part of an act that had a major record deal and I guess that’s where the “sort of” part comes in.  I was involved with a lot of local artists, but there was always one thing always seemed to bother me about the scene:  I couldn’t believe how there were so many people that wanted to be involved with the scheduling and promotion of shows that did not particularly generate an earth shattering amount of revenue, yet wanted a huge cut for making a couple of phone calls.  I understood somebody wanting to help, but what I didn’t understand is asking (or demanding) a certain amount of compensation for doing very little work and producing none of the creative output. 

Lately I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot more booking agencies popping up that claim to represent various artists in the entertainment industry.  It’s all over the music community, and is especially rampant in the world of hip hop.  But it has also spread to the world of comedy, and has made it difficult for the performers to earn an honest living.  Unlike hip-hop, there’s not a lot of flashy jewelry, gold teeth, and fake hundred dollar bills.  It’s a very modest form of working and living, and a lot of the people that do it are a lot more normal than the casual fan might assume.  So why is it that there needs to be another variable in the equation?  Another hurdle for these creative people to have to work around to share their craft?  There doesn’t.  So I’m going to go Deep Six on the reasons why booking agencies are becoming irrelevant in the world of standup comedy.  Let’s start with an easy one…

1.  What booking agencies do is not exactly a heaping pile of strenuous activity

I consider myself to be a pretty helpful guy.  If somebody needs something done, and I can point them in the right direction then I will either make sure those two people get in touch with each other or simply do it myself.  There’s no finder’s fee there.  Not doing simple things that require little or no effort has a label, and that label is “being a dick”.  If it’s too much work for you to shoot somebody an email and Cc someone else you know, you probably should get off the internet and get back to your full time feather-cleaning gig.

The point here is none of the booker’s daily task list is heavy lifting.  You could probably in all honesty write a computer program to do it, and computers never drunk dial anyone and tell the other party how they really feel.  These people are usually the same ones who will tell you “Yeah, I just got on the phone with so-and-so and blah blah blah” and act like they just cleaned up the site of a fucking airplane crash.  Sorry for being a dick, but looking important isn’t the same as being important.  Not every suit on sale at the mall comes with the job you’re interviewing for.

A young booker's delusional view of himself after getting off the phone with Yakov Smirnoff's people

A young booker’s delusional view of himself after getting off the phone with Yakov Smirnoff’s people

Not that it would be important if the duties were heavy lifting.  That’s because within the internet revolution, there was another revolution and it’s something that we all use all the time.  In fact, it’s probably how you ended up meeting most of the people that you currently talk to on a daily basis.  So let’s talk about that for a second…

2.  Social Networks are here to stay, and allow creative people to do “work” that makes up a large part of a booking agency’s mission statement 

Facebook didn’t become worth a hundred and fifty billion dollars because of Candy Crush, Hand Job Hangout, or any of the other apps that have turned American productivity into dust.  It became worth a hundred and fifty billion dollars because it gave creative people a way to promote themselves.  That means ANYBODY with any cause whatsoever, no matter how ridiculous it may seem can start their own Facebook page.  So obviously with all of the legitimate things that one would use Facebook to promote, there was enough there for it to explode the way it did.  Music helped a lot in advancing this process, and so did stand-up comedy.

Finding new ways to promote yourself can lead to being a trendsetter in your industry, and for proof all you need to do is look at Louis CK.  He’s started this whole new model where you can get access to his specials for five bucks.  It’s going to revolutionize the way we get stand up comedy, and in three years everybody will be doing it.  Some already have.

Like for example, this guy.  You can get Todd's new special at Louis' website for just five bucks, no questions asked.

Like for example, this guy. You can get Todd’s new special at Louis’ website for just five bucks, no questions asked.

So say for example that you have someone who is much less popular than Louis trying to find a way to get his comedy to the masses and get more club owners to notice him.  Why would that guy even need the booker?  The answer to this trick question is “he wouldn’t” and that’s where you start to realize maybe these guys are just nothing more than roadblocks to a comic’s success.

You can call it downsizing or whatever you feel like you need to call it, but I’ve never considered anything to be economic downsizing if the position wasn’t really warranted in the first place.  Unless of course you’re doing a whole lot of radio and/or newspaper promotion, which leads me to my next point…

3.  Booking agencies rarely do a whole lot of radio and/or newspaper promotion

This one is kind of hard to quantify, because right now newspapers and radio stations aren’t exactly killing it.  The internet has eaten a huge part of their livelihood, but they still exist and are owned by people who have a lot of money.  So if you’re saying that you’re going to connect a comic to a club owner, shouldn’t you be using these mediums to promote the comics who pay you more than your fair share?  (Which is pretty much nothing anyways)  And if bookers are going to use the argument that internet has made radio and newspaper advertising obsolete, wouldn’t that same argument work against them in the sense that the internet has also made their jobs obsolete?

Not pictured:  A payphone and a comedy booker

Not pictured: A payphone and a comedy booker

This is what really chaps my ass about the whole thing…If you hire a booking agency to work with you and then ask why you’re not getting promo in local publications, the first thing they will likely tell you is “You should really get a publicist…I know a guy and I can put you in touch”.  (Editor’s note:  That guy is usually the booker’s cousin and does a ton of coke)  But that’s not even the most disturbing part about the whole thing…We’ve gone and added yet another person to this equation.  This is becoming less like a comedy show and more like an orgy.  How many people do we need to have involved in this?  And here again, what is the end result?  Less money for the comic.

4.  These people are not truly fans of comedy, they’re fans of attention and there’s a difference

Remember the one kid growing up who was always the referee in the games that would be held during intramurals?  These are the people who grew up to be bookers.  They knew they weren’t skilled enough to play the game without getting embarrassed because of their throwing motion, so they had to find a way that they were in plain sight and became a ref or a scorekeeper.

And what official would be complete without a whistle?  None, that’s why so many of these clowns raise their voice when anyone questions their assumed authority.  Which is hilarious, because what they fail to understand is the whole argument that nobody buys the ref’s jerseys.  Just like nobody gives a shit about the bookers at the show, because those people are there to see the comedian.

"Guess who I just talked to?"  (Drops name)

“Guess who I just talked to?” (Drops name)

But they’re fans of attention, and we know that.   That’s why every once in a while you’ll see the ultimate cardinal sin from these assbags.  I have heard of bookers who aren’t comics using the booking as the only way to get on a bill.  Now that’s fine if you’re established and deserve the spot, but if you’re booking someone else’s gig 6 minutes before they go on stage is no time to try out your new bit on going to the zoo.  So these guys are attention-driven, and use that buffoonery to engage in the reprehensible activity we’ll talk about next…

5.  Bookers use intimidation when working with comics

This was something I was not aware of until recently.  And sweatshops set aside it’s one of the most messed up things I’ve heard, at least within the entertainment industry.  The gist of it is that bookers will pose the following threat:  If a comic works a room that they book, then they are also “not allowed” to work rooms that may be viewed as those of a competitor.  So they essentially prevent a free market from happening by monopolizing the club circuit.

So think of how backwards this is for a second:  This means that a guy who a comic pays is basically telling him that there are certain ways that he can’t do what is obviously best for his career.  And these bookers are so “room-specific”, why is it that they feel the need to have a say what’s going on outside of their room?  Isn’t that how capitalism works?  From this point forward the behavior should be known as “comedy cock-blocking”.

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And who loses?  You do.  Because for some un-beknownst reason the club owner of the establishment that you frequent isn’t liked by somebody that books the comic you want to see at a venue you have nothing to do with.  And that’s complete bullshit.  So what does that steaming pile of bullshit come down to?

6.  The show can exist without them

If every booker woke up today and decided to never set up another show in their life, would comedy stop?  Would there be a halt in all things funny because there was an entire subculture of people who decided it would cease to exist without the gracing of their presence?  Of course not, and that’s why this might be the most important point in this piece.  The cheesy line about show business that you always hear is “The show must go on”.  That’s a polite way of telling whoever was previously involved but is no longer involved that “The show WILL go on, motherfucker…” and should be a reminder to some of these guys that it will even if they’re not around.  Even David Lee Roth was willing to admit that “life goes on without me”, and he should have a much bigger head than just anybody who hangs around a comedy club and owns a Bluetooth.

No booker alive has gotten one-hundredth of the tail DLR has

No booker alive has gotten one-hundredth of the tail DLR has

The comedians are the entertainment.  And while this is a good point in the favor of the comic, it doesn’t work for the booker when stated vice versa.  If comedians decided to go on strike and left the bookers all by themselves, the show wouldn’t go on without them because there wouldn’t be a show.  And that’s really the difference here:  If you remove the entertainers from entertainment, the industry is barely an exoskeleton of itself.  So if you take the comedians out of comedy, you have a lot of douchebags with popped collars giving slideshows of PDF images of contracts and backstage riders onto a white projector screen.  And when that screen gets rolled up, there are going to be a lot of people who feel ripped off and want to stab those guys when they get to the other side of that brick wall.

Summary

I’m sure there are some bookers that are great people and really respect the business.  And that’s all well and good, but the fact that they are becoming less and less crucial to the business of comedy is almost undeniable.  This all probably sounds a little bit hypocritical coming from me, who from time to time advertises what I do on Twitter and other social networking sites.  I do interview comedians, and I do try to promote artists from certain record labels that I personally think put out quality material of a creative nature.  But I don’t think that I go over the top and demand credit for all that they have done in their careers to make themselves the product that it is today.  It’s just a fucking write-up.  And never once have I sent someone a request saying “Hey, I’d really like to interview you for whatever reason”, and then when I get a response saying that they will do it I hit them back with “Great, now just mail me $200 and we’ll get started…Here’s my address…”  I don’t do that because I’m not a self-righteous prick.

And that’s what bookers are…Guys who want a piece of the action and a slice of what very little pie there is.  I’ve always thought that standup comedy is one of the hardest art forms in the world, because these individuals travel very long distances across multiple states on any given night of the week to perfect their craft.  That craft is getting on stage in front of a bunch of strangers and hoping that those people who’ve never met them before will laugh at what they say through a microphone.  That microphone is covered in God knows what, and said comics run the risk of travelling several hours in one direction to perform for what could only be a few people.  So the fact that there is an entire subculture of assholes who never make these trips and do all of the “busywork” from their shitty office day job wanting to control how shows are run and then demand money for being the middleman is somewhere between crazy and already inside of the rubber room.

I don’t think it needs to be like that, and I know I’m not alone.

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.

Meehan

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