If you’re involved with the stand up comedy scene, you will have noticed that there are a huge amount of free shows. It’s easy to understand why this happens. Comedians are afraid that if they charge for their show, people won’t come. They’d rather perform for a free audience than no audience.
I’ve been producing The Setup in San Francisco for a few years now and I have learned that as a producer you should always charge for tickets.
1. By putting on a free show you are not attracting more people because of the lower price point. You are getting rid of a potential audience who is wary that the show is free. There are A LOT of people who are not coming to your show BECAUSE IT IS FREE. Many people want to pay money so that the event has legitimacy. Do not miss out on these audience members as they tend to be the best. Can you imagine telling your wife that you are driving from Fremont to San Francisco to see a free show? You want the show to have a ticket price so that it feels real.
2. The audience pays more attention because they want to get their money’s worth. They talk to each other less because they might miss something. Therefore more people get the jokes and more people laugh which makes the show infinitely better.
3. The audience shows up on time and doesn’t leave until the end for the same reasons. Since the audience is there on time, you can start on time. Therefore the audience is less tired from waiting, and they can give you more energy in the form of laughter.
4. When you make a show free you communicate subconsciously that it is not worth paying for.
5. People have higher expectations because they are paying money. The show is naturally better because they believe that they are watching professionals. When you believe something is worth paying for you enjoy it more. It’s a placebo effect. The belief becomes the result.
6. The producers make money which means that they can:
a. Pay the comedians. The comedians feel that their talents are worth paying for and they will work harder to develop these talents, resulting in better comedy overall.
b. Reinvest in the show to make it better. Better sound systems, better atmosphere, marketing, etc.
c. Continue the show week after week and create more stage time.
7. When you charge a small cover you get higher quality people who are willing to spend money. These people are not richer than those who don’t spend money. Think about the quality of people who tip at a restaurant versus those who do not. Who would you rather hang out with? Who would you rather make laugh?
8. People pay a lot more to see music than they do to see comedy. Does that really make sense? The only argument here is that musicians have more equipment to set up. So yes, maybe a concert should be slightly higher priced. But is the audience only paying for the labor that it takes to set up equipment? No, it’s for the entertainment as well.
9. Imagine that every single producer started charging for comedy. There would be no free options and all audience members would have to pay. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
10. You do not have to pass a tip jar at the show. Passing a tip jar is annoying for the audience, and it slows the momentum of the show. If the jar is going around during someone’s set it is distracting audience members from the jokes.
Q. I’m already producing a free comedy show. If I start charging I will anger my current audience who expects a free show.
A. This is partially correct. You will alienate part of your audience. The other part will not care. You will see a slight dip in attendance for a short while. However, you are now on your way to attracting customers who are happy to pay to support the arts. You are also bringing legitimacy to your show.
Q. I’m producing a show at a bar where there is no way to charge.
A. Fine. This should be an open mic. If you’re producing a showcase, then it should be at a venue that lets you charge.