Ain't too Proud - Alex Proud apologises for exclusivity ultimatum
The email from Proud Cabaret's events and entertainment manager, dated May 18 and sent to two dozen acts 'that we consider our nearest and dearest performers within the Proud family', seemed friendly enough, with its talk of total support, flourishing careers and open doors. But attached was a list of venues, companies and nights - 21 in all - described as 'direct competitors whom, should it come to light you are having a fling with, would put the regularity of your Proud bookings under review with immediate effect' (sic).
The list included venues such as Volupté, the Café de Paris, Madame Jojo's, the RVT, the Brickhouse and CellarDoor, nights such as the Wam Bam Club and La Rêve, and companies such as the Tassel Club and World Burlesque Games. Several nights at the London Wonderground were also named, including some produced by Time Out Live. The list was muddled in its details - it misnamed people, repeated itself and included shows with fixed casts such as 'Cantina' - but the meaning was clear enough. Performers could either work the circuit or work at the venues owned by Alex Proud, Proud City and Proud Camden, but not both.
Within days the email went viral. Several separate sources sent it to me. Performers were outraged on two fronts. The first was practical: the vast majority of London's cabaret and variety acts deliver short routines for which they might expect to receive between £50 and £150. Multiple employment is therefore crucial to making a living: the performer lugging a wheelie suitcase from gig to gig is one of the scene's emblematic sights.
'Cabaret and variety performers don't have long-term employment so they're especially vulnerable,' says Michael Day, Equity's London variety organiser. 'Generally, we wouldn't consider this reasonable. I can't think of any precedent.' Acts might go exclusive as part of a formal contract but, while its rates are at the top end of the scale, Proud wasn't offering any contracts.
There was nothing illegal about the ultimatum. 'It might not seem very fair but it's not unlawful for [the business] to say to performers, “You worked for X so I won't employ you in the future”,' says Andrew Sugarman, a barrister specialising in employment law. 'The performers aren't being prevented from making a living elsewhere.'
The second front on which acts were outraged was more of a gut thing. No one goes into cabaret for the money: it's in the nature of the form to collaborate with audiences and peers. 'The email is contrary to the whole ethos of the scene,' says Paul Kohler, director of CellarDoor, a venue named twice on Proud's list. 'It's also bad business. If you can pay people retainers, all well and good. If not, you shouldn't try to stop others doing what you do, you should try to do it better. We all do well from a thriving scene.'
'This is what's wrong with Proud Cabaret,' one regular performer says, off the record. 'The pay's good, the staff are great, the audiences are getting better. But this attitude at the top pisses people off.'
Proud's response was bullish. After ThisIsCabaret.com posted the email on their site on May 23, owner Alex Proud acknowledged in the comment thread that 'this is all true', citing a 'tough recession' as motivation. Other commenters, ostensibly a mix of performers, producers and punters, were almost universally sceptical. Two hours later, Alex Proud backtracked, posting a message reading in part: 'please accept our apologies for any misunderstanding caused. Having listened and understood feedback from our performers on the subject, Proud Cabaret understands that it would be unrealistic to request such exclusivity for our venues.'
In the aftermath, Alex Proud is contrite: 'We fucked up completely,' he admits. 'Using email in the first place; who it was sent to; and the phraseology.' The impetus for the missive, he says, was seeing an in-house Proud photo of regular performer Banbury Cross used to advertise a rival night. He had 'a flash of anger… I got egotistically quite angry about our top performers, who we're using three or four times a week, [working elsewhere]. But we're talking about between two and five performers. To tell [other performers] they can't work these venues is self-evidently stupid. They're not going to be able to eat. It should never have been emailed to them, and [regarding the top performers] it should have been raised face-to-face and in a consultative way.'
Proud won't be pursuing exclusivity deals for now and says that any future deals would be contract-based. But ideologically, he's sticking to his guns. 'There are lots of situations where the general good is served by everyone helping everyone else,' he says. 'But at times you have to watch the bottom line. I've spent more than £800,000 this last year developing venues in London and Brighton, just as the recession has really bit hard. I won't make that money back for five, maybe eight years. I'm not in it for the money - I take pleasure in trying to make the puzzle work in a way no one's done before - but at some stage you have to make commercially motivated decisions. In the long term, I believe that's better for everyone. Others may disagree but a lot of them are the ones who would lose out if my venues disappeared. The money I spend wouldn't be replaced by other people.'
Any professional industry neglects commercial viability at its peril, and respectfully negotiated exclusivity deals might indeed have their uses for the cabaret business. But the cabaret scene's successful push-back against an ill-conceived ultimatum shows that collective action has its uses too.