Free comedy gigs: free for all?
With free clubs gaining popularity, are they putting other clubs out of business or introducing a new audience to live stand-up? We feed back some opinions
Wed Oct 9 2013
The best things in life are free, so they say. But then, ‘they’ also say you get what you pay for. A few years ago, the free comedy circuit was just a handful of open mic nights. Now, there are slickly run shows featuring line-ups of very good quality, where donations are often encouraged at the end of the gig.
Some industry members are worried about the impact of free shows on entry-charging clubs. We asked a variety of promoters, comedians and regular comedy-goers for their opinions. Click on the questions below for their answers.
© Nathan James Page
Do free gigs introduce a new audience to live comedy who might not otherwise seek it out, or do they take audiences away from clubs that charge an entry fee? Or neither?
Harry Deansway (comedian and promoter of entry-charging club Shambles) ‘No, I don’t believe they bring a new audience. But if they do is it the type of audience we want coming to comedy gigs; people who don’t want to pay for it? It is hard to say for sure whether it is having an effect, the consensus seems to be that people will pay for so-called “quality” or a “name” and will take a risk for free. It’s more changing an audiences attitude towards paying for live comedy than taking them away.’
Adam Larter (comedian and promoter of Weirdos Comedy Club, who host both free and entry-charging gigs) ‘Neither. From my experience, people go to comedy for reasons very rarely relating to price. It’s either a night out with friends, a birthday, to see a specific comic, because they live near to the venue or because they have been recommended that night. Once they’ve decided to go to comedy they’ll pick it based on location, acts, and price. Some people don’t realise my night is free until they turn up.’
Julia Chamberlain (booker for entry-charging clubs Highlight) ‘They may bring in people new to comedy, but I suspect it’s the free rather than the comedy aspect that’s appealing. It varies venue to venue, according to whether there’s a real love for the comedy or it’s just permitted to exist.’
Luisa Omielan (comedian, plays both free and entry-charging gigs) ‘I think they definitely introduce an audience that might not try comedy normally. It’s like trying any free sample, if you like it, you then come in and pay for more.’
James Woroniecki (promoter of entry-charging club, the 99 Club) ‘It depends on what type of gigs they are and how they’re marketed. A large free gig intensively marketed and portraying itself as having professional or celebrity acts (even when it doesn’t) might well draw people away from other clubs, especially the small to medium indies. Additionally, Time Out is reputed to very intensively support free gigs and, in that case, people who look up listings would originally be looking to go to a ticket-charging night, and then go with the Editor’s recommendation of a free night instead.’
Barry Ferns (comedian and promoter of free club Angel Comedy) ‘At Angel Comedy, our audience is made up of usually younger people, and often international. Many of them come up to us at the end of the night saying, “This was the first time we’ve come to a comedy night; we loved it!” Not everyone can afford to be shelling out £15 to £20 for a night out. Also, by letting our audience try out comedy “risk-free”, and then putting on a brilliant night, we’re introducing people to the idea that live comedy is something they enjoy and want to go to regularly. It is bad comedy clubs, paid or unpaid, that are taking audiences away from comedy.’
Peter Grahame (promoter of entry-charging club Downstairs at the King’s Head) ‘I guess they do bring a new audience, but I’d be worried that it may deter a potential future audience from seeking out paid nights if they’ve not had a good time. However, bear in mind that the fact that a club charges entry does not necessarily mean it’s well run or that there’s a degree of quality control.’
Sara Pascoe (comedian, plays both free and entry-charging gigs) ‘I would guess audiences as free gigs are a mixture of first timers and comedy veterans who know how to use the internet to find who they like for a decent, or no, price. But I bet there are very few audience members swiped from paying clubs. It’s hard to see how they can realistically be viewed as a threat. When I perform at a free show and a paid venue in the same week – for instance, if I’m playing the Soho Theatre on the Friday with my own show which cost £10, and doing a warm up for it in Camden for free on the Monday – there are always fewer people at the free one.’
James Acaster (comedian, plays both free and entry-charging gigs) ‘Yes I’m sure some people discover comedy by going to a free gig. I don’t think they take an audience away from the paid clubs, it’s a different crowd.’
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