‘Exposure Is Bullshit’: Who Should Get Paid for Live Storytelling Events?

The thin margins of the IRL economy.

Rick Paulas | Longreads | August 2016 | 12 minutes (2,986 words)

The storytelling show Mortified was created in 2002 by Dave Nadelberg, and the show has a clever angle: Performers share “their most mortifying childhood artifacts,” along with a running behind-the-scenes commentary from their younger selves. It’s show-and-tell meets #tbt, and the results are hilarious. The show’s so beloved by performers and audiences that there are now nearly a dozen Mortified shows performed each month throughout various “chapters” around the world: eight in the U.S., eight abroad. Tickets range between $10 and $20-plus.

They also don’t pay performers, at least not in money. Mortified, like The Moth, Upright Citizens Brigade, and even TED Talks, is one of the hundreds of live events around the world that have sprouted up during an era in which experiential entertainment, or the IRL economy, were supposed to grow more cherished (and more lucrative) as entertainment products became digitized and commoditized. There’s just one problem: Live events exist in the same way many independent publishers exist—on a shoestring budget in which the performer is usually the last to be paid.

At Mortified, “everyone who participates is compensated on some level, and that depends on the circumstance,” said Nadelberg. “We’re making sure we’re giving participants things that are enough value, usually at least $30, maybe $60 or $70. It’s hard to value that. There are so many different factors.”

The show will give performers comped tickets, drink tickets for the bar, free entry for life, gift bags, food in the green room. (If an ancillary project has money built into the budget—like their movie, TV show, book, or if they’re doing a corporate-sponsored show—they’ll pay performers from that chunk.) They’ll occasionally pay for a hotel if someone’s coming in from out of town, at the very least give them a couch to crash on. They also spend time directly working with storytellers, a not insignificant expense. “One of the main things [performers] are getting is a producer who’s sitting down and workshopping their piece with them,” said Nadelberg. “Sometimes ten hours with each participant, maybe even longer.”

But, here’s the rub. The show is at a point in terms of scope and popularity where some performers aren’t happy about their lack of compensation. While Nadelberg said he “checks in” regularly with performers about compensation, as I was investigating this piece, more than one performer countered with some queasy feelings about leaving shows with bare pockets. (These same performers  wished to remain anonymous, for fear of pissing off the gatekeepers and not being invited back.)

Drink tickets? Great, but they don’t drink. Swag? Who needs more crap in the closet. Most of the venues where most of the Mortified plays have a bar, so they should be dealing with larger pools of cash. And while producers do refine the story with a performer before they get onstage, shows often reuse the same performers over and over without further workshopping; so, whatever “value” from that initial editing session quickly diminishes with each performance. It doesn’t help that performers tend to be in multiple shows over the same weekend. “They get 300 people every weekend, at $15 a pop, we perform two shows, and they can’t give us any of it?” asked one performer. “I get it, they’re not making tons of money. But at the end of the day, people are paying at the door. Should the producer get all of the money?” asked another.

Does the producer even make any money? Laurenne Sala is one of the creators of Taboo Tales, which hosts a Los Angeles-based storytelling show four times a year that specializes in particularly harrowing stories (the show has also expanded to New York City). “The more we talk about how fucked up we are,” reads the show’s motto, “the more normal we all feel.” Each show is different, but on average, they have seven storytellers and a host. Tickets cost $15 and shows sell out a venue of about 100 seats. They don’t pay.

“We would love to pay our performers,” said Sala. “They work hard. It actually pains me not to give them money.”

Sala, who’s a friend of mine, walks me through the money. Let’s say the venue has 100 seats, after comps for industry and friends of performers, the paying customer total goes down to 80 or so. Money coming in from an average show is close to $1,000. And where does that money go? The venue is the biggest chunk, which costs $500 to rent. Taboo Tales also utilizes the service of a videographer, a photographer, and a tech person, each costing around $100 a piece. Their programs cost $50, another $50 goes to prizes they give to audience members.

Carry the one, and you’re left with roughly zero in “profit.”

Sometimes they make a little dough, though. They’ll get extra donations, walk away with an extra few hundred. And where does that go? There’s the website, the podcast, advertising, graphic design cost, the use of software for collaborating on story notes. And, oh yeah, the legwork that goes into contacting performers, wrangling venue logistics, editing/workshopping stories, spreading the word through social media. “We start working on it a month and a half before the show, and don’t get paid anything,” said Sala. “Not a drop.” Whatever money’s left after goes back into the kitty for future endeavors.

(One big hindrance for Taboo Tales is that their venue doesn’t have a bar on the premises. Venues that sell alcohol can—at least, should—make enough from those sales to cover their own expenses without forcing a hefty rental fee. Good venues—that is, those interested in helping cultivate a “scene” or “night”—will also provide the show with what they deem a fair split of door ticket sales; 70 percent is great. Not only does that give producers the ability to pay performers, but it feels more like a partnership. “If a venue will go in on [ticket sales] with me, we both have the incentive to advertise,” said one artist.)

Taboo Tales, then, is a show that doesn’t pay because it doesn’t have the money, as indie as it comes. It’s how most storytelling shows, or comedy festivals, or stand-up nights, or indie publishers begin: a few friends trying to do something fun for the sake of doing it. But every now and then, a show gets lucky and becomes a great enough success to justify expansion. And then, it’s time to deal with the slippery awkwardness of introducing compensation into the equation.

Live events exist in the same way many independent publishers exist—on a shoestring budget in which the performer is usually the last to be paid.

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The Moth, the national nonprofit storytelling organization, is the behemoth of the enterprise. They have monthly shows throughout every major American city, a regular-scheduled “traveling” Mainstage show, a weekly radio show on PRX, and a weekly podcast that is downloaded 30 million times a year. When it comes to pay for the live shows, they have a unique formula: They don’t pay for participation in their regular StorySLAM shows. In fact, because of how they choose their lineup—20 names drawn from a hat before the show—performers actually have to pay $10 to get in. After ten StorySLAMs are held, the ten ‘winners’ then graduate to GrandSLAM shows . On the surface, this seems sketchy. One alternative would be for just the winners to pay if they’re chosen, but that’s a lot less money, and it doesn’t feel right either.

“People in the community have told us they don’t think [pay at StorySLAM events] is a good idea, that there’s a spirit of fun that would be taken away,” said Catherine Burns, artistic director of The Moth. “Instead, what we try to do if someone’s coming to the SLAMs a lot is try to get them on the Mainstage.”

When they book a Mainstage performance—a best-of curated event with “booked” storytellers, often with hours of editing and workshopping, tickets costing between $25 to $50 depending on the venue—performers will get $200 if they’re local, $500 if they have to travel. “We don’t pay much, but we pay promptly,” said Burns. “That was always the case, even when we didn’t have a pot to piss in.” They also work with someone at the show to help edit and refine their story, the process taking anywhere between “five, 10, 17 hours” to get everything just right.

There’s extra value in that. Performers have been “discovered” through The Moth, some receiving book deals, others getting invites to be on television. At the very least, it’s a calling card that will get a performer booked onto any other storytelling show in their town. There is, certainly, a chance that  a performer taking The Moth stage will be seen by the right person at the right time, and quickly find their way into the slipstream of performance economy. It’s not the sole reason to perform shows for free, but it’s one of them.

“There’s a little triangle we like to use,” said Adam Kurtz, a pedal steel musician in Nashville who spent years in L.A. “Money, the hang, the music. You need two of those to take the gig. If there’s no money, but the music’s really cool, and the hang is really good, you do it. If the money’s really good, and the music’s really good, but the dudes suck, well…”

Marian Call is a folk singer/songwriter based in Juneau, Alaska. When I ask her for her personal mental calculus, she makes a point to highlight that the only rule is there are no clear rules. “It’s tempting to put down hard and fast rules of when to and when not to,” said Call. “But it really limits you and makes it difficult.” When playing for cheap/free, Call promotes transparency about finances throughout her set. “Training my audience to voluntarily pitch in when there’s no ticket price has made it sustainable for me,” she said. “If you can pay, the jar’s over there. If you can’t pay, tell people you love the show. Every dollar you can’t pay, do a Facebook post.”

This tactic isn’t always viable for certain live performers; the third act in a four-person comedy show can’t take a few minutes to pass around a personal donation hat if they ever want to be invited back. More importantly, certain venues or scenes need free or cheap labor to exist. Without it, they’d disappear entirely. In those cases, Call advocates playing for free, but still being extremely mindful when doing so.

Unfortunately, less noble enterprises are allowed to exploit these murky rules and those aforementioned success stories of “being discovered” by selling performers on the false concept of “exposure.”

‘There’s a little triangle we like to use,’ said Adam Kurtz, a pedal steel musician in Nashville who spent years in L.A. ‘Money, the hang, the music. You need two of those to take the gig.’

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The world of showbiz is full of detestable human beings, but the most parasitic among them run something called a “bringer” show. In the music world, it’s often called “pay to play.” They allow performers on their stage, as long as they bring (x) audience members with them. Sometimes this tactic manifests itself by having patrons give the performer’s name at the box office, where the official tally sheet lives. Other times, they sell performers advance tickets, turning them into a middleman hawker of sorts; whatever they don’t sell is on them. Once (x) is met, the performer gets a small percentage of sales, but, usually, that never happens. Kegs will be changed, bottles will clink into the recycle bin, and the “bringer” show runners will take home all that sweet, sweet money.

Now and then, a performer may ask why they’d ever agree to this deal. The response might return to this promise of “exposure” by appearing onstage. Maybe they don’t say that dirty word anymore, and maybe it’s that  “the industry is going to be there.”

“If you hear ‘pay-to-play,’ you are being scammed by the venue,” said Kurtz. “You’re not getting what you think you’re getting. They are trying to take money from you, you will not get exposure.”

It’s worth pointing out the inherent contradiction in “bringer” or “pay-to-play” shows: The performers are bringing their own audience. (Sure, they can tell their grandkids they played The Viper Room on a famed Sunset Strip stage, but maybe leave out the playing-in-front-of-20-friends part.) More to the point: Someone is trying to get a performer to accept lower than they’re worth by claiming to know how “exposure” works.

They don’t. No one does.

It’s not that “exposure” doesn’t exist. It does, sort of, but it’s more along the lines of “networking.” Performers get exposed to other performers, friendships form out of common likes and dislikes. Later, when these people are in positions of power, they’ll call the numbers they have, the same relationships that drive any industry. When those people are in the positions to make decisions, they’ll do the same thing, the web will expand, the cycle will continue. So, the only true exposure worth touting is one that cultivates relationships with other performers.

The Upright Citizens Brigade—two theaters in N.Y., another two in L.A.—is a venue that trades on this exposure/networking currency. Despite constant sellouts—tickets are free, $5, or $10—they also do not pay performers. While there was a noted kerfuffle about this back in 2013, most performers don’t feel taken advantage of. Rather, they feel the combination of (a) lessons learned onstage; (b) the ability to perform with top-quality improvisers; (c) performing in front of adoring, forgiving, hip, and “industry”-filled audiences far surpasses whatever small chunk of their show’s near-menial earnings they’d get.

(Another aspect helping the value of “UCB exposure” is that it operates in two cities where this mythical “exposure” might actually exist. Playing in front of an audience in New York or Los Angeles is a whole lot different than performing in Salt Lake City, Seattle, even San Francisco. “You’re more likely to have a literary agent in New York, or some sort of film agent in L.A,” said Burns. “It’s just inevitable that that’s true.”)

But while the UCB may be “doing it right,” their success created copycats. “When the [comedy] boom started again, the scene in L.A. was mostly non-pay venues,” said Sam Varela, producer and founder of Naked Comedy, an independent comedy production company. “Maybe [producers] went to the UCB, or one of the many other venues that charged for tickets and didn’t pay performers, saw how it works, and was like, I can do this. It gives everybody else an out saying, well, we’re also not going to pay you. It’s just a bad precedent to set.” This is a problem. While the UCB has become a bonafide factory—you can’t turn on a new comedy show without seeing someone that worked at one of their theaters—they’re the exception. “My experience with exposure is just being at the right place at the right time and knowing the right people,” said Varela. “There’s not a specific way to ‘win,’ or complete the level. It’s a marathon thing.”

The idea that some magical tastemaker is in the audience waiting to “discover” any performer is a myth, proliferated by those profiting from exploiting free labor. (This also occurs when it comes to writing for certain publications, say The Huffington Post, which try to get some folks to write for zero dollars and “the unique platform and reach our site provides”. That’s code for “exposure,” a shameful act by a company rumored to be valued at nearly $1 billion.) There will be those willing to exploit free labor as long as there’s labor that is exploitable. And live performance has an ever-refreshing pool of talent from which to draw from.

“The sad reality is that there are so many performers, they don’t have to pay us,” said Dave Ross, an L.A.-based comedian who produces the weekly show Good Heroin; they pay performers by splitting up a donation bucket after the show. “It’s a supply and demand issue. A performer says ‘no’ to a show, and they say, ‘okay, wish we would’ve had you, but this guy will do it for free.’” As long as there are success stories, and those trying to be the next, there will be claims that the code can be cracked.

Ross tells a story about the time he agreed to do a television show for a small amount of money because he knew that it’d reach a large audience. It was a decision he was comfortable with, until the producer told him how much “exposure” he’d be getting. “I was like, I know that, that’s why I’m doing it for this little money,” said Ross. “But don’t say it. And don’t think it. Let me make up my mind about what it’s worth for me.”

There’s the disconnect. Even if exposure does exist—again, it sort of does—it’s not something that can be calculated.

“Exposure is bullshit,” said Ross. “It’s unfair, abusive, and takes advantage of the fact that it’s really, really hard to make it.”

So, what’s the solution? The venue, show, festival isn’t going to change until their hands are forced. Things have been working fine for them, so why would they? And while a boycott/strike by performers may have worked in the past—and could potentially work in a tight-knit community in a small town—any big city has too great of a refresh rate for one to be truly effective. Potential scabs are on every bus into town, supply completely crushes demand in this industry.

The only real solution, maybe, is for change to come from the remaining party in the live performance transaction: Those paying at the door.

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Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not. He lives in Berkeley, is a White Sox fan, and is working on his second novel. He can be found at www.rickpaulas.com.

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Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Matthew Giles