The Economics of Producing Indie Arts Events

I recently read Misha Glouberman & Sheila Heti’s book The Chairs Are Where the People Go. In it there is an essay called “These Projects Don’t Make Money” that really hit home with me.

To summarize, the essay talks about Misha’s successful lecture series, Trampoline Hall and how because it is popular people think it makes a lot of money. The show costs $5 to see and is performed for 80 people once a month (similar to Say Wha?!). Simple maths tell me that means the show makes $400 before deducting costs.

He points out that many artists assume that their audiences understand the economics of their shows, and you know what happens when people assume. They get it completely wrong. Misha says it might be a good thing for audiences to understand more about the economics of how these events are produced. Perhaps if audiences knew how it all broke down they might start to think about supporting cultural events in a different way.

I mention this because Dance Dance Party Party Vancouver just started up again. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’m often asked about the economics of this class. The question posed usually goes something like this, “Where does the money go?”

This is how that question translates in my mind: “God! $7 to drop-in to a class where people just dance around with the lights down to someone’s iPod mix? That seems expensive.” 

In the spirit of “These Projects Don’t Make Money” I want to explain the economics of producing indie arts events to you, or at least my own. 

I’ll start by explaining how Dance Dance Party Party Vancouver works. It’s a drop-in rate per person of $7 per class, that includes HST. Instead of renting the space which would cost me approx. $50/ hour out of my own pocket, I am involved in a profit share. Mount Pleasant Community Centre gets 40% of the $6.40 and I get 60%. That’s $3.84 per person in my pocket once I invoice the community centre at the end of the season. The average attendance for the class is between 13-15 people. Some classes have 30+ attendees, and some have had as little as 4. That averages about $45 per class.

Then there are the costs associated: downloading music (yes, I pay for it), printing promotional material (I just printed 500 business cards and it cost me $40 plus tax), and, of course, there is my time. My time has to be worth something, right? There is a lot of admin work beyond the hour of dancing. There’s prep time if I’m DJing, marketing time, creating Facebook events, tweeting about the show, writing press releases and sending them out. If I have the money to make posters there is a lot of time spent walking into businesses and putting them up in windows. Plus my Tuesday nights are booked getting ready for the class. This means I can’t take other work those nights, which would probably pay me more than $45 for the evening.

So, I do make some money, but it probably works out to less than minimum wage. 

My other show, Teen Angst Night works on the same principal except I don’t pay for the space or spilt the door with the venue. I often try to find a place like a cafe or bar that will let me use their stage for free in exchange for bringing in customers. People who read at Teen Angst Night plus a guest get in for free. The cost of the show is usually $5.

Say Wha?! Readings of Deliciously Rotten Writing is different, in that I pay everyone who reads on the show a percentage of the door (it usually works out to about $20-40).  This is why the show is a suggested ticket of $10 but works on a sliding scale to accommodate people’s budgets. 

Now, I’ve been going to indie shows (and punk rock gigs) since 1994. Back then I paid $5 per gig. Nearly 20 years later the cover charge is still $5. I have issues with this. 

Compare it to the minimum wage, compare it to the cost of a drink, compare it to the average rent in this city, indie shows barely ever charge more than $10, which is less than TicketMaster’s handling fee. I don’t know if it’s because comedy show producers think this is all their audiences will pay, or they feel bad asking for more money, or that audiences have a psychological barrier and will only pay $10 or more for an event if it’s special or for someone from out of town. 

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I do not have a ‘normal’ 9-5, 5-days a week, 40+ weeks of the year kind of job. I do contract work to pay my bills, and I often don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from. Some indie producers are lucky enough to have jobs like this, most don’t. Some have successful careers getting small parts in Film and TV. I have yet to break in to that scene (don’t ask why, or get me started, that’s a whole other issue). 

My dream is to be able to live off of my shows and my writing. As of yet, I’ve not been able to find a steady, benefit including job that can give me the flexibility to produce as many shows/events as I do. 

I suppose I’m in the ‘paying your dues’ part of my career. It’s an interesting level to be at; not young enough to be considered ‘emerging’ and not successful enough to be a professional. Not ‘established,’ ‘arty,’ or ‘not-for-profit society’ enough to be eligible for government grants, so I fund these events myself.  I am very fortunate to have a strong and supportive audience, that I am able to pay myself back as well as pay myself for my time. This helps. I am very grateful for my audiences.

If these shows and events were not as moderately as successful as they are I wouldn’t keep doing them. That is the one benefit of being an indie artist. I can take chances and do whatever I want to do, unlike a not-for-profit society or arts company that has to keep on mandate for a board of directors.

Then again, this is something I’m looking into. 

If I was in it for the money, I’d have quit years ago. I’m in it because I love doing these events. The joy and fulfillment I get from Dance Dance Party Party (or my other shows) is worth the time and energy I put into it.  

So, there you have it, the truth as Misha and Sheila shared with me; these projects don’t make much money. I might be in the paper a lot, and people are attending my shows, but I’m not getting rich off of this.

Now you know.  

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