Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Messin' with Texas: Why Doesn't SXSW Pay its Comedians?

Charlie Sotelo hasn't gotten much sleep this year, but that's true for him every January and February. Sotelo is the sole staffer handling the comedy division of South by Southwest, the ever-expanding music/tech/hipster Austin, TX hoedown and trade show.

This year his nights have been even more restless, after Duncan Trussell, a comedian who was invited to perform, publicly scolded the festival for not offering to pay his travel and lodging expenses through a series of YouTube videos, including a version of the "Hitler reacts" meme.

SXSW is not a comedy festival. There are no wristbands or badges to buy to see comedy shows; it's all free — provided you've already bought wristbands or badges to see other SXSW events. Comedy is the gift that comes with purchase, like a decoder ring at the bottom of a box of cereal. The festival, which began in 1987, has only included comedy since 2008. While it has a long history of rocketing musicians to fame (Hanson, John Mayer, James Blunt) and helping to popularize startups (Twitter, Foursquare), it has no such prestige with comedians' careers.

To be sure, plenty of comedians attend and perform, but the likes of Aziz Ansari, Magaret Cho, Todd Barry and Donald Glover don't really need the festival; many performing comedians, in fact, are already either the kind of hipster groupie or tech nerd who would have attended on their own anyway.

When comedy came in 2008, it was for just one night. In 2009, two nights; in 2010, three nights; last year, six nights; and this year, all eight nights. Each night has three 90-minute shows, which each include four or five comedians. There are also eight comedy podcasts, and comedians participating in panel discussions.

In an email to Splitsider where he made the subject line "Every day I'm Trussellin'," Sotelo wrote, in part: "We were contacted by Duncan's agent several times asking for a slot on one of our comedy shows. Duncan is a talented comedian, and we were happy to invite him, but we're a little puzzled by his reaction. We gave him the same offer we give everyone, which includes a cash option and housing assistance. It's obviously not the kind of offer he had hoped for, and we certainly understand that it doesn't make sense for everybody. Normally, when that's the case, a performer will just decline our invitation without ever even making a Hitler video."

The cash option is $100. And the housing assistance was the ability to stay with local comedians (who apparently all live in the same building), often in a proper guest room, not a couch or a sleeping bag on the floor. In emails back and forth, Sotelo pointed out to Trussell that there are enough corpo rate-sponsored drinks and meals that his food budget would be close to zero; Trussell responded, in part, by suggesting that "maybe you should consider downsizing to the point where you don't have to exploit artists to sell tickets" and that every comedian who does attend "feels some sense of shame."

Interviewing about a dozen comedians who have attended in the past or are attending this year, none said they felt shame. Maybe frustration, although "yes, SXSW can be frustrating but then again the life of a comedian is frustrating," said Eliza Skinner, who is speaking on a SXSW panel about douchebaggery. "It's evolution," she explained. "You do enough shit work to earn enough good work," giving the example of all the performances she has given — hundreds — for free at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, which charges for some shows, because the way she makes her money is by charging for her improvisation classes "and the only reason people pay for my classes is because they've seen me on stage doing my performances." In that sense, she added, "there's a question mark hanging over SXSW, where it's not proven what it does for comedians." Gone are the days when a 7-minute stand-up set at the Montreal Comedy Festival would land a comedian a development deal.

Skinner echoed a sentiment that many comedians shared: "People don't understand what we do is work; they think, well, I laugh with my funny friends and I don't pay them. You're just a funny person too." Streeter Seidell, the CollegeHumor writer/performer who is also speaking on a panel at SXSW, agreed.

"A comedian is not five people carrying musical equipment. It's just a dude who shows up," he said. "I can see [SXSW] not even thinking about it, thinking they're doing comedians a favor. It's like a backhanded compliment where the person doesn't realize how hurtful the thing they're saying is."

Comedians should keep in mind, said Eugene Mirman, that this is the same deal that bands get; it's just that bands — and filmmakers and tech developers — have corporate sponsors or angel investors to float their costs. Mirman set up his own eponymous comedy festival as a joke using $18,000 raised from Kickstarter. He paid comedians' travel, as do some other festivals that are explicitly comedy shows (Sasquatch, for one).

"The deal is not a deal," said Mirman. "It's just a thing where you can do it if you want. Hopefully it will change."

But be careful what you wish for, Duncan Trussells of the world. One year, Southwest Airlines agreed to pay Mirman's travel, but they sent him from New York to Baltimore, where he had to pay his own lodging, then to Cleveland, Dallas and another stop — Mirman said he's tried to block the whole debacle out of his memory — before finally landing in Austin. He put himself up in a Super 8 about ten miles outside of town. The next year he told them, "Please don't handle my travel. Just my lodging."

In general, said Marc Maron, who is performing a WTF podcast with Jeffrey Tambor at SXSW this year, "It's a clusterfuck out there, at any place like that, really. They barter a lot. It's a lot of chaos. You just have to stand up for yourself. And if you have a bad experience, don't do it again." He grumbled about the same inequities that Trussel railed against, but noted that "basic cable used to be just like that. You'd get a small one-time amount and they'd show it on TV forever."

Dan Allen, the godfather of fresh-faced NYC comedians, related a similar basic cable tale. He pays all comedians who perform on his NYC monthly showcase SACAPUNTAS!; the bigger names get gifts that are harder to refuse (John Oliver is paid in Mets trading cards). "I feel for this Trussel guy," said Allen, "because it's something that you're willing to do; you're willing to get taken advantage of from 18 until about 32, until you sit down and realize you need to monetize your career. So festivals like this will always be able to make deals like this because there will always be twentysomethings who want it bad enough."

Adam Newman, himself a twentysomething who peforms on the road in Chicago, Atlanta and New York, called himself "the last person to rock the boat," crystallizing that perspective: "Festivals are not necessary. They're fun parties. If you don't want to go to the parties, just don't go. It's like being invited to a wedding. You have to pay because they like you enough to want you to be a part of their special moment. It's an honor."

What it's not, Sotelo affirmed, is a job. "An invite to SXSW isn't a job offer," his email read. "It's really just an invitation to come party and perform with other people who love what they do."

The first time Splitsider told Richard how much they would pay him for a story, he rejected the offer, demanding one dollar more; he ended up getting paid three dollars more.

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  • Francesco Rinaldi@facebook

    I don't know, why don't they pay musicians? They have to split money four ways and drive there with a ton of equipment instead of leisurely flying in and telling a few jokes. I wish musicians could complain about this stuff without people thinking they're whiny assholes.

    • Carl Hess@twitter

      @Francesco Rinaldi@facebook "it's just that bands…have corporate sponsors or angel investors to float their costs." Musicians aren't whining cause they've figured out how to get paid. Comedians will probably at some point figure out how to do the same at SXSW.

    • iantenna

      if musicians had figured out how to get paid there would be no SXSW. the grand illusion of SXSW is that it will get you paid via "being discovered" or by learning the ins and outs of the industry via one of their generally useless panels.

  • jfruh

    I was on an SXSW Interactive blogging panel in '10 and, while I didn't expect to get paid an honorarium or anything, I was a little surprised that they didn't help financially with travel or lodging (beyond the group rates you get a local hotels). You do get a pass for free that entitles you to access to all Interactive and Film events (and maybe music too? can't remember, as I flew out the day the music part started, so I wouldn't have gotten to use it). This pass is worth nearly $1K, so if it's the sort of thing you find valuable it's not the worst deal in the world.

    But I'm not a professional panel-giver, and I fully respect the fact that someone asking you to do what you do for money for free is creepy. There is a certain extent at which "exposure" is a good trade to take for something, but of course everyone who wants free talent is going to lean on that hard.

  • iantenna

    "it's just that bands — and filmmakers and tech developers — have corporate sponsors or angel investors to float their costs."

    LOL. please do show me the "proof" you have for this statement. where is this grand illusion that bands are raking in the dough and free coke in 2012 coming from? sure, plenty of bands are getting their plane tickets and lodging advanced to them but if you don't know that they will eventually pay for that shit when it comes accounting time you don't know fuck all about the business of music. it's called recouping expenses idiot.

    and that's if you're lucky (unlucky?) enough to have a label that will/can advance you that stuff. if i were to venture a guess i'd say at least 50%, probably more like 75%, of bands are floating their own costs to get to sxsw, either by flying/driving in, or booking a, probably money losing, tour around the event (do you get how hard it is to book a tour to and from austin in march? every single fucking band in the world is trying to do the same thing and there are only so many venues in tucson).

    i know plenty of bands on big name indies that have had to pay their own way to austin, and plenty of small label owners that have lost money hosting showcases and trying to get their bands out there. framing this article as comedians vs. musicians is just plain dumb and counterproductive. as usual, it's art vs. corporate interests, why present it as anything else?

    • Bus Driver Stu Benedict

      @iantenna You can watch bands that don't do national touring or come from overseas follow a long arc from Boston in March, down the eastern seaboard, maybe Chicago, then SXSW, and then LA and Seattle, hoping that by then they've got enough buzz for a distribution deal. And it's gotten a lot worse for musicians who earn and plan by the skin of their teeth now that Fuck by Fuck You is defunct.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Phillip-Schwarzmann/861340380 Phillip Schwarzmann

    The SXSW Comedy shows are awesome and immensely popular. Sad to hear comics aren't getting paid. I paid $850 for pass…someone sure is getting paid.

    Maybe the comics should simply not go?

  • Redacted

    I'm glad someone is thinking bout this, but please don't think we filmmakers have sponsors and angel investors to fly us to things like SXSW! We go incredibly in debt trying to get to festivals like this – sometimes they offer travel stipends if they really particularly want your film, but most often you go out of pocket in one way or another. The difference is you have a large film budget to wrap the costs into so they disappear faster in the sea of other debt. Also, they can play the film without you being there (unlike a comedy performance) but really if you're hoping to sell it or do press you need to show up.

    The worst though is another festival in the same city I won't mention by name that expects it's festival competition jurors to watch 20+ hours of films, a 3 hour phone call to talk about the winners, you have to pay your way there and for hotel costs just because they want you to be there when they present the award. And to "network." And so they can use your name to attract ticket buyers.

    But that is the business…

  • http://twitter.com/DougTheExplorer Doug Clayton

    Around 30k people paid to go to SXSW this year. Assuming an average price of wristband is $750 that is $22 million dollars. Someone is making bank.

    I'm sure Roland Swenson, CEO of SXSW is getting paid a fortune for the festival and he's not even that funny.

    SXSW has jumped the shark anyway. NXNE is so much better.