My car's earning more than me

Ashley Frieze on the economics of being a comic

At a certain level on the comedy circuit, life revolves entirely around being on the road, quite literally. If you’re not playing multi-show weekends at a club that will put you in a hotel, the diary can easily turn into a series of one-night visits to random parts of the country. If you’re a comedian who drives, you may well find yourself, like me, becoming obsessed with certain motorway services. If you’ve been in comedy long enough, you may even have a favourite bridge – I know I do. 

In the ten years I’ve been gigging, one thing has happened and another hasn’t. The fuel prices have gone up. A lot. On the other hand, performers’ fees, and the chancer promoters asking those performers to do a lot for a little, haven’t changed. It’s often a buyer’s market, since there’ll always be some acts willing to perform for silly small sums in order to get the experience or ego boost. I know this for a fact, because I’ve been one of those acts and still may be.

If you give the statistics to a non-comedian, the pay sounds impressive. A modest headliner fee of £120 for 35 minutes on stage sounds like a great pay scale. How many people charge nearly £250 an hour for their time?

I thought I’d do some maths on the real numbers. There’s a gig going in Ashington, Northumberland, for £80. If I were to accept that gig, 277 miles from home in Gloucestershire,, my fuel costs would be something like £64. Since my high-mileage car needs more than fuel, the real cost is higher. According to HMRC, I could expense more than £200 for that journey (take note tax-self-assessers).

Of course, I wouldn’t accept an £80 gig in Ashington; that sort of fee would best suit a North East or Scottish act. But what if I accepted a £120 gig 150 miles from home? In my case, that would take me to Bury St Edmunds – a lovely place in which I’ve done some very nice shows. Assuming 20p a mile, which is probably the true cost of motoring when you factor all expenses into account, the round-trip journey costs £60. It takes five and a half hours.

During these five and a half hours, my car is earning just under £11 an hour – about £5 over minimum wage. I might arrive at the gig at 8pm and leave at 11.30pm. My total on stage effort might be 20 minutes or so, but the whole night takes about nine-and-a-half hours. For this I profit by £60, around £6 per hour, within a few pence of minimum wage.

In short, at a certain distance from home (and it’s not that far), my car is earning more than I am, and I’m on minimum wage or worse. The silly thing is that there are acts climbing over each other to get jobs like this, and while that’s the case, fees will not get any better.

I’m not sure whether a comedians’ union is the answer. Perhaps a union for comedians’ cars would work – they already seem to have negotiated a good cut of the night’s takings. If you want to discuss this further, I’ll be in Warwick services, having arrived there on foot.

Published: 10 Apr 2013

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