Money for nothing

Ashley Frieze warns new comedians to be wary of the rip-offs

It seems like comedy has a ‘pay-to-play’ controversy every few months. Whether promoters are asking for money from the comedians to take to the stage, or for them to bring paying friends, the arguments put forward by proponents of schemes seem to be pretty consistent:

  • It’s an investment in your career
  • It helps get a better audience for you
  • It would otherwise make a loss, and not be financially viable
  • It’s a reasonable quid pro quo for what you get in return

These arguments are flawed. They’re in two categories – the alleged benefits for paying your way in, and the business model of the show. The role of a promoter is to build a business model that enables them to employ acts at events, which they can build a paying audience for.

If the business model is flawed, then the acts’ role isn’t to make up the weight. An act should invest in their future, and they should do so wisely, to get the best value for their money and time; it’s highly unlikely that investing in a pay-to-play promoter’s show is the best value.

Pay-to-play is a stupid idea and ultimately leads to promoters encouraging acts to spend a lot of money at gigs that aren’t worth seeing or being a part of, since the higher quality the act, the less likely they are to want to perform there. Shows should be funded by a paying audience, provided by the venue and promoter. You gain little as an act by paying for something with negligible intrinsic value.

This philosophy shouldn’t be limited to gigs. As comedians, there are countless other ways we may be encouraged to spend our own money:

  • Comedy courses
  • Edinburgh shows
  • Advertising
  • Photography

Pretty much all of these come into the same category as our pay-to-play apologists’ ‘investing in your career’ argument. As someone who has spent money on each of these over the last few months, I thought I’d share a few ideas on how to get the most out of them.

Comedy Course

Anyone can call themselves a comedy teacher. You need to choose your comedy course carefully. Who is running it? Do you respect them as a performer/writer? How long will the session be, and will it teach you how to be a good stand-up, or will it make you into a carbon-copy comedy-course graduate?

There are some excellent tutors out there, some of whom have been successful stand-ups in their own right and have written well-respected books on the subject. Do the research and don’t pay over the odds. In general, there is always something you can learn, especially from a good group situation, or from a tutor who is a respected comedian.

Edinburgh Shows

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to produce your own Edinburgh show in your first two years of comedy to become a good, well-respected act. Even a free show at the Fringe will set you back many hundreds of pounds. Is your show idea so good that you would pay all that money to see it happen?

As someone who’s produced shows at the Fringe for the last eight years, I’ve huge respect for anyone who puts together a first show. I have noted, however, that some of the most critically acclaimed acts waited until they were much more established before shelling out for their Fringe debut.


Self-producing shows means you have to consider advertising. There are a lot of people out there trying to skim a bit off the top of your budget. The simple fact is that there are only a few really well-visited websites and publications. You should consider where you personally see advertising and where you think your audience is most likely to see it. Some adverts may be cheap, but they may never be seen. The best advertising is free – word of mouth and social networking.


Any idiot with a digital camera and a copy of Photoshop can call themselves a photographer these days. Choose your photographer based on their previous work, not based on their rates or marketing. If possible, find out who did your favourite photos of other comedians. There are some brilliant photographers out there worth paying money to, some of whom are comedians themselves.

You don’t NEED a photographer to get started in comedy. You can get by with a shot that was done on your iPhone/digital camera as a starting point. If you’re going to do it yourself, though, be highly critical of the results, and take hundreds of shots to choose from.

Spend Wisely

Ultimately, it’s a case of caveat emptor – ‘buyer beware’. Think carefully about where you invest your time and money. Quality over quantity is the key. There is a huge amount you can get for free. Exploitation of comedians needn’t be the norm.

  • Ashley Frieze was one of the founders of Funny’s Funny, whose Female Comedian of the Year competition was free to enter. The final is next Wednesday (July 13) at The Highlight, Camden, hosted by Jo Caulfield. Tickets

Published: 8 Jul 2011

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