The current popularity of alt comedy, which basically means comedy that isn’t performed in traditional comedy clubs, has been likened to punk rock, both by performers and the press. It’s an analogy that could easily break down when picked at. Outside of getting paid in drink tickets and wings, are the economic models also comparable? Doing stand-up for a few years and working at several record labels gives me a little insight into both sides of it.
Comedy careers are nonlinear, and artistic goals are moving targets. Releasing an album can be a way to mark a transition, lay material to rest, or just take a snapshot of an art form that is always evolving.
Popular hosting platforms like Bandcamp and CD Baby offer a straightforward self-publishing model. Anecdotally, I see a boom of comedy albums emerging on Bandcamp that aren’t even available on iTunes. With very little overhead for releasing, the comedy album itself may devalue. Why should it fare better than the price-point for music, especially when it’s comedy cousin the podcast is free?
Steve Albini’s screed The Problem With Music and Simple Machines Mechanic’s Guide provided some critique and discussion of the business side of independent music before streaming. Comedians of an entrepreneurial nature could learn from this rubric, but the Mechanic’s Guide is in need of an update and there are other details of comedy culture that do not correspond to music.
We do not purport to fill that role, but hope to get the conversation started by asking some comedians why and how they released their albums.
Three of these comics are based in Los Angeles (Brandie Posey, Virginia Jones, Mateen Stewart) and have released their debut albums within the last year. Michael Dolan lives in Manchester, UK and self-released two albums, Dress To Depress (2012) and Nothing Will Ever Be Alright Again Ever (2013).
Paste: With self-releasing an album, when do you decide that it’s the right time in your career to record it?
Brandie Posey: My mom passed away and I had some jokes about the grief process I wanted to record before they lost their emotional resonance. I didn’t want to be trotting those jokes out a few years later, they would feel dishonest. I went on my first headlining tour shortly after my mom died because I am a workaholic, and I discovered pretty quickly that I had an hour ready to go from that tour. After running it all summer on tour and fine tuning the order, I got back into town and started working on my plan for the recording and releasing. I think it all came out of needing to have a project to pour myself into. After doing this first one, I don’t think the rest will be as personal, but it really all came together at the right time for my sanity.
Virginia Jones: I probably recorded my first album on the late side, I had been working and touring for nine years and as my tenth year approached, I thought “I’d like to document my long set as it is today.” I would say that anyone who has a solid, worked-over hour that they have performed might consider recording it, and the longer they’ve been doing long sets, the better and more confident their recording will be.
Michael Dolan: There’s probably not a right time. A good part of me does think maybe I shouldn’t have recorded either of mine. The arrogance of the act, you know? Self-publishing is the domain of the delusional, isn’t it? What I do know is that I’m very rarely proud of anything I do and at the time I taped the records I was proud of these shows. I performed them at the Edinburgh Festival before I recorded, each show got a straight month of performances and a couple of good reviews. If I hadn’t had those reviews then maybe I wouldn’t have recorded either of them, I don’t know that I trust myself to make that kind of judgement. I’m not so proud of them now but I like that you can maybe see some progression, I like to be able to follow an artist’s development so maybe that’s valuable to other people.
Mateen Stewart: Honestly I’m still not sure if it was the right choice. Only time will tell. My biggest concern was burning an hour’s worth of material. I think it is a big risk but the reward could be good. My biggest goal was to do it so I could get on the streaming services to potentially get my comedy to people who have never heard of me.
Paste: Had you considered working with a label? What expectation do you think would be different working with a record label?
Michael Dolan: If I thought for a second any label would have had me then yes I would happily have signed everything over to somebody else. I imagine the benefit of being with a label would be that they’d have some degree of PR at their disposal. Trying to get any kind of coverage in the press when nobody’s heard of you is impossible. I don’t know that it can be done. For all the talk of how the internet has done away with the gatekeepers and democratized publishing and all this, I don’t know that there’s much value to having your work out there if you can’t let people know it’s there.
Virginia Jones: I recorded my first album independently. My logic was that at this point in my career, no matter how much distribution or promotion I get, the people who are likeliest to buy my record are one or two degrees from me, friends, friends of friends, and fans. I don’t think that putting out posters would make people who’d never heard of me buy my record. I wanted to sell the first record on my own, and bring good iTunes and physical copy numbers to a label for a follow-up record. Also, the outlay for actually recording, mixing, pressing, and digitally distributing an album is under five hundred bucks, so why not throw it at the wall and keep all profits?
Mateen Stewart: I never considered working with a label because I have heard some horror stories from other comics. It was more meaningful that I did it myself.
Like how they give you an advance and if your album doesn’t sell you owe them the money and also how they own your material for upwards of 10 years.
Brandie Posey: I had thought a bit about labels, but only got lukewarm responses, and decided I wanted to do it all myself to learn the whole process…workaholic, like I said. I’m really glad I went the DIY route too, because I have a popular podcast, and those are loyal fans that supported me more than fans of a comedy label would. Comedy labels don’t really have the kind of following that music labels do. The pros of working with a comedy label are they handle all the costs up front for you—but honestly, after crunching the numbers, it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t do it myself and then make the money back, which I did on the first week of the digital release. A comedy album is pretty cheap to record—you need someone who knows what they’re doing, and then you edit and get someone to mix it down for you. I have a lot of ties to the music world, so knew plenty of engineers. Shout out to David Irish of Pot O’ Gold Recording for doing mine! Then I released through CD Baby as my distributor, and can see on the back end how many copies I sell, tracks are streamed, etc. I called in favors to guest on podcasts to promote it, drummed up some press with a press release to anyone I’ve ever worked with in the media. I also reached out to big headliners I’ve worked with and got some great quotes about the album to send along to press. I don’t know if a label would have worked that hard for me, or if it’s stuff I would still be doing myself…I kind of feel like that’s what it would be. The hard work paid off. Opinion Cave debuted at #1 on iTunes and #12 on the Billboard charts when it came out…which also happened to be the anniversary of my Mom’s passing.
Paste: How did you decide whether to do a digital-only release or have a physical format?
Virginia Jones: I did both. Most fans will listen on Spotify or buy it on iTunes, but when you’re on the road, you have to have physical copies to sell. People don’t feel that a download card is worth cash. I have had both on hand and what works best is an autographed physical copy.
Michael Dolan: Oh that was easy, getting CDs printed costs money but you can put your stuff up on Bandcamp and iTunes for nothing. I have recently had a short run of CDs made to sell at gigs and I could not regret that decision more. Another comic convinced me it was a good idea and I’m going to kill him. Nobody has a fucking CD player any more. I might as well be trying to flog wax cylinders. I’ve got 800 of these fucking things and nobody wants them. My best shot at getting rid of them is if they come back around as a nostalgic curiosity the way cassettes have. I don’t know why people are buying cassettes, they’re shit. They were always shit, we knew they were shit when we had them.
Brandie Posey: I did a two-fold release—digital first to get the online numbers, and then with those initial profits, I had physical copies made. I chose to release on cassette with digital download codes inside, since nowadays with a digital copy, album can be anything. I don’t know if a label would have been cool with that, but it’s been getting great traction and has already paid for itself. I did physicals because I tour a lot, and people want to have a souvenir from those shows, and a way to support you other than buying the ticket. The cassettes have sold really well, people really seem to love the throwback feel of them.
Mateen Stewart: I did digital because it was the easiest and cheapest way and plus no one wants a CD anymore.
Paste: How has the response been? What are things that complicated the process?
Brandie Posey: The response has been great! Opinion Cave is in rotation on Sirius XM now, which is a nice check every month, and like I said it debuted at #1 on iTunes and #12 on Billboard. It’s been incredibly validating hearing from people about certain jokes that they really love. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out, there weren’t really any complications after doing a ton of research up top. It’s really important to think outside the box and look at all your options.
Mateen Stewart: The response has been pretty good so far. I was really happy with the final product. My biggest complication was with the audio. The club where I recorded didn’t mix the audience, so luckily I had a recording and was able to mix the two.
Michael Dolan: It’s kind of hard to gauge response to be honest. You get so used to the instant feedback of live stuff that it actually feels really odd to put something out and then just have it hanging there. Sometimes people will tell me after shows that they’ve bought them and they liked them, that’s about as much feedback as you get beyond just raw numbers, it’s really disconcerting. Sales were good and they still sell, I put the first one out in 2012 and the sales still trickle in for that one. I don’t know that I would put them on iTunes and Amazon and places now, Bandcamp is by far the best deal for all concerned. I can set my own price and I get a good cut of the money. iTunes charges you 8 quid, I don’t get to price that, and I get a little less than one pound for each sale, it’s ridiculous. I wanted people to be able to get the thing however was easiest for them, it’s best to have it available everywhere in theory but in all honesty fuck iTunes.
The major problem is that you kind of burn through material a lot faster than you would if you never recorded the shows. I feel uncomfortable doing jokes off these records in my live gigs now. It feels dishonest somehow? I’m probably just being stupid though. I mean there’s some stuff on them that I wouldn’t do now because I think it’s just bad. On the first one I actually use the word “retarded” at some point, to my eternal shame. Wouldn’t do that now. I could edit it out I suppose, but why pretend I’m not a piece of shit?
Virginia Jones: Response has been good! 99% of all albums released on iTunes sell less than five copies, so although my sales are still solidly in the triple digits, I’m happy with it. I’m down to my last ten physical albums, every time I hit the road I sell a few of those. My goal was to make a document I was happy with and to recoup my recording and production costs, which I have done!
One great thing about this process is what I have learned, which is that I did almost everything wrong.
I recorded the album in a great space with a music producer, but I was advised to have the album out for Christmas and I rushed the mixing and production process. I was also headed out on the road and anxious to have physical copies. I put the record out for sale the first day it was available, which was Thanksgiving. I did NO pre-sale or pre-promotion, I sent copies out for review when the album was already on iTunes, I was not visible for best-of 2015 album lists and too early for best-of 2016 lists. I found out some things that seem obvious now—no matter how small the release, nobody wants to review an album that’s already out.
Also, an artist at my level shouldn’t target Christmas when their release will be BURIED under bigger artists’ albums.
I’ve also learned, even if you’ve asked the producer why your voice is too low a couple of times, ask some other people for their feedback before you go to press. Myy first pressing of my record is 10% slowed down and has a kind of spooky effect. I had to correct it on digital formats!
That being said, having a recording of my first nine years of polished material has done nothing but help my live set. I feel free from that original material and pushed to write more and push myself. It feels very legitimizing to tell people they can check out my album on Spotify. Even if that doesn’t generate money, it’s a cooler place to point people than YouTube!
George Chen ran the Cynic Cave comedy room in San Francisco and is currently based in Los Angeles. He also runs http://zumonline.com, co-hosts the comedy/documentary podcast Sup Doc and can be found on Twitter @georgethechen.