It’s a glamorous and weird life to be a producer. In fact, this is one case in which truth is not stranger than fiction, as most producers don’t spend their days assembling Nazi sympathizer shows or staging musical numbers with dogs, chickens, pigs, and whatever the heck Gonzo is. A producer’s life is a sad and sometimes boring one, with endless emails and phone calls, often with unscrupulous venue managers and flakey performers, and also a thrilling and adventurous one, akin to artistic gambling.
I’d love to say that most of my experiences were of ushering cute new talent into the limelight, making big bucks for my ideas, and having that thrill of an adoring audience throwing tips at you and your performers. But being a producer isn’t all cash and cocktails. Being a producer has taught me a lot about how to deal with crap, because that’s the shape of daily life.
For all you out there wanting to be a producer, whether for film, theatre, vaudeville, circus, or music, here’s what I hope is sage advice.
Lesson #1: Get everything in writing.
Everything. I first realized how uncommon this was in my community when I first started using performance contracts; some people immediately turned up their nose. This was surprising to me, as in professional theatre, everyone has a contract detailing their scope of service and pay, as well as exit clauses. In the independent theatre and arts world, everyone just goes by honor. Problem is, I had already had three shows nearly ruined by no-show performers or crew, and I’d already lost revenue to a hidden venue expense that the promoter didn’t think was worth telling me until the show was over and they got their paws on the cash box (see Lesson #5).
Ultimately, I stopped telling people about these woes and how just a few people ruined it for the rest, and instead offered the contract as a means to discuss the performer’s needs and desires. Of course, that made it a more positive experience for them.
Lesson #2: Cover yourself and don’t work for exposure.
In my early days, I let a lot of things slip: my marketing plan, including slogans and graphics, the names of great photographers and sound engineers, my next few show ideas. Unfortunately, I let these slip to wealthier people who later became in charge of performing arts venues. Guess what happened?
You hear a lot about class warfare these days. In the arts industry, you’re one of two things: privileged, accomplished artist in a higher earning bracket, or starving artist. Sometimes that changes within a week. It’s essential to protect yourself and your ideas, because if you’re in the starving artist mode, you have no bargaining power if someone “borrows” your ideas. And I hate to sound cynical, but they’re not going to give you credit. It’s dog-eat-dog. Protect your ideas and plans; wait until things are in writing (see Lesson #1) before sharing any of the juicy bits of your plan. And never, ever send any sort of intellectual property through email. Show in person only.
As producing and performing often overlap in the same person, the following advice I would offer to anyone, even if they’ve not yet put on a producer’s cap.
The best anecdote I personally have about this is drawn from a Craigslist ad I saw, requesting illustrators to work on a Cartoon Network project that the poster claimed had been greenlit by the network. He said that he could not offer compensation but would give a free DVD of the completed project. So presumably, Cartoon Network has such a tiny budget that it greenlights shows and then has its creators recruit talent on Craigslist and offer no compensation. Doubtful. I sent an email calling out the poster on this, upon which he wrote back complaining that I was being “negative” and admitting that while the show was actually not greenlit, he had no reason to believe it wouldn’t be and this project would be great “exposure” for me. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
On a related note, do not buy into the lie that working for exposure is necessary. Here’s the thing: working for exposure has a time and place. (A post on this coming soon.) A very specific time and a very specific place. For example: opening for an established local band in your community for no (monetary) compensation will have very little impact on your future success, although the broader the following of the band, the more likely it is that performing for free will help “get your name out there.”
“Exposure” happens through your audience who likes your work so much that they tell the world about it. That has nothing to do with whether or not the venue or producer pays you. Remember, promoters have no reason to pay unknown performers, because they’ve got a bottom line to protect and your name isn’t going to boost their sales. If you insist on compensation, you’ve got them by the short hairs: they’ve got to book talent, and a lot of it, while preserving their reputation. They know that other promoters will pay if they don’t. So don’t be afraid to ask for compensation.
Lesson #3: Vet your venue.
We discussed the nonpayment of performers above, but there’s much more to consider about a venue. The hardest lesson I learned over the past few years is that if the venue is sick, the show will be sick. Spend some time at a venue before producing a show there. How are the employees? Is the equipment functioning properly? Are food and drink, if applicable, affordable and of quality? Is the venue clean, with appropriate amenities? What’s the following? Do people come to the venue no matter what’s going on?
The greatest heartache I had was from producing a number of shows at a venue that seemed perfect at first, but ended up being an enormous drag on my resources, an uncomfortable environment for both performers and patrons, and ultimately an embarrassment for my name and company name. I should have known, as the employees were working there for no pay and half the equipment didn’t work. The venue owners refused my offers to pay a premium to use the space, then held me responsible for low bar sales while charging $1 more than their neighboring venues for the same drink. They did no promotion for the shows, either, unlike most venues I’ve worked with, which actually handled most of the poster, press, and social media tasks that I had already gotten into the habit of doing.
I eventually declined to work with this venue. Remember, you have a superpower — the ability to say “no.”
Lesson #4: Follow up.
For fear of being perceived as onerous or distrustful, I used to let a lot of artists govern their own process and promotion. If we weren’t rehearsing for a scripted show, I reasoned that they wouldn’t want to appear unprepared or untalented, and would be in charge of their own prep. For visual artists, we were usually set up in a non-gallery space, and I expected that they would have a sense of how they wanted the work displayed and would be on hand to sell their work. And for both, I reasoned that everyone shared an interest in encouraging people to come to the show and would promote accordingly. I gave everyone flyers and posters to hang, directed them to the Facebook event to invite people, and handled all other promo tasks, such as the press circuit and website update, myself, thinking that all bases were covered.
I was wrong on all counts and lost quite a bit of money. I had people come to production meetings and appear to be on top of things, then show up to perform or crew, missing half the things they needed. I had artists tell me they didn’t need any help or supplies to hang their work, then show up asking for frames and nails. I had performers show me their act before the show, then perform it at the actual show in a different way that threw the lightboard op and stage crew immensely off track.
This wasn’t malicious on their part, just reflective of a common problem: People don’t listen. I eventually started campaigns of multiple messages to people, through email, phone, Facebook, and in-person. I got over the irritated looks as they told me they were “almost ready” for the show. Many people, especially artists, are “pleasers” who also have a touch or arrogance: they don’t want to seem out of sorts or unprepared. As a producer, part of your job is to make those tendencies work for you. Check in enough that they can’t dodge their responsibility, but not so little that they can convince themselves they’re “ready,” and not so much that they are reminded of their mother. (Sorry, Mom.)
Lesson #5: Hire the honorable.
Naturally, if you know someone can’t even balance their checkbook, you probably don’t want them running door for you. If your crew members are perpetually late to production meetings, you can bet they’ll be late to the show. Here’s where it’s worth noting that the few people you know who are amazingly punctual, organized, and diligent are the ones to run your door, set up the venue, and crew the show. It’s worth training these folks in some basic skills and encouraging them to work for you even without any performing arts experience. In fact, sometimes, it’s better to have those roles fulfilled by people who aren’t going to be distracted or sidetracked by their muse (this is less of a problem in professional theatre, where the cog-in-a-wheel work ethic is drilled into everyone’s heads).
Cross-posted on my LinkedIn page. Follow me for more career advice for those seeking creative careers.