Live shows are more vital to a comedic performer’s career than any other entertainer’s. The audience is such a necessary element that when it becomes unsafe to gather what alternatives do you have? With the internet and a deluge of apps available, it’s never been easier to take control of your own career. A well-timed YouTube or TikTok post has the potential to reach tens of people at worst and millions at best which is more than any club set could boast… and yet there’s so much reservation in the comedy world for this DIY approach to content distribution.
Self-promotion is much more ingrained in the culture of music than it is in comedy. It is not uncommon for musicians to self-publish singles, EPs, mixtapes, or music videos while comedians are more reserved to a wait-til-you’re-told distribution model. Although comedians can’t exactly go into a recording booth solo and make an album, nearly all of them are sitting on hours of viable audio tracks. Many comedians make a habit of recording their sets with a recorder or their phone, placing it on the stool or tucking it into their pockets to listen back later like a football player reviews game tape. Though these files may lack pristine sound quality, the audience is there, and more importantly, the jokes are there, and that’s all one actually needs for a mixtape-style compilation album. So why doesn’t anyone seem to make one?
For Brooklyn-based comedian Kevin Saucier, quarantine life is what pushed him to take matters into his own hands. Titled Me Now Knows, Saucier stitched together three sets recorded over the course of five years at WonderComedy, a monthly showcase and a staple of the Atlanta alt-comedy scene, into a mixtape available exclusively on Bandcamp. “I always wanted to put out something, but I hadn’t had a plan to do it anytime soon,” Saucier said. “Felt like I was hanging onto material for too long and was reluctant to burn stuff.”
Unlike other distributors like Spotify that offer less than a penny per play, Bandcamp’s model gives artists a platform to reach new audiences while making a fair cut of the profits. The company takes a 15% share on digital sales and 10% on merch, and the rest goes to the creator. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the online music distributor has been temporarily waiving their share for all sales made on the first Friday of the month, aka “Bandcamp Friday.” This campaign played a major factor in Saucier’s decision.
“A lot of people’s five-year plans became, ‘Let’s get through this week,” Saucier says, reflecting on how the pandemic threw a wrench into people’s lives. With the world put on such a monumental pause, the idea of waiting seemed more unproductive than ever. Whether it’s waiting for opportunities, waiting for validation from a traditional gatekeeper, or waiting on it from yourself, with the future looking like anything but a clear picture, doing what feels right in the moment feels like the better bet.
“To spend as much time as I did doing comedy and then let it just fade out of my life felt sad and cowardly,” Saucier says. “It wasn’t just a hobby I picked up and put down. It defined a period of my life. Putting an album together helped me remember that I made people happy and I enjoyed doing it, and it’s now on record.”
Self-publishing of course brings a number of tradeoffs. What Bandcamp offers in revenue share it lacks in audience reach, but by producing his album entirely on his own rather than hiring help (“I would’ve wanted to pay them appropriately and at the time I couldn’t really spend money on this,” Saucier said), even if it doesn’t reach many ears, Saucier is at least getting a serious return on investment.
At the end of the day, he’s confident it was the right thing to do. “[It is] the one thing I’ve put out after nine years of doing stand-up, and I don’t think that time was wasted. I think what I came up with in that time had value.”
Like Saucier, L.A.-based comedian (and Paste’s former assistant comedy editor) John-Michael Bond also took advantage of Bandcamp Friday and combed through six years of recorded sets to construct a b-sides mixtape of sorts entitled Everything is Fine. Like many comedians, he had all the tools at his disposal to make an album. He had prior experience editing and sequencing audio tracks, a computer full of jokes, and a poster from his most recent tour that could be repurposed into cover art. He just needed to make the choice to do it.
“The pandemic made me consider the possibility that I might not get another chance to record [an album], so it was okay to do something unconventional,” Bond says. “I called this a comedy mixtape because it exists in much the same way a rap mixtape does. It’s art I’m proud of that isn’t professionally recorded that I’m sharing because I like the jokes.” Releasing the album on a pay-what-you-can model proposes additional risk with many people either lacking in disposable income or simply just accustomed to receiving content for free. But Bond was pleasantly surprised to find so many of his fans put great value into something we’re often told is worth nothing more than a can of PBR. “Some folks gave me $0.25 and one paid me $100,” Bond says.
Bond hasn’t ruled out the possibility of releasing a traditional full-length album sometime down the road, but for now, the mixtape offers something special and of the moment. “I sort of like that this weird thing exists only on Bandcamp,” Bond says. “And if the day comes that [I] don’t want these jokes online in this format anymore, you can just take it down.”
As flawed as the industry is, comedians are often their own worst enemy, holding themselves back out of fear of not doing stand-up the “right” way. But as with most things in comedy, it’s not so much what you’re doing but how you do it. For every broad, viral superstar TikToking their way onto TV, there’s the consistently overlooked comedic genius finally breaking through the fog via the same platform. “I think if you want to do something in comedy you should do it,” Bond says. “Tell jokes how you want, share them how you want, and release them how you want. Anything can be transformative for the industry in the right hands, but more importantly it was transformative for me.”
Saucier echo’d Bond’s sentiments when asked whether he’d recommend this approach to his fellow comedians. “I used to want to be asked to release something, and I had a lot of faith in traditional gatekeepers just noticing me, but eventually you realize that’s only going to happen for so many people, and you have to decide if you’re willing to wait, if you’re putting yourself in the right places to be noticed, or if you even respect the opinions of the people you want to notice you. Are you twisting yourself into knots and asking, ‘What do these people want from me?’ Buddy, put out what you’ve got and relax.”
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.