How can someone get a large crowd to their weekly or monthly comedy show? I've seen plenty of shows that include nationally touring headlining acts and are still empty. What are some of the less obvious secrets to building up a fanbase who will deliver solid attendance?
Aalap Patel is one of the co-producers of New Young Comedians, a hot monthly show in NYC that always has a packed house and a good lineup. I asked him to take a crack at answering this question. Here's what he said:
Filling up the seats is the perpetual challenge for any independent comedy show, especially in a city like New York that offers tons of other entertainment options on any night. If you are running a show, or starting a show, this is your first hurdle. Here's a few things I think you can do (or not do) to make it easier:
1. Advertise: A simple facebook invite the night before is not enough. You need people to know there's a show, want to go to it, and remember where and when to show up. I suggest using all possible methods (email, listing on event and comedy sites, blogs, etc.) but don't drown people in announcements every day or every couple of hours. The louder you shout, the less people will listen. I suggest using Opt In marketing, which means you are not blasting everyone. Make sure people know about the event far out enough that they can put it on their calendars, but also remind them the day of and the day before.
2. Put on a Good show: this should probably be number one, and Matt has already discussed many aspecs of this (here and here, for example). Rational and good comedians understand that their job is to put on a good show, not only because everyone has fun, but because that is what gets you a repeat customer. If your friends and family feel like they are coming to support you, that's fine, but if they can actually enjoy themselves, then they are much more likely to come back. Bringing your loved ones to a crappy show makes them associate comedy (or your comedy) with boredom and hurts all of comedy. It's simple Pavlovian psychology, bring me to 3 terrible shows, and now i associate you and live comedy with wasted time and boredom. It a comedy show is supposed to be like a good party, not a chore. Give away prizes, drinks, whatever you can do to keep it fun.
3. Book Good Comics: Maybe this falls under the last category. Most comics you'll get don't have enough of a fan base (even headlining comics) that will fill seats. The importance of booking good comics is to create a consistency of quality. At my monthly show we have friends, family, coworkers, and comics coming back on multiple occasions because they've enjoyed themselves every time. Book comics who are better than you because it will force you to rise. If your show is known to be good, then it will attract good comics, and also some comics will feel good about inviting their friends and family. As a rule if you're a comic, don't invite your loved ones to see you at a show unless you know it's going to be good.
4. Grow Your Contact Base: You should be raffling off prizes at each show, and to enter the raffle you should have people give you their email address. Regardless of how big your contact list is, you need to keep growing it because you can't count on the same people to show up each month. You want to reach everyone who has attended a show (and not opted out) because they will not remember to look for your show, they need to be reminded. Sign up with a email service like constant contact, it will help you manage large email lists and let you send pretty emails with nice graphics.
There are a few more tips I could give but frankly I'm not sure which of the tips are the most effective. The key is to do as much as you can, and keep trying to grow each month.
*Honorable mention -- charge at least a little bit for your show, often times the price and the value of an item share some correlation in a consumer's mind. Even if you only charge 5 dollars, you want people to understand that you're delivering value and sometimes free shows can carry less weight in people's minds.
(Back to Matt...) Thanks for the great answer, Aalap. Couple of things I'll add: Don't put on a me-too comedy show that's like all the others. Bring a unique idea that stands out.
Also, put on the kind of show that you would want to see if you were in the crowd. Do you want to see a show with a lazy host that does too much time along with a lineup of not that funny comics who are only there because they trade spots with the host? No, then don't put on that show.