Producing public shows is one of the most difficult, but also most gratifying, parts of being a magician. They are surprisingly easy to book, but hard to sell and maintain. I hope that if you want to put on a public show but don’t know how, this will help. Here’s the process I use:
1. Find a performance space:
A theater is the most obvious choice, but not necessarily the best. You could use a bar, a restaurant, a comedy club, or someone’s apartment. If there’s somewhere that people can sit, you can do a show there. While my natural inclination used to be a theater, they are far more expensive to rent than bars and restaurants, often ranging between $800-$1500, and those are the cheap ones. The nice theaters will, almost certainly, be out of your price range if you’re just getting started. We’re talking several thousand dollars.
But you don’t necessarily want a theater. For reasons we’ll talk about below, you want to choose a place that can help you sell tickets. If the theater will just stick a poster up for you, that’s not good enough.
On every venue’s website, there will almost certainly be a contact button or a phone number. Identify the spot where you’d like to perform, and have a legitimate reason that draws you to that space. If it’s a bar you’ve been to before, you can use that in your pitch: “I’ve gone here for drinks countless times with my friends, and it’s always a great atmosphere. I think adding a magic show would give your customers something exciting to look forward to at zero cost to you.” We’ll get into specific outreach at the end. But first, it helps to think of what the venue will ask you, so you can be prepared. Once you find a space, you must:
2. Figure out how you’re paying:
If you’re going into a negotiation (which is a big word, it’s really more like a short email or phone exchange), you should know your options.
The first option is a straight up rental. That is to say, you pay a theater $800, you get their space for a few hours, and you keep 100% of the ticket sales. Beware of an agreement that charges a rental fee and a portion of ticket sales. That’s doable, but a little greedy on the part of the venue. When David and I produced An Evening of Magic for the first several months, we rented the theater and took all ticket sales. It was fine, but you can only do that if you’re confident that you’ll sell tickets, because you assume all the risk. If you don’t sell tickets, you aren’t getting your rental money back.
Your second option, especially if you’re performing at a bar, is to have an agreed upon food or drink minimum. I’ve done multiple shows this month with a $500 drink minimum. That means we promise the bar $500 that night, ideally covered by our attendees buying drinks. If we’re short, then we (the producers) pay the rest. I think $500 is an extremely fair number, which I’ve used in Washington, D.C. and New York. If the bar also sells food, $500 is a no-brainer. If it’s only drinks, you’ll need about 40-50 people to guarantee that you’ll hit this. Even if you don’t, and you pay a $100 remainder, you can think of it as a $100 theater rental, which is very cheap.
Third, you can do a ticket split, where the venue takes a portion of ticket sales. A fair number is 70%-30% in favor of the artist. I’ve also done agreements where the artist gets 60%, and only gets 70% if we sell x number of tickets (I believe the number was about 200). This, too, is fair, but you do not want to go below 60%. It’s simply not the industry standard, and you’d be getting ripped off.
Finally, there are times where a bar will take 100% of food and drinks, and let you take 100% of the tickets, with no minimum or fee. These agreements are fantastic, as it’s zero risk and you get all the reward. But don’t just assume a venue will do this, because you have no financial incentive to bring people in, and it’s not common.
Of course, there are other combinations than the ones above. But in general, no matter where you are, you’re finding some balance between a bar minimum, rental fee, and ticket split. It’s always helpful to ask the venue what they do, just to get an idea of their expectations. And you can always propose something different, provided you frame it as the venue making money.
Remember, bringing your show into a venue is a way for them to profit. While the most important thing to you is your show, the most important thing to the venue is that there are people coming through the door, and you cannot forget that. Being a producer means being concerned with finances, and you shouldn’t produce shows if you don’t want to deal with business. The venue wants to make money and have a vibrant atmosphere. Pitch yourself accordingly.
3. What kind of venue is best?
I’m a strong believer that the venue should help you sell tickets. They shouldn’t do all the work, but they should leverage their audience in a way that benefits you both. Let’s look at the top magic shows in New York; they aren’t in traditional theaters. Steve Cohen performs in a hotel suite. Speakeasy Magick is in a big room with a bunch of close-up tables. Even Asi Wind, who technically performs in a theater, does so in a custom-built, 100-seat space, specifically designed for his show, which feels very unique.
Steve Cohen, the man behind 20 years of Chamber Magic, has probably done this better than anyone. By having a residency at a hotel, the concierge can sell the show for him. Now, Steve has 20+ years of doing exceptional magic, so I don’t want to make it seem like he’s just mailing out his advertising to the concierge. He’s built one of the best individual brands in the history of magic, using strategies like a) a venue where new people come all the time b) those people are willing to spend money and c) there are people working at his venue (the concierge) who are incentivized to sell the show because their job is to recommend unique things for people to do. He has found a perfect blend between show and venue, and he’s selling out four shows a week at a very high price point.
The lesson–find a venue that people would want to visit even if there wasn’t a show going on. Underground Overground Comedy does a phenomenal job with this. They put on pop up shows in Katz’s Deli, Paragon Sports, and other New York staples.
The more known and trusted your venue is, the more likely you’ll be able to draw an audience. People like to go places that are safe, interesting, and reliable. I would go to almost anything in Katz’s deli, because I trust the brand enough to provide high quality services. If there’s one bar in your town that everyone goes to, that’s where you should begin. Or if you don’t want to do a bar rental (or you’re under 21), ask your school about renting a space. Hell, do it in a classroom at night—put up some fairy lights and change the orientation of the desks. There’s no reason to make this an uphill battle, what matters is that you do the show. The first show I ever produced was in a tiny black box theater at my high school. I sold $5 tickets and donated the proceeds to my speech and debate program.
4. How much do you charge?
It’s funny how much information there is about how to do magic, but almost none about how much to charge. Given that you could find any of these numbers online anyway, here’s what I charge and why:
The public shows I currently have on sale range between $25-$75 per ticket, but there’s justification for it all.
Let’s take the cheapest one, the $25 ticket for my upcoming show in Boston. My target audience for this show is younger people (ages 23-35) who might be stopping by on their way to a night out. It’s in the center of Boston at 6 PM and 8 PM, before anyone would really pack a bar. Additionally, it’s in the back of a bookstore–which I’m super excited about, but it comes with a certain vibe. It’s quirky, well-known, and fun, but it’s not fancy. And, unlike a few other shows I’m doing, you don’t get anything extra with your ticket. Therefore, $25 is a fair price for a high-quality show on a Saturday night in the back of a bookstore.
Then, when I go to Denver, tickets range between $40-$50. This is because the show is at a Denver staple, The Clocktower Cabaret. You get a more theatrical experience, with waiters bringing you food and drinks throughout the show. It’s also on a Thursday, which means you’re less likely to be going out to a bar afterward relative to a Friday or Saturday, and it’s an older audience than the Boston show. All of that means that when people go to the show, that is the thing they’re doing that night, and it can be priced higher.
Finally, the $75 ticket for NOT A MAGIC SHOW comes with unlimited beer and wine throughout the show, as well as a welcome Prosecco. Additionally, it’s a small show in a speakeasy, and it’s in New York, where people expect higher prices. Furthermore, if you offer a free drink (or drinks), with your tickets, you can charge more money. Bars are very often willing to do this, you just have to ask.
If you’re wondering what to charge, my favorite strategy is crowdsourcing, but you must do this strategically. Don’t just ask someone: “would you pay $35 for a ticket to my show?” That doesn’t work because it’s you framing the cost for them, and they can only give you a binary answer. The better choice is to tell them about your show. Give them your pitch. And then ask “how much do you expect the price to be?” Do this with multiple people so you can adjust for outliers. If you’re all on the same page, great. If your price is higher and theirs is all lower, it’s probably smart to lower your price. And if you find out that you’re underselling yourself, well, even better for you. Raise it.
It's crucial to take the ego out of this. The language I use is: “I want you to tell me how much you’d pay for the show. And know that I won’t be offended at all if it’s lower than it’s currently priced. I really value your opinion and I want to know what you honestly expect.”
Additionally, you can price tickets to the same show differently. The first few rows can be VIP, and you can easily add $10-$15 per ticket for a front-row seat, meet and greet, etc.
A final note on price: All platforms charge ticket fees, and it’s essential that you know what those fees are. If your ticket is $45 but the processing fees are $5.01, that’s a $50+ ticket. It could be worth it to make it a $44 ticket so that the processing fees keep the total under $50. While processing fees are ubiquitous and accepted, you need to know how much money is coming out of your audience’s accounts.
The bottom line is to know your options and listen to your audience. There’s no right answer, and you’ll learn through experience.
5. What platform do you use to sell tickets?
Some theaters have their own ticketing platform, but I prefer Eventbrite for several reasons. First, it’s free. There’s no “Eventbrite+” with extra features you have to pay for. The entire platform is simply free, and they make their money by charging processing fees at a fraction of the cost of a large site like Ticketmaster. Second, it’s a national brand that people trust. Third, it’s easy and intuitive. And finally, it just works. Eventbrite is simple, streamlined, and trusted.
On Eventbrite, I have complete control over the entire event. I can create discount codes, send out free and custom tickets, and edit the photos and descriptions whenever I want. While there is a processing fee that the audience pays, it’s usually $3-$5. Processing fees are very normal, and as long as it’s not outrageous like Ticketmaster, it’s ok. Put on a high-quality show, and no one will think twice about it. You also have the option of raising your price and absorbing the fee. The audience pays the same amount, but their perception might be different if it feels like there’s nothing added on. Personally, my audience have never had a problem with the fees, as Eventbrite really does keep it small.
Eventbrite also will pay you via direct deposit, they’ll help with tax forms, and they have an app where you can check ticket sales in real time. This is so important, because if you don’t know what your sales numbers are, you don’t know how to market. You need to see when ticket sales are coming in, who’s buying them, and from what channels. If you can’t track your ticket sales, do a weekly check-in with your venue to ask, with a daily check-in the week of the event. Most ticket sales will come the week of the event, which is stressful, but just the way people buy.
If you’re organizing the show with other people, you can give them access to your event, which makes collaborating a breeze. Finally, Eventbrite saves everyone’s email addresses, which means you can send them emails through the platform to advertise future shows. I can’t recommend Eventbrite enough.
Eventbrite lets you customize the order form, and I’ve added two fields that are very helpful. The first is: “How did you find out about the show?” This is essential because you must know where your ticket sales are coming from. Make this a required field. Second, their phone number. People are more than willing to give their number out on a ticket form. Do not abuse this. But for future marketing (that includes an opt-out), it’s nice to have. You can also see where your audience is from by looking at people’s area codes.
After every show, you should send your audience a thank-you email and ask them to follow you on Instagram or write a Google review. You can incentivize them to do this with free tickets or a discount code. Eventbrite allows you to schedule emails several weeks in advance, so when you set up a show, schedule a thank you email, and then you don’t have to worry about it. The follow-up is crucial to building a brand and a consistent audience.
So, you’re ready to do this? You’ve decided on a venue, ticket price, and payment method? You’ll definitely want to have an idea of pricing and payment before you approach a venue, so you seem like you know what you’re talking about. A negotiation that starts with “we’d like to charge $45 for tickets with a 70-30 split in our favor” is so much better than “well…what do you think we should charge?” This doesn’t mean you can’t change, but confidence and reasoning matters. So, how do you reach out?
If it’s a bar with a back room, for example, literally just call the bar. I did this a few days ago, and here’s exactly what I said: “Hi, my name is Max. I saw that you put on comedy shows here, and I’ve also come by for trivia a bunch and had a blast. I’m a magician and I produce magic shows around New York City. Is there someone I could talk to about putting on a magic show here?” And the guy literally said “Sure! Here’s the manager’s phone number.” Easy.
Sometimes, it’s a bit harder. If it’s a theater, you might have to send an email. But remember, they want you. You are offering to bring in people and money. The website will, unquestionably, have contact information. (Sometimes they just have a contact form, and those suck because you’re giving them information on their terms. Try to find an actual email with a person’s name on it, not just email@example.com. Only use the form as a last resort). Assuming you can find a real email, here’s what you might say:
“Hi ___. My name is Max, and I’m a magician in New York City. I’m looking for a new venue for my public show, and your back room looks like it would be a perfect spot. I saw on your website that you do jazz night and a few comedy shows, so I think magic would be a great fit. I’d be happy to discuss a rental fee/ticket split [this is you offering them money]. I typically charge between $25-$50, depending on the kind of show I do. And I’m confident we’ll bring in a bunch of happy customers. We’ll also film the show and give you the footage to use on your social media. How does this sound? I’m attaching my promo video and website at the bottom, so you can get a taste for what I do.
Please email me back, or give me a call at xxx-xxx-xxxx and we can chat.”
The more experience you have producing shows, the better this email will be. For example, I’ll always include the fact that I produce two monthly shows in New York, because it gives me legitimacy. It shows they can trust me to put on an event. They can see our legitimacy through our Evening of Magic Website, and they can see more about me through my website and promo video. And worst case, if you don’t have a website, build up your Instagram page a little. Have something you can show them to prove they can trust you.
8. How to sell tickets
This is a massive struggle and I don’t have all the answers. I’ve been trying out a few strategies recently that I will hopefully write more about in the future. But here are the basics:
Know that unless you’re Hamilton, people won’t buy tickets months in advance. 50%-60% of your ticket sales will come the week of the show. This is very stressful, and there is little way around it. Remember that it’s not personal. Think about the last time you bought tickets to a small show (not an expensive concert). How far out did you buy? I know I almost always buy tickets the week-of, so I can’t judge people for doing the same, despite how stressful it is.
Regardless of when your sales come, your best tool is your magic. Because people do not trust magic shows the way they trust other kinds of theater, one of the best ways to promote your show is by doing magic for as many people as possible. For example, two days before An Evening of Magic, David and I did strolling magic for free at ReVision Lounge’s sister bar, The Back Room. And it worked. Several people just came out and asked: “where else do you perform?” And we would say: “10 blocks down the street on Wednesday!” Finding a place to do strolling magic allows you to build personal relationships with people and promote your show using your magic. It’s like a chef giving out free samples. It works.
Another strategy is to book other performers on your show. You’re now growing the amount of people who can sell tickets, and therefore, your potential audience. If each performer has an email list, you’re doubling or tripling your visibility.
Next, you can run social media ads, which is an entirely different discussion, but they do work if you spend the time (and the money) to figure it out. I wouldn’t advise starting with ads, however tempting they seem. It’s more important to have strong, organic growth, which is achieved by hustling and building relationships. Ads help augment a brand, but they do not build one.
Finally, nothing beats just telling people about your show. Don’t become annoying, but sometimes you need to muster up some courage and put your link in a group chat or text people directly. Don’t be afraid of people not responding. Don’t be afraid of being told no. If you reach out to people in a polite and respectful way, it’ll almost always go well. You can shoot someone a text that says “Hey, I know we spoke a few weeks ago about when I’m doing a public show. I just added some dates next week and I’d love to see you there! No pressure at all, but here’s the link in case you want it.”
I think this is the longest blog post I’ve ever written, but I do hope it gives you context if producing shows is up your alley. Public shows are extremely gratifying and fun. You have creative control, you have an excited audience, and you can go wherever you think you can sell tickets.
We didn’t talk about defining your audience, establishing a regular presence (monthly, weekly), specifics on ticket sales, and how to treat your performers. We will, but that’s for a future post.
The bottom line: You will learn 10x more from experience than you ever will from this post. So go out and try it.
(photo credit to Ari Isenberg)
Speaking of which...wanna come to a public show? Links below: