From stage to the screen: These past few weeks of evolving news around Corvid 19 have hit me hard. It's 1 week now since Boris Johnson asked people to stop going to theatres. I've had two cancelled tours, a possible 3rd on the way out, our industry feels like it's crumbling around us and future prospects look grim.
Excitingly though artists of all kinds have been coming together in droves to support each other and that has been GLORIOUS.
Many companies have started streaming and live streaming their shows to audiences around the world who are increasingly home-bound and activity starved. Streamed online theatre is something I've wanted to get into for ages but I've never found time for it, and many in the industry have been dragging their heels, worrying about how it would impact ticket sales.
It's also very difficult to film theatre effectively and although technology is getting more accesible (with most people having high end cameras on mobile phones, for example) it's still very costly to film a theatre production in a way that looks good. Stand up comedy is the closest most audiences have come to watching theatre online and those usually have between 5 and 20 high end cameras , microphones dotted about the auditorium and a swish editor cutting between shots every few seconds. Making the shift to watching a single camera set up in a studio theatre for an hour, with imperfect sound can feel jarring.
But it seems that this sudden rupture in our livelihoods is the catalyst the industry needed to shift into gear and start grappling with the gorgeous opportunities and pitfalls that online work can bring. Many of us are just going for it and throwing ourselves in and I think that's brilliant. It's a much better way to figure it all out, rather than waiting till we're as polished as big venues like the National which will likely never happen.
The Quest to find the perfect VOD platform:
Transgender day of visibility is coming up on the 31st of March and I decided that would be the perfect day to release an online version of Too Pretty To Punch, my comedy spoken word show about celebrating trans acceptance. I have a multi camera recording I filmed while at Edinburgh last year and this week I've been editing it together and searching for ways to effectively sell it online.
What I'm looking for:
Video on demand, rather than live streaming.
Capable of easily adding captions/subtitles.
Possible to add audio description.
Good user interface for audiences.
Works on tablets and phones as well as laptops and desktops.
Ability to set a minimum spend with Pay What You Want.
Here are my results:
Pros: Brilliant auto-generated captions that you can easily edit. Simple to embed on a website. Well known and popular. Easy to set up.
Cons: Adverts play over your videos.
Hard to monetise effectively.
You can post videos as 'Unlisted' which means only people with the link can see them, and then set up an automated message in a shop such as Etsy that gives the customer a link to the video. The trouble is that they could then share that with anyone they want and might absent mindedly share it on a website (as that's how we're used to treating YouTube videos) at which point it would be free for anyone who comes across it. If you set it to 'Private' you can let people watch it by manually entering their email addresses into youtube yourself. This adds too much time to the purchasing process for my liking. An alternative is you could ask for donations in the description below the video and on any post linking to the video. This could work though I imagine most people will just ignore/not see it. For donations my ideal situation would be a pop up that you have to click past to see the video and another one that appears at the end of the video. There used to be the option of adding cards that appear during your videos with links on them but now I think Youtube has made them only available to accounts with over 1000 subscribers.
Pros: Free. Password protected video option.
Easy to embed.
Easy to set up.
Supports captions in a variety of formats but no auto-generation tool like YouTube. Cons:
Illegal/against their rules to sell videos this way (makes you look untrustworthy).
People could share the password with anyone they want making it harder to guarantee only your customers view it.
Vimeo Basic is free and there's the option of password protecting a video. This means you could sell people the password on another website. Their terms and conditions state that their free package can't be used for commercial purposes though so you risk them banning you from the website if they find out (and maybe suing you? Sounds unlikely but I'd rather not risk it). Again, like YouTube, you can add a link in the description asking for donations.
Snazziest, most slick looking option.
User friendly website.
Easy to set up.
30 day free trial available.
Can add captions in a variety of formats though can't auto generate them.
Minimum £16 a month (£192 a year) plus they take 10% of sales.
Vimeo on demand is the most expensive option on this list but there are many other options that I didn't include as they are astronomically expensive in comparison. It's also the snazziest, slickest and most user friendly option, so if £200 a year wasn't a turn off I'd definitely go for this, and compared to its big rivals this is actually the cheap option. It really depends how much you're likely to make through selling shows online. Personally I'd prefer to go with something cheaper for now until I know how profitable this can be.
Simple and inexpensive if you're already with Wix.
Very easy to set up.
No caption support.
No Ipad support.
Can't change the price from dollars to pounds.
Wix is a web hosting service. A lot of people dislike Wix but I like it. Its cross compatibility with tablets and mobile phones isn't perfect but it does what I need it to for my website and it's good value. They have the option to sell or rent videos on their business plans. The cheapest is £13 a month (and I'm already paying £8.50 so it wouldn't be a huge increase for me). It would fit easily into my website. You can't add captions so you'd need to include them in the actual video edit, and when I tested it out on my site I could play the video on my phone and laptop by not on my ipad so that was a deal breaker for me.
Pay what you want, fixed price and minimum spend pricing options.
Can include multiple versions of the video for sale.
Sell or rent videos.
Supports captions in a variety of formats.
User friendly website and interface.
Less well known.
No option to include VAT in the price.
Which brings us to Gumroad. It's less well known than the others but really affordable and has most of the features I was looking for. They charge 8.5% on sales + 30 cents (currently 26 pence but given the state of the current economy it might be out of date very soon), and there's no need to pay a fee to be on there. You can add captions to videos, sell or rent them and there's the option of having multiple versions of the video for sale. I really like their pricing choices as well. You can make it Pay What You Want, or have a fixed price, or have Pay What You Want with a minimum spend (something that was surprisingly hard to find among shop options). My only gripe is that they add VAT on top of what the customer offers without properly warning them till after they've paid. It's the sort of thing that really annoys me. In other countries it's normal but in the UK prices almost always include VAT so it's a surprise when you get to the checkout.
Great for building a community of supportive fans.
Can be a more stable way to supplement your income. Can be included on funding applications as money raised.
Can't sell videos individually. Some people won't be comfortable signing up for a monthly payment.
Patreon is a service where people donate a set amount (usually between £1 and £10) to artists each month or each time they post something. Most people donate because they want to support you, but you can also incentivise them by adding perks for different donation amounts. For example you could say that everyone who pledges £2 a month gets access to behind the scenes blog posts on your show's development, while everyone that pledges £5 a month gets that plus access to videos of all the show's you've made. I don't think you can host the videos on Patreon so you'd need to do that elsewhere but this is an alternative way of monetising your content. Another thing some YouTubers do is they let patrons see their videos a few days before everyone else. There are some wildly successful artists on Patreon but most people aren't likely to make a fortune on it, just gently supplement their income.
Kofi: (Pronounced like Coffee)
Friendly user interface.
Can't sell videos on it.
Can't specify how much people tip.
Kofi is another donation service. There's an upgraded version which is similar to Patreon but in it's free, basic form people pay you a donation of a couple of quid, around the price of a cup of coffee (depending on where you live (I'm looking at you, London)). It's more like a tip than a transaction so while you could share a video link with everyone who tips, it would work better to integrate this as a way to donate on your free content.
Kofi doesn't charge anything but goes through Paypal so it includes whatever charges they would normally add. The advantage of this over just using Paypal is Paypal feels very businessy and some people don't trust it because scammers often use it, whereas Kofi's website and branding feels like a warm hug.
What I ideally want is the option to turn audio description on or off, embedded into the media player, like how you can turn on captions in a youtube video. None of the platforms offer this which is pretty rubbish. Come on internet, it's 2020. Access should be more accessible by now. An audio description option I came across in my search was youdescribe.org YouDescribe is a website where you can volunteer to add audio description to any youtube video through their free online app. I wouldn't recommend using it for a massive video but for smaller ones it's looks like a great innovation.
How to price your work One thing that perturbs me, personally, is how many companies are offering their shows for free. It's a challenging time for all of us and generosity is definitely the way forward, but it feels to me like many artists have effectively been sacked from their jobs (possibly permanently, depending on how this all pans out) and then on top of that are offering the only thing that gets them money, free of charge (I'd be happy to do so as long as I could get my food, rent, bills and travel free in return but that feels unlikely).
There are many valid reasons to give things away for free though. I get that. This is all new to most of us and it doesn't make sense to charge people when we're still experimenting with streaming technology or if there's a danger the show could stop half way through due to a technical fault. It also makes sense if you're main aim is to build an audience and get yourself seen, especially since audiences aren't generally used to watching theatre online. But how do you price your work? Theatre tickets for my shows typically cost between £10 and £15 (less if the venue or funders are subsidising it), but people online are used to getting things for free/very cheap or subscribing to services like Netflix or NowTv which offer some of the best TV experiences in the world for less than a tenner a month. It feels quite daunting. It's early days for theatre being online so I don't think anyone has the answers yet. And it's extra tricky right now because so many of our audiences are struggling financially as well. If you have a large body of work behind you, or your videos are top notch quality, or you have a dedicated audience already you can probably afford to charge more. Apart from the filming itself there are fewer costs involved in putting shows online and there's a much bigger potential audience so lowering prices is sensible.
Someone directed me to Lamphouse theatre who have an impressive looking website and have gone for the Vimeo and Patreon route with a subscription model for £6.99 including live streaming and the option to buy shows individually for £4: http://www.lamphousetheatre.co.uk/on-demand.html That sounds interesting. I also found top comic Sofie Hagan on Gumroad, with shows available for a starting price of £5.
Conclusion: Gumroad looks like the perfect platform for me. It has all of the things I've been aiming for and is the cheapest option, with no monthly fees. You can upgrade to a 10$ a month subscription where they take a lower percentage of sales but it doesn't look worth it for what my aims are. It's less well known than the others but I expect all of my sales to come from my website, newsletters and social media marketing anyway.
I've decided to price my shows at the £2 - £3 mark. My thinking is that it's important to charge something but right now I want as many people to see my work as possible and I don't think I'm well known enough yet to get that reach while asking for more. YouTube's caption auto-generator is the easiest way for me to add captions. I'm going to upload my videos to YouTube as private videos, use their caption auto-generator tool, edit the captions in YouTube, then export the captions as an .sbv file, use an online converter to convert that to a .srt file (compatible with Gumroad), then add it to my Gumroad video. It sounds complicated and it is. But I care about access and I'm computer savvy so it's worth it. I've decided to just make two versions of each show: one with audio description and one without. Gumroad has the option to have multiple versions of a product available to buy which should work pretty perfectly for this.
Too Pretty To Punch: https://gumroad.com/l/thhV Super Hamlet 64: https://gumroad.com/l/LYRqS I'm also in the process of setting up a Patreon account but it will be more for sharing behind the scenes info rather than as a subscription service for my online shows. I hope everyone's keeping safe and well and that this blog post is useful to you. If you have any questions please comment below or find me on social media @edaliaday