Comedy Is Music Now [WAAMN Chapter 4.6]
And the experience of Grammy-nominated comedians—as well as the powerhouse label behind many of them—serves as proof.
This is your weekly installment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. To make sure you don’t miss future serializations, subscribe here. Below you’ll find Chapter 4: The Accidental Musicians (Part 6). Enjoy!
Several years ago, Brian Volk-Weiss went to see Lady Gaga perform at the Staples Center. He’s a self-described “giant fan,” but all he could think about was the immense cost of the numerous sets and backup dancers.
“I’m literally watching this amazing concert and I’m like, ‘Yeah, no way she’s making money,’” says Volk-Weiss, founder of Comedy Dynamics. “I produced hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of standup shows as a manager, and 99% of the time, there’s not even a guitar. … If it’s 200 people or 30,000 people—and I’ve produced on both sides—it’s same thing, a human being with a microphone.”
Volk-Weiss knows a thing or two about human beings with microphones. In 2007 he launched his company, now the largest indie standup production and distribution outfit around, releasing over 100 albums annually. Most recently, Volk-Weiss and his team snagged their 21st Grammy nomination for Lavell Crawford’s The Comedy Vaccine, a strong contender in the Best Comedy Album category at tomorrow’s ceremony.
So the similarities between musicians and comedians aren’t lost on Volk-Weiss, from touring and recording to management and production. That’s because top-notch comedians and singer-songwriters are playing the same game. The come-up is similar: unless you make it big early by a stroke of luck, you’re playing dingy venues for bar tabs and pestering your friends to buy tickets to prove you’ve got an audience. If you draw enough new fans who spread the word virally, you move up to bigger venues and fatter checks.
At the turn of the Millennium, comedy albums faced a similar challenge to musical records as filesharing ate into profits. And streaming seemed like a lousy consolation prize … until it wasn’t. Now the highest-paid comedians earn like rock stars (see Kevin Hart) thanks to demand for their specials and, pandemic aside, their extremely efficient live shows. In other words—and you know what I’m about to say if you’ve been reading this newsletter for a little while—we are all musicians now.
“I think you’re absolutely right,” says Volk-Weiss when I offer my theory, before waxing philosophical about comedy. “It’s a very simple business. You find artists that you believe in, you bet on ‘em and you pray to God your instincts are right.”
Volk-Weiss’ inklings have indeed served him well. Comedy Dynamics Records has worked with stars including Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman and Kevin Smith, after starting out by producing a special with Michael Ian Black in the late aughts.
From there, the company began making two specials a year, then 10, then 20; by the time the pandemic hit, the number had soared to 30 annually. And with that came a chance to do an album for each one, along with a front-row seat to seismic shifts that first rocked the music business.
Volk-Weiss now finds himself in the middle of a debate over the monetization of intellectual property on streaming services—a debate all-too-familiar to musicians. Comedians traditionally earn mechanical royalties just like recording artists do.
Lately, though, they’ve been demanding something akin to a songwriting credit as well. Amid the debate last fall, Spotify removed a number of comedy albums from its service and Lewis Black publicly asked the service to remove his work in solidarity.
“We’re right in the middle of the discussion, everybody’s talking,” says Volk-Weiss, adding that the industry is “completely in flux.”
In the meantime, Volk-Weiss will cross his fingers for another Grammy and then get back to doing what he does best: putting comedy on wax, whether physically or virtually. He sees the streaming revolution as a problem to be solved, but also a way of democratizing the process of discovery, whether in music or in comedy.
“Talent rises,” says Volk-Weiss. “The public will decide if it’s garbage … talent rules.”
Just ask Lady Gaga.
You just read Chapter 4: The Accidental Musicians (Part 6), a serialized segment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. Subscribe here. For more, check out my other books and follow me on Twitter and Instagram.