If a comic tells a joke in a virtual room, and no actual audience is around to hear it, does anyone really care? It’s a question that still puzzles Barry Taylor, head of Comedy Records, Canada’s first and only label dedicated to stand-up and sketch-comedy albums. That’s because for about two years, save for a few months of fleeting bliss, Taylor and his roster of jesters were not allowed to perform indoors (with, you know, real people) thanks to rolling COVID-19 restrictions.
To keep Comedy Records alive, Taylor needed to find sustenance beyond the stage. He and his team already had side projects and album royalties in the bag, but those pursuits weren’t meaty enough for the long haul. So, Taylor improvised, took risks on some new tech products (such as NFTs and Zoom shows) and readied for the unknown.
Innovation has always been part of the Comedy Records ethos. Taylor, who got his show-business start as a host at 102.1 the Edge in the early aughts, saw how the advent of file sharing had completely gutted the record industry’s sales. Indie bands pivoted, and started to use their albums as marketing platforms for other money-making pursuits, such as tours, merchandise and appearances. And it was working.
So, in 2010, with a few years of stand-up under his belt, Taylor took that new-music model and founded Comedy Records. Pressed on vinyl and released online, the albums featured live recordings from some of Canada’s most-promising stand-ups. Today, the Comedy Records roster is made up of 15 comedians, such as K. Trevor Wilson of Letterkenny, and the critically acclaimed Nick Reynoldson.
“We lost so much money early on, but I never intended to make money from the albums themselves,” says Taylor. “Besides, there was nothing else any of us would rather do.” To keep Comedy Records humming — and to keep his artists from resorting to day jobs — Taylor supplemented live-show ticket sales with as many jobs as he could land. This included: corporate gigs, podcasts, amateur basketball tournaments and a royalty deal with SiriusXM, which he says represents “a lot of money compared to everything else in the industry.”
That album money was a welcome life raft for roster veteran Clare Belford. While reuniting with an old friend and hunkering down in Canada’s Atlantic bubble, Belford could rely on a humble stream of royalties, as well as Taylor’s promotional support for gigs, real or virtual. “Being a part of those shows, being on those posters, having an album to point to — they’ve helped legitimize me on the comedy scene in North America,” she says.
Belford is about to shoot a set for T.V. at the Halifax Comedy Festival, and her record The Entire Cabbage was recently honoured by NPR as one of the best comedy albums of 2021. “There’s an attitude in Canada that you can’t make it here as a stand-up. Comedy Records is the only company trying to change that perception. And it feels like family.”
Think on your feet
Taylor is always willing to try anything new. Before the pandemic, he’d been approached by an NFT company “aggressively” looking to advertise on his Toronto-Raptors-themed podcast. “I didn’t know what they were talking about,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of sponsorships on podcasts are scams.” Still, as NFTs grew in popularity over the pandemic, Taylor wanted to see if they could be a valid business avenue. He took Comedy Records’ 10-year-anniversary album (a greatest hits of the roster’s best sets, previously released exclusively on vinyl), digitized it for the metaverse, and — by the grace of the pod — all 25 versions of the NFT “surprisingly” sold out, says Taylor. He’s incorporating more of the digital doodads into live shows, and using them as merchandise and VIP passes.
“The NFT industry is worth billions now and I just didn’t see it coming. I assumed it would be like the dot-com bubble [in the 90s],” says Taylor. “But they have a lot of value.”
Play for the home team
Comedy Records is still standing. Now that Toronto and other comedy capitals are open again for live audiences, Taylor is re-launching all the good work planned for 2020 — plus a bit more. That means a monthly Comedy Records showcase at Comedy Bar on Bloor Street, regular shows in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, and a live recording at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. He’s also bringing on new roster players and producing their inaugural albums; and just-announced is a charity basketball tournament this May 8 in Los Angeles in partnership with Netflix.
“Making mistakes is still a terrifying reality,” says Taylor, “but I know we’re getting better because we’re still alive and comedians we respect are finally reaching out to us for opportunities.”
Still, Taylor’s most excited about reconnecting with the city and people he loves. “Toronto is a community even if it’s a global destination,” he says. “We’re cleaner and safer than America. I love its multiculturalism so much. You walk around other cities, and it looks like they haven’t evolved. I want to say to them, ‘You’re all still here?!”’ And Comedy Records, according to Taylor, is modelled after Toronto’s best qualities. “We believe in our roster, we really focus on that,” he says. “It’s easy to find talent in this city. Landing people who are also good people. Those are the gems.”
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