(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)
Neale Welch is a busy chap.
This year, he took over-all charge of programming at the Comedy Cafe Theatre in London, a full-time job which continues.
But, in July last year, he also started his own independent comedy label Just The Greatest and, this month, it released its first three audio albums – by Anil Desai, Steve N Allen and Erich McElroy (all recorded live at the Comedy Cafe Theatre).
When I talked to him in London’s Shoreditch last week, he told me something very odd:
“All of the sales so far,” he told me, “have been in the United States.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I think there’s an element of If you build it, they will come. The sales are there. Sales started as a trickle and they are starting to increase.”
“The blurbs must be bloody good,” I said.
“Well,” Neale told me, “there’s only a very brief description of what’s on the albums – there’s no real space on iTunes for any promo copy or quotes. They’re just really good products. Very funny.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “They’re very good comedians but the Americans, presumably, don’t know them – To the Yanks, they’re Fred Hippity-Hoppity from Guatemala.”
“What I think you’re witnessing here, John,” suggested Neale, “is the power of the distribution channels – iTunes and Amazon. Who are we to know why Americans are buying the albums? It’s comedy, it’s spoken word, it’s British and it’s out there available to buy.”
“How much do they cost?” I asked.
“The distributors set the prices themselves,” explained Neale. “iTunes set the price by category and genre. The albums are $9.99.”
“So Yanks are forking out $10 for unknown-to-them comedians!” I said in amazement.
“But they’re getting to know them slowly,” said Neale. “And you can also buy cheaper individual tracks.”
“I guess, when it all develops,” I said, “your market is going to be Britain and the English-speaking pink bits on the map – plus the US?”
“And parts of Europe,” added Neale.
“This is like one of those rock star things,” I said, “where someone from Manchester is a major star in Botswana for no discernible reason. Or Right Said Fred being massive in Germany, which they are. Massive.”
“…and David Hasselhoff,” added Neale.
“And David Hasselhoff,” I had to agree. “Did you expect to get foreign sales?”
“Not this early, no,” said Neale.
“So why did you start the label?” I asked.
“Because,” explained Neale, “a few years ago, I was travelling alone around Asia and Australia and needed something to listen to when I was in planes, on beaches, in hostels. Videos are fine, but videos require your attention whereas, with a sound album, you can do other things when you’re in another environment.
“I came across a great podcast called Stop Podcasting Yourself by Graham Clark. So I brought him over to do a special gig at the Comedy Cafe in London, which was great, sold out, fantastic.
“Graham is signed to a podcast network in the States called MaximumFun.org, run by a guy called Jesse Thorn – a great inspirational guy who started this network with lots of free content, a little bit of paid content, lots of different shows, mostly run on donations.
“And I thought I could do something like that. I thought I want to do something that’s good and I want to work with original artists that are going somewhere and have got something to say.”
“Hold on though,” I interrupted, “You said, with a sound album, you can do other things while you’re listening. But doesn’t comedy require you pay attention? The build-ups and the punchlines?”
“Yes,” agreed Neale. “But not as much as visuals. I think there’s an opportunity for the re-birth of comedy albums in digital form.”
“And physical CDs?” I asked.
“It’s all digital,” said Neale. “At Just The Greatest, we’re not interested in physical products, though some of the artists are going to produce physical products – CDs – to sell themselves after their gigs. It doesn’t make any sense any other way. I don’t have a warehouse to store a load of stuff.”
“And CDs are dead anyway,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” agreed Neale, “CDs, DVDs… but downloads have made up for the decline in over-all sales. If you pay attention to who’s listening to podcasts – graphic designers, knowledge workers if you will – it’s people who are at their desk working a flexible, autonomous working day who can also enjoy audio entertainment. That’s the kind of demographic who are going to buy it.”
“Did you do market research in advance?” I asked.
“The sales ARE the market research,” Neale explained. “I’m finding out now what kind of market I’m going into and it’s clear that there are opportunities. I knew in advance, obviously, that there were similar projects out there already. It’s not like I was wondering if people would buy a digital file; of course they will.”
“How do you think the market will it develop?” I asked. “Will iTunes’ dominance diminish?”
“In the digital market, I just do not know,” said Neale. “If you look at the barriers to entry and the coverage that they get… it would be a difficult market for anyone to attack. If you think that a company the size of Amazon aren’t even getting close, then…”
“And beyond that,” I asked, “you’ll develop radio shows, TV shows and major movies with lots of special effects?”
“No,” laughed Neale. “As you know, I’ve shot some small videos, but try and find someone in Shoreditch who hasn’t!”