On Monday night, I had the pleasure of attending the second official gathering of the London theatre bloggers, an amorphous group of 30-odd who you can follow collectively at #LDNTheatreBloggers on Twitter.
While mainstream critics have come under increasing pressure, the bloggers are baying and hammering at the gates – although very politely and enthusiastically.
True, as many PRs may moan, there are some theatre bloggers who are just in it for the free tickets. Also true, as most professional freelancers will wail, the proliferation of free content undermines the value of paid-for content.
But just who are the amateurs and who are the professionals here? While freelance journalists are struggling to make a living through their writing, many of these bloggers are figuring out how to do just that – and being their own bosses to boot.
The irrepressibly vivacious Rebecca Felgate, who hosts the theatre blogger meet-ups, is a case in point. Rebecca followed her first-class drama degree from Goldsmiths in 2010 with a journalism post-graduate course – after which, bar working as a princess at Hamley’s, she couldn’t find a paying job for love nor money, and certainly not in arts reporting, which was her dream.
Having tried her hand at writing reviews for A Younger Theatre, she scraped together some seed investment and launched her own website, www.officialtheatre.com, in April 2012. On the site, she posts blogs, interviews and reviews – which, given her unique twist, are often far from the usual. As an example: the video “review response” below, which absolutely cracks me up!
Rebecca then integrated her content with a box office system from a ticketing provider, and on the commission she earns off of her 2,000+ visitors a day, she’s now not only feeding her passion but paying her rent as well.
Of course, none of this is rocket science. We did it with WhatsOnStage.com some 16 years ago. The difference is that, with the combined advancement of open-source blogging software like WordPress and APIs from ticketing providers like Encore, individuals can be up and running in no time. If they can market themselves and find an audience, they can create a nice little lifestyle business without fixed overheads (not least, other people’s salaries).
There’s an awful lot of freedom – and power – that comes with that. One of the bloggers I spoke to on Monday night tells me they applied for an arts journalism job at an established media brand recently; they decided to turn it down because the ‘steady’ salary was £10,000 less than they’re already earning through ticket commissions. And, given the blogger’s growth trajectory, that salary would rise much less quickly than their commissions.
Collaboration not competition
Apart from entrepreneurialism, the other thing I love about the theatre bloggers is their “we’re all in this together” spirit. This is something Rebecca has seized upon and accelerated, by encouraging others to break into blogging (check out her great how-to piece here) and by organising quarterly meet-ups for those who take the plunge.
“I kept seeing the same people at theatre nights out,” Rebecca tells me. “So I thought, why don’t we all get together away from the theatre?”
For Monday’s meet-up at the Soho Grind coffee and cocktail bar, Rebecca secured a sponsor, seat guide technology company SeatPlan, to help foot the bill, and laid on free drinks, food, games and entertainment. (I won a bottle of Prosecco for my team’s theatrically themed cocktail concoction, “Starlight Espresso” – naming credit to WestEndWilma.)
She views her fellow bloggers as colleagues and friends – and often takes them to the theatre with her. “I have a surplus of plus-ones – my boyfriend is not really into the theatre. It’s like I have 30 extra boyfriends now!” she laughs.
Rebecca is able to share the stub wealth even further through multiple pairs of comps she receives as a ticketing affiliate – she regularly puts these into a “free tickets” draw for other bloggers who have lower traffic and less pull with PRs.
The catch? The ticket beneficiaries commit to blogging and tweeting about the show with links to each other’s blogs and OfficialTheatre. What brilliant blogger outreach! “Helping is the name of the game,” says Rebecca. “If we all share each other’s content, we all grow.”
Memphis the Musical, Sunny Afternoon, Great Britain, Made in Dagenham and, beyond the West End, Autobahn at the King’s Head, have all been visited en masse by Rebecca’s plus-ones recently.
And that’s got to be a good thing for the shows they all blog about too!
So, here’s me doing my bit. In addition to #LDNTheatreBloggers, check out some of the independent blogger voices via the links below.