Brownstein: Comics not chuckling over Just for Laughs Radio

The fear is that comedians will lose a large chunk of their revenues under a new arrangement with SiriusXM Canada.

For some comedians, says Montreal’s Derek Seguin, “this is a frightening and staggering switch and will be the end, in terms of them being able to do comedy exclusively.» Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

It’s not set to launch officially until the spring, but already the announcement that SiriusXM Canada and Just for Laughs have teamed up to create Just for Laughs Radio — replacing the financially beleaguered Canada Laughs on SiriusXM Canada — has triggered shock waves among Canadian comics.

The fear is that comedians will lose a large chunk of their revenues with the changeover. Since its inception in 2005, Canada Laughs has aired predominantly Canadian content, resulting in royalties which have provided a major source of comedian incomes.

According to SiriusXM Canada and Just for Laughs, the new radio outlet will feature “a blend of stand-up recorded at various Just For Laughs festivals and events, along with premium content from independent comedy albums.”

On his Facebook page, veteran Canadian comic and JFL co-owner Howie Mandel noted that SiriusXM Canada had approached the Montreal-based comedy festival to “retool” the station in order to keep it alive, and he pledged Just for Laughs Radio would continue to air content from Canadian comics.

But no fixed percentage breakdown between JFL and indie Canadian content has yet been announced.

Based on the playlist of artists during the current soft launch of the station, it is estimated that between 60 to 75 per cent of the material comes from JFL archives.

Montreal standup Derek Seguin, one of the most successful comics in the country, figures that if the current soft launch playlist continues as is, it will severely impact the Canadian scene. It comes down to royalties — those owing to the artist and those owing to the owners of the rights.

When Canada Laughs would play material from Seguin’s self-produced work, he would earn royalties from both streams. If Just for Laughs Radio plays Seguin material culled from the festival, he will only receive artist royalties. And if Just for Laughs Radio airs only between 25 to 40 per cent material from outside its archives, Seguin and others will be particularly hard hit.

Seguin estimates that 40 per cent of his annual income has been derived from Canada Laughs royalties. Now he thinks that figure will be reduced to between five and 10 per cent if the new station sticks to the ratio being aired in the soft launch.

“That’s a huge chunk of my income, but I will survive,” Seguin says. “But for others, this is a frightening and staggering switch and will be the end, in terms of them being able to do comedy exclusively. They say they’re going to continue to play independently produced albums, but the question is how much.”

Montreal standup Abdul Butt fears Canadian comics will face a drastic cut in airtime and royalties.

“I’m pretty sure the (Canada Laughs) channel had existed because the CRTC mandated it in order to balance out the non-Canadian content on SiriusXM,” says Butt, who has written and performed on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. “This move is taking royalty money away from comics and solidifying the corporate takeover of Canadian comedy.”

Seguin has been listening intently to the station of late and taking notes. “I’m guesstimating from samplings I’ve heard. It may be random, but whereas before you would get between three to five per cent play on Canada Laughs of all acts recorded in Canada through Just for Laughs or other events, but for now it’s more like 60 to 75 per cent from JFL archives. The remaining percentage is from independently recorded material. In a perfect world, I’d like to see Just for Laughs Radio play 80 per cent non-JFL material.”

Seguin also points out that less than 10 per cent of Canadian comics have recorded material in the JFL archives, which will affect even more in the pocketbook. “And who knows if our artist royalties from our JFL material will last in perpetuity?” asks Seguin, ironically, a former winner of SiriusXM Canada’s Top Comic award.

Seguin points out a little ominously that he used to hear himself a few times while driving from Montreal to Toronto. “But on my last trip, I didn’t hear myself once.”

On the other hand, Seguin understands why SiriusXM made the deal with JFL. “Why wouldn’t they? From a business point, it makes perfect sense. It’s been a rough road for them. Just for Laughs is great brand recognition for them. And from the perspective of Just for Laughs, they have overnight created themselves a brand new revenue stream.

“I get it,” adds Seguin, who plays the Comedy Nest — “royalty free” — March 15-17. “But if our government can subsidize the CBC, why couldn’t it have helped a satellite radio station that has literally kept the heads of hundreds of Canadian comedians above water? It still can.”

Seguin does concede, however, there has been something positive to emerge from this changeover: “In my 15 years in the business, this is the first time I’ve ever felt this sort of solidarity among comedians. Because it affects everyone’s bottom line, we’re all standing together.”

Stay tuned.

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