What’s Next? (and I don’t mean the trick?)

2020 is a year that will cast a long shadow. In America, and almost everywhere else, the entertainment industry nearly ground to a halt. From mid-March onwards, COVID-19 has trumped virtually every form of entertainment other than sitting at home watching Netflix and taking your computer online. Clubs and theaters closed their doors. Cruise ships are languishing in dockyards. Las Vegas showrooms went dark, and corporate entertainment vanished like a birdcage up a sleeve. Magic has taken a particularly critical hit due to the interactive nature that is at the core of its being. Wages and fees have disappeared, as bookings have cancelled with a devastating finality. Of course, you already know this.

Without a crystal ball or an Alexander-like ability to “Know,” we are at the mercy of the evolution of this new and capricious virus. The entertainment industry’s immediate future rests on the novel coronavirus’ subsequent waves, spikes, and recurrences. Anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen next is only fooling themselves. However, this does seem like a suitable forum to take stock of where we are, where we may be heading, and to identify some recent changes that are unlikely to go away too quickly. With fifty years of making a living as a magician in my rearview mirror, I feel as qualified as anyone to have a shot at this process.

One plus point about quarantining has been experiencing how the magic community has reinvented itself digitally with a mass of new meetings, lectures, podcasts, groups, and shows for magicians to enjoy. Most of them are free, which is a handy bonus in the current financial climate. Magicians have also learned a new skill, Zooming. The only time I encountered Zoom before March of this year was when I guested on one of McBride’s Mystery School Mondays. Now, almost everyone in the community has mastered this useful and relatively painless skill. I suspect that this new level of inter-magician communication will outlive the COVID crisis. Most magicians are enthusiastic about meeting up with their cohorts and with Zoom they now have an inexpensive and efficient means to do so.

The early days of the COVID crisis launched an assortment of magicians using Facebook to stream shows from their living rooms. Many of these shows were frankly poor, and technical limitations did nothing to improve the performances. Often these events seemed like a somewhat desperate plea for attention by acts that would otherwise pass under their fellow magician’s radar; however, the situation quickly improved. As things settled down, it became clear that a “Zoom Show” just might become a legitimate way for the average magician to earn a few bucks. However, with one major exception, I have serious doubts whether the merits of a Zoom show will outlast the end of our national quarantine by any significant length of time. Magic tends to work much better live than on video unless your name is David Blaine.

Magicians tend to love their high-tech show trimmings, and a group of magicians who might once have been swapping card moves, are now focusing on iPhone tripods, USB microphones, virtual backdrops, and living room lighting. Some of the virtual show production trimmings are getting better, but the intrinsic impact with magic is usually more focused on the human interactions. The sizzle is fun, but if you want to charge a fee, don’t underestimate the importance of the steak. The recent industry embrace of mentalism has been useful training for these kinds of shows, and a Zoom style presentation can serve this kind of magic excellently. Another strong option for video shows is nonparticipant close-up magic routines, just as long as the objects involved look crisp and in focus.

What doesn’t play particularly well in a Zoom style show? Illusions are a tough sell due to the changes in size involved in shrinking the output down to a computer screen. It takes careful direction and multiple cameras to make illusion look good on a television show. Another serious Zoom casualty is pure comedy magic. Without hearing other audience members laughing, comedy is a lot less contagious than the coronavirus. If you don’t want an audio zoo, then you need to mute the viewers during the performance, and that makes comedy magic a tougher prospect.

The one type of paid Zoom show that I believe will be around for a substantial time is corporate entertainment. It is going to be a while before corporations want to gather all their executives, salespeople, and clients in one big room eating, talking, and drinking. I suspect the Zoom shows that corporate clients will want to employ will require very high-level production skills. These buyers are used to superb audiovisuals, and they will expect their Zoom shows to share this level of expertise.

Most performers are just waiting for their old lives to kick back into place again, and eventually, with stops and starts it will. However, I think it unrealistic to believe that we will not need to tailor our work to these changing times. Audience participation, and interaction with physical props, is going to need to be very carefully restructured for a very long time. Even if the majority of the audience is unworried about these issues, if even ONE person comments, “Oh, you’re not going to touch that are you?” then the entire audience is going to become uncomfortable. The hecklers of the future may come disguised as health advisors.

We are in a brief window of time which magicians should use to re-evaluate the direction of their magic repertoire. While it is correct to anticipate the return of live bookings, I think it is only realistic to re-tune our performance for the new normal. I am currently filming a series of new downloads for our online magic retail company that will feature classic “display” close-up routines that are Covid-19 and Zoom friendly. It is entirely unrealistic to believe that attention to these presentational details are not paramount in re-establishing one’s commercial presence. I am amazed how often I read posts from magicians on Facebook who seem to think that a firm allegiance to their old repertoire and performance style will be acceptable as the pandemic begins to fade. Clients will be impressed by the performer who appears to respect the health and interests of their guests, and will book accordingly. 

One area of employment that has totally ceased this year is the Cruise Ship market. Cruise work is one of the most extensive and highest paying gigs for magicians throughout the world and is going to resume functioning the very day that the cruise lines think they can get away with it. The money that is hemorrhaging from cruise lines is profound. Realistically I believe that re-booting this particular market is going to be extremely difficult. Every time a passenger comes down with COVID-19, the entire industry will face a potentially “close it down” chorus from the media. However, things will get back to normal eventually, and when they do, it will present a new and exciting employment opportunity for a great many entertainers.

With the colossal financial losses sustained by the entire cruise industry, some obvious and predictable changes will occur. Salaries will go down, and longer bookings are inevitable. Performers will also need to present more shows during their engagement, and pre/post show home quarantining may become standard. These changes will create a working situation that will cause many of the more established performers to exit this particular kind of booking rather than take that cut in salary and change in accustomed working conditions. The upside of these developments is that the industry will open up to a great many performers who were not previously working this lucrative and enjoyable market. There are not many opportunities to book a year’s worth of work with a single phone call in magic, but this is one of them. If a performer hasn’t worked on a ship before, he will not experience a wage cut, and will probably be very comfortable doing that extra twenty-minute show. He might even relish a six-month contract. I predict that this will be a “gold rush” for a new booking opportunities. Move quickly though because the fresh blood will soon absorb the overflow of bookings.

I hope you found a few useful angles in this post about What’s Next after our lives get back a little closer to normal. The time to think carefully about your magic is now. Things will improve, so stay safe and healthy!  



~ by Nick Lewin on October 16, 2020.

4 Responses to “What’s Next? (and I don’t mean the trick?)”

  1. Thank you, Nick for your thoughtful treatment – focusing on what may be possible for workers, vs. the “busy-ness” that can occupy our time and interest, but probably won’t feed the family.

  2. Terrific post Nick!

    Would love to hear more of your thoughts on online aka virtual shows. Especially as it relates to comedy. I think it would be like comedy on TV without a studio audience or laugh track. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman did that in the 70’s with some success.

    Best Regards,

    Michael Ross

    • Well Good News! I have a couple of posts coming up which go into some details of some of the current virtual shows, including Justin Willman’s great (and very funny) show!

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