I was recently lucky enough to sit down and talk with my friend Max Major. He is a very talented magician and mindreader in the Washington D.C. area who is bringing some modern energy and a degree of sophistication to an art form that can be unfortunately perceived as kitschy. We also talked about treating art and performance as a business, to which Max has some great experience and advice. Upcoming performances of his critically-acclaimed show THINK can be found here.
I asked Max about taking the leap from freelance work into being a performer full-time:
“It was around 2008 I took the leap into just doing magic, so that’s been about 5 years now. I guess I took another sort of leap last August when I started my theatre show. It’s been evolving but things have been pretty stable for the last few years.”
I asked Max about the business side of performing:
“The majority of my job as a performer is almost being a media company – my brand is something that I have to package and sell and thats where performers should be spending a majority of their time. Of course you have to perfect your craft – be polished as a musician or skilled as a magician – but the real work is the business side of things. I’m sort of hardwired this way; I went to University of Maryland business school but I’ve met too many performers who think having a good act is enough. That is step one, but you’ve also got to market yourself. I know plenty of mediocre acts who are very astute at business who are incredibly busy and I knew a few world-class acts who can’t find work.
Ultimately it is a business and how you do that is gonna be a big factor in if you can make a living at this. There are big breaks, but its not something you can control. Yeah that might happen and you certainly have to be ready when it does happen but 90% of it is just hard work. The truth is most people make it because they hustle – and that’s something you can control.
The truth is there’s tons of talent so its gonna take a little extra legwork and thats where the business and marketing comes in. At first that’s kind of frustrating relaxation for an artist “Oh no it’s not enough just to be good enough?” But then it’s liberating because it means you’re in complete control of your destiny – I have the ability to push as hard as possible to find my own work and that’s not something you can necessarily do in other careers.”
I asked Max Major – how long did it take to establish yourself as a full-time performer?
“To have real peace of mind and sustainability it took about 5 years – and I’m not talking about being a magician – I’ve done that for 20 years, but once i made the decision to be a magician it took me about 3 years to be comfortable and 5 years to really not look back. And most of that was learning to manage my brand and run a business. There’s a learning curve there where you’re going from artist to businessman and promoter.”
We then talked about how working with online deals company Living Social to host and promote his show:
“I don’t have a traditional relationship with Living Social – its not a deal. Tickets are full price; they’re my ticketing partner rather then moving discounted bulk tickets. I can’t really speak to how that normal model works, i know that you sacrifice a lot of your profits when you take that model.
So my relationship with them is a little different, and thats because they own a performance space and I’m an in-house performer….I think we’ve sold about 3000 tickets now, and in addition to the ticket sales, there’s everyone who’s getting the emails from Living Social and seeing my name and my brand. I’ve had people recognize me from a Living Social email or a press appearance to an article who have never seen me perform – and that’s part of your goal as a performer – that general awareness – people know – yeah, that guys a magician in Washington DC.
And that may lead to them buying tickets down the road. A lot of performers might say – I did this local press appearance and I didn’t see any bump in ticket sales. It’s really surprising – I’ve done national press appearances and seen no measurable rise in sales – but everything you do adds to the value of your brand but in time it will add value to your show. Someone might see blogs, newspaper and press appearances and become aware of me but not actually buy tickets till 6 months down the line.
It’s not the most measurable thing so you almost have to do it on faith – its like social media which is one of the least-measurable things but its still very important for your brand. And I think this is one of the things that a lot of more traditional businesses struggle with, not being able to measure these things that are very important.”
The we talked about how he deals with perceptions of magic as kitschy or childish?
“It’s a hard thing to represent – the way people think of a a magician is the classic icon, the wand and the hat and the cape – magician haven’t worn capes but the first thing people ask is where’s your top hat? and magic hasn’t really been that for decades – there’s so much content for modern magic that people see this old image of it – on one hand it’s kind of a challenge – they see this cheesy image in their head and they say “my kids will love this” - well wouldn’t you love this? and I don’t think its a mean thing its just this stereotype. but the truth is that everyone of all ages loves magic. there is a stigma attached to magic – i wish this wasn’t the case but it is and as a performer and businessman i have to respond to that.
Magic is the one art where you base your entire opinion on your first experience of it – your uncle pulls a quarter out of your ear or someone shows you a shitty card trick and thats how you perceive it. so it is an uphill battle to convince people that a magic show is modern and adult and exciting. and some of it is branding – part of my ad copy is “not recommended for children under 18” and nothing in my show is inappropriate but its sets this tone of adultness. And I just want to do a great a magic show so when people have seen me the perception starts to change – but you do have to get them in the door first.”