Fergus Morgan is a freelance arts journalist, specialising in theatre. His work has appeared in The Stage, TimeOut, Vice, The Independent, WhatsOnStage and elsewhere, and he publishes his own newsletter featuring emerging theatremakers, The Crush Bar, on Substack.
In the last piece of his guest editorship, Morgan takes a look at the expanding world of theatre newsletters, and if they offer a sustainable future for freelance writers and industry professionals.
Crunching The Numbers
Making a living as a theatre journalist is hard. Unless you are one of the small handful of lucky writers to have landed a salaried staff position, you are freelance. You earn money through coming up with decent ideas, pitching them to publications, and getting commissioned to write them - and, to be quite frank, you do not earn an awful lot.
Some transparency might be helpful. Pay for a 1000-ish word feature usually varies between £100 and £200. The most I have ever been paid for one is £300. Pay for a 500-ish word review usually varies between £50 and £150. The most I have ever been paid for a review is £100. The most I have ever heard of anyone getting paid is £250, which completely blew my mind.
During a regular month – i.e. not panto season and not the Edinburgh Fringe – I do between £1000 and £2000 worth of freelance journalism. A big chunk of that comes through my work for performing arts industry paper The Stage. The rest of it is made up of writing for other publications, previously TimeOut, WhatsOnStage and Exeunt, latterly The Independent, and others.
It does not take a genius to work out that an annual income like that is not enough to live on, so most freelance theatre journalists do something else to make money. Some make theatre, too. Some embrace academia. Some do something else entirely. I get by with a combination of other writing work – programmes, promotional stuff, a bit of copywriting – and cricket coaching.
The dream, though, is to eventually leave all that behind: to figure out a way of making freelance theatre journalism pay all the bills, not just some of them. But, as the amount of arts coverage is declining across the board with fewer and fewer paid opportunities available – as I explored in the first article in this series – I decided that was something I would have to make happen myself.
Enter The Crush Bar
About 18 months ago, in January 2021, I launched The Crush Bar, my own email newsletter dedicated to theatre, using the platform Substack. The idea, which took some time to refine, was that The Crush Bar would kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, it would allow me the opportunity to shout about the emerging artists in whom I was interested. Secondly, it would provide a modest income stream that would increasingly allow me to focus entirely on theatre journalism.
The first of those ambitions was easily fulfilled. The first issue was an interview with Grace Gallagher, artistic director of Ugly Bucket Theatre, a clowning company whose shows I love and who I wanted to find out more about. In subsequent issues, I have chatted to directors, designers, actors, artists, poets, playwrights, and more, and I have been fascinated by every single one of them.
The second ambition has been harder to realise, though. Substack launched in 2017, and the platform’s preferred method of money-making is for subscribers to pay a monthly fee, of which Substack takes 10%. If 100 subscribers pay £5 a month to receive your newsletter, you earn £450. If 100,000 subscribers pay £10 a month, you earn £900,000 a month. That’s the theory, anyway.
I decided quite quickly that this model of monetisation was not for me for two reasons. Firstly, I resent putting my writing behind a paywall: I want everyone to be able to read about the artists I interview. Secondly, I do not think I would get enough paid subscribers to start earning a serious income: most of my readers work in theatre, and no-one in theatre has any money, basically.
So, I decided on a different route. Once I had enough subscribers, once my emails were landing in enough inboxes and getting enough views, I would introduce promotional content to The Crush Bar. Occasionally – and, crucially, only when I thought it appropriate – I would accept payment from people who wanted to promote their work to the audience of industry professionals I had built.
The Ground Rules
Earlier this year, in the build up to VAULT Festival, when The Crush Bar was regularly receiving 1000+ views, I decided to start introducing promotional content – and start earning a bit of money from it. The festival was cancelled thanks to Covid-19, though, so the first promotional content did not actually appear in the newsletter until Brighton Fringe rolled around in April.
When it eventually did, I set myself certain rules. One: I would never promote a show if I thought its content or its creation was in any way problematic. Two: I would never take money from someone who could not afford it and was not entirely aware of what they were getting in return. Three: I would not take this piss with pricing, given how limited most fringe theatre budgets are.
The model I am using is still in its infancy: I am still working a lot of things out. When to put promotional content in the newsletter? What that promotional content should look like? How much should I charge for it? How to spread the word about The Crush Bar? How to keep increasing the number of subscribers? How to fit it all in amid the other freelance work I do?
I consult with a lot of people to figure out the answers to those questions – PRs, marketing professionals, theatremakers, producers, other newsletter writers, other journalists. I read a lot about the business of producing a newsletter online. I probably bore my friends and family to tears talking about it. Slowly but surely, though, I am coming up with answers.
I sent out an issue of The Crush Bar earlier today. It features five of the best solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, three picked by me, and two paid for by artists or companies seeking to promote their show. Each of them paid £40. There will be eleven more issues like it over the next few weeks. That makes £960. £40 is not a massive amount of money for the artists involved, but £960 is a massive amount of money for me. £960 for about 12000 words: that seems fair.
Are newsletters the future of theatre journalism?
The Crush Bar is not the only theatre newsletter out there. Lots of writers across lots of industries are turning to platforms like Substack, and theatre is no exception. In this country, Adam Lenson publishes Counterpoint, offering interesting discussion of contemporary musical theatre, and Josh Coates publishes Etude about online theatre. I have long thought that there was room for a London-based journalist to start publishing theatre reviews via Substack, too – somebody do it!
Things are more developed in the US, where there are several newsletters dedicated to theatre. One I particularly like is dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen’s Nothing For The Group, which dissects the American theatre industry for over 4000 subscribers – and several hundred paid subscribers. Here and there, sustainable models for newsletter-based theatre journalism seem to be being found.
Will it stay that way? Will The Crush Bar and newsletters like it survive and thrive? I hope so. I think that the signs are currently positive. I only sent out a few emails about The Crush Bar’s Edinburgh Fringe promotional slots, and all were taken within 48 hours. I had to turn people away, which felt very weird. Things seem to be trending in the right direction at the moment at least.
Both theatre and journalism are in precarious positions, though. Post-pandemic, audiences are down and balance books look bleak. The current crisis means fewer people have the time or the money to go to the theatre: perhaps fewer people want to read about it as a result. I certainly have to earn more money to make ends meet. Maybe I will be better off getting my cricket coaching kit out again.
For the moment, though, I am going to stick at it. I sent out the first issue of The Crush Bar to 280 subscribers and it got 603 views. In the intervening 18 months, I have published over 50 issues, featuring over 70 artists. The issue I just sent out landed in the inboxes of 918 subscribers and will probably get somewhere around 1200 views. In the time it has taken me to write this, I have gained a couple more subscribers, inching me ever closer to 1000. That, to me, reads like progress.