© Chris Dzombak 2010
Picture this: You’ve just graduated college, and you’ve accidentally started a business because of a musical you posted on YouTube. Yeah. It happens.
If you’re a theater nerd and haven’t heard of Team StarKid, A Very Potter Musical, or at least Darren Criss, just what are you doing with your life? Team StarKid is a theater production company that was spawned after the unanticipated success of it’s Harry Potter college parody, A Very Potter Musical, in 2009.
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Since then, the troupe has gone on to make several more parody and original musicals, as well as generate $1 million of revenue in one year. Not bad for some college kids, eh? They also managed to double the target fundraising goals on almost all of their Kickstarter campaigns.
With 230 million views on their YouTube channel to date (there are 325 million people in the United States, that’s how mega that is!), as well as 474,000 subscribers, Team StarKid took the musical parody world by storm.
As of publication, the group raised over half a million dollars for their 10-year anniversary show and a new musical, Black Friday. Check it out!
How Did Team StarKid Do It? An Interview With Nick Lang
I’ve been a Team StarKid superfan since I was a teen, and when I got the chance to speak with writer, producer, director, actor, founder, CEO — you name it, he’s done it — Nick Lang, the 15-year-old me was losing it. The 23-year-old me was super-professional — I hope.
We spoke about the trials and tribulations of running a business that you never set out to start, of crowdfunding to make an idea a reality, and of what’s next for Team StarKid.
But how did they get to where they are from the halls of the University of Michigan — one of the top three musical theater schools in the U.S. —almost 10 years ago?
How did a group of twentysomethings earn a million dollars in revenue from parody shows and a rock-musical tour?
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Kelly Meehan Brown: The start of Team StarKid’s success — was it hard work, crazy luck, or a mix of both?
Nick Lang: We got incredibly lucky. We did A Very Potter Musical while most of us were still in college, and we uploaded it to YouTube only because we were too lazy to make DVD copies for everybody in the cast.
People started watching it. We didn’t expect it, and we were entirely unprepared because we had no idea how to run a business.
We just kept going. From then on, we worked hard to make all of our products and shows better than the first, and do so within our means.
Meehan Brown: How does a video go viral on YouTube? Was it due to the newfound fame of Darren [Criss, a star of Glee] or something else?
Lang: It’s very hard to pin down exactly how something goes viral. Unless, like Disney, you’ve already got a large established audience, it is luck for nobodies like us. Having the right idea at the right time.
The viral success of A Very Potter Musical didn’t really have anything to do with Darren’s fame, as he wasn’t famous then. He didn’t get on Glee until after we had done our first three StarKid musicals.
Of course, AVPM’s success had a lot to do with Darren’s talent — he was the star of the show and wrote a bunch of the songs. But he didn’t have a following. I think AVPM went viral because it was a fun Harry Potter show, and a lot of people were thinking about Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter fan community is strong, and it had a lot to do with spreading the show around in all the right ways. After AVPM, I’d say that nothing Team StarKid has done has gone viral in the same way — other than a few images or clips from our shows becoming GIFs or memes — because now we already have an audience.
Meehan Brown: How different was it when you decided to use Kickstarter [a crowdfunding platform for creative projects]?
Lang: When we launched the two Kickstarter campaigns, we worked hard on our shows. The first campaign, for our show Twisted, an Aladdin musical parody, we didn’t really push it too hard.
Our initial goal was to raise $35,000. Of course, the production would cost far more, but my brother, Matt, and Eric Kahn Gale — my writing partners — and I were going to front the rest of the budget ourselves, which we thought would land at around $60,0000.
But we got lucky. We raised almost $143,000. We didn’t hustle much to get that money, but we were incredibly lucky with our StarKid following.
For Firebringer, an original comedy musical about cavemen discovering fire, we hustled more than we did for Twisted, and hoped to raise $88,000. Instead, we raised $152,000. [Precisely $154,670 — almost double the intended goal, but hey, who’s counting?]
It came down to working hard to let our fans know that we had a product they might like enough to give us donations.
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Team Starkid’s Financial Challenges
Meehan Brown: Since you had crazy money for some shows and less for others, what were the biggest financial challenges you faced throughout your production process?
Lang: For the first few musicals, we didn’t have to pay people much because we were doing films in the context of a college program. We got a lot of stuff for free — actors, workers, the space, all of that.
Still, our first show, A Very Potter Musical, cost $5,000, which I paid for. After graduating from college, I was working in Los Angeles as a video editor for a website owned by Disney. When the recession hit, Disney freaked out and had to consolidate all their teams into one, and I was fired. So I returned to the University of Michigan and spent all my savings on that show. That was foolish, of course, but also lucky.
In the later productions, the biggest financial challenge was always being able to pay people a fair wage. Many theater companies, especially in L.A., just assume that the performers and people involved are mainly doing it for the opportunity, and they don’t pay much. With Team StarKid, paying people decently was and is the main financial hurdle, especially because some of the shows that we’ve done have larger overhead with bigger casts and costs.
With both Twisted and Firebringer, we planned for a smaller cast size going into the productions. But when we raised more money than we expected on Kickstarter, we expanded the cast by several members. With Firebringer, the extra funding allowed us to double the size of our crew.
Paying people is always tough. In 2011, when we produced our fourth show, Starship — which is sci-fi with a lot of technical elements, puppets, and a bigger set than we’d had before — Team StarKid was making enough money to afford those extras.
Meehan Brown: Where were your earnings from? Did you ever have to borrow to continue?
Lang: Mostly merchandise and album sales. That doesn’t happen much anymore. We still do sell some merch, but not like before. The albums just don’t make much money, so these days, crowdfunding is more and more common. It makes sense: People pay for something upfront that they hope will be worth it.
Also, in terms of financial obstacles, not having enough money is the main thing. We never had to borrow money, thankfully. We used Kickstarter, and it paid for itself, or I paid for the shows outright. The only person we borrowed from was me!
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Further Funding Adventures
Meehan Brown: Whose idea was it to do a Kickstarter campaign?
Lang: After the success of our Harry Potter shows, which ran from 2009 to 2012, we could afford eight full-time employees.
Toward the end of 2012, we realized that the income the company was not generating was enough to support having full-time employees. So we basically fired everybody, including ourselves, and our business model became way more show based. We would only bring people on for short periods of time.
Also around that time, we had just done the last Harry Potter show and it felt very much like “Is StarKid over? Oh well, we had a good run these three whole years!”
So when we went into Twisted, my brother and I were actually not planning on it being a StarKid production. We were planning on it being an offshoot that we were just going to produce ourselves. Since we weren’t working under the StarKid umbrella, we knew we’d have to do a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. By that point, we were used to much higher budgets.
But when Eric made the Kickstarter page, he wrote “StarKid’s New Show” in the description without asking anybody. So then we were like, “Okay, I guess it’s a StarKid thing!”
Meehan Brown: Was there ever guilt associated with asking for money from fans?
Lang: For the first one especially, we hated asking for money from strangers. We never really wanted to do a Kickstarter campaign. We only wanted to fund projects with money that the company had or that we had ourselves. That was a matter of pride. When you honestly think about it, a Kickstarter campaign does make sense — you’re just asking for the money up front.
How our company works, we don’t have the capacity to sell enough product to our fan base. Because we’re internet-based, the main people that watch our productions watch them for free on YouTube, and they are the vast majority of our followers. We’re not like a movie studio, with the capacity to theatrically release a show that people pay to go see. A lot of our followers don’t have the opportunity to pay for our main product [tickets to the shows].
Kickstarter makes sense when you think about it, but being prideful children, we didn’t want to have to ask anyone for help.
When you get older, though, you begin to think, “Well, maybe it’s not that bad to have to ask for help; and people might enjoy being part of the process.”
Nowadays I’m much more into the idea of Kickstarter, and I’ve given to many campaigns. It’s a fun community-building idea, but back in the day it was a lot less common, and I was upset I had to do it.
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The Logistics of a Kickstarter Campaign
Meehan Brown: Was it difficult to set up the Kickstarter campaign or to fill the rewards for it?
Lang: It’s really easy to come up with the ideas for the rewards — you just pull it out of thin air. What’s harder is fulfilling the rewards. If you don’t make the goal, you don’t have to provide anything.
So it’s simple to say we’ll give you a signed postcard if you give us this much money, but then you end up having to sign 1,000 postcards. You have to sit everybody in the cast down and say, “Sign these 1,000 times now!”
With Twisted, we had a bit more confusion going into it because we promised a few things in the rewards that we shouldn’t have — namely the album and tickets to the show.
A week or two into the campaign, we limited those because the music writers were like, “Hey! You didn’t tell us our work was going to be given away in the Kickstarter campaign!” They were mad because they wanted to be able to sell the album afterward. So we capped the album and ticket sales.
When we got the Kickstarter money in for Twisted, we had to look at how much money came in from the album presales and split off the percentage for the music writers. We immediately wrote them a check for their cut from the albums that we presold.
Meehan Brown: How did it feel when you doubled and tripled your goal?
But these shows are expensive. Some summer shows we did at Stage 773 in Chicago cost $20,000 just for the theater. Including the actors and crew that you need to pay, it came to about $60,000 for a show of that scale. That’s already $80,000, without any technical elements.
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Team Starkid’s Golden Age
Meehan Brown: When were you guys self-sufficient?
Lang: Well, as we became more popular, our expectations for the productions grew. StarKid has been around for almost 10 years. So I consider those first three Harry Potter parodies, from 2009 to 2012, to be the golden age of StarKid.
Meehan Brown: What was your golden age financially speaking?
Lang: In 2011, we pulled in more than $1 million dollars of revenue [not profit]. We were spending a ton of money, too. We were paying eight people full-time and spending money on the tours.
Our first tour in 2011 cost around $300,000 to produce. The tours pull in a lot of money as well, but they cost a ton because you have to rent busses and pay for hotels and food for everyone in each city. It adds up quickly.
Due to high costs, we didn’t end the year with a million dollars, but maybe $200,000. It was more money than we’d ever had. That was a big year.
Of course we learned about taxes, too. If you end the year with $200,000, you have to pay about $40,000.
Meehan Brown: I know you gave me a number for the cost of putting on a nationwide tour, but do you have a figure for how much the tours brought in?
Lang: They made a bit of money, but with so many people involved in bringing them together, and with so much overhead, nobody got rich off them. In fact, we’re poor as hell.
Nick Lang’s Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
Meehan Brown: Would you recommend Kickstarter and crowdfunding to others who are trying to make their creative dream happen?
Lang: Yes. Absolutely. I think that crowdfunding is the way of the future. It’s a great way to get things funded, because it’s a community and a means of directly knowing if people want something to happen.
You have to create within your means, though. We have 300,000 subscribers on YouTube, and no matter how many people we reach, only one percent of them will actually pay for your work. So out of 300,000 people, about 3,000 will actually gives us money. Set your budget around the number of people you can reach, multiplied by one percent.
Meehan Brown: What advice would you give a person who is trying to start a project like one of your musicals or get their work noticed?
Lang: I think it’s a bit of a different ball game these days. Now the internet is populated with so many musical parodies of absolutely everything you could possibly imagine. It’s hard to stand out. You just have to make something that’s special, whether it’s better, sillier, more clever, or has catchier songs. For parody, you gotta know what you’re talking about and have something interesting to say.
The internet crowd these days doesn’t have the attention span to devote three hours to a parody musical. People like parody videos that are three minutes.
Sometimes our timing is off. We have a habit of parodying something two years before it becomes super-popular. The only time our timing was spot on was with AVPM.
Of course, there have been other Harry Potter parodies that have been more successful than ours. And they can actually sell tickets and make money on their stuff. You could look at what they did. I’ve never seen Potted Potter, but I guess it got J.K. Rowling’s stamp of approval. Puffs is currently running off-Broadway. They get around copyright stuff by never explicitly saying the names of the Harry Potter characters.
I wouldn’t recommend doing what we did, where you can’t sell tickets to your most popular thing. If we had just been able to make money off of AVPM, who knows? It might still be running to this day.
So my advice to anyone who wants to be like StarKid is don’t try to be like StarKid. Either try to be like someone more successful than us, or try to be original. If you’re trying to get noticed, it helps if you have an idea that’s original. People get noticed when they stand out.
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Learning From Mistakes
Meehan Brown: Is there something you would never do again?
Lang: There are many things I’d never do again. Wow. What a personal question. One thing I’d never do again is overpay estimated taxes to the state of Ohio. About five years ago, I got a notice saying that I owed the state a ridiculous amount of money in estimated taxes, which I had to pay or else I would be fined — and this was after we had done just one concert date in Cincinnati.
I knew for a fact that I didn’t owe the money. The notice arrived the year after we had toured there, and we had already paid the taxes associated with the income from that concert, but we were still in the state’s tax system for some reason. I paid anyway to avoid the fine, just to be safe.
Long story short, I figured that after I filed the StarKid taxes, Ohio would recognize its mistake and refund us the money. It never did. In fact, we had to hire lawyers to try get the money back.
Ohio made us jump through all sorts of hoops, and in the end, it never gave us the refund.
The battle continues to this day. So my advice is to never do business in Ohio. It sucks. Avoid it like the plague.
Where Is Team StarKid Today?
Meehan Brown: Do you still have an engaged audience? And what’s next?
Lang: In terms of our following, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to gauge. With Firebringer, our last show, we still got a good amount of views [1 million plus]. Album sales aren’t what they used to be, but everything’s on Spotify, so people don’t really pay for music anymore. So the number of albums sold is no longer a gauge of how involved your audience is.
Weirdly, Firebringer became a viral meme. Musicals like Book of Mormon recorded themselves singing and doing the dance to the song “I Don’t Really Wanna Do the Work Today.” Every once in a while I’ll go back to Firebringer on YouTube and find comments like “I came here just coz of the meme!”
So truthfully, I don’t know where the StarKid fan base is at right now. Though recently we did a nine-hour live stream to celebrate the golden birthday of A Very Potter Musical, and it got 60,000 views. I was so shocked. I didn’t think that many people still cared.
Meehan Brown: What’s next?
Lang: Team StarKid has a few things in the works. We’re announcing a new show that will take place in October. It will be a bit of a spooky show to coincide with Halloween. We want to get StarKid going again, doing at least one show a year, and right now Matt and I have about five shows planned for the future.
Meehan Brown [with tears in my eyes]: That’s the best news I’ve heard all year.
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There you have it folks — that’s what it takes to run a business you never asked for or planned on. And even when you earn $1 million, you spend just as much. Isn’t it wonderful to see how Harry Potter is still helping to bring people together?
Fun Fact: I met my best friend Bethany Rose through the StarKid fandom in its heyday. Here we are in Chicago after seeing our first live Team StarKid show, Firebringer.
Chronology of Team StarKid’s Musicals and Tours
2009: A Very Potter Musical
2010: A Very Potter Sequel
The SPACE Tour (Rock Musical National Tour)
2012: Holy Musical, B@man!
Apocalyptour (Rock Musical National Tour)
2014: The Trail to Oregon
2018: The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals (October)