Performing Magic In Japanese — Lessons Learned About Filling Seats

We can all agree that empty seats at any show sends the wrong message. It affects the morale of the performer and as an audience member you’re more likely to enjoy the experience if you’re not alone. It’s also not good for business, because empty seats means lost revenue. But what if the solution to reaching new audiences and filling those seats was so obvious we may have overlooked it completely?

1997, Caesars Magical Empire at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. すごい!

When I started performing magic in Japanese at Caesars Magical Empire at Caesars Palace in the spring of 1997, I had no idea how valuable it was. I had been performing the show in English, but every night I noticed an abundance of Japanese people in the audience who clearly didn’t understand what I was talking about, and I didn’t want them to feel left out.

From my earliest days performing for troops in war zones as a member of the US Air Force, I knew my first responsibility was to serve the audience well, whether they were sitting on tanks in Riyadh Saudi Arabia or in the comfort of a casino showroom. Instead of me translating jokes in the midst of a performance for a largely English speaking audience, I created an identical experience for Japanese guests and performed it nightly in their language. One of the greatest memories I have of that time is the looks on their faces when I strolled into the room and started performing in Japanese. Often they’d miss the first five minutes — deep in conversation — trying to figure out if it was really me speaking Japanese or a soundtrack. Caesars Palace licensed it from me, and I made some dough too. My first entrepreneurial endeavor.

I also learned another important lesson.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had stumbled upon a way to attract and engage a new audience, and it created immense value for the casino. The internet was in its infancy, and if you wanted to see a live show back then, you had to call up, buy a ticket, get off your tush and see the act in person.

Performing for our troops in harms way will always be a highlight of my career.

Although a lot has changed in the way we consume entertainment, attracting new audiences is still valuable and elusive. In our hyper connected age of on-demand entertainment, committing to butts in seats for a quality lesser known act is a huge risk. Even fairly popular acts still have to deal with empty seats. According to a recent article by the Wall St Journal, sixty percent of all concert ticket revenue worldwide went to the top 1% of performers ranked by revenue in 2017. That leaves a lot of quality acts who need to fill seats.

We are in the midst of a cultural creative renaissance and the public has too many entertainment choices without having to leave their homes. Why? Perceived value.

“The new consumer has new technology and a new way of approaching consumer discovery, so you have to experiment and be willing to fail.” — Scott Galloway

The advertising industrial complex has been the primary economic driver of consumer purchases for decades, and if you’re reading this you can probably remember a time when scarcity was the only leverage many industries had. If you wanted that album you could only get it in a few places. If you wanted that book, you had to go to this store or that store. Scarcity meant that a few gatekeepers controlled access to the most desired purchases, and they charged a premium for it. We gladly paid not just because we loved the artist or the music, but also because we didn’t have a choice. With the onset of the digital economy, many brands were in for a rude awakening. Distribution was now online, and the established model of scarcity and random pricing began to crumble. Consumer preferences began to change because they had a wealth of information at their fingertips and infinite choice, but the gatekeepers refused to recognize or cooperate with this shift in perceived value (think Blockbuster or Sears). These weren’t mom and pop shops who couldn’t keep up with the times, they were powerful corporate giants with millions in revenue. Every industry from shopping to taxicabs has been disrupted by this paradigm shift in perceived value, but what does it mean for live entertainment?

It means serving our audiences well, and like my Japanese translation, the solution and the supportive response came from me trying to answer a need. Why not ask the audience? When I decided to ask the audience what they thought my show was worth by having them drop cash in a bucket as they left, I ended up making a lot more than had I charged the ‘gatekeeper price’ of $20 per person for tickets. The problem was I had no way of connecting who put in the $100 bill with any specific reservation, which meant I couldn’t market to these folks as fans. So I put my coding skills to work and built a digital platform based on the economics of perceived value. It allows the audience member to reserve a spot for a show for a minimal fee decided by the venue (say $10). Then, the audience member comes to see the show. Afterwards they receive a text or email asking them how much they’d like to pay for the show they just saw, and it provides a few choices. The audience member taps on the button reflecting their desired amount, and they get a receipt and a thank you from the venue and/or artist. By asking for $5 up front, I ended up making 82% more than I made performing on Broadway. Shortly after launching this experiment in Vancouver Canada, word began spreading and I was bombarded by requests from venues, artists and promoters enquiring about using the application, and my crazy idea called is currently in beta in several theaters around the world.

It turns out that the perceived value of an experience — whether it’s music, comedy, theater, dance or anything — is highest at the end. Experiential marketing allows the consumer to be the storyteller. You’ll attract new audiences, create a new story for your venue and gain powerful insights you can compare to other demographics. And you don’t even have to translate it to Japanese.

Kahlil Ashanti is an actor, web developer, Founder and CEO of, the world’s largest digital pay-after-the-experience platform. He can be seen in Season 1 of Amazon’s The Tick, and also enjoys teaching coding at CodeCore College in Vancouver. He lives in Vancouver BC. He can be reached at kahlil[at]weshowup[dot]io. またね!

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