Daniel Chan is a magician based in the Bay Area, but one morning soon he’ll wake up at 5:30 a.m. to perform for a company based on the East Coast — and three hours ahead of him — over the videoconferencing platform Zoom.
Chan’s client wants a team bonding experience to lift morale as the coronavirus pandemic-driven shutdowns drag on, with thousands stuck in their homes waiting out the storm.
Like many, Chan’s “office” is now in his home. He performs on a makeshift stage with rich burgundy curtains while wearing a carrot-colored tie. Chan flips cards, performs appearing acts, and creates magic during a time when it seems like there otherwise is none.
While Chan told Business Insider that he loves the remote work, this is all still somewhat new to him. Before COVID-19 was even a blip on the radar, Chan had become the de facto magic entertainer among Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, performing at corporate trade shows, company holiday parties, and private family events. In 2016, Buzzfeed dubbed him “Silicon Valley’s favorite magician,” and he lives up to the moniker.
They want elegance, pure elegance
Since he began performing in the early 2000s, Chan’s entertainment business has come a long way, landing him an annual salary in the six-figure range. He has 5,000 shows under his belt, and a client list that includes Google, Apple, Airbnb, among other tech behemoths and venture capital firms. He had been doing three shows a day at some points that, on average, can net between $500 and $5,000 per event.
Chan’s show persona is one of poise and sophistication — tech execs don’t like silly, comedy magic, he said.
Sometimes it’s a card trick, other times it’s pickpocketing. He has nearly 30 iPhone tricks, where he can fool audience members using their smartphones, like magically unlocking a locked device.
“When you’re doing a high-end event, and when they’re hiring you for the Ritz Carlton or the Four Seasons or something very, very high-end, they want elegance, pure elegance, and they want stuff that fools them,” Chan said.
But his specialty is walkaround magic, entertaining guests throughout an event and stunning them with his sleight of hand — that’s not exactly something you can do remotely.
When the San Francisco Bay Area shelter-in-place order went into effect in mid-March, Chan’s business, like many others, was impacted overnight. He lost $8,000 in one week, as shows were canceled, including an annual construction trade show in Las Vegas he was slated to attend. Some tech companies, which make up Chan’s primary clientele, have announced that employees should work from home through 2020.
“This year was my forced sabbatical,” Chan said, noting that he’d been meaning to take a break from performing.
The loss of business hit him hard emotionally. Chan said he felt depressed, but he eventually accepted a video gig from a loyal client, and quickly learned how scalable his business could be on a video platform — people could watch him, even despite geographical differences.
Chan has started performing more, charging below his typical pre-coronavirus rates. He’s asking about $500 a show, but there’s a catch — some of his material is in beta, and he’s using audience members as guinea pigs.
Chan expects to meet a rise in demand for his magic performances over video conferences as companies seek a morale boost for staff.
In one trick he’s performed virtually, Chan will ask audience members to think of a card before directing them to a link in his Instagram profile. A black-and-white photo of Harry Houdini appears, with the number and its suit magically appearing over his eyes.
In order to keep the magic alive on the screen, Chan said he primarily uses only one platform.
“Magic doesn’t work on Facebook,” Chan said. “It works on Zoom.”
There’s about a half-minute lag on Facebook’s video function, Chan said. The delay can make his tricks less-than-mind-blowing.
“It’s like you’re dying a slow death on stage,” Chan said.
However, his performances haven’t been immune to other disruptions. When a “Zoombomber” crashed one of Chan’s recent shows, disturbed audience members left quickly and the performance ended early.
Aside from dealing with online trolls, Chan has also had to adapt to the new medium of entertainment. At events, Chan might single out someone who seems distracted and bring them into the act or approach them to give a close-up look at a trick he’s doing. That hasn’t changed over Zoom — if someone looks distracted, he’ll find a way to pull them back in.
Now interaction from audience members looks a little different. Because everyone’s typically on mute, Chan asks participants to wave their hands above their head as a replacement for applause. He sometimes tries to unmute the call when he anticipates laughter from the audience to illicit the same reactions he’d get during a live show.
Chan anticipates a rise in demand for the entertainment he can provide over videoconferencing. He’s already getting requests from more companies looking to raise morale among staff.
“There are certain things that I can’t do, but there are certain things that are even more powerful that we’re starting to discover,” Chan said. “That’s why I want to stay on Zoom because no one’s doing that.”
The migration to remote work — or in Chan’s case remote entertainment — could give him the freedom to leave the Bay Area, either to travel or to move elsewhere, as many other workers are considering. In Silicon Valley specifically, tech workers might lead an “urban flight” from the region as they pack up and leave for greener, less expensive pastures.
And like many in the Bay Area, Chan isn’t missing the tedious commute of the workday.
“I love falling out of bed, putting on this thing, and not driving,” he said of his colorful necktie.