Burlesque Performers: Get Paid. Stop Working for Free!
It all started when I received yet another message from a newer performer wanting to get out there in the scene, wanting to do festivals, wanting to headline. Then I wait for it: again they are performing for free because they want the stage time and they want to make friends and influence people. They just want to be a part of something – a sparkly something that makes our hearts feel good and allows us to shake and quake in front of (usually) appreciative people.
I appreciate ambition and drive, I really do, but I desperately want all of these women to know that in order to make sure that headlining spots and paid spots are even available to them in the future, they need to STOP WORKING FOR FREE. Just stop it.
Our art form has been around for over a hundred years. That’s long enough to know it’s worth something. Shit, women have been stripping longer than that with some sort of compensation/exchange. So first, we all need to acknowledge that our stripping bodies are worth compensation. Secondly, we need to ask ourselves – if we are not getting paid, who is making money off my artfully exposed body?
“You just artfully took off your clothes … rehearsed, hauled your shit to a venue, put on makeup and showed your soul for NO MONEY, and either the producers or the venue (or both) are getting what you earned for them.”
There are all types of shows: big fancy shows, bar shows, private gigs, newbie showcases, icon soirees, you name it. And in my big fuzzy dreamland, all of these shows PAY. But until we ALL decide that working for free causes more harm than good this is going to remain a dream.
Here are my quick, bullet-point thoughts about this subject, taken from my twitter ranting:
– When you perform for free you tell producers and venues that you don’t value your art.
– When you perform for free you tell producers that they can require others to work for free.
– When you perform for free you tell producers and venues not to value this art.
– When you work for free instead of inquiring about pay you drive down the pay for career performers.
– When you work for free now, hoping to get paid later you are missing the point that now the producer knows you work for free.
– When you work for free or very low/way below an average pay, other producers pay attention to this. Some will abuse this (shitty producers making money off of you) and some will be horrified (as usually they are performers too). I know – I’m in the horrified camp. If I know that you have undercut another performer or work for free, I either don’t hire you, or I stop hiring you.
Value this art form if not your own contribution to it. Don’t perform burlesque for free.
– Value yourselves and value producers trying to create viable business models. You might not get paid a ton, but get paid something.
– What you will allow is what will continue.
– If you are complaining about the pay rate and you are also working for free, you are a part of the problem.
– Being entertaining is worth compensation. Venues make money off you when you are entertaining. So get paid something!
– Be willing to walk away! Be willing to say no! Be willing to speak up for yourself! Compliments and bar tabs aren’t sustainable.
– Either someone’s making $ off you or they are doing bad business. I get that pay in this industry can be low – but stop stripping for FREE.
– If you are a performer that has a day job, please remember that you are still contributing to a scene that needs its performers to get paid. You might not get your money from performing, but others do.
– Stop performing for free unless it’s a worthwhile charity event. For fucks sake, someone is making $ off your stripping body!
Here’s the deal – I get it. The economy, blah blah blah. People don’t value live entertainment as much, rant rant rant. I feel you, I do. I perform in NYC and I see it. I hear stories and talk to other performers. Entertainment is changing. But it always has.
All of us performers – seasoned and new – want to work. I want to work. I want to be performing ALL THE TIME. I want to be creating new acts ALL THE TIME. I want to be a naked dancing lady burlesque machine. I get it. So do a lot of you. It’s agonising when you miss the stage, when you don’t have gigs on your books, and then someone offers you a ‘charity’ event or a ‘for exposure’ event, or a friend ‘calls in a favour’…
We have all done these events. Anyone that says that they haven’t are telling you a sexy lie. But what I suggest is that you make these events a 1% of your experience. Charities will often write you a tax writeoff (at least the charities worth their salt) which can be like getting paid. Without fail always ask for compensation first, and then assess the situation. I know you’ve got bills to pay. I know that you might have to take something lower than your usual fee because you have extra expenses this month. Some of you don’t even call this a job because during the day you are badass Nancy in accounting, or ferocious Jill the lawyer. But please really think about it. Don’t settle for FREE.
Ask yourself, where is the money going? You just artfully took off your clothes for NO MONEY. You rehearsed, hauled your shit to a venue, put on makeup and showed your soul for no money, and either the producers or the venue (or both) are getting what you earned for them. Something is fishy…
Almost ten years ago I started in this scene and though I didn’t get paid much, I still got paid. The agonisingly funny thing is that what I got paid ten years ago is what the average in NYC and Seattle is right now. Ten years is plenty of time to try to push the status quo, but no matter where I’ve visited and who I’ve talked to, they fear producers not booking them when they refuse to work for so little or for free. I say no to a lot of gigs. They pay too low. I know what I ask for isn’t unreasonable. I’m paying attention to the averages, and I’m not trying to break an average shows budget. But I do know my line. And until we ALL start to say ‘no’ more and stand up for ourselves in business the rate won’t increase. Producers won’t try to do better – why should they? Until we decide that we want our sisters and brothers in this business to make more money more than we want to ‘win’ at getting gigs, there won’t be a change.
I know there’s not going to be a big prayer circle where we all show up and talk about our feelings and agree to try to increase the wage in our towns. I’m not insane – I know that there’s always going to be people willing to work for free. Girls Gone Wild proved this years ago. I’m not even suggesting an average pay rate in your city – I know that with the varying levels of skill and hustle this is also an issue.
What I’m suggesting is this:
1. YOU start not working for free. Just start there.
2. Then sit down and decide for YOU what’s worth it to leave your house rolling bags full of hundreds of dollars of gear and hours of practice under your belt and do your ever lovin’ best to stick to it. You can even discuss this with your peers.
3. Talk to your peers about pay. Find out how much they are getting paid and suggest to them that they also not work for free. START TALKING ABOUT MONEY. Money is not scary. Money is awesome and it pays bills.
4. Work with producers that are trying to build sustainable business models.
5. Work with producers that offer guarantees. I couldn’t possibly say what’s worth it to you, but just a guarantee. Ask producers for a guarantee. Encourage them to offer an guarantee.
6. As you grow as a performer keep reevaluating your fee and start pushing back. Give yourself a desired wage increase every once in a while.
7. Learn to say NO. Learn to stick to your guns. Encourage your peers to do the same. Feel good walking away from a deal that doesn’t value your work.
8. Never be afraid to negotiate. ‘What pay can you offer me?’ ‘Well, for that fee I can do this act instead of this act.’
9. If they want YOU and they are close to the rate they quoted you, they will try to negotiate with you. You can offer to negotiate with them. I know some shows even save up for who they want. If it’s worth it to you, be a performer that they want to save up for.
NOTE: In this post I am not going to go into the festival model. There’s a lot of thoughts, and it deserves a lot more attention than I have right now. For now I am talking about your basic shows, the ones that happen weekly, monthly, in bars, in hotels, at theatres, all of that.
This art form deserves better. I know I want to give her my all in helping to create something sustainable, and something that has perceived value to venues and producers. This is something that’s not even unique to burlesque – it’s all the performing arts. Many years ago many performers called this their career. And from there it was chipped away and undercut in various ways – undercutting, b-girls, blue films – but I still have faith we can create something better than what we have right now. Bit by bit we can make a difference. One fancy stripping person at a time.
Just do your best to get paid, okay? Let’s start there. Stop working for free.
More from Sydni Deveraux
Stripper Talk with Sydni Deveraux: Bullies in Burlesque
Stripper Talk with Sydni Deveraux: Unwelcome Criticism
Stripper Talk with Sydni Deveraux: Un-Booking Bad Burlesque Behaviour