There’s No Such Thing as a Free Gig…
A thought-provoking piece from UK performer Miss Glory Pearl. Please feel free to comment on this article in the comments section below…
The Burlesque Community; it’s an odd phrase. There’s no denying that we’re a reasonably small industry and that once you reach a certain level everyone pretty much knows everyone else, but a community? At any point in one’s career, fellow ‘community’ members can be one’s colleagues, employers, employees, and always one’s competition.
Sure, despite a few factions and frictions we tend to get along with each other and offer support, friendship and tips. We have forums and online groups where we debate and gossip and celebrate each other, but when you get down to the crux of it, as a self-employed performer it would be disingenuous to suggest that most of us don’t base our day-to-day decisions on what we perceive to be best for us and for our careers rather than what is best for the community at large.
And as our industry grows, therein lies the problem – many of us aren’t thinking long-term. We aren’t thinking ‘career’, ‘livelihood’, ‘industry’ or ‘business’. We are taking jobs that take the piss and at a fundamental level we are poisoning the water. You may be prepared to regularly work for free, but by doing so you are literally taking food out of the mouths of performers who don’t have day jobs to fall back on but do have rent, mortgages, bills and all the expenses that come with living in a capitalist society.
When you work for free you are giving away something for nothing. You are also saying that what you do isn’t worth paying for. If it’s not worth paying for, why are you doing it? For love? For kicks? For – dare I say it – ‘self-empowerment’?
“We aren’t thinking ‘career’, ‘livelihood’, ‘industry’ or ‘business’. We are taking jobs that take the piss and at a fundamental level we are poisoning the water.”
Let me state clearly: I am not here to bash the newbies or the hobbyists but I am here to suggest that the future of our industry does, in some measure, depend on every one of us taking a broader view when it comes to fee negotiations and producing shows. I’d also like to say that I think we all, from time to time, work either for nothing or for expenses only. Personally I’ve done it as a favour to friends or promoters – usually if they have given me regular work in the past and the occasion is special in some way (a local community based event or something), and I’ve done charity gigs where, in effect, I am donating my fee to the charity. But other than that, although I am sympathetic to promoters’ budgetary challenges, I do not work for free for the following reasons:
Performing is my job. I have trained and invested in my career and, just like a plumber, an accountant or a Marriage Guidance counsellor, I deserve to be paid for it. Yes, I enjoy my job, but so do lots of people who don’t get up on stage every night. You wouldn’t ask a solicitor to represent you in court for nothing simply because you assume she will have fun doing so – why should taking your clothes off on stage be different?
If I don’t charge, how can I expect people to value what I do? People expect to pay for things they value. The price they will pay for it depends on how much they perceive it to be worth. Clever people have researched and proved this and manufacturers employ teams of other clever people to determine ‘price points’ for their goods and services. As an entertainment professional I don’t hold an MBA, but I do understand how the market functions and that as a self-employed artist I need intricate knowledge of the workings of my market and how and where to position myself within it if I am to make a living and be valued by purchasers.
Basic economics. I have a large mortgage. If I spend all my time doing something that costs me money rather than earns me money, I will be homeless. My costumes cost hundreds and hundreds of pounds. My training costs hundreds and hundreds of pounds. I do not have a trust fund and so my income needs to exceed my expenditure. This won’t be the case if I work for free.
Every time I work for free I de-value both my product and all products in that market sector. To give you an idea of how this works, look at online newspapers. When The Times started charging people to read articles online, circulation plummeted – no one wanted to pay for something they could get for free elsewhere. It’s human nature. So long term, if I work for free, fewer and fewer promoters will want to pay for acts.
This last point is crucial. It is undeniable that since the release of that X-Tina film, there has been a surge of new performers keen to get stage time and lots of new shows springing up all over the place. ‘Great!’, you might think, ‘More work for everyone!’, but sadly many of these shows aren’t even paying expenses and instead fill their bills with inexperienced performers hungry for stage time. I know of one relative newcomer who gave up on burlesque because after a year of performing she was only ever once offered some money towards petrol. It’s a fine line between paying your dues and exploitation. What this also means is that a lot of these show bills are filled entirely with performers of little experience – not that the promotional material will admit to this.
“If we’re putting on shows and skimping on quality, we are ruining our audience. They won’t value what they are seeing if the tickets are cheap and the acts amateurish. And if you’re putting on shows like this, then make no mistake, you are ruining the audience for everyone.”
To my mind, this has two principle effects. Firstly, you learn a lot of what you learn about stagecraft from watching those who are masters of it. When I started out I was fortunate to work with some of the best in the business by taking on ‘newbie’ slots in established shows. I worked hard to not let the team down, to not be seen as the weak and inexperienced link in a strong line-up. I watched, I learned and I honed my craft. If a line-up only contains those of a similar level of experience, how can one grow as an artist? Where is the incentive to up your game? Secondly, a good line-up is all about variety – light and shade; if we’re all fresh out of burlesque school and finding our feet, that impacts on the audience’s experience, and in some cases that experience isn’t a positive one.
If we’re putting on shows and skimping on quality, we are ruining our audience. They won’t value what they are seeing if the tickets are cheap and the acts amateurish. And if you’re putting on shows like this, then make no mistake, you are ruining the audience for everyone. I recently went to such a show – all the performers and the compere were newcomers but not billed as such. Tickets were cheap and the place was reasonably full. Through the course of the show I lost count of the number of people that walked out – mainly couples who had clearly come out of curiosity. How many of them will ever go to another burlesque show? How many of them will be prepared to pay more than £5 a ticket to see acts whose costumes are worth a hundred times that?
If the ‘Burlesque Community’ is anything other than an empty synonym for the burlesque industry, then it is time we began thinking collectively and considering the wider impact of our choices. This doesn’t mean charging extortionate rates or being unwilling to negotiate our fees, but it does mean ensuring that we value the glamour, beauty and sheer entertainment value of what we do and that those employing us and paying to watch us do too.
Miss Glory Pearl.
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