Jo Weldon: The Value of Burlesque
Learning that you must GIVE value as well as HAVE value will help you to understand how to price your work in a way no amount of number crunching ever can.
The past few weeks there have been a lot of online discussions, which lead inevitably to offline discussions, about how burlesque performers shouldn’t work for free and about whether the $50 per number that is standard in some venues in NYC is too low. A lot of heated conversations led to the inevitable conclusion: it always depends. And sometimes, it depends on what you negotiate. Ultimately, there is one question here: How do we avoid undervaluing our work to ourselves without overvaluing it to audiences, producers, and venues?
In order to value yourself, look at what you’re putting into your work. Here are just a few factors to consider:
1) The cost of your costumes.
2) The cost of your rehearsals.
3) The time invested.
4) The other risks (social and familial) that may apply.
5) Opportunity costs – what else could you have been doing with that time?
Anyone who has ever had a private coaching session with me knows that I always think the most important question to ask yourself is: What do you want the end result of this work/event/conversation to be? Not only should you value yourself based on your investments into your work, but also on what your careers goals are. You may have a day job and not need the money, but you may want to support the burlesque community and therefore not undercut them. You may very much intend to ultimately make your living at performing, but feel that you need stage time to improve, whether or not it actually pays your costs. It would be easy to set standards if everybody was doing burlesque for the same reasons, but we’re not, and you have to value yourself knowing that there isn’t going to be an across-the-board reference chart to guide you. Just keep asking yourself what you truly want to gain from each individual choice, and consider the short term effects on your long term goals.
Let’s say that you’re in it for the long term and you want to make a profit on your investments. How then do you help to raise the rates to work toward a sustainable business model in our industry?
You’ll have to negotiate. There is no union to do it for you. So how do you convince your audience that you need to raise ticket prices, producers that you need to raise your performance fees, and venues that you need to receive a guarantee above $50 per number?
Remember this: People hire you because they need a job done, not because you need the money. They pay you based on the amount they want to or can afford, not on what you need. They set their pay rate for you based on the value they think you will bring, not based on your investment. My friend Lolita said that the biggest difference between strip joint strippers and burlesque performers is that strip joint strippers will put on a $20 outfit and make $500, whereas a burlesque performer will put on a $500 costume and make $20. That’s how the world is. You have to decide either to economise on production, raise your rates, or both.
So your valuation of yourself based on your investments and goals isn’t that important to them, at least not at first. You need to make up your costume costs and justify your rehearsal time and so on, but that is your personal valuation of your work. It means nothing to them, unless they are planning to advertise you as ‘Performers doing numbers that took dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars to produce!’ Pretty unlikely.
Let’s take it from the point of view of a venue.
If you make a list of what you have to offer and how you can improve their business and their profile, you will have a better understanding of your true value to venues and audiences. They may not even know they want what you have as a performer, but every business wants more status and money, and every audience wants to feel they got more than their money’s worth. You can give it to them. I believe in you. By caring about what they want, you will figure out how to help them get you what you want. You will feel like a collaborator instead of someone who’s begging to be treated properly. And that is one of the keys to coming to the table as an empowered negotiator: really believing you have something to offer, not just that you deserve to be appreciated.
Here are some planning points to consider when preparing to negotiate with a venue:
1) Can you attract more people to their venue or show? Are you a good promoter? Do you have a history of drawing crowds?
2) Can you help them sell more liquor and food? Can you describe what kinds of audiences come to burlesque shows? Are they well-behaved heavy drinkers and eaters?
3) Can you improve the atmosphere of their venue or show? Can you show them fabulous images and videos to help them envision you in their space? Be prepared to whip out an iPad or colour printout and show them what you’ve got.
4) Can you raise the status of their venue or show? Can you show them great press and other high-status things on your resume?
5) Can you help them with concerns they have? Can you show them you’ve done research on their venue and what you like about it and how you envision yourself working with their staff?
And don’t forget – do they have the means to hire you? Look around. Sometimes even a packed bar isn’t necessarily producing a profit. Can you tell where the money might come from? Is this a reasonable venue for your needs? And if they can produce the revenue and offer you the guarantee you need to be productive, do they have a reasonable setup for dressing and managing your show?
You may be able to show your costs to demonstrate to a venue why you need to get a certain amount, but that still doesn’t explain why they need to be the ones to provide that amount. You might intrigue them by mentioning your investments, but your investment is not the selling point. Your ability to serve their needs is your selling point, not their ability to serve yours. You are an investment for them. So when you are negotiating, remember that what you can do for them is more is a more important selling point to them than what you did to become good enough to be able to do that for them.
If you’re already running a show and you want to raise ticket prices, you probably can’t get away with a big price jump. But any price increase requires some kind of justification. Describe it in terms of benefits you’ll bring to them with the increased ticket prices, not what the benefit to you may be. Tell them you’ll bring in a headliner, improve the sound system, whatever you can think of that you really want to do, or just tell them that the show has been steadily improving and the price increase will help you continue to improve. Just tell them the truth. They like that.
If you’re raising your rates with producers, just be honest and brief about why. If they can’t pay it, stick to your guns and find other people to work with.
Keep in mind that they may not be able to afford it. They won’t pay it just because you need it. They can’t. And then don’t feel bad if you change your mind and then do a show for less than your minimum because it’s of particular interest to you. Just don’t do it all the time.
It’s okay that there is no standard minimum. If you have a degree in performance from Ivy League Worlds of Wonder and you spend thousands of dollars and fifty hours of preparation and rehearsal on each of your numbers, you probably wouldn’t be happy getting a $20 split of the door in a neighborhood bar. If you decide that performing this number is worth no less than $1500, you hold out for that. This means you will get booked less as a result of having worked harder on your number, which is fine. If it means you only get to perform it once a year, that’s still more than you would have made in a year of weekly bar shows. And here’s the good news: that audience probably wouldn’t like you very much. You wouldn’t be a lot of fun for them. These things tend to sort themselves out.
And keep in mind that the fact that some other people may be producing cheaper shows and it’s bringing your price down really is your problem. They don’t owe you anything, even if you invented burlesque. Would you stop doing burlesque the way you want to so that they could keep doing it the way they want to? You would not. So why on earth do you think they should do that for you? Because you represent – what do you represent? Let’s not be grandiose, okay?
Don’t misunderstand me. Even though i think $50 or a split of the door is a reasonable fee in many cases, and i’m not interested in homogenisation,I do want rates to go up where the venues can afford it. I even tell newer performers NOT to charge less just because they have a shorter resume, if they’ve done the work to be good. By all means, charge more than I do. Raise your rates, and maybe mine will go up too! Just as people don’t value what you bring to their venues based on the cost of your costumes or the hours you spend rehearsing, they won’t raise your rates per year you’ve been onstage. If you’re new, that’s your currency. And if you’re seasoned, then THAT’S your currency. Make sense? You just need to find the right fit for your work. Or produce your own show, get your own venue, etc.
I think burlesque is often worth more and that there is in fact more money to be found for it. I just don’t want you to try to negotiate it with weak tools like entitlement and grandiosity. I want you to go into negotiations prepared to persuade.
I have heard people say that neighborhood bars shows that don’t pay much are ruining burlesque. However, burlesque is thriving. There is absolutely tons of room for burlesque that is not upscale, that is risky rather than rehearsed, that is done by relative amateurs, without cockblocking the professionalism some others intend to operate upon. (By the way, the IRS can define ‘hobby’ for you. Just ask them.) Performers are getting paid to do all kinds of fancy gigs, all over the world. I have been travelling the planet teaching and performing burlesque, and I am an avid audience member as well. I have seen burlesque in dive bars, libraries, universities, coffee shops, parks. I have seen shows in many, many festivals, some of which were not even burlesque festivals. I’ve seen burlesque at the Contemporary Art Museum in Sydney, a grand theatre in Paris, a high end nightclub in Hong Kong. Saturday night at the New York Burlesque Festival 2014, I saw some of the most incredible, innovative, highly developed and joyous burlesque I have ever seen. I have heard that the sky is falling a hundred times, and yet burlesque just keeps growing.
The state of burlesque is not defined by the people who annoy you on Facebook. I believe in it. I believe in you.
And remember, if you really want to make money, remember these magic words: “Multiple Revenue Streams.” To be continued.