I suspect this won’t be a popular post with many people because the title of the article may imply one thing while the content says something else. I invite you to open your mind and consider what’s presented here with curiosity and genuinely trying to find whatever bits of truth in it you can. You never know how a shift in perspective will change your relationship to the individuals, events and things around you.
People in the fire dancing industry (and I know it’s not the only industry out there in which this happens) seem to bitch quite regularly about people who “undercut” them. From what I’ve seen, this happens more frequently with gigs though today I saw a post about undercutting as related to instruction as well. This topic has come up before and I’ve shared some thoughts on it in the past, and today I have some new thoughts.
I give you:
10 Reasons why Undercutting is Bullsh*t!
Let’s begin the conversation with some shard reality. By my standard, the definition of undercutting is almost absurd in the context of capitalism because this is the definition: “offer goods or services at a lower price than (a competitor).” This means that by definition, anyone who isn’t charging the highest price is undercutting everyone else. So if you go to Macy’s and look at a Nike sneaker and a comparable Adidas one, whichever one is lower priced is, technically, undercutting the other. That alone makes the utility of the word fall into question for me in that the very nature of selling involves value for the dollar. In the context of fire dancing, if Artist X charges $175 and Artist Y charges $170, according to the definition of the word, the person charging $5 less is undercutting someone else. Is that really what people are talking about, because I really don’t think so.
Now let’s consider the implications of that. In a realistic sense, it means everyone out there is undercutting someone except THE highest paid person. We no longer call this “competition” but instead, refer to it with a word that has, culturally, negative implications in almost a demonizing way: undercutting. And this standard becomes fair game for shaming someone else because of the commonly held community belief that undercutting is wrong. Except… by the actual definition of the word, is it really?
In a world where we still have some amount of privacy, I don’t know many people who voluntarily share their salary/compensation with other strangers. And since the fire dancing industry — on a teaching and performance level — is still so new and there are no industry reports which we can see to tell us what the typical pay is it seems nearly impossible to even know what the highest pay rate is. To which I then have to ask the question: if you don’t know the highest pay rate and you set your rate independently of that knowledge, how could you possibly be undercutting someone else…? Or at least undercutting them in that shaming way that is bandied about the community.
While the freedom of our market is certainly in question, the idea of a free market relies on “value for value exchange” — which is generally money for services in these contexts. If you travel through the US and were to look at things like the cost of gas, food and housing, the range is quite different from state to state and even within states, different by region. What this then means is the buying power of your money in different locations equates to different things. According to Trulia, the average cost of a 3 bedroom home in St. Louis, MO was $168,259 the week of 9/24/14. For the same week in San Francisco, Trulia says the cost is $1,522,362, just over 9x as much.
Your next thought may be, “that’s not a fair comparison — San Francisco is 837,442 people and St. Louis isn’t even half that at 318,416. Let’s compare cities of comparable size.” Let’s say that’s a fair point and appease those who object to the comparison. Austin has a slightly larger population than San Francisco at 885,400. And yes, Austin stacks up way better when you consider for the same week. Trulia reports 3 bedroom homes average $394,398 so San Francisco homes are only 3.8 times as expensive. Ha. Only.
This peek at housing costs is intended to show that even if every artist got paid $100 for the exact same performance, the value of that $100 would be dramatically different in each region. Keep in mind this doesn’t even account for the square footage of the homes, only how many bedrooms, so the comparison is likely still skewed even taking population into account. Which further makes the concept of undercutting vague and useless, leaving the powerful question: how can you equitably compare the cost of two things in two different markets?
One logical answer is to factor in all the factors. To that I say, “good luck figuring them all out.” Another logical answer is, “Compare things in the same region to other things in the same region.”
While that seems logical — because it is — given the newness of our art form there simply aren’t enough data points to actually make those kinds of comparisons. Sure, in the Bay Area, LA, Portland (OR), Chicago and Seattle, where the fire dancing industry has been around for a decade or more, maybe there are some valid data points. Maybe.
But — and this is a big but — how many people do we need to have in the industry before we can even create an accurate sampling of them? In a world of 7 billion people, I’m reticent to make accusations about undercutting and generalizations about salary when the sample data isn’t even 4 digits worth of people. Can we even find 100 professional fire dancing instructors in the world, let alone in one region? The reality is the industry is too small to have determined what the industry standard is, even within a region, even if everyone agreed. We simply don’t have enough people to generate the data and we have no real means of reliably capturing the data anyway. And while you can sit there on the Business for Flow Artists list and get a sampling, the last poll (Spring/Summer 2014) had less than 100 people respond. Even within that group, arguably one of the most accessible collections of professional fire dancers around, the range is still varied and statistically, the sample is too tiny to draw conclusions.
Personally, I would hate to limit our future based on the experiences we’re having today since we’re still infants falling down and getting back up on our feet. Having been at this a while, my general sense is we’re all figuring it out as we go along because no one wrote the book on how to do this before us. As much as people may complain about egos or other challenging issues, generally, what I’ve seen over the last dozen years are people doing the best they can to figure it out as they go along and to try to make it by doing what they love. That alone is an admirable undertaking in this world and instead of presuming the implied negative intent I perceive is meant in the term undercutting, I instead choose to believe we are all learning as we go and creating the foundation from which a much larger community will emerge, supported by the lessons of the past and those who have paved the way.
Apart from the aforementioned variation in the buying power of money region by region, there is another perhaps even more important factor to consider. Individuals desire and value money in different ways and where one individual may think an hour of their time is worth $10, another may think that same amount of time is worth $1,000 and everywhere in between. How then can there be a standard when each artist is selling their own time and work which is based on so many very personal factors?
In fact, how can you compare two pieces of art and say they are the same? And if they are not the same, why then would you think they should have the same value? Have we all somehow forgotten the the value of art is subjective and relative to the individual acquiring it?
Here’s the thing those accusing other’s of undercutting really need to remember: if someone with experience has been performing or teaching for a while, they have a sense of self worth that is readily defined. As a result of their experience and time in the trenches, they know what they want for their time and furthermore, they (are much more likely to) know what and how to offer those services to command the pay they want.
Meanwhile some bright eyed and bushy tailed new artist, maker or instructor may just be happy to see an opportunity — ANY opportunity. And in all honesty, they may work 2x as hard as a seasoned veteran would because they are hungrier for the opportunity, lack confidence, lack experience and as a result, lack a true understanding of their worth in the market. Inexperience can be a fine motivator.
While experienced folks may know that working hard doesn’t equate to quality service., most consumers can’t differentiate the two because consumers don’t know enough to know what they don’t know.
Which is to say: when someone for whom a low priced gig may very well be appropriate (at whose pay rate a seasoned pro might literally laugh) given their skills accepts that work, it can lead to ignorant clients then thinking either X rate is the going rate or all art of this type is the same or worse, both. When they then ask a seasoned artist with more skill, experience, knowledge and who doesn’t need to work 2x as hard to get half the results for the same pay, it often leads to seasoned pros getting pissed a noobs even though the low rates are probably more (if not actually) appropriate for those noobs.
Because, as the saying goes, new artists fake it till they make it and experienced artists once did too. I invite everyone to remember we’re all in this together building something that has never existed before and in the end, we’re all trying to figure out how to do what we love while we make a comfortable living wage doing it.
If you’re ready for fire safety lessons via private instruction, want to try Zero to Fire in 4 Hours!, want to join our next beginner class or have other questions, contact GlitterGirl directly or subscribe to our newsletter for mailbox delivery of this and other articles written by Temple of Poi founder and visionary, GlitterGirl, who has been a full time flow arts coach and instructor since 2002. If you seek professional guidance associated with creating a safe performance, obtaining a permit in San Francisco or other personalized coaching, contact GlitterGirl directly for a free consultation (GlitterGirl <that pretty little ‘at’ symbol> TempleOfPoi <daaaaaaaught> com).