Why Gigs Without Pay Will Always Exist

Posted on November 25, 2014 by


As fire and flow dancing performers sort themselves out in the marketplace and better understand the differences between the various types of individuals competing for gigs, different issues are bound to arise. There are several variables in the equation including different motivations to perform and different consequences when pay is limited.

This article endeavors to distinguish the various types of artists and explain how their interrelatedness in the marketplace shapes the very nature of the world of “professional” artists, largely informed by our competition on a gig by gig basis. This article is focused predominantly on the big picture and makes broad generalization while also providing enough differentiation to furnish a comprehensive look at the complexities of the industry in an effort to explain Why Gigs Without Pay Will Always Exist. 

Types of Performers

Why there will always be free gigs

Artist: GlitterGirl
Photo: Fototaker Tony

First, let’s start by analyzing the types of performers out there. While there may be finer distinctions we could consider in breaking down these artists, for the purposes of this article, consider these 6 different classes of performers and their descriptions:

  • Amateur artists are typically new to performing (perhaps even less than 2 years of skill development with their tools, so generally, new), lack a lot of experience and often lack a lot of polish (technically as well as aesthetically) which they often make up for with their wide-eyed enthusiasm. They have a different means of supporting themselves than performance and don’t care about the money. They may or may not have a long term goal with the practice and may or may not have aspirations to be professional performers. In fact, they may not even identify as performers themselves and may be cajoled into “giving a show for friends” rather than being internally driven to get on the stage.
  • Hobbyist are committed to the practice and, at the same time, don’t want to make a living doing this professionally. They have very little financial stake in doing gigs and while they may truly enjoy performing, they generally do not want to take money for fear of tainting their hobby. They are more purely committed to the practice for the sake of the practice rather than for the opportunity to perform.
  • Performers are artists motivated to perform for the sake of performing rather than performing to connect with the flow/prop. These folks were performers before they got into flow arts and see flow arts as another vehicle for expression rather than seeing flow arts as the vehicle of expression. They are motivated to perform regardless of financial reward because the performance itself is the practice to which they are called and from which they derive satisfaction. If they were not performing with flow tools they would be performing in some other way. They are not motivated by money necessarily though don’t mind receiving it if they can, though lack of pay will not necessarily be a deal breaker. Like amateurs and hobbyists, their financial success is tied to another income stream so they have very little at stake when considering compensation.
  • Semi Professional, like all the other types mentioned above, also have a primary income stream outside of flow arts. This means not all their financial eggs are in the flow arts basket and money is more used for leveling up their skills and supporting their flow habit (i.e., making enough to pay for festivals, clothing, props, etc.) than to eat. These artists are more inclined to perform for less since they aren’t pressured to garner the funds. Unlike the other types previously mentioned, these artists are trying to make some amount of money and have some investment in pay even if it isn’t a deal breaker in their ability to eat.
  • Part Time Professional make their living from flow arts exclusively though only part of that income is from performance specifically. The remaining part is acquired through things like costuming, instruction, prop manufacture, videos, content creation and/or some combination of these. Because their entire income relates to flow arts, other compensation may be more appealing than cash, such as the oportunty to vend at an event free rather than pay to attend and pay to vend. In fact, the often frowned upon exposure based gigs may well make the most sense to this class of artist in some contexts in that they have multiple products/services to offer and exposure to new markets can be a tremendous opportunity (i.e., performing for people who might purchase props or classes for an added uptick in income, sometimes more than the performance itself pays). These artists are motivated toward high pay and, at the same time, have more flexibility than full time professionals while also having more motivation than any of the other classes of performers.
  • Full Time Professional performers make all of their living from flow arts performance. This category of artist is highly invested in the indutry and, since their ability to eat is tied to their rate of pay, they will demand pro rates almost exclusively and ideally will be too booked up to consider lower paying opportunities. Typically they are too established to gain much benefit from things like exposure and these artists will often push the industry to work for higher pay rates. These artists are the most negatively impacted by low rates and are more likely to be affected by “getting undercut by others” while also likely to be the ones to make the most allegations of it toward other people since they are the most invested.

Types of Compensation

Next, let’s analyze the different types of compensation one might get for a gig so we might compare and contrast these:

  • Free: In the recent article, 8 Reasons Artists ‘Should’ Work for Free, we outlined some great examples of the types of gigs artists might take in this category. These gigs can be planned or unplanned and involve no cash exchange or any planned compensation, though tips may happen spontaneously. Examples of this type of gig include:
    • showing off to your family and friends
    • spontaneous moments when you feel like it
    • moments where you perform for the sheer joy of it
    • public flow jams (fire or not)
    • charity
    • community contribution
    • activism
    • doing a favor for a friend
  • Trade: Gigs based in trade rely on the artist getting something for their performance that is non-cash based which might include a ticket to an event, a gift certificate, guest list spots, drink, food, lodging, fuel, etc. Examples of this type of gig include:
    • bar gigs (go-go flow girls)
    • raves
    • festivals
    • business openings (where they offer a gift certificate for their business)
  • Exposure: These types of gigs include working in exchange for photos, videos, cross links on web sites, aural promotion at an event, listings in the client’s marketing, press coverage, etc. Examples of this type of gig could be any sort of client though the most benefit will come from clients with more clout or a context that makes sense. Note: if you’re working on trade for exposure, be sure to get the terms in your contract so all the obligations of the trade are guaranteed to be fulfilled.
  • Low Pay: These type of gigs are lower than fair market value. While they can come in any form, some of the more common ones observed include:
    • charity events
    • not for profit and non profit events
    • activist causes
    • events that are unusual (either in nature or venue)
    • events that are cool (music videos, TV spots, etc.)
    • events at which there will be press
    • doing a favor for a friend
  • “Pro” Pay: Professionally paying gigs are those for which clients are paying the full market value of the work at which artists command the highest pay. The word pro is in quotes because the industry is not yet matured enough to have a standard number that represents a pro rate. These types of opportunities are most frequently found in:
    • corporate gigs
    • incredibly high-end exclusive functions
    • ‘rich’ clients (though it’s equally true that they can be the cheapest clients)
    • weddings

Performer Class vs Compensation Type

When considering how gigs get booked and what motivates artists to take a gig, it’s important to consider the artist’s values, needs and preferences to understand what informs their decision to accept or decline the gig. The following table compares these different performer types against the gig types to give a better understanding of the complexity in the market.

Performer Class vs. Compensation Type

There are some who say that artists that have been performing for a while have the obligation to set the standard. The challenge should be clear if you look at this table. Multiple classes of artists are competing for the same sort of gig. More relevant perhaps, for each type of performer, different things are on the line. The higher up in the table they are, the less money matters. The lower down in the table, the more money matters. That means a Full Time Pro artist may be competing with 3 other classes of artist for the same gig.

Some have said that anyone who takes a gig for free that would otherwise be paid is an under cutter, often used, in my observation, derisively and with judgment. There are several problems with this mentality:

  • it’s clear artists of a different class are competing for the same types of gigs
  • it’s almost never clear when you get contacted about an opportunity without some amount of investment if the gig if it is or isn’t paid and if so, what the rate would be since that’s so specific to the services offered
  • it’s really difficult to get artists to be forthcoming with their rate sometimes, particularly if you don’t know artists and are just leveling up to a new class of artist

As a result of these factors, blaming the person taking a gig for a lower rate or free is not only unfair, it’s ineffective. Put differently, it is almost universally easier to down grade the cost of a gig whereas it is relatively difficult to upsell the cost of a gig. If a Performer, Semi Pro or Part Time Pro has a fabulous web presence — which is not only possible, it is common — the prospect may speak with them first. Often, the first person on the phone with the prospect will create the context and expectations for pay and how the gig will progress. In sales, this is a position of power even if non Full Time Pros want that spot.

In recent weeks, some artists said that taking a gig for lower paying than what’s possible causes everyone else to suffer. Clearly, looking at the table above, that is a false assertion in that those in the first three (if not 4) classes of performers don’t even care about money.

The reality is there will always be hobbyists, performers and semi pros willing to work for free, low pay exposure or trade where it makes sense. There will always be people who are breaking into the industry. There will always be someone willing to take it for free and that is okay. And it should be okay. Furthermore, many of us built our careers on taking some amount of gigs for low pay, no pay and what’s in between.

What’s a Pro to do about it?

If professionals are looking to perform at gigs that can typically pay the artist in trade (festivals are a fantastic example of this) they will likely continue to be frustrated by those to whom they market and the strategies they use to approach these opportunities — at least until some cheaper artist comes along and eagerly takes the gig off their hands for less compensation. This reality may be depressing, but fear not! Here’s 6 tips to help pro artists earn more dough:

  • The market is incredibly young right now and audiences are incredibly ignorant. Until the arts have spread more widely and Joe Plumber has more of an idea of what we do and how to differentiate talent from awe factor, particularly with fire dancing, artist must continue to push their skills forward and differentiate themselves as something that is worthy of more pay. From a sales perspective, use your more developed performance skills to command more pay — which can be easier said than done, of course.
  • Check your mindset. Remember that just because you want to book yourself as a professional artist doesn’t mean all clients want a professional artist at their event. Just because you think an event should be paying someone doesn’t mean an event will.  And if we learned nothing else from Oprah (& Revolva) we know that they don’t have to pay and people will do the job. On top of that, we can’t control who takes which gigs nor can we control which vendors want to hire people and which vendors want to get people to do it for free.
  • Stop trying to get gigs at events that can typically be paid on trade and refocus your efforts on a more lucrative part of the market. If your intuition tells you it won’t be lucrative, cut bait and move on to the next opportunity. There’s little to be gained by trying to squeeze money out of the pockets of those who won’t even admit they have money to spend.
  • Level up your business skills and learn how to sell into the values of your clients so you may inspire them to want to pay you rather than hiring the lower skilled artist willing to give it away. More than half of the work we do to get to book the performance comes from our ability, as business people, to garner the opportunity.
  • Differentiate yourself in the market in a way that has you/your group look distinct from those around you. This can be in presentation style/focus, how your marketing shows up, the wording you use, etc. Through time, this will help you become the go-to guys for your specialty.
  • Stop focusing on inequity and start focusing on earning money. Treat this like a business rather than an art project. Don’t give it the emotional space that can become devastating when you dive into what you’ve given up to create the life you want to live. Instead, focus on rational solutions to the real world problems we face as pros. The question can then shift from, “Why aren’t they paying me what I’m worth?” to something far more valuable: “How can I get them to pay me what I’m worth?”

Need business coaching? 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 business training or 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).

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