The topic of exposure comes up on a regular basis in the flow arts community which makes sense since much of the community is built on entrepreneurship which requires individual negotiations and non-externally defined rule sets. One of the great things about working for someone else is that you don’t have to do a lot of the negotiations yourself and you get to do what you’re told in a nice, neat, orderly box of responsibilities that have been laid out clearly for you.
In contrast, entrepreneurship requires that we create our own agreements and understandings of what is and is not fair. Of course, what is fair for one person in one market with one set of experiences may not be the same as what is fair for another person in another market with a different set of experiences. What we must recognize is that “exposure” means different things to different people and holds different value depending on where you are in your career and life.
This is a fact and yet people are trying to deny or vilifying a concept that has helped countless people gain experience before having more responsibility than they can handle. For example, internships. They are fundamentally built on the idea of getting “exposure” in the form of experience rather than pay.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: value is relative and subjective. If you’ve never performed before performing for exposure makes sense. If you have performed only a few times, exposure makes sense.
Because exposure really means experience. Experience performing. Experience negotiating a deal. Experience being in a crowd working them trying to get more leads. Experience growing your self as a business person and a networking agent. Experience negotiating what’s important in your contract. Experience exploring your own boundaries and self-worth. Experience exploring the value of your art to you and others. These are invaluable tools for personal and business development that each of us needs if we are to be pro performers and artists making our living off our art. To vilify the idea of exposure experience is truly mind-boggling!!
Let’s take this into the realm of the practical. About 555 days ago (I only know because I started this article that long ago and have only gotten fed up with the topic enough to actually complete it now) there was this question from someone who got asked to perform:
I was told the event is to be benefiting a local charity for women and children and that I would not be paid. Is this normal? Is the trade of promotion usually what “pays” in this situation? I dont want to be taken advantage of.
In the article, 9 Lessons Artist-Preneurs Can Learn From Oprah & Revolva, I addressed some concerns about people, especially young women, being taken advantage of and offered a series of tips about how to protect themselves. Also, concerned that people were actually struggling with less than ethical promoters, I wrote this article with 15 Question to Help Performers Decide if Promoters are Taking Advantage of Them. I’m certainly not going to say there isn’t any of it going on. But I will say, there are things you can do to support your own experience to create the results you want.
The first piece of advice is to practice saying no. That’s great in theory, and in practice it’s much more difficult to do unless you are aware of your boundaries. This is a fluid process to some extent, but it’s really useful to start with a baseline understanding of what you want and what you won’t tolerate. While it likely will change over time, you can’t enforce your boundaries if you haven’t taken the time to figure out where they exist.
Meanwhile, let’s reframe this word exposure because it’s taken on a life of it’s own. In my world, there’s no such thing as only doing a gig “for exposure”, which is to say, if you’re doing a gig and not getting paid, the experience alone is valuable, though the value of it is subjective and relative to where you’re at in your career/experience.
As someone who is pretty good at sales (to be clear, I believe a good sales rep will tell you sales is really about building relationships with people, not pitching a product), to me, “for exposure” really means “access to people.” That shifts the entire conversation to questions that arise for me: how much access to what kinds of people will I have and for how long and in what form? If I can schmooze face to face with someone, I might get a great gig from it.
While people bitch about “for exposure” being <insert whatever negative judgment they have here>, I have found a lot of value in those gigs myself because I choose to make opportunity for myself or I don’t take the gig because I only do it when there is a clear value for value exchange. Here’s how you can make exposure valuable:
- work the crowd – while they may not hire you in the moment, you never know when or if they might hire you in the future
- collect business cards — do not just give out your own. Get their information so you can follow up. And then DO follow up!
- get photos and footage — build that into your contract so they deliver you copies
- get your name and URL on marketing blurbs sent out on social media.
- have them advertise your work through bios (with link backs), videos (from your channels) and links to events or other resources you want to promote.
- Use this as an opportunity to sell yourself because that’s part of the game of being a pro performer without an agent. Remember you can sell anything when you shmooze — be it performances, a fire dancing empowerment workshop or even a beginner poi or a yoga class.
- believe you can (I have so it absolutely CAN be done) get gigs and make money this way with the right attitude and go-getter mentality.
If you don’t have sales skills and/or don’t want to try to develop them, this probably won’t be valuable to you and if that’s the case, exposure may well be meaningless to you. Of course, if you’re not trying to develop your sales skills, you shouldn’t be bitching about the fact that you can’t sell your gigs. It’s like bitching about not being able to do a particular move without practicing it. You’d never expect someone to step up and perform the highest level tech you’ve ever seen without any practice experience; why would sales be different?
Meanwhile, if you’re a business person doing this to make money it would be a worthwhile investment of your time to consider how you can learn to sell more effectively and events where you’re not getting paid cash are great places to practice your pitch. Which, by the way, is also invaluable exposure experience that you garnered through this “exposure only” event.
In terms of the question presented above, the truth is, no one else can decide what is and isn’t acceptable for you and whether you’re being “taken advantage of” in that it’s completely relative and subjective to you, not anyone else. My needs are likely not the same as your needs; my values are likely not the same as your values.
When I was a new artist and wanted to practice performing, taking a gig for low or no cash was great! It filled out my resume and garnered me lots of exposure experience. It also got me actual exposure to people who became clients — and lots of them. It was, for me, a perfect marketing opportunity.
Now, since I have a full compliment of both, I leave gigs like that to people who want what they have to offer: the opportunity to practice performing; access to a captive audience; people with whom they can practice selling; links to web sites on the flyers (virtual and physical) as often as possible and as many cross links to their web site which has real value in an SEO context and something for which you can’t actually pay. The bigger the charity event, the higher value the link back from them is likely to be because their site will be ranked higher and that improves your rank.
Add to that the tax write off. If the organization is a 501c3 and you’re in the USA, you can negotiate as part of your compensation a letter/receipt from them to be used for tax purposes and they are very happy to do this for you. It’s not actually taking cash in, but it does counter balance the (highway robbery) of government taxes to some degree because you’re doing this professionally. And, even if they aren’t a 501c3, you can donate a performance and write off the cost of the performance as a marketing expense. You literally don’t lose anything and gain, at the very least, a tax write off. Although, even for charity events, they are likely to cover your actual fixed costs (or at least most have in my experience) like fuel &/or transportation costs.
The bottom line is that you need to learn to assess the opportunity so you can make informed choices for yourself. Just because everyone else says one thing doesn’t mean that’s true for you. Certainly exposure isn’t worth it to every one in every context. But unilaterally suggesting things like “you can die from exposure” in a nice pithy phrase really doesn’t investigate the complex nature of what one can actually create as a business person through exposure.
You can act like exposure is useless but if you’re vilifying it, you are, as an entrepreneur, thinking about it in the most disempowering way possible. If you want to make money doing this, wake up and expose the opportunity and let your inner entrepreneur benefit from a value for value exchange that has nothing to do with the almighty dollar.
PS: Pro tip: Stop taking it personally when ignorant people don’t want to pay you anything. That’s never been about you and it will continue to never be about you. That is, 100%, about their ignorance. They will never know what they don’t know and part of your job is to educate them rather than blame them for their ignorance.
Additional resources can be found when you 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: