performers' library

Living With your Fee
Steven Ragatz

I have never considered myself a good business person, and have never gone after the notion of trying to make pots of money, but there are a few aspects of getting a satisfactory wage that subsequently, produces a satisfactory performance, that I would like to share.

One of my first paying gigs was with a local balloon-o-gram shop that opened in a prime spot downtown. (I remember thinking that the business was really a dumb idea when they first opened, and wondered who would be spending money to have balloons delivered to their door. I vocally predicted that the shop would close within the year. Lo and behold, I was wrong, as it has been there for twenty years now and still going strong.) After the first year or so, I hooked up with them and they started getting me some local gigs as a juggler. I had done some festivals and a handful of parties that had fallen into my lap, but didn't really have any idea about what to charge for the varied tasks for which they hired me.

I asked the owner about how much I should charge, and she said one of the simplest and most useful pieces of advice I have ever been given on the subject. Her prescription for setting a rate for a gig was "Ask for however much you need so that you want to do the gig and can forget about the money."

That advice has proved useful more than once.

It is easy to let the money influence a great deal about the performance. Of course, the credo of the stage dictates that we are supposed to pursue some higher calling by putting art first, and perform the best show in spite of any material rewards, but it is tough to give your all when there are nagging voices undermining your efforts. This situation has repeatedly come up in casts where there are many performers working together in the show or festival.

I was talking with a young friend of mine who recently did an eight-month gig over seas with a small trapeze group based here in town. I was asking her how it went, knowing that the gig represented a hallmark engagement for her group. She said that the shows were good, but that there was quite a bit of tension between a couple of members in the troupe about money. Apparently, one of the other female flyers had negotiated more money than her partners, who had wrongly assumed that the lump sum, whatever that may be, would be divided equally between them. After all, since they were in the same troupe and their responsibilities in the show were all equal, it seemed only fair that they should all be paid equally. In spite of the wonderful opportunity and experience, the conflict about money was her prevalent memory.

My mother-in-law used to say, even though God created everyone equal, some were created more equal than others. I told her this, and also explained that the different pay rate may have been necessary for her comrade, in spite of the fact that the two of them had the same duties and the same status in the show. The other person was older, a single mother, and had several years of experience that my friend didn't have. I also told her that it was possible that her partner simply wouldn't do it for less. If my friend felt that the amount she was being paid was sufficient for her to do the gig, then that should be independent of anything that any of her troupe members were making. In the perfect frame of mind, my friend should be happy for her partners, knowing that they were making good money on their respective deals.

I sympathized with her, having been in similar situations, both as the least paid in the group, to the most paid. Ultimately, it is only important to one person - you. But, it takes a great deal of self-control to keep the information of what others make from tainting your ability to produce unbiased work. The tension is created both ways. I find it equally awkward when I am the one who negotiated the sweet deal, and I see that everyone else in the ensemble has green eyes. This is the main reason that I do not discuss the details of how much money I make with my partners or co-performers unless under direct contract with them.

Experience carries a lot of the weight for setting the pay rate. Unfortunately, experience is something that others don't always see or recognize. There are so many possible aspects that make each of us different from each other. Formal training can be a factor in certain markets, promotional materials, cultural background, and who you sleep with etc. - all factors that may be as, or more, significant than the actual material that you bring onto the stage.

For me, I always negotiate what I want from the gig so that I don't have to worry about the money anymore. If I can get that, I am almost always able to keep the nagging voices down, and I try to be happy for my friends in the show who have managed to liberate extra cash from the show producer's pocket. If they are making more than I am, then more power to them! It's then up to me to outdo them next time!

Most generalizations are wrought with exceptions. As soon as I finished typing the previous paragraph, I wish to contradict myself. I don't really use a sliding rate scale to determine a fee based solely on the desire to do the show. Of course, there are other issues that come into play, though I still contend that the happiest one is to make sure that the money issues are satisfactory enough that those issues don't get carried as baggage onto the stage.

Lots of people talk about markets and keeping one's fees up to maintain a good rate within a certain market. (I may be wrong, but it seems like magicians like to dwell on the business of squeezing money out of clients more than some of the other variety disciplines. It may be my imagination, but I think not.) I have had several conversations with performers who have had years and years of experience in certain markets. The individuals differ, but the conversations are always the same. "Things aren't like they were in the good 'ol days..."

Places like Vegas, Branson, and Orlando all support many performers with their rich, tourist industry. Because there is so much work to be had in those regions, it is a draw for many performers to live there, and set up their base of operation. Variety acts and circus acts abound, and because there is little overhead for a local performer to work in these markets, the rates have dropped.

I did a corporate gig last year for a fellow performer in Las Vegas. He was acting as the event agent, and hired the cast. With all of the jugglers available in the area, I was surprised that he called me. To further make me realize some of the issues, he relayed to me the conversation he had with one of the other performers.

The other performer was a dancer and rhythmic gymnast local to Vegas. The agent said that when he called her on the phone, he offered her "one and a half" for both dance and gymnastic spots. Apparently, her reply was somewhat defiant, stating that she does not even consider going out of the house for less than two hundred. The agent said that she misunderstood, not $150, but $1,500. The reply and tone changed to "For $1500 I will do whatever you want!"

(I still get goose bumps thinking about "I will do what ever you want." You'd get them too if you had ever met her!)

Luckily for her, this guy is good and honest, and is not in the practice of taking advantage of individuals, but it did point out to me that there is a great range in what is considered acceptable rates, even in an area with as much traffic as Las Vegas. In her case, this performer felt that it was easy enough to simply pop down the street to do another corporate show after her normal day gig, so $200 was a welcomed bonus. Of course, it would be impossible to fly someone in for the event for that amount, so in some way, she guarantees her hiring status.

So, I wonder why this production is so willing to throw money around and ship me in from across the country when there are so many skilled performers in the gig's own back yard. I have had limited experience doing gala shows, trade shows and corporately sponsored events in general, but a common theme seems to prevail. The cost doesn't seem to be as important an issue as the quality, or at least the perceived quality, of the performance. The handful of companies that I have dealt with have had no qualms in bringing me in from out of state in spite of having local talent available that could obviously be less expensive.

It is a strong motivation to keep pushing one's rates up, in hopes of maintaining a viable market and not undermining one's own earning power.

As I said, I'm not into pushing the dollars. Someone (a magician!) once told me that if I am accepting more than 70% of the prospective show calls, I am charging too little. I almost always work out some deal, and end up doing the gig. I should probably be a more difficult sale, but it seems that any work is better than no work.

I have heard stories of acts being pitted against each other for money. I guess I am privileged that, to my knowledge, I have never lost a prospective gig due to someone else coming in with a lower bid. It may be common in the bigger metropolitan areas, but it seems to me that if someone contacts me to perform, it is because I happen to fit the bill that they are trying to fill. I think of it in the same way that one gets cast for a conventional theater play - sometimes you look the part, and sometimes you don't. Of course there are budget boundaries that must be observed, and they will dictate the rate as well, but I would be willing to generalize that any client that wants to negotiate price by playing a competitive bid against me is not the sort of association that interests me. My best wishes to the other guy and his new show.

Don't forget that setting a fee for a gig shouldn't necessarily be restricted to the monetary reimbursements. A juggler that I know was interested in working a summer at a theme park this past year. I thoroughly enjoyed the many summers that I performed at theme parks, and recommended the experience to him, though I qualified the recommendation with the warning that the money wasn't very good. (In fact, it was usually insultingly poor.) I suggested that he try negotiating for some other things that could help satisfy the need for self worth. I suggested vacation time for other gigs, media opportunities, or simply extra passes to the park. He later got the gig and relayed that, in fact the money was poor, but that he was able to get several other perks included into the deal that helped make it worth his while.

This idea often works well, as long as the client can provide something that you value. Typically, the client offers lots of exposure, press coverage, and the prospects of future employment. Sometimes, they even go so far as to offer lunch. I don't count these things as viable perks, since they will be there with or without my participation, but often there is something that is within the client's ability to provide that can improve the situation to the point where the performance becomes desirable in spite of lacking immediate financial gains.

My soft spot is good spaces. If there is a theater involved, with seats, curtains and lights, I'm ready to be there. I love shows where there is good technical support to frame my act. Working on a sidewalk has many benefits, and I think good for the performer's soul, but to me, there's nothing like cleaning yourself up for a nice house. (I like standing under a real spotlight — the kind where you throw things up, loose them in the abyss, then glimpsing them just before the catch! I get a rush to juggle when I can't even see the first row...)

Things like real dressing areas, backstage snacks, and other acts often become the memorable events of the gig. Lots of time, I don't even take advantage of the additional perks. Just knowing that they are there is sufficient enough to validate my existence and justify the deal. I guess that it's simply a head game on my part, trying to find some impetus to validate my professionalism. C'est la vie.

The moral of the story is that I think it important to pick a rate that you can be happy with and that allows you to do the real work - the show. For market reasons, moral reasons, and for piece of mind, if you can do that without undercutting some other performer, then you must be on the right track.

Steven Ragatz

Steven Ragatz has studied mime, stage movement and juggling with Fred Garbo, Tony Montanaro, George Pinney, and Michael Moschen. He currently resides in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife, Lisa, and their two children, Andrew and Melissa. Someday he'll have his web site running.

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