Fees… How Do You Know What To Charge?

Today we thought we’d tackle that ‘interesting’ debate of fees and how do you know what to charge. We get a lot of performer applications and often performers don’t really know what to quote, and sometimes feel that asking fee advice from other performers is a taboo subject. We’re kind of in an enviable position seeing that Bluestocking is run by both performers and producers. We get to see both ends of the scale and would like to think our show paying system is both fair and in line with most of the other top regional shows (touring productions are different!) in the UK. There’s also that fine line for performers of balancing what is reasonable to expect between not undervaluing what they are worth (you certainly don’t want to be doing shows for little money or free if you are of headline quality!). So here’s some of our collected advice, we should point out that it is entirely subjective and certainly not the definitive, other shows/performers may have different opinions – but we hope it helps!

What is realistic

So, starting with the basics, here. The question of what is realistic to charge balances out with what is realistic for promoters to pay. Promoters, especially regional promoters where there’s less of a flow of tourists looking for a night out, are working to tight budgets, and ours (we’re going to break the taboo and be transparent about this so hopefully anyone wanting to perform or put on a show will understand how the money is split) is usually £1000-£1200 for every show we put on in Swansea. This £1000 has to be split on venue hire, any venue ‘hidden costs’ (such as techs working overtime – we have to pay for that), inclusion in the venue’s printed programme, promotion, photographers at the shows (which is technically promotion for the next show) and performer’s fees and expenses. When you break it down like that, that’s not a lot of money to go around (and this figure is a lot less in the other venues we use, where shows are bought-in by the theatres and other promoters for a set fee – plotting a bill on these shows can be very tight indeed).

Our bill is usually split into the following prize ranges (aside from the resident performer details, this is typical of payment for most shows):

HEADLINER Known internationally, has a name throughout UK (Paid the most)

SECOND BILLING known internationally, has a name throughout UK (Paid less than the headliner)

THIRD BILLING possibly known internationally, is known throughout UK (paid less than the second billing)

RESIDENT PERFORMER known throughout UK (vested interest in show so performs for free)

NEWCOMER SLOT (not paid slot, but for experience)

NEWCOMER SLOT (not paid slot, but for experience)

COMPER AND STAGE MANAGER 

When you’re considering how much to charge, it’s useful to know where you are placed in terms of billing. This is not generally how you see yourself, but how others see you, how much experience you have on the scene, if there’s a buzz around you, if the press have picked up on you plus the name and following you have generated for yourself – eg, you can’t just decide you are the headliner after only a few months of performing and charge what headliners would charge (although, you would not believe it, but we do get emails from performers who have only just started on their burly journey quoting twice a headliners’ fee!).

So what should I charge?

RedSarah wrote an excellent piece of advice on the Ministry Of Burlesque’s website in 2009. We hope she won’t mind us reproducing the gist of it here as it’s still such a great guide (we tried to find the link to the Ministry of Burlesque post so you can read the full article but it’s gone – if anyone finds it, please let us know!).

Here’s what RedSarah posted:

“newbies – 1 year – £0 + expenses (no corporate leave it to pros )

1 year – 2 years – £20 – £50 + expenses (no corporate leave it to pros )

2 years – 3 years – £50 – £100 + expenses £100 – £150 for corporate

3 years – 4 years – £100 – £150 for clubs , £150 – £200 for corporate

4 years – 5 years – £150 – £200 for clubs, £250 – £300 for corporate

5 years plus – whatever you bloody well want !!!!”

As far as we know, her quoted figures are still true to this day in terms of the average fee quotes we receive and also get paid as performers at other shows around the country. Despite it being a few years old, it’s still good as a guide to what to charge, as promoters budgets have fluctuated over the years with rising and falling ticket prices and audience numbers.

As a side note, your experience in years might not match your level as a performer, so be honest. If you’ve been performing burlesque for 4 years, yet have not achieved second billing status, have no international experience and are not well known throughout the country, having only performed a handful of shows during this time, then you really should only be expecting to be paid in line with those of lower billing status (a step or two up from newcomers). Please don’t be upset by this, but be honest! Do a few more shows and raise your profile and work hard. Moving up the bill is hard work, it’s a bit like building a pyramid, actually. The bottom (new performers) is formed of a wide base and there are always loads of unpaid openings for new performers, the next level up is a little narrower, as you are now charging and have to work hard to climb on to the next tier again, to lay the foundations for the next tier, and so on. The further you move up the pyramid, the heavier the bricks (you have to work harder at your acts/costumes to justify why you should be on that level), and the less space there is at the top. When you arrive at the top of the pyramid, you enter an elite level where producers will pay their top rate for you (again, this might not be what you are expecting, but you are more likely, as a headline act, to get most or all of your expected fee, especially if you are a sought after name or have a sought after act). But you still have to work hard to maintain this – which means headline quality acts, costumes, stage presence and attitude (no, we don’t mean turning into a diva! Quite the opposite actually!) EVERY TIME. On the flip side of entering this level of performer, there are also less slots on bills (not everyone can headline, but there might be a lot of second billers on a bill).

Newbie slots – why don’t they pay?

When you enter your first year of performing, you are still learning how to stage your acts, how to work with and an audience (you notice we said ‘with’ and not ‘at’ here…) You are learning how to use the stage for props, about lighting, about how costumes work under lights, etc. You are learning how to behave at shows (always be polite, lovely and generally you, please!) and you are learning from other performers you see on the bills – and we always recommend you see as many different acts as you can, of all levels, just so you can experience the full range, up your game and more. When we say ‘first year’ this is also subjective; some newbies will do more than 30 shows in their first year, they will work hard and get out there, while some will do 4 (in which case, see above!). So for arguments sake, let’s say newbies are up to 1 year’s realistic experience or more than 20 shows. The experience you can gain during this time of learning is invaluable. Plus, you may also have great photos of your acts (always ask for the photographer’s permission to use images , images in general are copyright to the photographer but they are usually happy to send you hi-res images providing they are properly credited), great video footage of your routines in (hopefully) great venues to showcase for future paid work and plenty of contacts, particularly if a producer loves what you do and books you again in a paid slot (at BSL we usually use our newbie slots and slots on Clwb Kaboom! as a scout for paid slots on our other shows). You cannot expect to be paid expenses, but sometimes a producer will offer you a token amount for expenses, particularly if you live out of town.

Also, as a side note on expenses, if you are performing in a newcomers’ ‘showcase night’ (billed as such in promo materials, posters, etc and in any press), with a bill made up of newbies, it is not always possible to always expect expenses.

How about Quoting for Corporate Events and Clients?

The corporate sector is different to the club and show sector purely because there is a lot more money available to be spent by a company or client on entertainment, but as the name states on the tin, corporate is very ‘corporate’ and will usually expect a highly polished, yet homogenised, version of your idea of ‘burlesque’. Performers’ experience of corporate shows vary, from disinterested punters slurping their soup while the performer fluffs their feathers in front of them to roudy bankers going wild, flashing a load of banknotes around, to promoting a specialised product and tailoring your act to incorporate that. We would always advise to leave the corporate world to the professional performers who will be experienced with a variety of audiences, adapting their acts or costumes, having a professional attitude and sometimes, having a thick skin to deal with ‘professional’ or reserved audiences, which can often come across as indifference, as opposed to the show audiences who have no inhibitions and are used to expressing their appreciation or generally going wild.

Expenses

Another taboo subject, where we would say common sense and being realistic counts. If you are going to quote a producer £100 for two acts, yet your “expenses” (travel, hotel, anything else you can think of) come in at more than over £400, making the total layout for you on the bill £500, do you really think a producer is going to pay that over a headliner’s combined fee and expenses of £250? Probably not. Usually, the slots on the bill and their combined fee and expenses price points are tiered. Expenses should be reasonable. Expenses shouldn’t usually cost more than your fee and you should always endeavor to travel the cheapest means. If a producer has to pay out more than reasonable expenses (more than £90) they will probably choose someone cheaper rather than spend all their budget on travel, etc. Frankly, producers want to spend their money on quality acts, not line the train companies’ pockets.

Breaking the “I’m going to be a burlesque performer and live off my earnings” myth

If you are part of the elite number of performers who do regular corporate events and perform residentials in other countries, then yes, you probably can live off your earnings, but for the rest of us, it is a myth. As performers, we hear a lot of newcomers mentioning they’d love to do what we do and live a life funded by burlesque, but in reality, and in the current climate, it’s not possible for everyone to do this (anymore!). To do this involves a lot of travel and working different areas of the country 2-3 nights a week unless you are lucky and get a residency in a cabaret club, where you will be based for a number of consecutive nights (you will be paid a set fee for this, which is not necessarily what your expected fee would be). A lot of burlesque nights have stopped running in this country due to the recession (and other factors) so there is simply not enough work to go around and producers outside London really don’t want to be booking the same acts on a regular basis as this is not good to draw in new crowds. In reality, life as a professional burlesque performer has changed somewhat over the last few years; more and more performers are taking up a (flexible!!) second job to supplement their income or are looking to other creative endeavors to make up their wage. Living as a self-employed burlesque performer is a case of ‘feast or famine’ – you could earn a lot over a few months and some months you might not earn very much at all.

Do Fees Change depending on where you live?  

Actually, yes they do. Performers in London will tell you that the going rate is around £50-£100 per show even for headliners so many performers cram in up to 3 shows a night at weekends, while the rest of the country generally pay the average going fees. But this also depends on where the show is based. In bigger cities where people are used to paying more than a tenner for theatre/gig tickets, you would probably get your expected fee, but in smaller areas, where money is tighter and ticket prices lower, the producer might not have as much budget so whatever fee is decided on will be dependent on this factor.

Charity Shows

This is entirely up to the performer. It’s your call here. But as a guide, we’d just like to nudge you a little bit. If you are travelling from out of town and paying to do the show, if your name is going to attract a lot of audience who will donate to this charity and if you are prop or costume heavy or are turning down well-priced work to help out a charity it is not unreasonable to charge a small fee or ask them to cover expenses. After all, without you on the bill they don’t make any money for their charity, and if you will be out of pocket expenses-wise, you may as well have donated that directly to the charity of concern. But always err on the edge of caution here. Check the charity is actually a registered charity and how much of a proportion of money raised will be going to the said registered charity. If you are happy with that, then do the show!

Agree your fee and stick to it. 

Lastly, once you have set out your fee, agreed your expenses with the producer and they have confirmed you for a show, both parties must stick to this agreement, which means the producer must pay the fee and any expenses you have both decided on and cannot pay you less come the night, whether or not they haven’t taken what they expected. And you must honor that agreement by accepting what was decided on and not demanding more for expenses or fee on the engagement.

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