There is a pervasive notion that in order to be a true artist you must be poor and suffer. As if as an artist you should be living out some sort of Kerouacian fantasy life in a squalid flat, subsisting on red wine and a loaf of bread. You’ll ideally be tormented by some romantic yet deadly 18th century tubercular disease that brings sparkling eyes and a luminously pallid glow to the complexion. That’s how you know you’re committed to your art, right? A true artist does not care about money. An artist is always poor. To put something so indelicate as a monetary value on your work somehow diminishes its artistic value. Let’s slay this notion like the many-headed beast of bullshit it is.
Burlesque performers also occasionally encounter the implication that demanding money for a performance that may include elements of striptease is the province of the club stripper. Due to burlesque having less social stigma than club stripping some performers take pride in distancing themselves from being paid for their performance because they somehow believe it prevents them from being considered a stripper. How many times have you heard a performer comment along the lines of “Strippers make money, burlesque performers make costumes.”?
These factors collide and result in the suggestion that performing for low/no pay is somehow classier because it means you are an Artist rather than a Stripper. To that I reply: you can be both! Or neither! Or whichever you choose! But the amount of payment received does not dictate this or grant you any kind of moral superiority. What defines the character of your performance is, perhaps obviously, the nature of your actual performance, not the amount of money you are compensated with for it. I’d also suggest if you are a burlesque performer who feels the need to distance yourself from being called a stripper because you feel morally superior to club strippers, maybe you need to look into your own soul. The two professions originate from the same root.
Do you happen to be a female performer? As women and as artists we are struck by a double whammy of societal expectations that condition us to not expect or seek money for our work. Society’s reluctance to pay for creative work is exacerbated by the undervaluing of work by women in New Zealand. The New Zealand Government’s figures placed the pay gap between men and women’s wages at 9.9% in 2014.1 Industries dominated by women tend to be lower paid. Where money is concerned women are taught to expect less and ask for less. I call bullshit on this.
So, who is ready to get paid?
Valuing Your Own Work Teaches Others To Value It Too
Getting paid reinforces self worth. Taking your clothes off onstage can be empowering. What is also empowering is having your talent recognised with CA$H MONEY. To quote Dita von Teese:
“Some people say what I do isn’t very liberating. I say it’s pretty liberating to get $20,000 for 10 minutes work.”2
In our capitalist society we equate money with value. Not seeking pay under this economic system sends the message that your work is valueless, because if your work has worth, surely you would expect to be paid? It’s impossible to get respect for an art form if people perceive it as valueless.
Incidence of depression is greater in the unemployed and under-employed. Feeling that we participate in worthwhile, meaningful work is essential to our mental wellbeing as humans.3 Getting paid signifies that our contribution to society is valued. Plus, we need that sweet moolah for sparkly things to glue onto our costumes.
That said, knowing the value of your performance goes both ways. If you are a new performer you should expect to participate in a few amateur (unpaid) shows to hone your skills. Audiences are paying to be entertained. Would you pay $30 to see a band that couldn’t play their instruments? OK yes, I hear you, maybe if they have tight pants and a whole bunch of charisma you’d pay that. Maybe the moral here is that you don’t need to be able to dance to perform burlesque, if you have killer stage presence and a wardrobe... However, regardless of the exact form of entertainment you provide, and whether your are a newbie or an established performer, you have a responsibility to provide quality entertainment in order to justify the audience handing over their hard-earned dollars.
If there is a cover charge (and there should be) for a show you are performing in, then it’s likely that someone is getting paid. So, if as a performer you aren’t one of the people getting paid, then maybe it is time to ask why not. If a show can’t pay its performers, it is worth considering whether that show model is working. It should never be your duty as a performer to compensate for a faulty business model by feeling obliged to take on unpaid work.
It’s difficult to gauge how much to charge for performances.
I struggle to know how much to charge for an act. Even as a performer with many years experience I’m still learning how to price myself. The only thing I’ve found that helps with this is transparency. Ask more established performers and producers about industry rates regarding fees, travel, accommodation, etcetera, so you know you are positioning yourself within market rates and proceed with confidence. Don’t undercut other performers to gain performance opportunities, it devalues the industry and makes you look unprofessional.
Being a performer/artist is also a business. How much do your costumes, makeup, classes and travel cost you? Keep a record of your expenses and work out what your performance fees need to be in order to break even, or even make a profit. Work out what your own personal minimum rate is and stick to it. An exception to this rule could be charity events, where you are donating your time to a worthwhile cause (yay you!). Or where the contra deals and perks are equal or greater than the cash value of your minimum and as such make performing worth your while. Don’t be afraid to turn down shows if you aren’t happy with the conditions.
Festivals and competitions are a slightly different kettle of fish, and the pay-to-perform model is a controversial one. Sometimes in lieu of cash these events offer perks in the form of event tickets, goodie bags and networking opportunities, or in the case of competitions—significant prizes. It’s up to you to determine if the value of what they are offering is worth the value of your performance.
Being promised exposure is, to quote fabulous illustrator/type designer Jessica Hische ‘…the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you...’4 Expose your boobs, expose your butt, expose your intellect, expose your soul, but do it on your own terms. Do it for love, do it for charity, do it for money, but do not do it for ‘exposure’.
The only thing that working for free teaches people is that they can expect you to work for free in the future, and that they can expect other performers to work for free too. We need collective standards. By insisting on a fair rate you support the burlesque community.
What Do Low Pay Rates Mean For The Community?
If a living wage can’t be earned from performing, other paid work is needed to support the performer, and so performing becomes by default a ‘hobby’. By devaluing creative work through low or no pay a culture is created where most performers can afford to perform only as a hobby.
By extension, the only people who can afford to do large amounts of unpaid work with high expenses are the independently wealthy or those who have other highly paid sources of income. This creates an environment where only the relatively wealthy can afford to be entertainers. We need to ask ourselves if the only viewpoints we want to see portrayed in burlesque are upper-class voices. People from lower income sectors of society have very different opinions and messages from those with a high income. Burlesque originated as a means to draw attention to social issues and to critique and lampoon the upper classes. It fails the history of burlesque that this kind of satire might no longer take place because only people of means can participate.
Unpaid and low-paid work also means the quality of performance across the breadth of the scene also suffers. In order to become an expert in an art form you need to devote time to it. Time is limited if you have to perform other work full or near-full time in order to meet the costs of living. Is this something we want for our industry?
Ultimately—is it right that many performers get into debt for the privilege of entertaining people? Hell no! Get paid. Make it rain.
– Pastie Politics Issue 2
Amourous Ava is an Auckland-based burlesque performer and the creator of Pastie Politics. She has been performing since 2011 and is known predominately for romping around enthusiastically in her underpants as characters inspired by B-Grade horror movies, as well as being occasionally, if not always completely intentionally, hilarious.
Known as ‘The Fastest Ass in the West’, Amourous Ava has an abiding and equal fondness for both political subtext and vigorous booty shaking. She is quite a perverse creature and enjoys challenging peoples expectations of what a scantily-clad woman should do in public.
When she’s not writing for, designing and publishing Pastie Politics, Amourous Ava performs throughout New Zealand and internationally. She enjoys being a small business owner, a creative professional, a feminist and a burlesque performer, and she hopes you enjoy this zine.