The Value of Burlesque

Economics dictates that supply, demand, cost and benefit, determines the value of a commodity. It is up to the consumer and supplier to determine what value they place on the item or service to determine what they would be willing to pay or sell that item for. Some would pay more, where others won’t pay a dime; some will charge more, while others will work *gasp* for free. Burlesque is no different, with the added complication that often the value of Burlesque has a number inconsistencies due to the type of consumer and supplier of burlesque. It means there is often a lot of variation (and debate) on what one should charge, one should pay, and the whole “pay-to-play” concept. The question remains though, how can we work out the real value of Burlesque?

Burlesque most certainly comes at a recordable cost. This is what I consider to be the Dollar Investment. There is the tangible cost of costumes, hair, makeup, consumable, studio/venue hire, travel and accommodation. There are also the intangible costs of time for preparation and travel and admin costs. Each of us has our own formula on how to calculate this. I teach my students about hourly rates, performance to cost ratios, and the difference between the calculations for corporate environments and industry (which is often dictated by the consumer/producer as opposed to corporate which is dictated by the supplier/performer) among other things to reach that “tangible” value.

When it comes to pricing performances, there is more than just the dollar value though. There is also an Emotional Investment. The emotional investment is the time you spent researching and developing your act, rehearsing it, getting feedback, refining it further, creating an atmosphere and a journey within the act for the audience and often includes how you want the act to be perceived. Often the value of your performance needs to reflect this emotional investment and how you want the act to be perception. For example, if you have a store-bought costume, have just put together the act in the last few weeks and want to charge $350 for an act, I’d probably say you’re dreaming… though kudos to you if you can sell it. Though don’t be thinking you can charge that when you’re fresh off the block either. Vice versa in that if you are investing thousands of dollars into an act, it’s got an over-the-top stage presence and you’ve spent 3 years developing it, accepting $100 is probably undervaluing not only the monetary investment, but also the emotional one that you have made into the act. But don’t be thinking you can charge lots just because you’ve been doing it a long time either. You got to back up the price with the goods. Often, if it looks expensive but has a $5 price tag, you’re going to ask “what’s wrong with it?”, just as a $500 price tag on a piece of junk is going to beg the question “what am I paying for?”. It’s important though to remember that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure so what you may value, your consumer may not. As a performer, I do feel that you do need to find balance between the two; always be prepared to negotiate and set yourself a bottom line of what you’ll perform for.

As a consumer of burlesque (read “producer”), economics also requires us to look at the cost benefit ratio, as well as demand versus supply. Consumers have to put their own value on what they are willing to pay, and what the relative expectation for the value is. For myself as a producer, the value of a performer is in their marketing pull, how well they are going to perform and their level of experience, what environment they are going to create backstage (nobody likes a negative-Nancy), and honestly, are they going to cause me a headache? (feel free to check out my how to be a headliner blog for more on what I look for in selecting performers). If they are lacking in these areas, then I adjust my offer accordingly. If it doesn’t match their expectations, then there’s always room to negotiate, until there’s not. At this point it becomes an unbalanced cost-benefit situation and we both walk away. The thing is, particularly in New Zealand, we have a large supply for a small level of demand so as a consumer, we are lucky in that we can make an offer to someone else whose perceived value of themselves matches the expectation of us, the consumer. You can’t be charging an arm and a leg when there’s someone just as good, who is willing to be realistic and reasonable.

Now in saying that, there is this argument of exposure, experience, working for significantly less that your usual fee or working for free (I can hear the screams of horror already). Generally, I don’t encourage working for free outside of student showcases as these are often done off the producers back, help newbie performers and support the growth of the school. However, on the “rare” occasion you want to work for exposure, experience, lesser pay or no pay, then there must be a greater benefit to you. Maybe you get non-monetary benefits like goodie bags, treated well with food, drink, accommodation and travel in exchange for a lower pay, get to go somewhere you’ve never been before, have a bit of a working holiday, do free workshops, be able to score one-on-one time with an international headliner; maybe it’s simply to help out a friend or work with someone you’ve never worked for. At the end of the day the gig has got to be worth our while, be it financial or otherwise. Only you can decide if the non-monetary benefits are worthwhile for you though.

That being said, generally gigs for exposure, experience or working for free should be the exception not the rule. You should also look out for producers who are offering exposure or low pay regularly as they are probably exploiting performers. We also need to be aware that it doesn’t do the industry any good if someone is working regularly for cheap or free, or we are regularly undercutting each other. Yes, there is being competitive because this is a business after all, but then there is just being a douchebag.

And now we tackle the question “What If I’m expected to pay-to-play?” be it for competitions or for festivals or other events. I think it’s a personal choice. I personally have no problem with paying-to-play (depending on the price and the event of course). Why? Well a lot of pay-to-play events have the side effect that you are contributing to the growth of an event that ultimately will provide wider benefit to the burlesque community. It draws attention to burlesque, meaning audiences will seek other shows out and possibly, you may pick up future gigs from other producers or potential corporate clients that attend. Festival and competitions are often a good example of this. I have gone to many a competition and festival and ended up hiring people who I saw performing on stage there. Likewise, I have paid to perform in competitions and been hired off my performances at festivals. Often the potential benefit outweighs the cost (take a look at my blog on titles in burlesque for more on this). I will say that I don’t begrudge those who don’t wish to pay-to-play and I don’t think others should begrudge those that do. Sometimes the biggest factor for people is money; it’s the only cost or benefit they see, and ultimately it is the individual’s choice if they wish to invest for pay-to-play. I do however, put a limit on how much I will pay-to-play though…. I got to get some return on my investment after all.

All of this can be factored into what you actually charge, what you are willing to accept as payment, and what are you willing to accept for your investment. This value is what determines if you are engaged or not in a “burlesque transaction”. If you find that you’re not getting the bookings off your quotes, then maybe re-examine it and make sure you’re not being realistic about what the market will pay. Also, maybe check that you’re not being fuckwit both in pricing and in personality. Whatever you are charging, you better make sure you better be able to deliver to meet that expectation of value. It doesn’t do the industry any good if the expectation is for high pay for a crap product, or low pay for an exceptional product. Rule of thumb: Under promise and over-deliver (but not by too much). It’s good for business after all.

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