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Workin’ Cheap – How Shortsighted Ninnies Are Killing Our Profession

Buckle up, Dear Danglers – this is gonna be a bumpy ride! Today, we will be talking about the money side of the business, specifically about working cheap. What does it mean to you and your industry? How does it affect your future ability to earn a living? Are YOU one of the performers on my I-Would-Like-To-Slap-You List? Giddyap, cowgirl – I aim to shoot straight from the hip.

How Cheap is Too Cheap?

When deciding how much I will charge for my services (that sounds vaguely naughty somehow), I take a number of things into account.

  • Is someone making money off me? (ex: open to the public shows, night clubs, agents, evil dictators, etc.)
  • How much hoo-hah and shenanigans are involved? (travel, rigging, equipment, the occasional a$$hole producer – we charge a “shenanigans” tax when we have to work with unpleasant people, costuming, custom-created work, cost of meals, scheduling, etc.) The more anticipated drama, the more we charge.
  • Are there any pretty perks? (professional photos or video which will contractually be made available to us, awesome location, swanky catering, free equipment or costumes, male models named Dante, etc.)
  • Where is the event being held? Germany is a very different market than Ecuador.
  • Is this a non-profit, fundraising event, or other event where a budget is so tight it squeaks?


Show Me the Money!

Taking ALL of these things into account, what is a fair and sustainable price for my work? Adequate compensation is the best defense against Bitter Business Syndrome (and oh – Danglers – I know from whence I speak).  I want you to think about the following:

  • Add up the amount you’ve spent on lessons, rehearsal space, equipment, etc. Still feel OK about charging $200 for your performance?
  • Circus is a skill worth paying for. Your abilities are unique, and you’ve worked hard for your skills. Do you see accountants, nurses, plumbers, etc. lining up to work for free? Why do you value your training and skills less? Do you feel that because you love your work it’s not worth much? New flash, sistah – you don’t have to hate your job to be paid fairly for it.
  • Do you “just want to perform”? Love it so much you’ll do it for free? Then by all means – donate your skills to local showcases and shows! Just don’t bill yourself as a professional. As in “I do this as a profession” – because that means it’s how you make a living. No $$? No living. Also? I really hope you love your day job, because you’ll never make enough to leave it.
  • When you work cheap, it gets around. People don’t value what they don’t pay for. When we hear of performers who routinely lower the bar for the rest of us, you can bet they won’t be working in any of our shows or events.

Now, I’m not saying you should never reduce your rates (we do “good karma” gigs when appropriate), or perform gratis at a benefit or local show – these can be  great places to put up new acts and get feedback, give back to your community, etc. But professional shows and events demand professional pay, and if you’re walking in the door as an aerialist for less than $600 (and yes – that’s on the very low end), you are undercutting, my friend. Make no mistake – it will kill our industry. Love and pull-ups, Laura

UPDATE: If you have any questions, may I suggest


For my final thoughts on the matter, click here!


ANOTHER UPDATE: a number of you sent me this – I love it! It’s directed towards musicians, but you get the point. It really highlights the absurdity of constantly being asked to perform for free!


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22 comments on “Workin’ Cheap – How Shortsighted Ninnies Are Killing Our Profession”

  1. sally

    Thank you! This is super helpful – I’m just starting to perform, and have been struggling with how to set rates (my first gig is for a nonprofit charity event and will have the benefit of photos and video, so I’m donating, but need to think about future price setting). Having that $600 figure is illuminating, and knowing that I’m helping support other aerialists by actually charging should help offset my natural tendency toward self depracation. Btw, this whole website and blog are so incredibly useful and I appreciate it so much!

  2. Tanya

    Also, I want to point out to people who let themselves be underpaid/taken advantage of for non-profit events that this is equally dumb.

    It’s entirely reasonable to ask for one of two things when working for a registered non-profit/NGO charity event:

    (1) Your full rate, particularly if the event planner, caterer, etc. are all working at full-price, or

    (2) A tax-deductible receipt for the difference between whatever you would otherwise charge for the performance, and the rate that the non-profit is offering.

    If you are donating a performance – in full, or in part by offering your services for a reduced fee – you have no reason (read: no excuse) not to require a tax-deductible receipt from the hiring organization that shows the value of the service you have donated.

    This accomplishes two things: first, you can use it in your taxes as a donation and reduce your tax burden, so that you’re not just bleeding income.

    Second, and just as importantly, you’re maintaining an industry standard by letting the organization that hired you know what the actual value of your performance is.

    Registered non-profits ask for donations – both monetary and in-kind – ALL THE TIME, and providing the tax-deductible receipt is a huge part of the lure in getting guests to attend bigger fundraising functions. It’s a party that the rich can write off on their taxes.

    There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to write off your donation as well. It’s not a party for you – you’re working hard.

    • Lewitwer

      Yes yes yes – a THOUSAND times yes! Great points, Tanya!

  3. Sonia

    Plus, non-profits need to know the actual cost of putting on an event, even if some of that cost (in this case, the performance) was donated. And there is a big difference between helping out a small, local non-profit with very little overhead and helping out a large, national or international non-profit that is used to putting out lots of money for events and gets that back in the many donations it solicits. Great post!

  4. Jen

    Thank you, how many performances or acts does $600 pay for example. I have done shows all non profit they have been 5 min routines….so what your saying is $ 600 for a five minuet routine or are there multiple routines?

    • Lewitwer

      One 5-6 minute cirque style routine, or if they want ambient noodling, usually 2 sets of 15 minutes in a hammock or slammock.

  5. Sally

    Again, really really helpful, thank you for all your thoughts! I’ll definitely grow some ovaries and actually charge for future performances 🙂 There are a lot of factors like trying to get exposure/press/name recognition at this point for me as well, but I don’t want to screw myself and other aerialists over by underselling, and this is helping me think it through. (I also just used mint to actually add up everything I’ve spent on aerial training and equipment just in the last year – reality check).

    Also, ambient noodling is my new favorite phrase, so thanks for that too!

    • Lewitwer

      Hi Sally! Beware any event that promises “great exposure”, yada yada. In 15 years of performing, I’ve NEVER gotten a paying job from “exposeure”. I’ve gotten them by going through professional networking channels and plain persistence. Charge what you’re worth, lady! Paid work begets paid work, and vice versa. Fight the good fight! 🙂

  6. elizabeth j.

    This conversation is valuable but frustrating. I want to professionalize, but the community I am part of is VERY close-mouthed about the business side of performing. I’ve never been able to get advice from mentors about how to book or charge for performances, so I do perform for free or for very low costs. Of course I’m aware this isn’t good, and I want to change it, but it’s hard without any direction or advice. (The comments of this post are really helpful, thank you!)

    This post is helpful because it is the first time I’ve heard aerialists discuss on the internet what they do charge for acts/ambient performance– performer profiles always say “contact for a quote”– but its insulting tone also touched a nerve. If you don’t want younger performers to undercut your prices, mentor them.

    • Lewitwer

      Hi Elizabeth! I do mentor – I teach. I blog. I hire. There are endless excuses about why people charge less, and I’m sympathetic to a point, but change doesn’t happen until we stop justifying doing what know we shouldn’t.

  7. voudeaux

    I am an a$$hole producer and I rarely walk away from a gig with $600 in my own pocket. I work my a$$ off to make sure people have gigs and venues happen to pay different rates. Most in the Seattle area that I work with rarely pay more than $200 or $300. When they do pay more (because the a$$hole producer negotiates) it is welcome, but again very rare. If you are in Seattle and will not perform for $300 you will get very little work.

    Local theater companies pay between $200 and $300 for acts of all kinds, including aerial acts. Do you know what Cirque du Soleil pays? It would be great for people to do some study on this before thinking they are going to get a regular gig that pays them $600 for an aerial performance.

    When you started learning your art did you expect to start making great money, quitting your productive job, and relying on an artists income? I doubt it. But few put in the hours of practice and all else to make a buck, they do it because they love it. Perhaps the money should be a side benefit, not the main motivation. Perhaps things are not aligned for you to quite a career to be an artist.

    When you quit your “day job” and then think you are going to be supported by your art, perhaps you should consider ballet dancers, burlesque dancers, lounge singers, and other artists. They put in as much time as you do to practice, and they do not expect to make $600 or more at every gig. Venues simply do not pay that much.

    If you want to make more money you have to do more of the work. In other words, get other artists together to produce a show, sell tickets, pay expenses, divide the money. Then you may be better compensated.

    However if you sit back and let everyone else do the production work, then expect to be paid a high fee, you may be in for a big disappointment.

    • Lewitwer

      Interesting points, voudeaux! My aerial partner and I have been brought into Seattle for a number of events and shows, and have always been paid our normal rate, so clearly someone can afford it! I’m sorry you haven’t found the success as a producer that would allow you to make a better wage – maybe consider getting out of such a poor market? I assure you – $600 is not a “high fee” for an aerialist in most major cities. When I say professional, I mean exactly that – high-level skill, meticulously choreographed act, composed music, professional costume, liability insurance, the whole package. I agree – artists who produce their own work have an edge on the business side (with the bonus of creative control). BTW – most of the producers we work with are lovely, but we absolutely charge more when we have to deal with the ones that are “dramatic”. Thanks for your input, always great to get feedback from the other side!

    • elenabrocade

      $600 isn’t high at all. I charge and consistently receive $800-$1000 for a gig.
      And.. “ballet dancers, burlesque dancers, lounge singers, and other artists. They put in as much time as you do to practice, and they do not expect to make $600 or more at every gig” ..if they are practicing 5-6 days a week and/or it is their fulltime job they do expect and ARE making a living wage in their profession, whatever that $$ amount is. The point is to differentiate between those that are enthusiasts or “do it because they love it” and a professional. In my opinion if you love it then you should respect the pay standard that professionals qualify as necessary to keep themselves as working artists.

      • voudeaux

        Sweet reply Laura, not sure why you only referred to a$$hole producers if most of them are “lovely”. I know t least 2 producers here in Seattle, and neither of us are doing it for the money, we are doing it to help support the artists. And we are both lovely.

        In any case, we may be discussing apples and oranges. There is a big difference in being flown out from New York as a featured, celebrity artist and getting a regular, like weekly, gig at a venue or with a show. I would guess that is true whatever market you are in.

        There are at least 3 venues here in Seattle that hire aerialists on a regular basis. One of them pays $300 and the other one pays a bit less I have been told. The third is a dinner theater and they pay between $75 and $225 per act depending on the show.

        When we schedule a show we almost always ask for $300 per performer and require the event to schedule at least 2 perfromers, like two solo acts and one duo, a total of $600 for the three acts. This is split evenly between the two artists. I video, photo, do the sound, work with the venue, collect the money, etc. and I do not charge anything. I have never been “tipped” by the performers either, and I am wondering if it has to do with the philosophy behind your article. Perhaps they are not greedy but think they are working too cheaply.

        I wish you hadn’t used the words “shortsighted ninnies” because I am wondering if that is how you think of all of us out here in what you call this “poor market”.

        As a point of fact, are you talking about a duo making $600 at a minimum? Or are you talking about a solo performer? It certainly would help if people reveal what they do for the fees they are disclosing, how many rehearsals involved, how many actual acts in the gig, how much time, how many costume changes, etc.

        We might also discuss how to work together and increase the amount received at gigs. When our clients are successful at their business, a restaurant for example, they will pay better money if they attribute their success to the aerial acts.

  8. KPEC

    The point Elizabeth brings up is a very good one. There are some communities and circles that are very tight lipped about their business practices. However, it is my experience that the “tight lipped” attitude tends to be towards certain people and in certain company. This is not a bad business practice and is not uncommon in other fields. I can only speak from personal experience. There are definitely some people I will not discuss my rates with. Those people would include artists that I do not feel are ready to properly represent the profession in the market place (perhaps he/she is uninsured, unprofessional, unsafe, inexperienced, or other such things). I would also not feel comfortable discussing my rates with someone who I do not trust (perhaps sensing they are willing to undercut the other professionals). I can honestly admit that very early on in my career, people did not give me advice or mentor me. As I improved, they did. Looking back now, they only gave me advice when I was ready to properly accept and use it. No one wants to be on the receiving end of this silence, but perhaps it may be a sign. Elizabeth, please know that I am making no judgments about you. I am simply saying something that may apply to other people. Everything is individual. But I can say, I don’t mentor people who openly undercut the industry.

    New people to the industry don’t always realize that people are willing to pay for a good product and a rare product. Clients will also continue to book circus for events if they are pleased with their experience. Nothing worse than a cheap aerial show that isn’t all that good. The client won’t repeat. Instead the client says, “The circus night was okay. Next year we should do a Mexican theme.” If it’s good, they come back and want more. And that’s good for everyone.

    The comments about Seattle are interesting. I have seen both sides of it. It is a highly diluted market with lots of people willing to work for cheap. I’ve heard quotes to major corporate clients that made my jaw drop. Unbelievable how low some people/companies bid. BUT, Laura’s right, the normal clients are there and they do pay. I’ve never really had any issues getting a normal rate in Seattle. They just fly the talent in for that. And yes, they pay for the travel and accommodations (and that alone is more than $300). In response to the producer’s comments about Soleil, if a client or producer is willing to provide me with the training, costuming, ammenities, benefits, relocation/travel, insurance, physical therapy and support, and other odds and ends that Soleil does AND is willing to provide me with a lengthy contract . . . well, I am more than happy to offer a discount from my one night corporate rate. It’s kind of a bad comparison.

    Thanks Laura.


  9. VDB

    As one of the only Dallas burlesque producers consistently booking aerialists, here’s what I’ll say on this. After reading all of the post and the comments I would have to say “a$$hole producer” guy is right on par. If you went into the arts for the money- you made a bad career move.

    I am a store owner & burlesque producer, and I work 70 plus hours per week- because that’s what it takes to make a living in this industry. I do it gladly- because that’s what I *chose* and I am living my *dream*. There may be some aerialists putting in 70 plus hours per week- and they hopefully have made a living doing so. Speaking for myself- I have never paid an aerialist $600- even the best. Why? Because I couldn’t pay anyone else fairly in the show or crew if I did. That’s just out of the market. (My shows cost over 5000 to produce- venue, performers, crew, advertising, etc) Even the guy who pays the absolute most in town for aerialists (a local successful club owner who works with fewer performers per night) doesn’t pay that. Overhead to a show, and consistently providing work and a place to perform for all, is far more than just one performer. Everyone would like to be paid more- who wouldn’t? Rates can go up slowly as the market allows, that’s the best you can hope for. Shoot out of the market- and you won’t perform- that’s business.

    Lewitwer- And to avoid I leaving myself open to a stab at how successful or not I am as a producer- I am speaking of the market. When *no one* in Texas burlesque or circus (that I know of, although I am certain of the burlesque part) pays $600 for an aerialist, it’s not about the producer being an “a$$hole” or unsuccessful- it’s about the regional market- which will not change overnight.

    • Lewitwer

      Can’t speak to the burlesque/night club world, this is aimed at professional (and aspiring professional) aerialists on the event & cirque-style show circuit. I stand by my rates, as do all the professionals in my circle. The caterer is paid, the florist is paid, the venue is paid – we’d like to be paid too. We work in Dallas at least twice a year – hopefully I’ll get a chance to catch one of your shows! BTW – that wasn’t a stab – I genuinely hope you guys find success in your chosen markets!

  10. Angela

    For anyone in the arts, earning a decent wage doesn’t mean you don’t love what you do enough. It means you value what you do and you value others who do it. The funny part is that the better paid we are, the easier the gig usually is. The less someone pays, the more of a pain they generally are. We’ve been performing consistently for the last 10 years, and have only regretted the gigs where we dropped our price for one reason or another. We learned the hard way. If you want to continue to love what you do, value it! I know one producer who mentioned that anyone he talks to who tells him that they charge $300 for their work, he won’t hire. He rightfully assumes they must not be real professionals yet and he has a high level reputation to maintain. So in some cases, you might actually lose work. Something to think about.

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