Forget Working for Free – Should You be Working at All?

Posted by: on July 25, 2017

We’ve all seen the “why I don’t/you shouldn’t work for free” posts and memes, but friends, I think we may have put the cart before the horse. The first question you should ask when starting to think about charging for your work might need to be more along the lines of “do I deserve to be paid for this product”.

Professional = Worth Paying For

You may not know this about me, but I am a stunningly mediocre cook. I enjoy cooking, I have spend God-knows-how-much money on cookbooks and gizmos, and I occasionally hit on something reasonably edible. I’m very, very OK in the kitchen. I’m not gonna burn it down or poison anyone, but I’m also not going to try to hire myself out as a personal chef. Know why? Because I do not meet any meaningful standard of “professional chef” in the kitchen. I do not have the required skill set. I am not working at a standard that deserves professional compensation.

Now, I may be able to con some unsuspecting guy at a bakesale into buying a brownie, but my brownie will be veeeeeery different from, say, Nigella Lawson’s (does she even make brownies? I don’t think so, but just go with it). BUT, what if Brunhilda’s Emporium of Awesomeness approaches me to cater their desserts for their annual jello wrestling contest? WHAT THEN? Then, I thank her profusely, and explain that I am in no way a professional, and I do not have the skill set to produce the result she’s looking for. I refer her to my favorite bakery.

If you’re still reading, good on ya. You’ve made it to the part where I make my point! That point being: “professional’ means something to the consumer, and no one is likely to be hurt if my brownies aren’t as good as The Chocolate Room’s. The consumer believes you a) are an expert in your field, b) have the necessary skills to safely and thoroughly execute this project (“scope of practice”), and c) are working at a level your peers would deem professional versus amateur. Predictably, this is where it gets sticky for a lot of folks. But, let’s be honest – pretending to be a professional when you know good and well that you’re not is, well, kind of douchey, and downright dangerous in the aerial world.

What does a professional circus artist look like?

Allison Williams answered this beautifully in a guest blog post she wrote for me a while back. Have a look, then keep on reading.

I KNOW All That – What Now?

Now, friends, comes a little something we in the industry like to call “paying your dues”. It looks different for everyone, but follows something of a predictable path for most performers.

  1. Training – you are in full student mode, hopefully devouring everything you can get your hands on (and then some). You start at the beginning, and work your way up to putting pieces together with your coach.
  2. Performing (amateur) – you’ve got skilz! You’re ready to practice performing on this crazy thing. Showcases and local performances to support community studios – as many as you can possibly get into. Take this time to learn about different rigs, and how changing spaces affects your performance parameters. Perform every single chance you get – this is as much a part of your training and education as classes are.
  3. Apprenticeship – you’re moving on up! With the support of your coach and the local aerial community, you’re in that fun “in between” phase. You’re not quite pro (your skills are there, but you’re unseasoned), but your eye is on the prize. Hook up with a mentor, apprentice with a company, etc. You’re also probably ready to go for small paying shows like local cabaret, variety, and burlesque (around $50-$150 per night – anyone who says they’re pulling in over $600 per act for local burlesque or cabaret gigs is probably blowing smoke… unless they can blow that smoke out of an unusual place, but even then….). These gigs pay low because no one is making big money off them – it’s a great place to trot out new material, learn how the business works, and network. This is a great time to work on the business of YOU – your promo materials, website, acts, networking, learning how to run a business, etc. This is NOT a place to try to recoup your circus school spending.
  4. Professional – It’s official. You’ve paid your dues, your materials are in place, your website is done, your acts are fabulous, you’ve been performing for a few years, you understand most of how this business works, and voila – it’s a natural, often seamless transition. Of course, your training and learning never stops, so you’ll always be student, amateur, apprentice, AND professional! Aim high.

Again, this looks different for everyone. The important thing to remember is that ALL professions have a progression, whereas jobs often do not. Don’t confuse your career with a job – it’s a unicorn of a very different color. Dare to imagine, Laura

Filed Under: Working in Circus
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