Elizabeth Knights - Price of a Performance

How Much Should You Charge for a Fire Show?

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The answer to the question, of course, is 42.

I’m probably joking, but regardless, I do plan on talking cold hard numbers here in addition to concepts.  The fact is, when I first started performing, I didn’t think you were supposed to talk about your rates with other people; I was under the impression that such topics were meant to be kept hush hush.  Now I realize that only good can come from freely sharing this information.  I look at the way some other performance communities operate, constantly undercutting to the point that I’m not even sure how they’re operating out of the red. Performing flow artists have the advantage of being a relatively small community (compared to say belly or hula dancers). This means we can communicate easily with each other, set standards for rates, and if we all insist on these standards, then we will collectively raise the fire performer minimum wage as it were.

What should be my base rate for a show?

This can be a bit of a complex issue, (as one of my friends likes to say, “flow money, flow problems”), but I like to break it down into three main questions that I need answered before I can come up with the base rate for a show.  They are as follows: “how long is the show?”, “how many people does the client want?”, and “is it ambient/roving performing of an improvised nature or a choreographed featured show?”  The answer to the first two questions may sometimes dictate the answer to the third.  If the client is looking for an hour of performing from one fire dancer, it’s more likely you’ll be doing ambient performing unless you have developed a solo hour-long show, ambitious rather than ambient. (For the record, the longest solo show I’ve done was 40 minutes, and that was a workout, good lord).  Ambient performing requires a good deal less preparation than a stage show and is less difficult to do when you’re actually performing, so it shouldn’t cost as much.  For example, one agent I know charges the client $335 (not including travel or booking fee) for a 3-5 minute solo stage show and $350 for 30 minutes of roving.  I personally don’t often get requests for anything less than a 15-minute stage show, and my rate for that for one performer is from $400 to $500 (not including travel or booking fee).

What it took to do a 40-minute solo show.  Safety included.  Photographer:  Liz Knights.

What it took to do a 40-minute solo show. Safety included. Photographer: Liz Knights.

As you tack on time or additional people to a show, the prices aren’t going to increase in a linear manner.  For example, if you are performing with a partner, you probably can’t charge twice what one performer would charge, but, the fact of the matter is, you’re probably doing less work at each show and a lot of your expenses are split.  You should also be able to find more work as a duet than if you’re only able to perform solo, so it should even out.  That being said, when you do perform solo, you should charge more for yourself than when you perform as a duet.  Where I might start out with a base rate of $450 for a 15-minute solo show, I’ll only start at $350 for each performer for a 20-minute duet show (without other costs factored in).  The same is true for adding on time to a show.  Increasing a 20-minute duet show to 30-minutes would increase the cost by about $100 rather than half the cost of the shorter show.

People will sometimes expect our LED or unlit shows to be less expensive than our fire shows, but, as far as I’m concerned, they should cost at least as much, because, in the end, what people are really paying us for is the time we’ve invested in practice/choreography/rehearsal, the travel time and the time to perform, which is all equal for both fire and LED.  Not to mention that a lot of the LED props we have were a rather sizable investment of money.  And, from our perspective, a show without fire is a lot more challenging because fire will pretty much impress most audiences regardless of what else you do.

I’ve thrown out a couple numbers for base rates, but there are factors that may prevent you from being able to charge the same.  How much you can charge may depend on where you are geographically.  Clients may be able to afford to pay more in more metropolitan areas.  That being said, the bare bare minimum I will perform for is $200 (which still reflects a sizable discount that I may have given for any number of reasons) regardless of how short the show might be, and I would suggest a similar standard to others.

You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating a million times because you’ll hear the request from potential clients about that many times: don’t do anything just “for exposure.”  A client may offer you this bait in lieu of money, but here’s the thing, or one of the things:   every gig gives you exposure. Unless you’re planning on performing to an auditorium filled with nothing but empty chairs, you will be getting exposure.  So that should be a given, not something to be paraded about like special prize.  Not to mention the fact that exposure isn’t, in my experience, worth that much, or, at least, you can’t depend on it being worth that much (I’m pretty sure it can’t be exchanged for bacon).  I can count on one hand the number of gigs I know have come from audience members at another one of my gigs.  I know a handful of people who have performed on TV shows in front of millions of viewers who say that even that didn’t necessarily turn into more gigs for them.  So basically, next time someone asks you to do something “for exposure,” you should turn to them and say, “oh, exposure, hmmm, how many exposures to the Euro?  Last time I checked it was zero.  It’s still zero, you say?  Okay, I’m all set.”  This same client who supposedly doesn’t have enough money to pay their performing artists will likely have no problem coming up with money to pay the caterer or the security or the custodial staff.  They can afford to pay you too.  The only time I feel comfortable performing just for exposure is when the audience is going to be filled entirely with event planners who are there with the sole purpose of looking at my act and deciding if they want to sell it to clients.

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This is not to say that you can’t ever do things for a discounted rate in exchange for various forms of non-monetary compensation.  The promise of exposure just probably shouldn’t be seen as a useful currency.  So what if a client truly can’t afford your rates (e.g. they’re a non-profit organization with a smallish budget for a charity event) but could maybe afford something at a slightly lower tier?  You should definitely feel fine about offering discounts, but, in the words of the wise and utterly experienced Adam Lobo, you need to make sure it’s still a win/win situation for you and the client.  The question becomes, what can they offer you in place of the money you’ve shaved off for them?  Really, any number of things.  If you know that the event will have a professional photographer on hand, you can require in the contract that a certain number of photos be taken of your troupe and that you will be given free use of them.  You can require that in exchange for a discounted price, they promote you in some fashion, either through social media or, say, sending out your product sell sheet to everyone on their mailing list.  You can certainly state in the contract that they need to feed you.  Brushing your hair or hand-feeding you only the blue M&Ms might be pushing the limits (although I have been in a green room that had individually wrapped jelly beans), but, really, reach for the stars because the ball is in your court once you’ve offered a discount.  People love a discount.  Lastly, if there is potential for this to be a repeating gig, you can make a contract with the client that says you will work for them at a discounted rate so long as they always come to you first if they are planning on hiring a fire performer (or whatever it is you’ll be doing for them).

Now let’s say a non-profit organization truly can’t afford to pay you for your time, but you decide you would like to do a free show for them because, in addition to being a business-savvy artist, you also have a heart.  According to the IRS, “although you cannot deduct the value of your services given to a qualified organization, you may be able to deduct some amounts you pay in giving services to a qualified organization.”  For further information on that, click here.

Also, if you have any doubt about whether or not you should work for free in a particular situation, check this out.

But am I really worth that much?

Abso-freakin-lutely.

That’s one word (sort of), but here’s another word that someone said to me that managed to unleash the confidence I needed in order to ask for the prices my performing partner and I really deserve.  It was Ben Reynolds, Boston-based circus performer, who, at one point, when we were talking about local rates, said, “this is luxury entertainment.”  It’s true; just like going on vacation to the Bahamas is a luxury and one expects to pay a decent chunk of change for it as such, having circus performers at your event is also luxury.  This means that not everybody will be able to afford it, and it’ll be hard, but sometimes you will have to turn down gigs because they can’t pay well enough.

Not only is this a luxury entertainment, but it is one that involves a huge amount of skill training. Like I said before with regards to the LED/unlit shows, the client isn’t just paying you for the 10 minutes you’re performing, they’re paying for all the practice that went into you being able to do that 10-minute show.  My performing partner and I recently had some costume pieces altered last-minute for a pirate show, and the seamstress who did the work for us was a magically fast wizard, applying quick but permanent fixes to three different costume items in just over an hour.  She said to us afterwards, “people always tell me I do things so quickly, and I respond, ‘well yes, but you’re not paying for the time it takes me to do the alterations, you’re paying me for the years of experience that allow me to do it so quickly.”

In a certain sense, the client is also paying for all of the days you can’t work.  This is not a consistent 9 to 5 job, most gigs fall on Friday and Saturday nights and there are only so many Friday and Saturday nights to go around.  If people value being able to have someone show up to their event and put on an incredible fire show, then they have to realize that they’re competing with other people for those prime nights and they kind of have to subsidize the fact that this isn’t consistent work (this isn’t to say that you, on your end, shouldn’t also be finding ways to supplement your performer income; that’s always good too!).

Moreover, when we’re talking about fire shows, we’re talking about a real danger (contrary to the ever popular “that’s not real fire!” heckling).  We all still occasionally get some nasty burns.  At the same time, the fire isn’t as dangerous as the lay person probably thinks it is.  So, in a sense, the client is paying to have someone who is willing to put him or herself at risk in the first place in the face of perceived danger, and, even if after many years, fire no longer phases you, what matters is, that isn’t the case for everybody.  Not everyone would put themselves in harm’s way and take those initial risks.

There is, of course, the question of whether or not a brand new performer should be charging rates comparable to those of veteran performers.  If you’re just starting out, you can’t reasonably be charging top market rates, but as long as you set out with the intent of eventually charging those rates, I think you’re still doing good by the rest of the community.  I would still try to shoot for $200 minimum per performer, but it might be best to look at what the top performers in your area are charging and adjust accordingly.

What else should I be charging the client for?

You always need to take into account expenses like fuel for props, wear and tear on props, travel, safety or safeties and, where appropriate, hotel accommodations.  Some of these expenses I typically just hide within a larger base rate, but I generally make the travel costs a separate line on invoices for the client to see.   I sometimes joke that, as traveling performers, we are really getting paid to travel more than we are to perform.  A couple weekends ago, I spent a total of 16 hours driving in order to perform for around 2 hours.  And sometimes that ratio is even more startling.  Let’s just say, I drive a standard and have to contend with Boston rush hour traffic;  I will definitely be getting compensated for my travel.  I don’t generally charge clients for my time spent traveling (you can.  That’s up to you, but starts to get super pricey), but I do charge for not only fuel but also mileage.  An easy way to calculate travel costs is to just charge the standard government mileage rate which is currently $.56 per mile.  Realistically, I usually charge less than that, but I make sure that I am at least accounting somewhat for mileage put on my car above and beyond fuel costs.

Hotel accommodations or food may be written into a contract either as an amount of money the client is paying you in order for you to acquire those things on your own or as a service that the client will just provide to you (say, if you’re performing at a hotel).

As for safeties, the rate I’ve heard most frequently is $50 per gig, more if there is a significant amount of travel and time expenditure.  The amount my performing partner and I pay our safeties varies a bit depending on how much we’re making ourselves.

If you’re a fire eater or fire breather, I think you should definitely charge a premium for these services as they are quite dangerous.  I know of someone who charges around $150 per fire breath.  Yes. $150.  Now, it doesn’t have to be that much, but even just tacking on $100 to a show for the addition of fire eating or breathing addresses the fact that these are activities that can result in both acute and chronic health issues.  My performance partner has gotten chemical pneumonia twice from fire breathing.  It is not something that anyone should have to go through.  If the client questions the additional price, talk to them about how much of a risk it is even if nothing goes wrong (fuel being absorbed into your body, risks to dental health, etc.).  This isn’t the romantic side of things, but it’s reality.  In a certain sense, talking about the dangers of it should actually enhance its awe-inspiring nature to the client.

You should also absolutely be charging a booking fee.  This covers the time you spend talking to the clients whether it be on the phone or through email, as well as the time you spend writing up the contract, etc.  If you were getting the work through an agent, they would be charging a booking fee, so if you’re doing that work instead, you should be getting that same amount.

You can and should charge extra for other things like performing on holidays, creating new choreography specific to a given show and making special costumes, especially if you don’t think you’ll ever wear it for a gig again, (e.g. steamPunky Brewster).  By the way, if anybody legitimately wants to use that as a costume for this upcoming Halloween, feel free;  I’ve already decided to be a sexy kitten and have my boyfriend dress up as the red dot (roles could potentially be reversed depending on how many dollar bills are postmarked to the following address: Div Satkik & Bubba Knights, Flowtel, Paradise, MA).  Where costumes are concerned, you’ll want to charge for both material and labor.

 

Heather Phoi and Ciana Boetius in LED costumes  that Heather Phoi designed under her company Infinite Enchantments.

Heather Phoi and Ciana Boetius of Groovolution Entertainment in LED costumes that Heather Phoi designed for a gig under her company Infinite Enchantments.

Don’t forget to upsell your services!  For instance, if it is necessary for the client to get  a fire permit for your performance, offer to do all of the permitting work for an extra fee of $60 to $100.  Also don’t forget to require a non-refundable deposit for having the date reserved for a particular client.  This can either be a flat rate (say, $100) or a percentage (we usually require 20% of the total fee, but I know people who require up to 50%) and should be part of your overall fee, not an additional expense.  So, for instance, if you were planning on charging the client $1200, and you require a 20% deposit, the client will pay $240 up front and pay the difference of $960 either before or at the time of services being rendered.

But what about people who try to undercut me?

This is going to happen.  There is always going to be someone who has no intentions of being a professional performer but is happy to spin fire for an audience in exchange for a ticket to an event or $50.  I think Richard Hartnell (California-based contact juggling performer extraordinaire) said it best in his business class at Master Ong’s Flow Retreat:  “don’t sweat the naked novice.”  (Now if you want to sweat on the naked novice, that’s between you and him/her).  In other words, to paraphrase Richard, “don’t worry about the trust fund kid who just started hooping three weeks ago and whose parents bought them a thousand dollar costume.”  A client, agent or producer who wants a real professional choreographed act or show will know the difference, and if you can’t set yourself apart from this category of performer and demonstrate your higher value to a client, then you may have some other things to work on in terms of self-promotion.  Moreover, just having a higher rate will make you look more desirable to a client.

 

Subject:  Richard Hartnell.  Photographer:  Grant Palmer

Subject: Richard Hartnell. Photographer: Grant Palmer

There is always going to be competition, but competition is good.  It drives us to make our acts better, tighter.  And as we compete with each other, forcing each other to all level-up, we want to make sure that we’re simultaneously upping our prices.

Now get out there and make some money!

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Elizabeth Knights

Liz is a circus performer and teacher. She works with numerous spinning props, specializing in poi, partner poi and fans. She manages a monthly column on performance in the flow arts called "The Art of Performance" for F.I.R.E. Magazine. Liz performs both LED and fire dancing at Cirque de Light