When I first moved to Southern California, I was married to a very talented young magician, and we set about building our respective networks, working all kinds of gigs, and meeting all sorts of new people. I wasn’t in his act, but often helped book gigs, wrangle animals, play roadie, etc. As the new kids in town, we also received a mind-boggling array of unusual referrals, and one performance request has always stood out, even looking back through the years. It all started with a phone call:
Caller: Hi, I need a magician for a show on Friday (two days away). I was referred to you by [an acquaintance].
Me: Well the magician’s not here right now, but how can I help? When and where is the show, and for how many people?
Caller: Well, this is a special situation, and your friend said you could help. We don’t have a lot of money, but we need someone in Ventura (85 miles away) at 2pm, for a special event. It would be really good exposure, as there would be a lot of people there who could hire you for other things, but we can only pay $40. That would be OK, right? Because after all… it’s not at a regular magic time.
I must admit, I was stumped. What was this mysterious time zone (RMT) I’d never heard of? Since when does any kind of performer keep regular hours? After a few more questions, most of which the caller evaded, it was clear that “a lot of people” actually meant 30 residents of a small retirement home, that the special event was a regular activity arranged by the management, and that although they were only asking for a 30-45 minute show, they really wanted us there for the whole afternoon. (After all, what else did we have to do?)
As you can imagine, we turned down the gig. Had it been closer, had the caller not misled us from the beginning, had it not been clear that in this particular instance we were being blatantly taken advantage of, it might have worked. Over the years, there were many things we did, together and separately, for charity, for fun, for friends and family, but not for the money. Had the caller been more forthright or accepted the declination gracefully, I might even feel sorry about it. But this time, it wasn’t gonna happen.
When the customer is wrong
The old adage doesn’t always hold water, primarily because customers over the years have forgotten their end of the bargain: when asking for a discount, something extra or a special request, the deal still needs to be reciprocal. The performer or vendor must get as much respect as they are expected to provide. Otherwise the deal is doomed to fail. Service businesses, in particular (and that includes the arts) are about relationships — even if the facts coming from your customer are correct, the customer may be wrong for you. Sometimes all you can do is smile, thank them for the offer, and walk away, dignity intact. Your wallet will survive, but your artistic soul may not easily recover from the frustration and humiliation of spending an entire day on a gig that does nothing for your career and costs more in gas than it’s worth. The trick is to respect yourself enough so you can believe in a future without this client, be very polite, and move on.
The freebie issue
There is a lot of talk among performers about whether or not it’s worth working for free or next-to-nothing, and you’ll likely get a different guideline from everyone you speak to. In the end, it’s a personal, case-by-case decision, usually dependent on what you’re getting out of it. Whether the deciding factor is exposure, passion, politics, a sense of duty or simple altruistic joy, it’s entirely up to you. Some people will perform anywhere, for anyone, because they love it that much. Others don’t want to get into their cars for less than $X. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself, and chances are, your own reasoning will be as unique as a fingerprint. Just make sure it’s something you can live with.
The bottom line
- Believe in what you’re doing.
- DO give back when it means something to you.
- Don’t let the turkeys get you down.
- Whenever possible , choose activities and projects based on your own individual criteria. No explanation needed, and no judging the reasoning of the next artist over.
What matters to you? What makes a gig worthwhile, beyond the bucks?