Workin Cheap: How Shortsighted Ninnies are Killing our Profession

will hoop for free [Guest blogger Laura Witwer has some things on her mind.]

by Laura Witwer

Buckle up dear hoopers – 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 high-maintenance 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 – Hoopers – 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 a hooper for less than $500 (and yes – that’s on the very low end), you are undercutting, my friend. Make no mistake – it will kill our industry.

If you have any questions, may I suggest: Should I Work For

Good art and entertainment are valuable, and worth being paid for. The florist gets paid, the caterer gets paid, the lighting designer gets paid, the event planner gets paid, the stage manager gets paid – the talent should get paid too. You may have to scale up or down a bit depending on your regional market, but it’s up to you to make sure you’re engaging in healthy business practices by not undercutting an entire industry in your eagerness to work.


Laura Witwer Laura Witwer can be found online at Laura and through her cirque-style entertainment company ImaginAerial. She lives in New York, New York, USA.

34 thoughts on “Workin Cheap: How Shortsighted Ninnies are Killing our Profession

  1. Love this, but the one question I have is: $500 for what? Is that for an hour? Fifteen minutes? The entire duration of an event (how long is that event)?

    This is the first time I’ve seen an article like this that actually included a number. Usually when I see these all the readers are left going, “But how do I know if I’m undercutting if I don’t know a number that would be considered doing so!”

    I mean, should you just charge a base price of $500 no matter what it is, then go from there? Should it be an hourly fee? What if you’re just hired to teach a class? Is that totally different? Do you charge differently for a private company than your local rec center?

    I want to do right by my fellow hoopers, but it’s just so darn difficult to know -where- the line is between charging a decent going rate and undercutting.

  2. I’m curious what us new and hopeful performers are supposed to do, I’ve tried saying no to performances where the pay is a free ticket to the event- And I don’t get any work! Circus arts are my passion, but nobody seems interested. I would like to join a troupe of some sort, but all the people I’ve met are so cliquey I can barely speak to them without getting the cold “amateur” shoulder.. As something new and productive I’m gathering friends and we’re trying to start a performance group, but I’m still unsure of how to find gigs without pissing off people like the author… Agh maybe this is dumb question

  3. Just my opinion and some of my opinions are not popular ones, LOL…..

    Mira, I’m sure someone who is charging $500 an hour or even $500 a day did not learn to hoop, take some lessons, make a costume, practice and then just walked into an establishment and demanded that kind of salary..

    Those hoopers making this kind of money started the same way you’re trying to start up. Many of them started as buskers and are now afraid that others will take their value away by charging less as they climb their own ladder to success.

    Don’t be discouraged, your question is not dumb, and just keep yourself out there, gain recognition and experience and eventually you’ll be able to charge more.

    I think true talent, creativity and innovative ideas will allow some performers to out shine others and these fortunate people will make more money, as it should be. In the meantime those making this kind of salary are faced with the fact that they’re going to have to keep working a little harder because there’s others out there who are waiting to take their place and here lies the problem.

  4. I find that many to most hoopers and burners that I know work for free. It kills my business. And if you undercut my business, don’t ever expect any favors from me.
    A haunted house that I know of, could no longer afford to pay individual actors, so what the owner did was get a theatre guild to come in as haunt actors. At the end of the season, he made a substantial contribution to the guild. This seems reasonable.

    Why should you have to pay for travel and materials so that someone else can profit from you?

    Know that YOU ARE WORTH IT!

    Don’t be afraid to ask for money. If you are uncomfortable dealing in the business end of things, have someone that is more savvy at negotiations do it for you, and give them a cut.

    I ALWAYS contract. This way both parties know what is expected from them, and the customer knows that I am serious, and I mean business.

    Bottom line is, working for free and cheap will not win you any friends in the business, and you will build a reputation where everyone wants you to work for free.

    When I put in events, I pay my performers. I want to set a standard, so that people will say, “If Riley managed to pay me, everyone else should be able to pay me too.”

  5. This was a good article, although I don’t think the name calling was necessary (short sighted ninnies).

    I’m a professional hoop dancer and I got started by doing community based performances…which usually included tons of free photos, videos, promotion, etc.

    I have 18 years of classical ballet training. I’ve been on TV and have worked in the most popular Casinos, but never for $500 a gig. I don’t know where you live (NY or California perhaps?) but I typically charge an average of $100 per hour–sometimes more (usually hooping for 20 minutes sets). Also the Talent Agency I freelance with pays me per gig or per night, and it’s also under $500. If I charged $500, I’d almost never be booked.

    For all the newbies reading this, I did not start out making $100 an hour either. Just like an entry-level accountant will make less than an experienced one. That said, most hoopers are secretive about what they make. But I’ll tell you anything.

    Send me your questions 🙂

    1. Also, I am trying to find an agency that represents my type of talent, in hopes that they can negotiate better contracts than I can. I am only a beginning hooper, but my act includes Sword Swallowing, Fire Eating, Fire Breathing, Fire Soinning, Fire Fans, Mousetraps, Bed of Nails, Human Blockhead, Human Pincusion, and sometimes Burlesque. I hoop while sword swallowing.

      Any ideas?

  6. Complete newbie here, so charging isn’t even on my horizon yet…
    I don’t disagree with the author, but I really didn’t like the tone and the name calling… came across as way bitchy. 🙁

  7. Trust me, when you are always getting undercut by people who work for free, or close to it, you will get bitchy too. Although I did not find the article bitchy at all.

    I think this is a big part of the problem. People in the performance arts community can be sooooo nonconfrontational, that when someone speaks the harsh truth, everyone gets offended and claims they are being “bitchy”. This is the same type of scared thinking that prevents performers from asking to be paid.

  8. I love this article and applaud Laura for starting a much-needed conversation. And she has addressed this article to professional performers. The $500 bottom line is specifically in reference to large events with budgets for talent and doesn’t say it’s by the hour. This was the average for big corporate gigs 8 years ago when I was still performing.

    Every performer needs a baseline – I won’t perform for less than _this_. So Mira, your question is hardly dumb! How does one charge when starting out in a way that doesn’t undercut other professionals? Don’t get into the paid game until you’re ready to charge for it. When your act is polished enough to enter the gig world, you shouldn’t hesitate about charging accordingly for it. In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to perform outside of the professional world while you hone your craft and team.

    And Riley, good on ya’! Behind you all the way 🙂

  9. I agree on both sides of the tone. I don’t think “shortsighted ninnies” needed to included in the TITLE, but I agree with Riley here: “This is the same type of scared thinking that prevents performers from asking to be paid.”

    Let’s put it this way. I’m from Chicago. And big though this city is, our town is saturated with hooping talent. Absolutely saturated. It’s a blessing and a curse on a number of levels. From a community and learning standpoint, it’s GREAT! From a competition standpoint, it’s interesting, because for the most part we all support each other (swap gigs, advice, etc.) but I’m one of a handful who is doing it professionally, and I haven’t picked the brains of my Chicago hoop tribe to know what they charge, despite my curiosity. I feel that it’s sort of rude. I also know that since leaving Circumference, I have felt much more confident and comfortable raising my prices and telling people why. “In the interest of complete transparency, let me tell you about how this is WORK…” Talking about Circumference helps, because what we’re doing with this is “truly unprecedented”, and it blows the minds of others to hear that there is an entreprenuerial conference for hula hoop dance folk. Say what? Hoopers have unique business needs?! You bet we do! And there isn’t a degree or infrastructure in place that says my skills are worth $X or $Y. You gotta value that for yourself, and if you don’t value your skill set, that’s not gonna stop me from valuing and investing in mine. But it is gonna damage the community, because… ahh, that juvinile phrase comes to mind: “I’m a whore, not a slut. Sluts do it for free.”

    Recently, I offered a gig I couldn’t take to another hooper in town. (I’m pretty sure she’s a full-time working artist.) It was for a friend’s birthday party and he may have wanted fire, but I put them in touch and told her it was up to her to negotiate pricing. I don’t know what they ultimately settled on; the hooping part of the gig was cancelled due to inclement weather. Shortly thereafter, I was offered a free gig (“pass the hat and see what happens”), and because her other gig didn’t pan out, I offered this one to her. She politely declined — got bills to pay! I started really respecting myself as an artist when I realized that I could say no to projects that interfered with what was going to pay me, even when those projects were with long time friends. (Friends get it. They’re happy for you. Clients are infinitely more neutral.)

    As Philo said in the keynote address at Circumference that the hoop is big enough for ALL of us. It’s true! Yet when dealing with people outside the hoop who wanna hire the hoop, you gotta stay strong with your family inside of it and take a stand. If there are some who will work for free and others who won’t, respect their choice… but if you’re working for free, respect the reality that you make it harder for others to negotiate payment. And they will be grouchy about that!

  10. First, let me just say I get the title (shortsighted ninnies) – classic linkbait – definitely got everyone’s attention, including mine.

    I’m not a professional hoopdancer, however, I am a different kind of “artist” hoping to offer some additional insight to some of the people just coming up and trying to find their place. I own a web development company here in San Diego, and my artform is building/designing websites to represent people’s brand or business on the web. I know, I know, sounds quite different, but stick with me for a bit.

    When I was first starting out, I knew enough of the basics to build an OK product. However, I also knew that I had a lot to learn, and needed projects to help build my portfolio. For these first few projects (10-15) I ended up charging well below what a more nuanced, experienced developer would bill. I did this for a few reasons (and not because I did not think the services I was providing lacked value).

    My first projects:

    1) Gave me the ability to expand my knowledge and skillset (while getting paid – even if it was just enough to pay the bills)
    2) Gave me exposure and increased my networking circle
    3) Allowed me to create a lasting relationship and the possibility for future work/maintenance
    4) Gave me the opportunity to run through projects and see exactly how much time and energy is required
    5) Built my portfolio

    How much did I charge for these first projects? Just enough to make it worth my while and be able to pay my bills. To me, the value was not in the paycheck during this beginning phase of my business, it was in developing my own workflow and learning/mastering skills that I knew would demand a higher bottom line in the future. In my industry this mentality is often called <a href=""bootstrapping, and I bootstrapped my business until it became profitable – after about 1.5 years.

    A few years later, now that I have 50+ projects under my belt, I can charge more, but I still don’t have a “bottom line”. Each case is different, each organization has different needs, and they should be evaluated separately. The worst thing you can do in business is appear to be inflexible – that’s not to say you should give your services away, but always be sure to hear people out and see if there is a way you can help them, even if they might not be meeting your exact needs financially.

    Finally, one thing that has become abundantly clear to me with regard to what clients are willing to pay is this – write a professional statement of work and let them know EXACTLY what they are paying for. Not only does this make you look more professional, but it also gives the client peace of mind that they are going to get what you have outlined. Additionally, this statement of work serves as a contract – protecting you in case they try to do a last-minute cancellation or do not pay on time.

    As Sarah said, I’m happy to help anyone that might have any questions. Different business, yes, but a lot of the fundamentals remain the same.

  11. In the sword swallowing community, we generally like to say that a multi-talented sword swallower should not be charging any less than $500. I myself make accommodations due to the economy. If I KNOW that you have the budget, I will charge over $500. If you just need a sword swallower for like 10 minutes, then the price drops in half.

    I see a lot of promoters and haunts, “crying broke” that they can’t afford performers, when I know damn well that they are going to make money by having me there.

    Don’t let yourself get taken advantage of. They can’t afford to pay you? Politely tell them to stay in contact with you in the event that they eventually do get a budget for performers.

    I did do freebies when I first started, but that enabled me to add bands such as Type O Negative, and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, to my resume.

    I also have to think about making the money back that was spent on my insurance policy, and paying my spotter. I figure it like this: After the cost of travels and materials, I like to come out at least $200 on top.

  12. I have also seen performers (whores), demonized, by the “sluts”, for not loving their art enough to just do it for the fun of it. Hobbyists do things for the fun of it. Professionals love their art, and love getting paid for it.

    1. Yes! The other end of the spectrum can be just as bad. I teach classes and it always bums me out when folks say things like “I can’t believe you charge for classes when I can learn this stuff for free on YouTube,” or “learning to hoop should NEVER cost anything.” Learning in person from someone with experience is completely different than learning via YouTube. My students learn so much quicker than I did when I started hooping BECAUSE I’m there to troubleshoot and help them. Additionally, I’ve paid for classes, workshops and retreats to broaden my own skills so that I have more to offer. And those “hooping should be free” folks who got to take great classes with some of their favorite hoopers at festies for free—that hooper was compensated by the festival.

      1. I recently moved back to Rochester NY. While I was gone, our Whirly Wednesday meetups, evolved into Rochester Circus Arts Collective. A weekly spin jam is a great place to learn from other hoopers for free! While some may not be pros, you can still learn a lot from them. RCAC also has teachers. who charge a reasonable fee for private and group lessons.

  13. I am so glad this conversation is taking place. It is really important that as professionals (whether is be performers or teachers) that we charge what we are worth. I have found in my move from one area of the country to another, that I did need to negotiate my pricing some based on the economic situation of the area in which I was living. This is probably normal of any area (with the exception of huge corporate gigs…which can generally afford to pay well…and skills that are a specialty..aka sword swallowing). While I, too, was a bit shocked by the title (and not happy with the name calling), in truth that same title made me want to read what the heck she was talking about. I understand that there is a lot of competition out there for gigs, etc, but in reality we can all support each other by charging a fair wage that allows one to truly make a living as a professional so that other artists are not under cut in the end.

  14. Ahhh, the age old conversation.

    I definitely don’t like the “if you’re charging less than $500” bit… That’s not realistic for this day and age, with how many performers are out there and with how markets are completely different state to state. Also, not including how long you’d have to perform or how for that much money leaves a lot to be explained. It totally depends on the market and what you’re doing.

    But, the PRINCIPLE behind the article is good and does need to be brought up every once in a while. So bravo, for bringing this age old problem back to the foreground. Lord knows I’ve been dealing with this problem for a while.

    When you undercut and accept less pay for something, you ruin the chances for practiced, professional performers to get bookings. Also, you ruin your chances to get paid as much as they did… sending the market in to a downward spiral. Don’t be a spiral maker :p Unless it’s hooping spirals. That’s the only good kind.

  15. Ask the person calling you to ask to perform for free at their event if they are being paid for their event organization skills or their office work. How about the musicians or DJ, are they being paid? Yep. Then why should YOU perform for free? Your time, skills, and all the sweat, love, and effort you put into your craft are worth it.

  16. Another issue that I had when I lived in PA, was that the hoopers and burners monopolized EVERYTHING. Not only did they monopolize, but they undercut big time, and worked for free as well. They had their hands in every cookie jar that they could. This group was quite cliquey, so if you weren’t part of them, you pretty much didn’t work in that town.

    They also set a bad example by doing burns while tripping.

    I am glad to be back in Rochester, were our hooping group is very inclusive.

  17. GREAT article and much appreciated. I run a 5 person performance troupe and I offer a “referral bonus” for gigs that others bring in. That way, they don’t have to worry about handling the hard stuff, the money talk… and I can look out for everyone’s best interest (also, the general feedback is that I’m able to secure a better rate for the performer than they would for themselves because I’ve been negotiating gigs for years & have a business background).

    I mostly book all of the gigs for my troupe, though. Securing clients and getting paid what you’re worth is the hardest part of the job, in my opinion. I also have a sliding scale (i.e. newer performers shadow gigs at first and have roles like ‘fire safety’ to put their time in and learn the ropes while veterans secure the higher monetary compensation). Pay increases with time and experience. It’s worked out well in my community so far. We also cross mingle to ensure that pricing is consistent. In other words, I talk to my belly dance and circus friends to make sure that we are in the same ballpark, fee-wise

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