The Consequence Of Working For Free In Circus:

Why Buy The Cow When You Can Get The Milk For Free?


No one likes being compared to a cow but the current state of affairs have aerial artists in a compromising situation to generate revenue. And not just aerialists but artists in general. Consider this: the last few years internships have plagued our under-employed youth, who are desperate for experience, but it has only resulted in a sub-sect of people who are working for free, or extremely underpaid. Because someone is getting the milk, they ain’t buying the cow.

mlecny-chaosThe milk and cow metaphor is actually talking about market value. When someone works for free it decreases what services are considered to be worth and, therefore, decreases what professionals can charge. When I was working for a bank in corporate lending, we were constantly evaluating what other banks were charging on their loans because it influenced our interest rates. One bank hands out low interest rates, and the rest follow. This is why there is little difference from bank to bank. If your fellow dangler is willing to pay for all of their equipment, training and insurance and then perform death-defying feats for the low low price of nothing, then how can you justify doing it for a reasonable amount?

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Reasonable amount changes on a variety of factors but Laura Witwer has already addressed this in her post Workin’ Cheap – How Shortsighted Ninnies Are Killing Our Profession. The only area that she missed was supply and demand. With aerial arts becoming more popular, there is more competition for gigs but it also means there are more opportunities to perform. It also means clients will talk to more people, receive more quotes and evaluate different acts. Without an eye for understanding what they are buying, price can be the deciding factor.

I do think circus performers are also guilty of contributing to devaluing the market value for performances. North America has this silly belief that work is a negative word. If we are working, then we shouldn’t enjoy it. Work should be hard. We should only be paid if there isn’t enjoyment. And so, there is a reluctance to charge, or charge appropriately, for work. Performing is addictive, with the flashing lights, adoring fans and adrenaline but we have to take care that we don’t turn into junkies, looking for the next fix. Just because you love what you do doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid. Actually, loving what you do means you will be better at it than if you hate it and that should result in charging more.

carrotsArtists are frequently promised exposure and future paid work for giving their creations for free. This may not be the exposure you want, as it could give you the reputation of being a cheap performer. From my artist and corporate experiences, promises are dangled like Elmer Fudd’s fishing line carrot for Bugs Bunny. If you turn the tables and ask for their services for free, you will hear “no” before the words leave your lips. Promises are for tomorrow and tomorrow never comes. Today is what matters.

Last of all, charities are the first to say that they have tight purse strings. They have that added lever of “we are doing it for a good cause.” Fantastic. But if I don’t work for moola, then I’m going to end up needing charitable support. (Hey Mom! Hey Dad!) We tend not to classify charities as big business but when you look at what not-for-profit CEOs make or the percentage of money that is used for the charity, it will make you think twice.

In the end, someone will always work for less than you. Always. As performers, it is our job to educate our clients to understand that they are paying for hours of training, equipment, insurance, professionalism and safety. If they want to go on the cheap, then they can look forward to the audience needing therapy after being traumatized by an aerialist falling from the sky. While we can’t stop rogue performers from compromising the aerial market, we can make it more difficult. Communicating with other professionals to have consistency of pricing is a great first step. People are willing to pay for professional lawyers, doctors, plumbers and electricians and we need to face the daunting task of mirroring this mind set when it comes to art.

What are your experiences with being asked to work for free? Can you think of any exceptions when working for free is beneficial?

Mary-Margaret Circus

hckygrlphoto by Ramo M

Mary-Margaret Scrimger – A writer by trade, Mary-Margaret has worked in a variety of sectors such as finance, technology and publishing. In addition, she is a circus performer who has trained in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. Currently finishing a certificate in public relations, Mary-Margaret hopes to meld her education with her creativity and financial knowledge. 

© 2014 Mary-Margaret Scrimger 



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  • Rebekah Hampton Barger

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post! I could not agree more!! I am the artistic director of an aerial & contemporary dance company, & cannot begin to count the times we have been asked to perform for free. You hit the nail on the head, it’s the charity & fundraising events that always want an exciting performing to entice their donors, but then put on the guilt trip when booking performers, “It’s a fundraiser, so everything else is donated.”

    We’ve mostly remedied this situation by deciding at the beginning of each season on a finite number of “donated” gigs, & then performing only for causes & events that we truly believe it (i.e. causes I would be willing to actually donate money to). We have also asked for non-monetary compensation in those situations, such as trade for goods & services, sharing of a donor list etc. That helps to continue to educate the presenter on the value of our skills, while still working with them & their budget. Another compromise I have made with presenters, is to send an itemized price quote & then discount or knock off everything but the dancers performance pay (the company fee, costume fee, administration fee, rigging fee, etc.). That way they still understand the actual cost of the services they are receiving, I still get to pay my dancers, & the presenters feels that they are getting a great deal.

    Thanks again for sharing!