Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Value of Exclusivity

A Guest Post by Lili VonSchtupp

A couple of months ago there was a conversation in the burlesque community about producers who were demanding exclusivity of their performers. Lili VonSchtupp, the Foul-Mouthed Buxom Godmother of Los Angeles Burlesque wrote the following article, and I am reprinting it here with her permission.
 
As performers we sometimes forget that without producers there are no shows. Lili is a successful producer of the longest running weekly burlesque show in town. When she speaks, it pays to listen:
  
Dear performers,
 
The value of exclusivity runs both ways.
 
As producers, we have every right to ask for exclusivity. It benefits a producer/show to have you only appear with them. This doesn't make us greedy, or mean we’re trying to keep you from working and making money, this makes us a good business people who want to run a consistent show and keep it going for years. We have seats to sell in order to pay you. The more seats we sell, the more money we have to pay performers and the more we get rewarded for the hard work we do to keep a show going in this economy.
      
Please understand why exclusivity matters. If someone can see you at 3 or 4 other shows a week, sometimes for less than what I charge for a cover, you have little added value to me as a performer. Why would someone pay $15 to see you at my show when they can see you for free elsewhere doing the exact same thing? Your value as a performer for a show is directly related to your overexposure. More does not equal better. When 10 shows in town all have the same cast, what makes any of them different or special? We have to sell people a reason to see this show.
     
Very few performers are a huge draw because they are oversaturated. I put all the performers’ names on flyers as a courtesy, rarely as a selling point. How many performers really have enough fans that come to EVERY show to see them, who can help support all the shows the performer is in? But if I have a show of performers not seen elsewhere, that is a huge selling point.
      
With a huge oversaturation of performers and shows during a recession, what did we think would happen? The bottom fell out. Everyone wants more stage time, everyone wants to be paid more, but there is less audience willing and able to pay. This is all about the math. Think about it: 100 seats times $5, is $500. 10 girls in a show at $50 each, is $500. Um, the producer makes no money for putting on the show. Plus they lose money for printing, production time, marketing, and everything else we do. Sometimes crap money is all a show can pay, exclusivity or not. And if you don't like the terms, don't take the gig.
      
A misconception in the arts is that value and pay are directly related, but they are not.
       
Things that make you worth more and thus sometimes paid more:
  1. Scarcity
  2. Level of expertise
  3. Cost of production (Large props and expendable props)
  4. Ticket price and venue capacity
I have well over 250 weekly shows at Monday Night Tease! under my belt, and I require certain exclusivity to some acts, requesting you not perform the same act 2 weeks before or after at another show in LA. I'm responsible for paying you so I do get to set guidelines. If you don't like them, please work elsewhere. I don't take it personally. And neither should you. That is how a free market works.
 
As a performer, exclusivity benefits you as you grow and build a following over time. You get better and your fans become more rabid. But remember most performers don't ever reach that place. (Sorry to be a rain cloud.) You have to balance the need to be on stage with the desire to sell yourself as a headliner for higher paying events, if they are even available in your town. You have to work hard and do crap gigs for little money to build your skills and build your reputation. We all do. That is called work, and I think some people forget that part. Now, would you rather perform in eight shows a week or just one show a week, and make the close to or the same money? That's how an exclusive contract can help you as you get better.

“But Lili,” you say, “they want exclusivity and don't want to pay more.” Yes, sometimes they do. And the best thing about a free market is...? You can say no. That producer/show will survive or fail because people want to work there or they don't. If enough people don't, it will fail and a new show will pop up in its place. Businesses fail every day. Businesses start every day. Or you can go exclusive at a lower rate, build better shows with your producer and all benefit later as ticket prices can be raised and pay can be increased. YOU need to decide what is right for you.
 
Burlesque is a part time job for almost everyone I know. You make minimum wage at best, considering call times and total length of the show, or if you do the crazy math, you make $50 for 4 minute act. But it isn't a 40 hour a week paying gig for most people. For every Dita and Dirty Martini, there are (conservatively) 10,000 performers wanting that job!
 
You all know Dita right? Well, she started in a strip club and did lap dances. Fifteen or more years later she's making good money headlining her own show and doing private events. But it seems most of her money comes from her burlesque adjacent work: modeling, endorsements, a clothing line. She doesn't perform in 10 shows a week anymore. She built a brand: DITA. You should be working toward building yours.
      
No one said we all get to be stars. Most of us will never make a living as a performer. Maybe you need to reset your expectations for the career you chose. Most of the artists I know are part time, no matter how good they are. There simply isn't a large burlesque circuit of $1000 a week gigs, either for working nightly or for a one-time exclusive fee.
 
Whenever I get upset about burlesque and the drama, my friend Mike reminds me, "No one got into burlesque to have a boss." And I laugh and remember that yes, it is a just a job; albeit the best job I've ever had, even when I have to be the big bad boss.
 
Thanks for reading,
 
Lili
           
Lili VonSchtupp is the producer of Monday Night Tease at Three Clubs in Hollywood, and the Head Mistress of Lili's School for Wayward Girls where she teaches intermediate and advanced classes for burlesque performers.

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