A Dollar is a Dollar

When I was a fledgling aerialist, I remember the first time someone offered me money to perform. I had been happily taking classes, training, and performing at student shows. The very thought of someone offering little old me ACTUAL money to do this thing that I loved seemed too good to be true. In reality, it was.

At the time, I was making roughly $10,000 dollars a month as a software engineer. Dividing that by the roughly 160 hours of work time in a month yields about $62.50/hr. To prep for this gig, I did a couple of private lessons at $50 a pop, had a costume made for around $100, and went to look at the venue and did a separate trip for tech rehearsal. I also spent dozens of hours training and working on my routine. Come the night of the show, I got there hours early, did my five minute piece, and then stuck it out for the whole show. I got paid $100. Factoring what I spent and what my time is worth, I probably lost over a thousand dollars for my first “paid gig.”

In my mind, I was over the moon that I had been paid to perform! It seemed like each of those dollars should have been fifty times bigger than a regular dollar. They weren’t. Going to the store to buy groceries, I didn’t get extra food because these dollars were obtained doing something I was proud of.

Even more important, I also knew dozens of people at the time (and know even more now) who earn their living off of performing. The going rate for a performance like that is somewhere between $500-$1000. My doing it as a novelty for almost free meant that someone counting on gigs to support themselves didn’t get that work. Even more, the presence of dozens of people like me willing to perform for rock bottom rates collectively drives the rates down.

There are two sides to this of course. Working as a software engineer, you are never worried that artists, well paid from regular work, are going to start coding device interoperability components for almost free and take away your ability to support yourself. Whenever someone goes into a profession that is known to pay poorly and then bitches about being poor, it’s hard to be sympathetic.

Similarly, I have at least a half dozen friends right now whose passion is photographing nude models. Specifically, hot, young, white, athletic, and conventionally attractive models… oh how they suffer for their art! They do this artistically, not pornographically (where there probably is money to be had), and lament that they have to toil along at their day jobs instead of doing their passion. Taking pictures of naked people is sexy and fun. The stuff that actually pays them money isn’t. People will always be up for taking pictures of naked sexy people for free. Yeah, you might have a nicer camera, spiffy lighting, and have taken lots of classes on composition, lighting, and makeup, but it still is hard to beat free. Enjoy that you have both something you love AND something else that pays the bills. Acrobats aren’t far removed from this.

I know multiple people who decided they wanted to get serious about aerial and have gone to expensive professional acrobatics schools to hone their skills. In my mind, education is always a great thing but people shouldn’t view this as a professional investment that will have any kind of financial return on investment. This is personal growth and an indulgence. There are two young guys around the same age who are both in school right now. One is getting his associates degree in Information Technology. It’s costing him very little because the program isn’t expensive and is well funded. Upon graduation, an average graduate in his program will make $75,000/year right out of school. Another guy is doing an expensive professional aerial program. He will graduate in debt and be lucky to make fast food wages (if he can even find work).

There was a post going around the aerial world last year by a full time acrobat blasting people who do it part-time and basically saying that an artist who has another job to pay the bills can never be as good as one who does acrobatics fulltime. I have friends who are very serious aerialists but also have day jobs who were understandably offended. My experience is that part-time people can be as good or better since they don’t have the financial pressure to do work that isn’t any more art than flipping a burger (aerial bartender anyone?) and they can afford to train, hire a coach, travel to experience new scenes, and take better care of themselves / have access to health care.

Aerial students who are getting to the level where they want to perform should stick to student shows or fundraisers for non-profits until they are ready to jump to a professional gig. When they are ready to perform professionally, they should do some research into what they should be charging (ie. Talk to their teacher) and not be afraid to ask for what they are worth. If you don’t need the money and would be happy doing it for free, keep in mind that others aren’t as fortunate so it is important to charge a fair market rate or give the gig to someone who could use the work. This is doubly so for corporate gigs.

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