About every other month, I see an aerial friend post an article like this:
The general gist is someone attempting to support themselves as a professional aerialist, and as an aerialist alone, complaining about people performing for free. It is implied that this is wrecking the industry. The funny thing is that I have about an equal number of friends who are software engineers as I have aerialist friends (a sign you live in Seattle!). I have never had a software engineer friend complain about people programming for free and encroaching on their turf.
Anyone who thinks that they are going to make real money doing circus arts is delusional. Starting pay for a 22yo new college graduate with a computer science degree as an entry level software developer this year at Microsoft runs about $110k base salary not counting bonus and stock. The largest circus studio in Seattle pays their ridiculously talented staff just fractionally higher than minimum wage. The market is very good at paying people how society values them.
People want to do aerial. People are proud to do it. It has infinitely more sex appeal than doing something that involves a lot of math and sitting at a desk forty hours a week. It’s desirable enough that people who are independently wealthy or making a good income from a higher paying career will pay for the privilege to perform. I’m not even saying that people will do it for free. I’m saying people will pay to be able to perform because they love it and feel a passion for it.
Willingly putting yourself into a career space where you are competing against people willing pay to do what you want to get paid to do is going to be rough. Hopefully a professional aerialist is going to be better than a part time person doing it for fun, but this isn’t always the case and, for a lot of people looking for talent, the less costly alternative is often good enough.
The sad thing is that the situation is getting worse. Aerial is getting more common. There are a ton more people doing it than there used to be. It’s far more of a commodity. There are probably about 20x as many aerialists in Seattle now as there were ten years ago. The collective talent level is much higher and the pool of artists is larger but the number of gigs probably is about the same.
The artist also used to be a lot more important. Cirque du Soleil used to hire artists to perform their signature act in a show. If that person had a day off or was sick, that act wasn’t in the show. Now they have people create acts and then they hire a pool of acrobats to staff that role and slap them in elaborate costumes and makeup to the point that the individual is irrelevant. Cirque du Soleil is the star. The performers are just a resource. Pay drops and the performers have almost no artistic control.
Locally, Teatro ZinZanni used to staff its shows with exotic performers from the far corners of the world. Lately, the shows are increasingly filled with local performers. The prices of the shows are going up but the money spent on food and talent is dropping.
People should do a serious reality check before deciding to try and make a living just as a circus performer. If they do decide to go down that path, they should realize that they are following their passion in exchange for reduced financial security. They should also realize that just talent as a performer is not going to get them very far. The most booked and highest paid performers will always be the ones with the right connections and some business and marketing savvy, not necessarily the best abilities.
I have friends who are very good aerialists but also have other careers to pay the bills. I’ve also seen people spend a lot of time getting grants and other ways to fund their art. Most aerialists I know teach and everyone that I’ve queried about the topic has told me they make more from teaching than from performing.
I can honestly say that I’ve seen way too many aerial performances in my life and I don’t really enjoy watching anything other than super high level, professional talent. I don’t have any interest in watching people who would perform for free or a low wage. I love crazy good aerialists and seeing top tier aerial. I’m not a hater. I appreciate and love art. But I know I’m the minority and that your average Joe is going to be impressed with the girl in fish nets and heels flopping around like a fish in the air if she is cute enough.
I come to aerial from another direction. I know I have no natural talent as a performer but I still love aerial. I like the physicality of it. I approach it more as a sport. I want to bring more people to this space. I’d much rather see more people doing aerial than Zumba or Crossfit. I feel like the number of people doing aerial will continue to grow and I think that is a good thing. The increased number of people doing the activity will mean even more people looking for chances to perform. Unfortunately, this will ultimately drive down the prices that people can ask to perform and make it far more competitive. All of this means I’ll probably start seeing Facebook posts once a week about people performing for free instead of the current rate of once a month. People need to know that they are choosing a super difficult, highly competitive profession with very limited income potential. This is most likely even going to get worse going forward and aerialists should have plans B & C ready.