(Editor’s Note: It’s important to read this entire article in order to understand the depth of the material presented here. The following article is one that is designed to help artists work through their own fee schedule. MANY factors determine what a performer does and does not charge including the date of performance, type of group, travel, reputation, availability and plenty of other factors. Glenda attempts to share her thinking and reasoning as a guide for others. No one should use this article as the an absolute rate sheet for any reason. This article was posted in October 2004. *As a 2006 update, we find that the rates quoted are still about right for tellers in Arizona. Your area and experience will vary. )
Charging someone a performance or workshop fee can be a daunting experience for those who have never asked to be compensated before. Since, I’ve been down this road in another lifetime (sixteen years as a part-time clown/puppeteer/magician), I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this subject. The biggest problem I had when I started out then, was saying “no” to all the wonderful “opportunities” for me to do a show and “spread the word” about my work. One day I looked at my calendar and noted that almost all my gigs were freebees.
As time went on, I learned that whenever I charged for my work, the amount of respect I received seemed to be directly related to the amount of money folks were asked to pay.
That’s when I decided to write a business plan. You might find it interesting that the simple act of doing this exercise made all the difference in the world. In my plan, I clearly state that I will donate my services to one non-profit group in my community each month. This gives me a statement to counter all those well meaning people who want/need/try to get artists to work for “experience and exposure.” In a matter of months, after I put this clause in my business plan, the requests for freebees declined, and my calendar started to fill up with paid gigs.
As for the rates I currently charge, they are really all over the place. I think this may be why other storytellers (artists, performers) are so closed about the subject. It is sort of complicated, and some people think that if they tell what they charge, others will pitch their customers with a lower bid. I’ve never been able to understand this, but I have actually heard performers discuss this fear in the past. In my opinion, we are all unique and individual, and not in competition for what some consider to be a “limited” market.
With this in mind, I think every storyteller, volunteer or pro, should create a rate card listing reasonable charges for specific gigs. A rate card will serve as a reminder of your value, and what you think would be appropriate compensation for telling stories at a variety of venues. A rate card comes in handy when a prospective customer calls and says, “What do you charge?’ Whether or not you want to receive a fee, this card is a reminder of your worth when discussing a job and negotiating the terms of agreement.
It is vital for anyone planning to work professionally as a storyteller, to develop effective fee-negotiation skills. Your ability to ask for and receive the compensation you desire is directly related to your ability to listen and respond to requests from a prospective customer. Find books on negotiation and practice the techniques they suggest. You will be rewarded for your effort.
An unspoken but extremely effective professional point I discovered many years ago is to stand behind your work - guarantee what you do. Some storytellers think I’m nuts, but my rationale goes like this: Mentioning a guarantee (if it seems appropriate) often makes the difference between getting a booking or frightening a potential customer away. Some customers are worried they will make the wrong decision if they aren’t familiar with a performer‘s work. By offering a guarantee, the confidence level of the potential booker goes up. Besides, if you are brave enough to guarantee satisfaction, there is no way for you to become complacent. For any storyteller, complacency is the first step down that slow slope of decline, so putting yourself “on the edge” is a healthy move.
Following is a summary of what I charge or have been paid for artist-in-residency work, library performances, and workshop and community presentations. (By next year this information may be outdated, but it can serve as a benchmark for understanding the complexity of fees, starting negotiations and planning for professional growth. Please keep in mind that performance fees can vary greatly between different regions of the country.)
State Art Rosters
As a roster artist, each state arts commission or state arts council determines the fees paid to an artist-in-residence. (You probably know that fees paid to artists through state rosters are usually funded for half of the amount, with each school responsible for the other half. Furthermore, each state has specific guidelines about travel and per diem paid to artists.) Some states only accept applications from artists who are residents. Other states waive that requirement.
When I work at an Arizona school doing a residency, I am guaranteed $40 per hour for an eighty-hour contract for one month of service, or four classes each school day. Arizona guidelines allow me to charge whatever I wish for other non-residency projects.
I generally list a basic school charge for one hour-long performance at $300, with each subsequent assembly on the same day at $30 each. The idea here is to keep groups small for storytelling and to bring in a few more dollars for the day, if possible. (I prefer groups of no more than 200, but often face up to 400+ kids in a gym.)
In Nevada and Idaho, two other states where I am currently listed as a roster artist, the pay scales and travel/per diem guidelines are different and, as I write this, compensate at a rate somewhat lower than what I receive in Arizona.
Public Library Performances
Library performances during the summer can be a great way to offset the low-income time for storytellers (at least this is the case in Arizona, where summer performance schedules slow down quite a bit). I have found that public library budgets are pretty tight; so I always offer a “library discount” in order to get to the point of being seriously considered as a summer presenter. In some library systems, this can bring anywhere from five to twenty-five different bookings. The trick is to find out their theme, the summer schedule and whom to approach at the correct time. This is not always easy, since each system has a different time-line.
My current library rate is $200 for one thirty-to-sixty minute children’s program. I charge $350 for two similar shows on the same day at one location, or at two sites within a twenty-mile radius. A one-hour family/community concert is charged out at $300, and I ask for $300 to deliver a ninety-minute community storytelling workshop.
Community College Workshops and Concerts
This is one of my favorite gigs! I don’t get a lot of them, but when I do, I’m in heaven. I enjoy them because of the various ages and interests of each group. My base rate for a concert sponsored by a community college is $500. This often means that I could perform before a group of fifty to 350 people. The age range for such an event is quite diverse (from babies-in-arms to senior citizens). Occasionally, I present a workshop for a Speech, English or Journalism class the day of the concert, just to keep my young-adult skills in top form.
Educational conferences provide wonderful opportunities. Unfortunately, it is in an arena where pricing can be a nightmare. I have learned that while these folks may have the funds to bring in a “headliner,” they often have little left in the budget to compensate other presenters. I can’t blame them, but this situation can be quite a challenge for anyone who is not yet considered a “headliner.” This is a venue where word-of-mouth and a performer’s reputation mean the most. Once a storyteller has made a few inroads in this field, the way becomes easier. When funds are not available, I might negotiate for a letter of recommendation, or permission to use the conference as a reference. This tactic is a good one to use when you plan to approach similar presenters.
NOTE: When I am trying to negotiate with a new presenter about an unfamiliar event, I probably won’t know how they will respond to my rates. In such cases, I always ask the following question:
“Do you have a budget for this project?”
As a rule, people are quite honest when asked about their budget. Even if they hedge in their answer, their response gives me information I need to take into account as we continue our negotiations.
I also try not to give anyone a quote until I know the answers to the following questions:
(1) What is the date, time and desired length of the program?
(2) What sort of a performance are you seeking?
(3) Where will the performance take place?
(4) How many are expected to attend?
(5) What are the anticipated ages of the audience?
(6) What other entertainment or activities are planned for the event?
It is difficult to arrive at a performance fee that seems fair to everyone involved. Each storyteller must determine his or her own worth, and the point at which to charge a fee or to increase current rates. This knowledge and awareness usually comes “the hard way,” by watching a potential gig vanish, or by learning that another performer at the same venue has been paid significantly more for a similar service.
As a rule, storytellers (artists, performers) shy away from doing a business plan. The exercise of doing such a plan is invaluable for anyone wishing to deal with vexing problems like (a) reducing the number of free performance requests received, (b) asking for and receiving higher fees, and/ or (c) reaching out to new audiences.
It takes experience and confidence to risk guaranteeing satisfaction as a performer. I can assure you, however, if you approach each gig with this (often unspoken) attitude, your work will sparkle and your presenters will most likely be eager to book you again. Risk taking is what performance is about. When performers stop taking risks, bookings are sure to decline.
There are many rewards for storytellers willing to attend to these few important business details. It takes discipline to write a business plan, establish a rate sheet, obtain information about each venue, negotiate with confidence and follow through on requests. These simple steps will help remove the mystery surrounding questions relating to when and how to charge a fee for your work.
Go for it!