Do You Work Too Cheap?

There are lots of reasons to do low paying gigs, and believe me, I’ve done my share of them over the years.

Maybe you have too.

We might do a performance for little (or no) money because it gives us the opportunity to get in front of a new and really important audience.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what a gig pays because we just want to do it.

1Or maybe it’s a benefit for a really great cause.

Maybe you can afford to work for low rates on a regular basis.

Nothing against any of that. I have no problem with anybody who’s happy performing and could care less about the pay – – I really don’t.

To each his own.

For Those Who Need More

But if you’re feeling stuck doing work-a-day gigs that aren’t really leading anywhere, and you need to be earning more, it might make sense to take a slightly longer view.

In my experience, taking low-paying opportunities on a regular basis does at least five things to undermine your ability to earn more in the future:

  1. it suggests to the booker and the marketplace-at-large that this is what your art, and you, are worth
  2. it reinforces in your own mind, however subtly, the value (or lack thereof) in what you do
  3. it can easily convince you over time that you can’t find gigs that pay (“there’s no good paying work out there…”)
  4. it colors your ability to ask for what you really need when someone who actually does have a budget comes along
  5. most importantly by a long shot, and far more damagingly than any of the above, doing the low paying gig takes time away from what you should be doing

I guess I should say that last one again a little louder:

“OK, So What Should I Be Doing?”

If you’re serious about making a great living doing this, consider saying “no” to low paying work, and each time you do that, use the time you would have spent at that $25/hour or $50/hour job to build your career instead, cultivating your network of better paying gigs and expanding your opportunities.

(Leaving home at 5pm and arriving back at 10pm is a five hour gig in my book. Your gig pay divided by the total number of hours you’re away from home is your true hourly wage.)

Take those three or five or twenty-four hours as “office time” to do some research on the gigs that actually pay well:

  • who are the artists that get those gigs?
  • what kind of things do they do? do they have a specialty?
  • how do they talk about themselves on their website?
  • who do they quote as satisfied customers? (POWER TIP: make sure those people know who you are)
  • where have they played?
  • who books those venues?

Beef up your contact list, your email database, even make a few calls.

Reach out to venues and organizations you have a good relationship with and ask for some quotes and testimonials you can use when you approach new people.

The goal is to create a network of great paying opportunities that you can fill your calendar with. Until you’re there, you might be getting in your own way taking these other gigs.

Chances are you should be earning 5-10x what that cheap performance paid, or more, but you have to put yourself in a position to be able to do that.

What Happens If I Turn Down a Gig

Will theyever call me again--minI know it’s hard to give up any income, believe me, but I have to say that turning down low paying work hasn’t hurt me one bit.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The second you turn that gig down, a bunch of good things happen:

  • your perceived value in the marketplace (important!) goes up
  • your motivation to figure out how to get better gigs increases
  • your potential booker may end up finding the resources (perhaps even with your help when you suggest specific grants from your research that they can apply for) to book you for what you deserve in the future – it’s happened this way many times for me
  • you’ve freed yourself up to find better opportunities

My advice?

If you really need to take that job in order to pay your rent, by all means, do it, and just decide that you’ll also spend an equal amount of time pursuing better things the next day.

Get used to quoting way higher than you’re comfortable with. Ask for what you actually need to make as a full-time artist. If the venue can’t pay you that, thank them for their interest and move on.

The ones that really want you will find a way to do it, and you know what?

They will be among your most satisfied and loyal advocates after you’ve worked for them.

That’s right, the ones that pay you the most are very often the ones who are the most delighted with what you did for them, and want you back again and again.

I’ve seen this over and over.

So, we’ll finish with a few questions:

Do you know about all of the grants out there that could potentially be paying for your services?

Are you dialed in to all of the performing arts series in your region that could be booking you?

Have you made alliances with statewide and regional touring organizations? Arts councils? Industry conferences? Showcases? Arts in Education presenters and agencies?  Schools that love to hire performers? Libraries?

Have you considered expanding your geography to expand your income and opportunities?

If you stay home and cultivate a huge network of these kinds of opportunities – building it every day – you’ll never miss those low paying gigs.

What Do You Think?

Let’s make this a two-way conversation – – I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below.


About The Blog

The Largest Online Gathering of K-5 Classrooms for Connected Educator MonthSince leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.

Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.

The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.

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