When you represent yourself as a performer, musician or artist, you usually control most aspects of your career—from promotion and booking gigs, to selling merchandise and creating art for people to enjoy. Often, you enlist others, such as a manager, agent, or promoter to help you take care of the tasks that one person alone can just not get around to.
The beauty (and challenge) of a freelancing performer is that you get to do what you love, and make a living doing it. But as many freelancers know, the path less traveled usually comes with its share of ups and downs when it comes to finances, which is why it’s important to not only perfect your craft but also to understand the business of performing so that you can protect your legal interests.
When you are a freelancing musician or performer, one of the main ways to make money is by playing concerts or shows, or performing at festivals, outdoor events, and more.
Before booking an event, make sure the venue has a solid reputation for paying their performers by doing some research ahead of time online or by asking colleagues.
Here are some common ways performers get paid:
Split Costs from Ticket Sales
A common way for performers to be paid is shared income through door sales. This is based on net amount of ticket income. Once the overhead or basic expenses, such as rent, sound or advertising are deducted, the performers from the evening are each given a cut of the earnings. The larger the audience, the more generous the portion. The standard exists so the club or venue can cover their own expenses and split the rest with you. This split ratio may also depend on the type of venue (21+, 18+ or all age clubs).
In this cost structure, the performer is paid a flat amount for a gig. Usually these gigs include weddings, charity events, school dances and more. While the pay is guaranteed, there is no way to increase the price through drawing a larger crowd.
Higher level touring bands generally get paid a flat rate for their shows, as opposed to depending on ticket sales for their income.
Other pay structures:
- A guaranteed amount plus a percentage of door sales
- Door splitting without taking off any expenses (cost splitting from dollar one), otherwise known as a percentage of gross sales.
- Other alternatives, such as a fixed fee plus percentage of ticket sales, and bonus from additional turnout.
The Pay to Play Method
Some venues have started adopting a pay to play scheme, which is quite a sensitive topic among musicians and performers. The premise is, the band or performer purchases tickets upfront at a discount, where they are then expected to sell the tickets, incurring any loss and gain as a result. This puts the risk on the musician or band, where they essentially have to try and sell tickets so they do not end up paying out of pocket. While it may seem appealing to those who are just starting out and who want to get exposure, try and negotiate another way to get paid.
Not every venue is going to be open to negotiation, but it doesn’t hurt to approach them with your own rates. If you are just getting started, look at what other performers have charged in the same venue and charge around the same price. Sweeten the deal by saying you can draw a crowd (just be sure this an honest promise and not purely a negotiation tactic).
If a venue or event organizer hires you to perform, they should give you a performance contract to sign outlining the details of the event and your performance. The contact should include information about the venue, performers, date, performer’s duties, cancellation clauses, as well as a clear payment plan that includes payment type, date, amount, overtime costs, and whether a deposit will be issued.
Depending on the nature of the event, ask them what the expectations are for the performance. For example, if you are performing at a wedding, what kind of music do they want to hear and what should you put on the set list? Are you taking requests or able to play your own recordings? Talk to the client or booking agent before signing any agreement to know that the event is right for you and you are capable of performing to their expectations.
If the venue doesn’t have a contract, but rather offers you a verbal agreement, provide your own written agreement to seal the deal with signatures and ensure you get paid for your services. There is no room for misunderstandings when it comes to your performing career.
Things happen—cars break down, performers get sick and flights get delayed. In the performance contract, it’s important for the two parties to come to an agreement on cancellation terms. This usually includes a date whereby the performer must cancel by, usually a little earlier to get the news to those who purchased tickets or to reschedule the performance.
Note that if your show does fall through, you may have to pay the venue a fee.
Most independent artists pay for their own overhead, including performance gear, stage props, theatrical effects, and accommodation, rental and transit expenses. Not to mention the fees for management, such as an agent or promoter who is helping them along the way. This can be a tricky cost to ration for early performers, which is why you should always budget your costs before embarking on a tour or agreeing to play in a location that will require travel outside of your local region.
Sometimes the purchaser will cover certain costs, such as transportation, hospitality (food, drinks), sound and/or lighting, but this should be a clearly specified in the contract or negotiated beforehand as an expense deducted as part of the ticket sales.
Selling your own merchandise or products at a show can be a good source of income. An artist can directly control the price for their products, and keep all the earnings for their sales, minus production costs of course. Make sure to clear it with the venue management first before setting up a booth, or address merchandise sales in your contract.
Quick tips for selling merchandise:
- Keep a decent amount of inventory on hand
- Offer several forms of payment options for consumers, such as debit, credit, and of course, cash.
- Have an impressive display, complete with band/performer names and items fans can easily look at and touch.
- Offer diversity in your items, including all your latest recordings (CDs, vinyl), pins, both men’s and women’s clothing, posters, artwork etc.
- Opt for quality. You don’t want fans walking away from your merchandise table because the items are poor quality. Comfortable and trendy items will get customers talking, and more importantly, will promote your items through wear and use.
Once you have completed the gig, it’s time to get paid as per your agreement. Don’t be afraid to be assertive in your collection, but not aggressive as to burn any bridges. There are a few things you can do if you do not get paid, most of which involve a third party. Your options may include having an attorney send the venue a letter, hiring a collection agency or resolving the issue in small claims court. Let’s hope it does not come to that, as trying to collect payment can be taxing if you are working as a full-time performer.
A career in performance arts can be quite fulfilling if you are compensated for your efforts. As a freelancer, you will wear many hats trying to manage all of the aspects of your career. For that reason, it’s important to educate yourself on your rights as a performer and to protect yourself with a written contract—ensuring that you not only get paid, but also that there are no uncertainties regarding the event details and your performance duties.