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There’s a lot of conversations surrounding whether specific staff and artists at events are paid enough. Very often, these stories are either told from the perspective of an individual who (rightly) recognizes that an event isn’t paying the fair market rate for their services (and sometimes hiring a cheap replacement), or from an organizer lamenting the high costs of running an event.

I’m both an organizer and an artist, but I also work as a non-artist staff member at Zouk events (running competitions). As a result, I’ve both hired staff and artists, and been hired by events.

Regardless of what side of the table I’m on, negotiations for payment and benefits are a central component. Part of the negotiation is determining what is ‘fair’, ‘valuable’, and ‘workable’ for each side.


“Fairness”, “Value”, and “Workability”

There’s a misconception that the fair market value of services is equivalent to fairness, value, and workableness. For example, if I am an artist, the ‘value’ of my workshops may be $150 per hour, plus applicable expenses (including airfare, food, and lodging). So, the fair market value of the services provided would be the sum of those values. Say, in this case, the fair value is $1,000.

However, in a strictly monetary sense, if my services would only net an additional 2 extra passes sold at $200 each, the value of my services to the event is $400. In this case, despite the rates being fair, this would be a very poor value for the organizer.

There are also the non-sales aspects of value: the opinion the organizer has of my dance ability and quality, and the enhancement of the experience for attending guests. But, at the end of the day, if the value of these things plus the monetary value of my services in the eyes of the organizer are not at least equal to the cost of having me at the event, bringing me as an artist would not be a smart investment. This would make it not workable.

Additionally, being able to afford more expenses and the workability (aka, the wiseness of the investment) are different. For example, if I have a $5,000 profit, I could afford to spend $1,000 on another artist. But, it would not be workable in my opinion unless the value of those services to my event is going to be greater than the $1,000 it costs to hire the artist.


Non-Artist Staff

The same assessment can be performed on non-artist staff. MCs, photographers, contest coordinators, videographers, etc. are all part of the event experience. And, their services are definitely very valuable.  But again, regardless of the fair market value for those services, the organizer has to perceive and receive at least equivalent value from hiring those services.

For example, the fair market value of a videographer’s services may be $1,000 in terms of the expenses, time, and expertise involved. However, as an organizer, unless the promotional and experiential value of the videographer’s services are greater than the $1,000 plus other associated expenses, it is not a workable deal.

And, that value is going to vary wildly depending on the event. If there’s a great local videographer and an event would benefit with next year’s sales because of amazing demo or recap videos, hiring at the fair market value rate may be a great and fair deal for both parties. However, if there is also a $600 plane ticket, room, and food, or if the event has no need for additional marketing, hiring at that fair market value may no longer be a good deal. In fact, it could be a losing investment for the event.


Hidden Value for Artists and Staff

The value of an individual event to artists and staff can also vary wildly. If an artist or staff member was planning to attend an event anyway because of its great social dancing, promotional opportunities, other work opportunities (for example, privates), or professional development, there is a value outside of fees received by the artist.

For example, if there is an event I’m going to attend anyway, I may provide contest organizational services at a reduced rate, or in exchange for the event covering my expenses. That doesn’t mean the fair market value of my services is any less; but in that instance, my event experience is worth at least the equivalent of those services to me.

In determining the value of a specific event to an artist or staff member, they can decide to stick to their ‘fair market value’ rates, or work in another arrangement. This is where negotiations between the organizer and staff member/artist come in.


At the Negotiating Table

I firmly believe that when one party believes a deal to be unfair or unworkable, they should not take the deal. The entire point of a negotiation is to arrive at a midpoint that both parties can live with, or decide that a deal cannot be made and walk away.

One mistake that many novice teachers, staff, and organizers make is not negotiating with a reasonable baseline in mind. In order to have a reasonable baseline, you have to realistically assess a few factors. For example, an artist or staff member may determine:

  1. What is the fair market value of my services?
  2. What value am I realistically adding (or could I add) to the event?
  3. What value does this event or opportunity give me?
  4. What will I cost the event, in total?

When you balance these three factors, you will come up with a baseline to negotiate from.

For example, if I am a junior artist, I may charge a per-hour workshop rate of $100. If I don’t have the ability to add value by bringing people (by reputation or promotion), there’s no additional value that I’m adding to the event, aside from improving the experience of attendees that are already coming (say, a value of $200). And, the event may give me a great platform to promote myself and continue my professional development (a value to me of $350). Further, if I ask for room and food, I may cost the event $200 for the weekend, and a flight would cost $350.

So:

  • $100 (service value) + $200 (experiential value) = value to organizer of $300.
  • Cost of flying, room, fee, and food = $350+ $200 + $100 = $650.
  • Loss to organizer = $350.

At that point, it would not be smart for the organizer to accept this deal, unless they perceived a higher value in my services, or had a way to lower the cost of hiring me.

In this case, the compromise might be having the artist cover their own flight. Since the previous loss was $350 and the flight is around $350, the net will now be approximately $0. In this case, neither side gets any added value – but no one loses either. Alternatively, the artist may agree to put together a group of at least 4 people, recognizing that those additional tickets would be used to cover the costs they represent to the event and increase the value proposition.


Another Strategy: Niche Specialties

One other thing that junior or less experienced professionals can keep in mind when negotiating is whether there is a niche you are able to fill better than others. For example, if you are a trained solo dancer, you may be able to offer workshops focusing on solo dance principles, physical training, stretching, music, or anatomy that other more seasoned dancers of that genre don’t have the capacity to offer. This way, you are competing for a niche you can fill best instead of against a wide field of very strong professionals.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword. Niches only work if the event wants to showcase that niche – and it’s up to you to show them why it’s valuable.


When the sides don’t agree on (or don’t have the resources to support) a fair deal

You will reach an unworkable agreement in one of two situations:

  1. You and the other party don’t agree on the value; or,
  2. You both agree on the value, but don’t have the resources to make the deal work.

The most common example is when one side doesn’t have the money to finance the deal, even though they see the value of the proposed arrangement. This can happen on the artist or organizer side.

In these cases, one of the two sides has to decide if they’re willing to operate at a loss or reduced benefit. For example, an artist reducing their normal fees to support a new/smaller/charity event, or an organizer covering the cost of an artist’s flight because they like what they’re doing – even if the monetary value doesn’t necessarily cancel out the cost.

Sometimes, there is no workable agreement. This is fine. This is the time to walk away. It may be disappointing, but this is the nature of negotiations. It does not mean that either of you were being unfair to the other party; it simply means that you couldn’t find a mutually beneficial arrangement this time.


Is the deal “unfair”?

An unfair deal is when one side uses its power to extract more from the other side because it can. For example, if an organizer knows that a particular upcoming artist is hungry for opportunities and uses this to extract free labour, it is unfair.

However, if the organizer does not perceive that the value gained from a particular service equals the cost, it is not unfair. For example, some events may reserve a few spots for upcoming DJs or instructors to feature work – but those spots may not be compensated because they are functioning more as a trial or test to see if that artist is a good addition to the event.

Similarly, if the event cannot afford the fair market value rate, proposing a lower deal is not fundamentally unfair. Rather, it is part of a normal business negotiation, where both sides need to come to a conclusion that they are satisfied with.

Think of it this way: if you are looking to buy a house, you can make an offer at, below, or above asking price. The seller can choose whether to accept that. It is not fundamentally unfair to propose $400,000 instead of $500,000, even if it is a lowball offer. Maybe you don’t have $500,000 but really like the house; or maybe you think the valuation is too high. It’s even fair to put that offer in because you simply are looking for a good deal, and hoping that the other party will accept. However, making a lowball offer because you know the other side is desperate to sell in order to get money for cancer treatment may not be considered ethically fair.

Another aspect of unfair deals is when one side does not live up to assumed or specified terms of the agreement. For example, an artist who is told they will be fed will generally expect 3 meals a day, starting from Friday night until Sunday night. It would be unfair to then have the artist show up, and find out that they only get 1 meal, and only on days when they are teaching.


“But organizers take advantage of media people and junior artists all the time!”

Some do. And, it is true that many non-headline artist roles are undervalued by many organizers. But, as an organizer, I can tell you that the reason most organizers do not hire some roles at the fair market value is because either a) we can’t afford it, or; b) the value proposition is not convincing.

For example, at my event, we have a limited number of tickets that generally sell out. As a result, we don’t really need a lot of additional marketing. However, most videographers and photographers sell their work as a promotional tool and a way for attendees to remember the event. I recognize the value there. I understand the work and expertise it takes. I completely agree with the fair market value of their services. The problem is that because we don’t need more promotional images or videos, the cost of the services does not usually match the generated potential value for our specific event – and actually costs us money we could spend on other aspects. So, we use a combination of volunteer amateur media members and local professionals to work in an arrangement that is fair to those involved.

Also, keep in mind that if you are the artist or staff reaching out to the event with a request to be hired, you will likely need to illustrate why your value proposition is worthwhile. They may really like your work – but if they haven’t reached out, the number crunch may not be working in your favour.


“But why are they so stingy? Events make a lot of money!”

If you think that managing an event makes a lot of money for the amount of hours spent working on it… you probably haven’t organized an event. There are a few events where organizers have put in long hours and invested for years to make an event that is appropriately profitable – but these are the exception, not the rule.

Even for many “successful events”, the net profit may be somewhere between 10-20k for a full year of work. That’s less than minimum wage in most countries – and that is often overall, before the profit is divided between the organizers (many events have more than one).

Further, often this money is routed back into the event to either make up for previous incurred debt, or to invest in upgrades for coming years.

Again, there are always exceptions. There are some very stingy organizers that manipulate the system. There are those who don’t follow up on agreements. But, those are generally the exception – not the rule.


“But making money from events is greedy!”

Aside from the fact that event management isn’t particularly lucrative in most cases, we need to let go of the idea that if you make money organizing, you are somehow unethical.

It is perfectly reasonable in every field to be compensated for what you do – whether it is photography, public service, performing surgery, or fighting fires. You are not unethical simply because you want to get paid to do work that is in the public interest or that you like.

Organizers should be included in this as well. There is nothing unethical about declining a deal that you don’t think is fair for you even if you can afford it.


Ethical Event Management

I would mention here that I really hope that certain event organizers reflect on the ethicalness of their practices – particularly when it comes to non-headliner or behind-the-scenes roles. To me, it is very, very important for organizers to reflect on the ethics they value in promoting events.

For example, it is reasonable for a first-year event to struggle to pay people. Events are indeed difficult to get off the ground. However, by the time you are established, if you still struggle to pay artists and staff, you should look seriously at your model, and what has to happen to allow you to appropriately reimburse your artists.

This could mean reducing the artist lineup (to reduce airline, food, and hotel costs), but ensuring that those who are there are compensated appropriately. It could mean modestly increasing competition or pass fees to cover paying the necessary support or media people.


What about the event experience?

The other sometimes neglected aspect is the experience artists have at events. Artists are all aware that certain people add more value than others. But, it really, really sucks to be treated as an afterthought when you are on staff along with big names – and it’s something I’ve heard a lot of more junior staff express frustration about.

Even if their deal is not the same as a headliner, you hired this person to provide a service. It is your responsibility to ensure they are treated with dignity, respect, and care throughout their working relationship with you. If you cannot provide that, you probably should reconsider having them as part of your staff.


In conclusion

Working as an artist, staff member, or organizer is part of the business of dance. That means that the same rules of business negotiation apply. In order for an artist or staff member to command a certain price, they must show the value of their services to the organizer. And, as an organizer, we have a duty to treat artists and staff fairly in negotiation and hiring practices.

Further, it is completely reasonable to understand the fair market value of services, but to determine that, as an organizer, the value is not present for your specific event. This does not mean that the artist or staff member’s services are not valued appropriately; it simply means that the value for your specific event is not enough to make it a good choice for your event.

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