How to Get the Right Compensation for Performing

By Jason Didner

If you’re making the transition from making adult music (i.e., bars and coffeehouses) to performing for children, you may pretty quickly notice a difference in the way your performances are compensated. When performing for schools and libraries, the program director will typically ask about your rates, since they have a budget and are accustomed to pay for the services of an entertainer. This could be quite a shock when you’re accustomed to getting a cut of the door or cash register receipts in the more adult-oriented venues. Other gigs may be completely unpaid but offer secondary benefits you may want to consider.

Be prepared for the budget question

Before you start contacting venues to get booked, try to have a rational basis for the price you seek. One way is to talk offline with other performers in your area who you know and trust. Get a sense of what they get paid for a gig. Also, if you’re working at another job, consider the amount you’d need to make in a day to replace the day’s income. Or think about how many performances you’d like to give in a month and how much income you need per month from performing. Here, you’re considering your living expenses as well as the direct costs involved with doing the performance. Remember, it’s OK to ask for a little more than the number you come up with, as the other party can try to negotiate you down to what they’re used to.

Offer options that work for both parties

I always tell bookers I have an option to fit just about every budget. I back that up by offering different performance lengths and different numbers of musicians, from a solo act to a four-piece band. I offer electric and acoustic, amplified and unamplified (when the room permits) so that private or public customers can choose the right option for their budgetary, space or volume needs. I often present this as a table with the number of band members listed down the left side and various performance lengths written across the top, so each combination of band size and performance length gets its own price.
This approach communicates to a booker that your prices are rooted in reality and based on costs that are familiar to you. It says there’s an option that balances the musical experience they wish to create with a cost they can afford. You also get compensated appropriately for the number of musicians you have to manage, the complexity of the setup, and the length of the show.
Asking questions like “How many children will be in attendance?”, “Is the venue indoors or outdoors?”, or “How loud or soft should we be?” helps the booker focus on the options that affect both pricing and logistics.

Offer some added value

Perhaps to make your price more attractive, you can add value by offering to include a piece of merchandise as a souvenir of the show. If you’re playing at a child’s party, maybe you can include a copy of your CD for every attendee. Just make sure your cost is covered in the price. This simple act communicates that you’re thinking about the customer and the audience.

“Can you draw a crowd?”

That question may not come up as often in the children’s music world as it does when booking bars and coffeehouses to play for adults, but it may still come up. If you’re new, you may not be able to predict your draw very easily, or you may be certain that you don’t yet have a following. Tell the booker your plan for drawing a crowd, and then follow it through. You can send press releases to local papers, post to online family activity calendars, invest in advertising in a local family fun magazine, use social media, etc. It’s also a good idea to work within community/parent groups that could turn out a decent sized audience. If you attend a church, temple, civic organization, etc., these are excellent resources to network with parents who may bring their kids to your performance. Remember, you’re providing a service and an experience.

Exposure isn’t a reason to play for free!

“Exposure” is a vague term that bookers sometimes dangle in front of performers in order to bring free entertainment to their venue. It is often construed as a notion that simply by showing up and playing, you’re advancing your career because you’ve gotten “exposure.” If you’re building a professional career performing for children, you need to break down the abstract concept of “exposure” into more tangible elements you can act on. Specifically what you hope to gain by playing? Maybe it’s five new families on your e-mail list, or a chance to sell 10 CD’s and T-shirts. Come to the gig prepared accordingly, with your clipboard and pen ready to collect new e-mail addresses. Maybe you can barter something, like ad space in the venue’s printed newsletter. Will there be bookers or tastemakers in the audience who can help you get to the next level? Are you performing at a benefit event that you care about? (That’s justification enough to donate your time). When you know what you stand to gain from doing a free gig you can make a better educated decision than if you simply surrender to playing “for exposure,” which can lead you down a demoralizing path.

If you don’t have a history of performing in public with your current act and your schedule is pretty empty, you will only improve your craft by playing out, so don’t let money be a reason to stay home waiting for a paying gig. An unpaid gig for a new band shouldn’t be viewed as a “rehearsal” but it is a chance to test your material with a live audience. It’s a chance to start cultivating key moments onstage and build your live show around those moments.

When you’re consistently earning good money for your performances, you’ll have the choice between paid and unpaid gigs and I’m pretty certain you’ll choose the paid gigs. But be cautious about canceling one existing gig to take another. You still need to preserve your reputation as one who follows through on commitments.

At the Maywood, NJ Public Library.
At the Maywood, NJ Public Library.

Jason Didner is a singer/songwriter with his own band, Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam. He is a member of CMN and a frequent guest blogger.