The Dirty Bui$ne$$ of Dance Festivals

Imagine for a moment that you are a lawyer. You have attended one of the countries top law schools and have passed the bar exam. You reach out to a law firm that is hiring and they respond to you inquiry. They would like to interview you on Monday, and ask you to please to bring your resume and to make your $50 application fee payment in advance via Paypal. They kindly remind you that if you are selected by the firm then you must pay a $250 fee to help cover the firm’s overhead costs.  The interview goes well, you are accepted into the firm to work on a high profile case. You suck it up and pay your $250 fee, you do an amazing job in researching, preparing and present a flawless argument to the court. You never receive a pay check for this work, but that’s OK because a lot of people were in the courtroom. It was GREAT exposure for you as a lawyer. Surely that will lead to something!

Sounds ridiculous right? This would never happen in real life and no self-respecting professional would ever entertain this situation.

Believe it or not, this is a normally accepted practice in the dance world.

Dance festivals commonly charge choreographers application fees ranging from $10-$50 per piece to apply for a performance spot in a Festival. Once accepted, the choreographer is often then expected to pay a production fee ranging from $75-$300 to help cover production costs of the festival. The festival presenters keep 100% of the box office and the dancers and choreographers do not receive a dime for their participation. They are told that the festival will garner them valuable exposure, although to whom and for what, it is not defined.

By the time the Choreographer rents rehearsal space, creates costumes, pays the festival fees, and pays their dancers (IF they pay their dancers), the price tag for a 10 minute festival appearance is well over $1,000 and produces an income of $0.

In concert dance, the practice of passing on production fees to the artist goes beyond festivals. For growing companies that self-produce, many of them ask their dancers to work for free in order to make ends meet. Booking agents for concert dance often charge the Choreographer a fee upfront for the year with no guarantee that they will produce the artist with paid opportunities. Meanwhile industries such as music, modeling, and acting pay their agents a percentage of the income earned from a found gig.

These practices are not only unethical, I truly believe that they are not sustainable. Dance is one of the most expensive art forms to create and the costs of theater rentals, dance education, and studio space keep rising. If we keep propping up the overhead of our dance economy on the emerging, struggling artists it is bound to implode.

A New Business Model in Dance

In March, I had the pleasure of experiencing a new business model for dance festivals when JP Dance Group participated in Moving Beauty’s the Series. The Series was founded by Juan Michael Porter III  who implemented the business model for the Festival after working under a similar model for Deshaun ‘Davi’ Davis. I have always preferred to self- present, however, I was immediately drawn to this festival for several reasons:

1. STAGE TIME Unlike most festivals which only allow the artists 5-12 minutes of stage time, this festival allowed for 40-50 minutes of work to be shown.

2. NO APPLICATION FEES There was no application fee. However a $75 production fee was charged to discourage artists from dropping out of the festival last minute, leaving the producer with an empty bill. Sadly, dancers are flakes. A greener opportunity comes along and they are gone, so I understood the motivation for this fee.

3. PRESS This Festival had a publicist. While press attendance is never guaranteed, the fact that this festival worked with a publicist made me feel that I actually might have chance to gain the elusive “valuable exposure” a festival is supposed to produce.

4. PAYMENT The most eye opening aspect of the Series was that it offered a split of the box office with the participating artists. I have never seen an emerging choreography festival that offered the artists any sort of monetary compensation. Each participating artist received 50% of the box office revenue that they helped to bring in.  Not only does this provide monetary compensation for the artist, it motivates the artist to actively promote the festival and get their audience in the door.

With this model, JPDG was able to make enough to pay the dancers a performance stipend for the evening.

The model is not perfect. We did not recoup all of our costs, but we did OK for a Wednesday evening in March. At any other Festival we would have walked away with nothing.

What’s Next?

Preparing for the premiere of my own festival,Dance The World Nutcracker Festival, I have been forced to look at this issue from both sides of the fence. On the one hand, I am the big bad producer constantly looking for funding, trimming our budget wherever possible, and strategizing on how to maximize my box office returns. I realize that the rationale for the application fees is this: even with a sold out box office, production costs will always out weigh a production’s income if the tickets are kept affordable. There is a practical reason why Broadway costs $100+ per ticket! Fees are a logical, but NOT an ethical, way for the producers of a festival to cushion their budget and maybe even pull a profit, especially when it is a 5-figure budget like mine.

Simultaneously I am the emerging choreographer, still paying off dance school, and struggling with whether or not the Festival opportunities presented to me are worth the cost applying and preparing for. I understand the artist’s struggle, I am one of them and I am vehemently seeking change.

For December I will be using the new festival model implemented by Moving Beauty Series with one edit. I will be charging a refundable security deposit as means to establish commitment rather than a production fee. Security deposit will be returned to the artist with their box office split at the end of the engagement. This model is still not perfect but it is fair, and is a great start towards change. I am turning to institutional grants, private donation, corporate sponsorships and roll-over profit from my last self-produced event to cover my production costs.

My quest for fee-free funding has got me brain-storming. While I do not yet have the answers, these are a few things I think us artists need to consider in order to restructure our business and keep our artform alive:

  1. THE THEATER IS DYING. I love the theater, but I am finally beginning to accept that the future of our art form likely lies beyond the Proscenium. Especially when it comes to gaining corporate sponsorships. Sponsors are no longer interested in how many programs they can slap their logo on. They want to be involved in the activity in order to change their target audience’s behaviors and perceptions. Dance needs to start thinking creatively in terms of venue, event structuring, and corporate involvement in order to keep up with trends in sponsorship. Dance needs to be a hands on event, not just a sit-down performance.
  2. VALUE STARTS WITH EDUCATION. For all you artists out there who teach in outreach programs, arts-in-ed programs, etc…keep doing it! Why do Americans pay $800plus for a Superbowl ticket but do not go to see dance, music, or plays? Sports entertainment is valued in our culture over the arts and it starts at an early age. The next generation needs to first learn about dance in order to value it.
  3. CONCESSION. Speaking of American values…food and drink sales play a major roll for every American entertainment outlet. Ever wonder why struggling Barnes and Nobles put a Starbucks in every location? Why movie popcorn is priced like oil? The larger dance venues started selling beverages at intermission awhile ago, but I think as a dance community we have not fully capitalized on this income source. This is another avenue that we need to creatively explore.
  4. COMMIT TO FAIR BUSINESS PRACTICE. Change starts with us. If you commit to fair business, your peers will to. We need to stop taking advantage of each other. period.

 Dance World,  What are creative ways we can restructure our business and make our art form profitable and sustainable? What do you think the production costs of the Superbowl were? Who paid for it? This country has money, but it is being allocated for other things. Can we find a way to change that?

To apply for Dance The World Nutcracker 2015, visit www.jpdancegroup.org/dancetheworld

You can read more about The Moving Beauty Series and their business model here.