“Hey! We missed you at the such-and-such fundraiser the other night,” a friend said when I ran into him on the street the other day. “All the usual suspects were performing except you! What happened?”
What happened was I said no.
Ah, we queers love us some fundraisers. I can’t remember the last time I went to an event that wasn’t a fundraiser for something. We hold fundraisers to stop this and to start that and to keep this going. Almost always, we raise funds by getting some artists to perform for free.
Let me preface this by saying that I am down with the fundraising. Lord knows we’ve got plenty of worthy causes in the queer community and bless us all for pulling together to do something worthwhile. In addition to my own volunteer work, I am always at the ready to lend a hand when it’s needed and perform, or host, or whatever is asked of me.
I am also extremely broke-as in sneaking onto the SkyTrain broke, as in sneaking onto the SkyTrain to go across town and host an event for which I’m not getting paid broke.
This is not exclusively because of my lack of money management skills, but also because, for the most part, I don’t get paid for what I do because I am (cue dramatic lifting of the chin) an artist.
I could wax poetic about the role of the artist in society and the extreme importance of art in queer culture but I won’t. I’m not interested in feeding into the idea of the noble artist who is visited by the muse and speaks to the world through her art because it is her calling to do so. In fact, I would like us to put aside that whole romantic concept for just a few minutes here and deal with reality.
I am a performer. That is my job. It’s what I do. It’s not what I do on the side for fun when I’ve finished working at a “real” job. It is how I make my living.
I used to say I was lucky to be able to spend most of my time doing what I love, but the fact is luck has very little to do with it. I’ve worked my ass off to get to this place and I work my ass off every day to keep from going back to one of the many soul-sucking jobs I held before I got here. Yes, I have worked-and been fired from-many, many jobs and I can tell you that being a performer is way harder than anything else I have ever done. And most of the time I don’t get paid to do it.
I don’t know many other jobs that work like that. Most people go to work and earn a wage or a salary. They put in their hours and they expect to be compensated for doing so. Imagine that you put in your hours at the bank or the factory, and instead of getting a paycheque a couple of times a month, you simply hope that some money might come your way if business is good. Imagine that there might be a drink ticket in it for you if you’re lucky, or maybe a veggie platter you’re allowed to partake of in the back room. Doesn’t that sound appealing? Of course not, it sounds ridiculous. I have a ridiculous, ridiculous job. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it and I really do love it. This does not mean, however, that I don’t deserve to be compensated for my talents and my hard work. It just means that I agree to live with financial uncertainty.
In addition to this uncertainty, nary a week goes by during which I am not asked to donate my time and talents to “support my community.” When I pluck up my courage enough to ask if there is any kind of honourarium involved, I am usually met with a look that suggests I have just said, “What time will the limo pick me up? Oh, and my dressing room must be completely chartreuse. It’s in my standard contract. I just love chartreuse, don’t you?” And then the owner of the look says something like, “Well, it’s a fundraiser….”
And I bite my tongue so that I don’t ask what amount, in addition to advertising and venue and ticket printing costs they have budgeted to pay the entertainment-without whom they would have no event. Because I know that the answer is, they haven’t. If I could entertain bus drivers in lieu of paying fare and my landlord instead of paying rent, this would be just fine. Unfortunately, performers are expected to pay their bills like everyone else in the world in cold, hard, cash money.
I’m not saying I will never work for free. I’m not saying performers should never donate their time. I just want to challenge the prevalent thinking about the worth of our contributions. Queer artists continually support the queer community; it’s time for the queer community to support its artists. Because now that the SkyPigs are armed, getting to a gig just got a lot more dangerous.