Trigger Warning: There is a lot of math in this post. And straight talk about costs of running a show.
There is always a continued discussion – especially on social media groups such as Facebook’s The Sideshow Spectrum – about money. That is why a lot of us do what we do…
Yeah, yeah. I know. “What about the art? What about the fans?” Blah, blah, blah…
Suck it up, cupcake. All that is important, too – but it is money that allows us to do what we do.
PLUS – and this is my opinion about the very nature of performing, itself – it is a blue-collar kind of job: you come in, you do your work, you get paid. It does not depend on your mood, the weather, anything else. You have a quota (the performance), and it must be completed on time to get your pay.
That is me, of course – but it is a plan that has done pretty well for me & my company.
And while there will always be a bunch of folks more concerned with “art,” this is a blog about “business” – which includes making money.
I have been doing and redoing this blog entry because I have so many stories, anecdotes, and information I have researched on the matters of money in the sideshow / variety business — it is really hard (so hard) to decide what to delve into first.
So, what I have decided to do is just do post after post after post. We can hash things out in the comments. Some of my ideas, attitudes, and more may change over time — and these are all ideas to discuss. So let’s do!
Recently, on Facebook’s Sideshow Spectrum, overseen by the amazing Todd Robbins, there have been several threads and discussions about “standard” rates, how to decide how much to charge, where everyone who charges gets their rates from, etc. It is a lot to process!
This, coupled with our work with FreakShow Deluxe, sent me on a series of phone calls, email discussions, and more to figure out some “industry standards” for not just the sideshow business – but the performing arts business!
Want to hear a story?
I have known Daniel Hawthorne, who has run Hawthorne’s Circus Bizarre, for quite a while! Issues of pay for performers is something we have discussed a lot. Mostly, because there is so much that goes into deciding, as a showman, how much you can pay.
As Daniel says, “I’ve had several quote me stupid prices some with zero experience. Also had some very reasonable just couldn’t afford at the time.”
My favorite story Daniel tells is the one where he put out a call looking for performers, and a variety of folks started calling him up to tell him they were available and tell him what they could do. Quickly, the talk turns to money. And this is where it starts getting ridiculous… One kid said he could not come out for anything less than $1,500 a week, plus expenses.
$1,500 a week.
Now – this is not someone with a “name,” that is going to help drive people into the show. Honestly, is there even really a “name” in sideshow that would drive the average to come out and see a show? Let’s think of a few:
- The Enigma
- Zamora The Torture King
- The Lizardman
- and, of course, Jim Rose (he is the one most people talk to me about)
If you are IN the business, maybe you would come out to see
Oh sure – there are plenty of others we all know – but, rest assured this kid wanting $1,500 a week was NOT any of the above!!
Hawthorne’s is a tented fair & festival grind show. It opens and stays open, running shows one right after the other as long as the people keep buying tickets and coming in. Let’s say, if the crowds are good – you are looking at working about 5 hours a day on most days. roughly 35 hours a week, assuming the show runs all 7 days a week. But most fairs only run 10 days in a row before they break down and move to a new location to set up – which is normally a 4 day transition.
$1,500 a week, 35 hours a week, breaks down to about $42.85/hour.
Assuming you, dear reader, are not a sideshow performer professionally – how much does your job pay you per hour? How far are you up the food chain at your work? How much is dependent on you, and you alone!?
Hawthorne provides steady work, too. A whole season. This is not a one-shot day of work. Also Hawthorne provides housing for its people (at no charge – there are plenty of carnivals that charge you for your bunk). It also covers your travel from location to location (riding with them). AND you want $1,500 on top of this? It is unreasonable. It is ridiculous.
Here is why:
Using Hawthorne’s as an example, it takes no less than 4 people to run this show every day. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the fair/festival provides the location and does not ding (in this case, meaning charge extra) the Circus Bizarre for electricity, water, parking, or more. 4 people at $1,500 a week each means it costs $6,000 to run the show for just a week in payouts.
Let’s say this season, the Circus is going to run for 12 weeks. That means $72,000 in pay for performers alone! Just performers!! This doesn’t not include fuel costs to move the show from one fair location to the next – that is a couple rigs, trailers, and bunkhouse. Or any of your other day to day expenses.
So you do 7 fairs, each one lasts 10 days (you have all those travel days, remember?) – so you basically have 70 days to make ALL your money! Do you have any idea how much you will have to charge per ticket, plus how many people you have to get into the tent per day every day to make that money?? Just to cover the performer pay, it’s $1,029 per day, or $205 per hour. This grind show is dependent on throughput per hour — basically, how many people you can get through your attraction.
On the lot, you are competing with rides and other things – which have pretty high throughput, considering they run 3 to 4 minutes each and can fit anywhere from 6 to 20 people on them. Of course, there is only one person to run the machine/ride, because that ride never gets tired of swinging people around! Each ride costs about $5 in tickets. This means the Circus Show has to get people through in a reasonable time – all while using live people! Live people get tired, get injured, and have to work through that live show (doing some fairly dangerous things) at the pace set by the throughput. Remember – the average ticket price on the midway is about $5, so that is probably your price point.
This means you need to get 41 people an hour through your show. That covers your $1,500 a week employees.
Now, while that hourly number does not seem unreasonable, as a show owner do not forget that you still have to pay for all of the things you are consuming both on stage and off, vehicles, insurance, bunkhouses, food, drinks, legal fees, etc. and so on. Quadruple that amount of people in the door — maybe even more so!!! Do you feel like you could get 200 to 250 people in your tent every hour no matter what?
Assuming, of course, you do not have a rain date. You do not have a slow date. The fire marshal does not shut you down. That they give you your space on the lot like they’re supposed to (if they’re not charging you – they’re not keen to keep it for you when they could sell it to someone else). And that any of a myriad of problems that could (and will happen) do not happen to you!
Once you start breaking down the numbers – you realize how hard it might be to actually pay some ridiculous rate to a performer who is not bringing in the paying crowds.
Daniel has explained to me that even when he can find someone who will work for a reasonable rate – he has a real problem keeping them! He is a perfectionist – he knows his show, what it needs, and what it needs to do to keep the money rolling in. A lot of folks are just not ready for the real work involved — the tent has to be set up, and broken down. Props, banners, the top, and more need to be taken care of… it is a LOT of work!
“I am willing to take on someone green…pay them enough to get by and even save a little….as they grow and get better, so does the money….but no one has yet to stick it out longer than three months,” he tells me. Continuing, “And I will admit, I think I am hard to work for, I like things done a certain way and presented certain manner. I had one get really mad at me cause it was hot and I wouldn’t let him perform in a wife beater.”
As Daniel says in conclusion, “In my type of show they (workers) also need realize their competition. I can get town help and other folks happy to work for 150 to 250 a week…work the illusions and even learn an easy act. So you better be really talented to warrant even 400 a week and bring something that will translate into more folks coming in the tent. Now, my fall spot I can usually go 100 a day… again, for someone with a little talent.”
And that is how it is! THERE is your realistic view of how it works!! Pretty soon I will go over some other examples…
When some people say the sideshow is dying because the people running shows are not letting new folks in – they are wrong. It is dying because it is really, really hard to bring in enough audience members to cover the costs of running a show – coupled with unrealistic assumptions of many folks who think they want to work it!