Performing for free………only sometimes!
I have been following several threads online that have been discussing, in a quite heated manner, the pros and cons of doing free shows. This has certainly been something that has been debated ever since I can remember—without any definitive results. I suspect that so many different conditions are involved in the matter that there will never be a clear-cut answer to the situation.
I feel that there will always be a place for magicians to decide they want to use their talents to benefit a good cause, whether one on one, or in the form of a fund-raiser for good charity causes. It is very satisfying to be able to contribute a show and know that you have done some good by your actions. Without wishing to be hokey, it can really make the world a better place.
Where the situation gets a little problematic is when you realize that you have been taken advantage off. For instance is everyone getting a salary except the performer, this is often the case and it definitely rubs me the wrong way. There does seem to be a culture of being dismissive in handling a performer due to the fact that the service he renders is primarily an artistic one. I don’t like this one little bit and feel no need to put up with it.
I have been asked to perform at events when it has been quite obvious to me that the inclusion of an entertainer was a last minute “throwaway” idea, and I find this less than flattering. It is usually also an indication that your treatment if you perform will be just as casually handled. If this is the case, at this point in my career I generally point out that I choose my charity shows carefully and am not in a position to help them. I wish them good luck, behave pleasantly, but do NOT suggest other performers who might be able to help them.
The red flag that I find the most disturbing in these situations is the tired old cliché they sometimes trot out that you will be able to benefit from the exposure offered by the event. This is almost never true. By making a statement of this sort I feel the potential client is just trying to influence you in a rather insulting fashion. Without making a big deal about it, I just point out to them that my goals in entertainment are a little more specific than the nebulous promise of exposure. It has always been my experience that free shows lead to more free shows.
There are also occasions when a very little enquiry leads you to realize that in performing a free show you may actually be taking a paid show from the hands of a professional performer who might actually need the show. I don’t think this is at all acceptable and it should never be encouraged or countenanced by any ethical performer. I really didn’t need to say though, or did I?
It is vital that we raise the communal standards of the magic world in our handling of these tricky issues of pro bona or barter performances. While every situation is different, I am usually amazed at the amount of nerve displayed by potential non-paying clients when dealing with magicians. It really doesn’t exist in anything like the same manner in most other professions. No one asks a comedian to do two hours of strolling magic at a charity event!
If an established charity or a truly good cause asks you to donate your services for an event then you have every right to happily agree to do so. However, if you are abetting a manner of dealing with the magic fraternity that in any way belittles or diminishes them, you need to be careful to show higher standards than the potential booker. Point out that you should be treated as a professional even if the organizers want to handle your booking as an amateur event. This is just common sense.
Make your decision based on the individual event and the way it is presented to you, however don’t look back and moan about it later if you get it wrong. The key information about these kind of events can usually be discerned when you are initially being asked to perform, so make sure you ask the right questions. Take the time to get it right. I never like to hear magicians deriding other entertainers who perform at charity events, however I do think those events should really be legitimate charity events.