I love it when issues of artist compensation are discussed. I have a particular passion for helping artists get more money for the work . . . so let's talk about getting paid.
At the core, what we have is a basic labor versus management issue. The problem is that many artists don't like to see themselves as labor. Maybe it's because the term labor doesn't sound "creative" enough. Or maybe the very concept of labor has gotten a bad rap. Regardless, it is helpful to embrace the posture of labor, at least for this conversation.
Let's also stipulate that like any labor market, the arts world is not all about merit or talent. Yes, those things matter. So does connections, political savy, skin color, gender and a whole bunch of other things. You probably don't have the luxury of assuming that the cream always naturally rises to the top.
We should also remember that the labor market for the arts has extremely low barriers to entry.
Anybody can call themselves an actor, dancer, writer, whatever. This matters because (in general) the higher the barriers to entry, the higher the wages and vice versa. Neurosurgeons get paid a lot because it's really damn hard to be one.
So with all that, what can an individual artist do to consistently raise their wages?
An artist can create assets and leverage those assets to create a higher wage.
Imagine two playwrights, A & B, each with comparable skill levels.
Playwright A works the traditional path. He sends out scripts. He responds to feedback from industry professionals. He makes connections with various Literary Managers and Artistic Directors, etc. He does this for three years.
Playwright B self produces. She works two jobs and uses the money from her second gig to put up her plays. She pays everyone involved what she can. Over the course of three years she puts up five of her plays. None of them are a huge success but she has gathered the names/emails/address of 1,500 audience members who have an interest in her work.
At the end of those three years, a miracle occurs and Playwright's A and B write the exact same play. Word for word. It is a solid piece filled with craft and skill.
Each one approaches Large Theatre X to see about getting the piece produced.
Here's the first question: Who has had a harder path over the last three years, A or B?
You could argue Playwright B. Self producing is a bear. A big nasty bear. To get those five plays up she had to bust her ass.
Second question: Who is more likely to get their play produced?
You could argue for either A or B here. Remember, A has the connections. Maybe he and this particular Artistic Director are best buds.
Now for the all important third question:
Which playwright is more likely to get paid more?
This is where all the efforts from Playwright B pays off. When she sits down with that theatre she has an asset. No, not the play. Everybody's got a play. She has the name of 1,500 people who respect her and want to see her work. Those names belong to her. She earned them. She earned the right to talk to them.
So what's stopping playwright from negotiating an extra $1,000 in exchange for access to these 1,500 names?
Now maybe the cynic is you is speaking up "The theatre would never pay that extra money."
If B can make a compelling case that access to the list is worth $5,000 to the theatre why wouldn't they pay her $1,000. They are still 4K ahead.
And even if the theatre says no, so what? Playwright B can go back to building her own assets until she finds a suitable partner. It's only a matter of time.
What we have right now is a situation where far too many artists are waiting to be picked by a gatekeeper.
Yesterday, for example, I read a blog post by a playwright (with over 30 comments) that essentially boiled down to "here's why you're not getting picked by theatres" with the comments either agreeing or offering entirely different reasons why they aren't getting picked.
Let me offer an alternative suggestion: pick yourself.
If you really think that damn play is so special then PUT THE THING UP YOURSELF. Stop asking. Stop seeking permission. Stop waiting for a check.
If you think your performance skills are worthy of being seen, then build your own platform and make it happen.
It is the ultimate irony of this business. You have people screaming about how creative they are but when push comes to shove they are no different then any cubicle jockey. They want to follow instructions and take as few real risks as possible.
Then those very same people are shocked (SHOCKED) to discover that when you spend your time waiting to be picked . . . . if you ever do get picked . . . it will be on the gatekeepers terms.
The miracle of the current time is that you need less infrastructure, less money and less permission then ever.
You can start small. You can work hard AND smart on behalf of yourself and not someone else.
You can start now and be in an improved place 12 months from now.
Or you can keep waving your hands, wait to get picked and then have some guy tell you that reason your aren't getting picked is because you aren't waving your hands hard enough.