Negotiating Live Performance Contracts: My Hard-Won Savvy

Tonya Kay Peekaboo Feather Fan Dance - Pyragraph
You might be surprised how many details are involved in the Peekaboo Feather Fan Dance. Photo by Exquisite Events.

I have representation for days out here in Hollyweird, CA. I’ve got an agent that covers acting on-camera (Theatrical), an agent that deals with dancing and specialty on-camera (Dance and Specialty), an agent that attends to acting in commercials (On-Camera), an agent that represents me for hosting on-camera (Hosting) and an all-around career manager.

Not only are their department names confounding (I mean, why are commercials called On-Camera but tv/film acting is called Theatrical even though it’s as far away from a theater as one can get?), but sometimes the areas they represent are confusing, too—especially since I am so multi-faceted. I mean, what if I dance in a commercial or host on a TV program? These type of gigs are potentially two different agents’ territory in an exclusive industry.

I’m sure it would be much simpler if I “just acted” or “just danced.” But simpler does not mean easier—if I did only one performance discipline, I’d need a second income. To me, it’s much easier to make a living performing when I can do it all. And do it all in top form.

I’ve built my live performance contacts and reputation over decades, since I was a child in Chicago.

I am fortunate to have amazing teams surrounding me, and I am fortunate to be adept in many performance disciplines—but I am also fortunate that my skills are valuable in many venues. When I’m not acting on-camera, I have been known to perform live: hosting cabaret nightclubs, dancing at concert stadiums, singing in musical theater, burlesque-ing on bar tops. Just give me an audience and that’s where I come to life.

I’ve been performing as my sole source of income for—dare I mention it? yes, with pride—24 years now. And the massive majority of my performance career has been live on stage. So although I value my strong team of agents and manager for on-camera work out here in Los Angeles, asking an agent to handle my live gigs is unnecessary and actually backwards career-wise. I’ve built my live performance contacts and reputation over decades, since I was a child in Chicago. And I’ve literally negotiated my own live contracts since I was a teenager. Most of the live dates I win now are direct bookings from people I know quite well and an official contract would be overkill, not to mention hard to work with on a one-off gig basis.

Sans contract, my live gigs are, as I mentioned, awarded mostly by previous associates who are upstanding people, thank goodness. MOSTLY, I said. I’ve also had clients try to cancel the date an hour before performance, keep me chasing my pay for eight weeks after job completion, and “just forget” they never sent a deposit. So I started talking to other established, high-end live performers to see how they handle the verbal-agreement-between-friends gigs. Putting together their responses with my own experience, after 24 years in the industry, I’ve come up with this:

Tonya’s Savvy Guide to Negotiating Your Own Live Performance Contracts

  1. Accept and negotiate gig offers via text or email. If no contract is signed, these will be your agreement (a.k.a. your contract).
  2. If the client insists on phone offers, send an email or text with all the info you discussed asking for their confirmation that you have it right. That email is your agreement.
  3. The key information you should include in your text or email for confirmation is: date, location, hours on-site, detailed performance responsibilities, fees and any riders like parking, promo, media share and dressing room.
  4. Keep those agreements until you are paid in full (or until the end of time, if you’re like that).
  5. If working with a new client, require at least half of your fee as a deposit to procure booking, and the balance paid in full before performing night-of.
  6. If working with an established client, 10 to 14 days is reasonable for receipt of payment in full. California law requires payment within 30 days.
  7. Finally, keep a simple digital list of the dates, clients and agreed-upon fees for all the gigs you work that you can cross off as payment is received. Or, if no payment is received, use the list to check up on amounts due every 10 to 14 days. Consistency is key.

Any professional friend or new client you want to work again with will have enough time to reply “yes” (or “we need to talk more” as the case may be) to a text as short as this:

“Hi, Catherine! Please confirm I’ve got these details correct: 7/30, downtown LA private rooftop event, 300 guests, $X00, on-site 7:30-9:30p, one 5 min choreographed feather fan dance at 8p and one 5 min improvised bullwhip demonstration at 9p, dressing room and valet provided. Is this correct?”

It’s as simple and as easy as that. Make it habit when you’re negotiating live performance contracts and it can prevent lots of headaches in the long run. Happy negotiating!

Confirm performance details by text - Pyragraph

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One Comment

  1. Very interesting Tonya. Thanks for sharing. Must be hard to manage all of those agents and managers. ;)

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