We always hear about the power of saying, "Yes" and how we should say, "Yes" to everything for the exposure or the experience or to network and these are all good reasons but...
What about the power of saying, "No?" Or even the power of saying, "Hell no!" Why and how can it be beneficial to us as performers to say, "No?"
The late, great grand dame of Cabaret, Julie Wilson once told me as we were sitting in a bar in Fairbanks, Alaska that she didn't think the band was very good. Those of you who knew Julie know that she was never shy to give you her honest opinion. We were both approached to sit in and sing with the band. Julie declined and I said, "Why not?" You know where this is going I'm sure...
So I get up and it was a total car crash because they said they knew the tune I called, they said they knew the form, they played it in the wrong key AND they totally didn't even bother to listen to me. I joked my way off of the stage and went back to Julie with my tail between my legs. She squeezed my knee under the table and said, "Why didn't you just say no? You are way beyond their abilities and clearly you didn't have to prove yourself to anyone here?" She was right!
Never put yourself in harm's way if your gut is telling you "no Bueno." Be polite but absolutely say, "No" and protect yourself because you never know who else may be in that room as you make your first impression on them. OY! If anyone of note here in NY had seen me that night, I am certain, it could have really hurt my career.
I have taken many people to Jim Caruso's Cast Party at Birdland but I always tell them it is an elevated Open Mic and that they need to know how to sing with a trio, how to count off the band, their song form, how many bars their solo is and how to indicate going back to the bridge or stopping a tune if they get lost. Many times, Jim would ask my guests if they wanted to sing and smartly, many times, my guests would say, "I'm here to check it all out first. Maybe I will sing the next time." They were smart enough to say, "No" until they accessed the situation.
OK so what is the benefit of saying, "No" to an opportunity where you can sing in front of a new audience say in a group show? It all sounds like it would be a great chance to move your career forward and, honestly, in some cases and depending on who is asking and what the event is, it certainly could be but...(here's the infamous "but" again!)
How many times have you said, "Yes" to an opportunity like this for no pay and with no advertising of your name or appearance or no real benefit to you or your career? There have been too many gigs like this in my singing career to count. Yes, it is great to sing in front of a new audience but are they really all that new? Do we not, most often, agree to sing in front of the same cluster of people for free, over and over again? This situation is becoming a firm "No" to me as of late. I do love seeing people and sitting in now and again, but I don't have to do this for my career. I am definitely seeking opportunities and trying to do Open Mics in other cities across the US to reach more people now that we can perform virtually. There is a benefit in saying, "Yes" to that circumstance because there is exposure to a new audience and the possibility of expanding my fan base nationwide, especially in this new way of performing virtually.
Why would I say "No" to a guaranteed high-profile invitation to sing at Jim Caruso's Virtual Pajama Cast Party (watch me on Monday, May 3rd!) when I see the kind of hits he's getting weekly? Well, of course I would never say, "No" to this because it is the kind of exposure where I'd reap a great benefit and it's Jim!
There are many other gigs we all want to do every year that are very high profile, but you have to pay for your own band to come to play for you and these gigs are also performing to the "usual suspects" (same audience) so...again...how does this benefit me? These gigs would also be a firm "No." (If I were ever asked...LOL!)
What's been getting to me (and many others lately that I speak with) is that we are all struggling to just sing during Covid. I can't tell you how many times people who are making money have asked me to sing saying, “We can't pay you, but we'll feed you and you'll get the exposure." Um...for what?! Everyone else gets paid. The singer has bills to pay too!
I am currently reading a book called, "Real Artists Don't Starve" by Jeff Goins where he stresses that charging what you're worth begins with the belief that you are worth what you charge. If we keep giving it away, what does that say about what we believe our talent is worth? Think about this.
When I started in the business we got 100% of our ticket sales and we had a guarantee just in case the house was light. The band was fed and we got one drink. If the club noted that there was a bump up in attendance or that the majority of the people were there specifically to see us, we got a bonus or a cut of the food or drink in-take that night.
The whole pay-to-play concept of Cabaret happened years ago when a certain cabaret started to charge their talent for the tech fees/room rental and saying that the talent was now responsible for filling the room with no PR offered to help fill their room. Guess what? No one said, "No". Then we had the "deals": 30/70 splits and $2-4 per person from our covers over what we paid to rent the room all while the clubs/restaurants were making money from our people coming in to eat and drink in their establishment. And here we are today folks! We could have said a collective "No", but as long as there are people with big families and followings willing to work under these contracts, this is where we will stay when everything goes back to whatever new normal we will face when we all start to sing in clubs again.
During Covid many are doing the virtual tip jar and I really respect that and, in some cases, they are making more money due to the number of people watching because a $5 tip x this many people vs. a $20 cover charge x a lesser amount of people adds up. Virtual performances allow people from all over the country and even the world to see your work. The performer is still being paid in a way that's comfortable for them and for their audience's individual financial situation. It's a win-win and, at least, it's something!
It should be noted that I am not talking about voluntarily doing benefits where your talent is lovingly given to help that organization or event make money for a cause because these are wonderful choices that we all make from the kindness of our hearts. These gigs also usually do put you in front of people who do not know your work thus giving you a real opportunity to expand your fan base.
I am, however, talking about the current situation we all find ourselves in by not saying, "No" and by not asking for what we believe we're worth. We all have the power as things come back to set a new standard for how we should be treated by asking for respect for our "body of worth" as my friend Richard Skipper calls it. All I am saying is to really think about what you are saying, "Yes" to, evaluate the benefits of doing so and to just be prepared to feel the power of saying, "No" should you decide your are worth more. You can still work as we have been working in this new developing paradigm of performing virtually. What is your time and talent worth?