Burlesque Business Spotlight

Exclusivity: It’ll Cost You

by: Shoshana

Exclusivity contracts, though not a recent phenomenon, are becoming a topic of conversation recently.  When, if ever, is it appropriate to sign an exclusivity contract (usually limits where you can perform for a certain period, but may include with whom, what, or how as well) as a performer?  Seeing the perceived benefit to the producer is pretty obvious, but can exclusivity ever benefit the performer?

In history, there are a couple obvious places to look- The “Golden Age of Hollywood” and “The Golden Age of Burlesque” are good places to start.  Let’s look first at Hollywood.  In the early years of film, performers were rarely identified/credited.  1910 saw the beginning of things like fan magazines, and the general public took an interest in following certain actors, which led to “The Star System” which ruled Hollywood from 1930-1960.  Here’s how the Star System worked:

Mary Pickford, one of the earliest movie “stars”

A studio (the four majors were Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO, and Columbia) would audition new faces.  They would then choose the ones they like best, and go on to create their image, plant publicity bombshells, and begin to market them as stars.  Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Rock Hudson are some great early examples.  Their likeness, wardrobes, interviews, and engagements, were controlled by the studios.  True, the performers’ needs were covered by an annual contract to do X amount of films per year, and expenses were provided- costumes, vocal coaches, choreographers, etc, by the studio.  In turn, the studios owned the stars and would tell them which pictures to make, and even whom to be seen on the arm of in public.  Eventually, lawsuits by Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis took the star system down and paved the way for film stars to be successful free agents.

So what did the “stars” of the studio system get?  They were picked up when they were “nobody”, hand-held through the process of becoming the “blonde bombshell” or “the ladies’ man”, etc. They had guaranteed work at a livable wage, their work expenses (costumes, coaches, cosmetics, etc.) were provided, and they had a salaried job with an employer.

The problem is, when it comes to burlesque, I don’t even see this happening as a tradeoff….. Here’s what I’ve found:

  1. Local Troupes insisting that you work only with them.
  2. Burlesque teachers thinking that their information is so proprietary they must protect it by having you only perform for them.
  3. Producers feeling their show has no or diminished value if their cast members book other shows within a certain period.
  4. Festivals wanting exclusivity when they either aren’t paying you, or paying very little.

The common factor in all of this is fear.  Producers/teachers/troupes are scared if you are available to perform in other places, suddenly their product/show has no/less value.  The solution?  Producers need to up the value.  If the only reason a patron is attending your show is because Susie Snicklebritches (Not meant to be a real name.  If it is- I apologize.) is headlining, then you need to up the value of your production.

In my opinion exclusivity clauses make sense when:

  1. Producer is paying your desired performance fee, lodging, and travel. Well, hell yes- what more could you ask for?  They want exclusivity?  Give it to them.
  2. Producer books you so often and for so much, all your bills are paid and you live well exclusively off of their production.

Not the case?  Did the above make you laugh?  Then quit signing exclusivity clauses!  Be the change you want to see in the burlesque industry.

In researching this article I talked to several legends.  (Thank you for taking time out to talk with me—Satan’s Angel, Dusty Summers, and Tiffany Carter!)  All of them confirmed that this was not the case back in the day.  There were usually no contracts, and when they were “They were and single page, not the 13 pages they are today.”, explained Ms. Summers.  

“Exclusivity?  No, there wasn’t any of that.  I mean, we had respect for one another, but nobody said you could only work for them.  I don’t know why any of these girls would do that unless there’s big money involved.  And I mean big.”

Satan’s Angel
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3 comments on “Exclusivity: It’ll Cost You

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