Professionalism and free gigs

Lately I’ve been pondering on professionalism, or more precisely, my own professionalism as a performance poet. The reason I’ve been pondering on professionalism is that I’d like to get to a stage where I can say definitely that I am a professional. And I suppose the ultimate definition of professionalism is that I get paid to be a performance poet, and that it is sustainable and economically viable.
So the thing is that I’m quite lucky at the moment on two counts. The first is that I have a job, a nine to five job in retail management. So whether I’m professional as a poet or not, I’m still going to get paid. The second lucky thing is that I get paid to perform, in the most part. I also have books to sell and workshops, and I organise poetry events, and every now and then I get commissions which also pay. So in that sense I’m professional in that it’s slightly more than just a hobby.
However, I still do things which I’m sure a ‘professional’ wouldn’t. I find myself doing lots of free gigs, and these gigs will never be economically viable. It’s all very well doing a free gig if it’s for charity, giving up ones time for a good cause. But a lot of the major gigs I’ve done over the last year have been unpaid.
I live in a very silly part of the world. Paignton is nowhere near any major urban hub. There’s no culture here, so therefore there are no major poetry gigs. The last spoken word gig in Paignton was probably when the Epicentre Cafe held one of its wonderful Word Command nights, and that’s about four years ago. And then there was my book launch on the local book shop, but that’s about it. So if I’m going get paid for a gig, it would be Bristol or London at the nearest, and that means two or three hours on a train.
So every gig that I get paid for entails expense of travel and time, and actually getting there in the first place. I’m very fortunate to have had paid gigs all over the Uk and have made a bit of money doing so. But a lot of the gigs I’ve done have been unpaid.
So why do I do them? I was pondering this last night. What are the benefits? I suppose the major one is that I meet new people and get a chance to sell them books. I see other performers and o get inspired, and it’s always great to network and meet new and exciting people. And I can use my old material and see that it still works, or try out new pieces.
If I was making a living from poetry, then this would not be a viable means of making a living. Yet we need the free gigs so that people can see us. It’s advertising, and the best kind of advertising. That’s what I always tell myself.
So I’m happy to do the free gigs if they’re doable, but I have to choose them wisely. If every performer demanded payment then the gigs wouldn’t happen. If I were to leave my job and concentrate on my art full time, (something I’m considering at the moment), then I’d have to think very hard about such events.

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