What does it cost to hire top talent in fiber arts? I’m glad you asked.
#FairFiberWage and #FiberTeachersNeed are seeing some lively discussion on Twitter right now.
There have been a lot of conversations going around lately about what’s fair and reasonable in my line of work, which is “Fiber Arts Teacher.” What do I do? In brief, present hands-on workshops in how to spin yarn, weave, and assorted other yarn-related activities. I have also published extensively on the subject and am one of the most recognized names in the worldwide field.
People working in the fiber arts are often hesitant to talk about what they get paid, and the net result of that which I’m seeing is an increase in the rate at which some organizations are trying to push risk and the burden of expenses onto the instructors, or hope to get instructors to work for less than a living wage, or on terms that most people would define as exploitative.
There’s a lot of history and cultural baggage that is tied up in the question of what someone who does what I do is worth, or can get paid. I want to talk about those things, but there’s a lot to say and right now, I want to talk about what I need to make a living.
My baseline fee schedule for 2016 is $125USD/class hour, plus travel, meals, lodging, and there is a per-student materials fee for most classes. Each class hour usually means at least 2 prep hours, and time to develop a class ranges from 5 to 40 hours. This baseline fee nets out to $25–30USD an hour before taxes and not factoring in costs associated with simply being able to do the job.
I also reserve the right to quote a specific event or person a rate that differs from my baseline, for a variety of reasons. Most typically, I quote a reduced rate for individual reasons. I have never quoted a higher rate.
That $125 per class hour covers up to 20 students. Travel, hotel, and food expenses will vary, but I made a spreadsheet to show some of these calculations with expenses on the high side. All numbers shown are in US Dollars.
So here’s a ballpark for what it costs per student to bring in a teacher of my experience and reputation to teach a half day class at your fiber arts event:
In addition to these costs, though, an event will also have to pay for space, promoting the event, and is generally well-advised to compensate its organizers as well, because that’s also work. So I put in a few more numbers: $500 for a full day of space (figure a conference room at a hotel), and the cost of having organizers there, which I estimated at the same lodging and meals cost as a teacher, plus $125 a day for organizing work, whether that’s cash compensation or something else like taking classes. The organizer numbers are a little iffy, but I wanted to include a ballpark. For ease of figuring, I’m rolling advertising and web site hosting and that sort of thing in with the space costs.
This brings our total estimated cost to:
- half day: $2150 ($375 in teaching fees)
- full day: $2525 ($750 in teaching fees)
- 2 days: $4325 ($1500 in teaching fees)
- 3 days: $6125 ($2250 in teaching fees)
- 4 days: $7925 ($3000 in teaching fees)
- 5 days: $9725 ($3750 in teaching fees)
For only a half day class, the teacher’s actual earnings — because we really can’t call reimbursing the cost of travel, lodging and meals earnings — the teaching fees are about 17.5% of the cost of the class. For 3 days (a typical fiber event), teacher compensation is about 37% of the cost. For 5 days, teacher compensation is about 38.5%.
So, that’s right, folks — if you have an event with teaching talent that’s in the league I’m in, you should roughly ballpark that a 3 day event will cost $6125 per teacher you hire to teach all three days. So if you’re hiring 4 teachers, you’ll need to figure it will cost you about $25,000.
Obviously (I hope it’s obviously), your costs may vary depending on your space, your organizers and how they’re compensated for their work, how much hotels cost, and that sort of thing. But indeed, this reality does cause some sticker shock at times (and we’ll come back to that, plus cover it in another article). But for now, assume that at most a teacher is likely to take home 30–40% of the “ticket price” for your class.
So now we come to the question of pricing these classes. We’ll go back to that per student figure we came up with earlier, and include the organizing costs, and we get:
Events will typically set a minimum enrollment which, if it is not met, means the class gets cancelled. In a perfect world, you’d know that you will fill each class to 20, and so you could charge $107.50 per person. But in reality, you don’t know that each class will fill, so you probably set minimums which, if they’re not met with that level of enrollment, mean the class gets cancelled. You also count on your strongest draws filling their classes, and carrying some of the load of classes that don’t sell. So you ask yourself what you think the market will bear, and you compare that with your numbers needed to pay for the thing, and you probably price the class around $125–150 per student.
If your 4 teachers’ classes all fill 3 days worth of half-day classes to a capacity of 20 at $125 a student, you’ll take in $10,000 a day, or $30,000 over the entire event. That’s basically a 20% safety margin on some classes not filling fully, because if all your classes fill entirely, well, that would be a first as far as any fiber event I’ve heard of in the decade I’ve been doing this full time. At $150 a student, your safety margin goes up to $11,000 more than the $25,000 you need to break even on the event, and that means you can afford for more classes to not quite fill, as well as having some wiggle room financially if unexpected things come up (because they will).
So, okay. There’s obviously plenty of sticker shock in this. And there are some other wrinkles, too. One major one is that often, events in the fiber world are organized entirely by volunteers, who are indeed working very hard, and not being compensated — and who then may find themselves in the position of having to write a check for a few thousand dollars to someone who flew in the night before the event, did their thing, and left, while you’re stuck with the cleanup and postmortem. Ouch.
Then there’s the fact that some fiber events are run by not-for-profits, which may have a board of directors that is hands-off compared to (unpaid) volunteers, and those volunteers can find themselves trying to justify expenses that don’t seem logical to the board.
Another factor is the socioeconomic stuff wrapped up in gender. A lot of fiber guilds or groups started in the portion of the 20th century when it was less common for women to have significant cashflow of their own, like due to not having full-time jobs, for all kinds of reasons. This creates a disconnect between those who have time to invest in their interests, or money to invest in them. And everybody wants to be able to include everyone, so there are lots of pressures to keep costs down, which play out in the largely-female-populated fiber arts scene very differently from how I’ve seen them play out in other arenas that are either mostly populated by men, or more gender-neutral.
Add to that mix the fact that, for better or worse, women in the USA often struggle with the question of whether or not it’s even fair for them to ask to be paid for their time — and the extent to which we culturally tend to think it’s okay to ask women to just do this one little thing, and that other little thing, and so on.
There’s no doubt that men are also asked to work for free. I mean, ask a male mechanic if he’s ever asked to work on friends’ cars for free. The answer is going to be yes. A cultural difference, though, is that men often feel more able to say “Hell no, bring it to the shop and pay my going rate,” while women often feel they would be unreasonable if they said something like that. And even if women do, sad to say, many feel guilty about it.
Let’s complicate it even further by bringing in this dialogue, which will be familiar to everyone who works in the fiber arts scene:
“But I mean, this is my hobby. I’m doing it for enjoyment. You can’t really put a price on that.”
And that’s great, and indeed, I don’t put a price on my fiber activities that I’m doing for fun.
However, I have to be honest: I’m not teaching for fun. Yes, I enjoy my job — as do many people in many fields.
I like to compare this to enjoying sailing, vs. running a charter sailboat operation. Going sailing is something people may opt to do for leisure, because it’s fun. Cleaning a drunken customer’s barf out of the galley and paying to repair sails they tore is not, and neither is maintaining licenses, infrastructure, and doing all the paperwork.
I absolutely love teaching fiber arts. It’s incredibly meaningful to me in a million different ways. But it’s work. And work deserves compensation.
So here’s the thing: most people taking classes in the fiber arts assume — logically and reasonably — that when they pay a class fee, the teachers are being fairly compensated. I mean, it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t be the case. Especially when you’re talking about someone who has published extensively in their field, who has a large following, who is frequently referenced as a sterling authority on their subject.
But, alas, this is not universally the case. Indeed, it’s relatively rare for me to have a negotiation about a teaching appearance in which I’m not asked to do something that would be considered uncool and bizarre in most other fields, sometimes including other “creative” fields. This list can include things like being expected to share a hotel room with multiple total strangers, stay in a total stranger’s home with no access to your own transportation, sign contracts which may be marginally legal, go thousands of dollars out of your own pocket to show up and do the job and then hope you get paid months later, and above all, never speak of it lest you be seen as a problematic hire.
One event I recently declined to teach at wanted me to go over $5,000 out of pocket to teach four days of classes, while chiding me (and it turns out, other colleagues as well) for submitting proposals which, based on their requests for custom pricing which took a week to develop, would have allowed me the option to be confident I would cover those costs — not even go home with a paycheck to cover almost a month of work, just pay for my gas, hotel, food, and the materials I needed to buy well in advance of the event. This event declined to even come to the table and negotiate, despite a many-year working relationship in which my classes were typically not only full, but had waiting lists.
Some other proposed contracts I’ve seen going around lately are so overtly exploitative that I found myself in tears looking at a poster of my old bluesman mentor, A.C. Reed, for whom I worked right after college. “Don’t never sign away no rights to your shit if they record it and say they’ll give you a cut, because you ain’t gettin’ a gotdamn thing that way,” he told me. “Don’t let the man who talks a good game at the record label tell you he’ll write your shit up and make sure you get treated fair,” he said, talking about the time he watched the Howlin’ Wolf pull a gun on the man who stole the rights to one of the Wolf’s signature tunes. “Don’t be signing no contract you don’t understand without even asking no lawyer to look at that shit!” A.C. had a million hard rules learned from hard experience, from watching his colleagues die in abject poverty while a corporation made literal millions off their work, and dudes, I’m telling you, I didn’t go to Old Bluesman University so I could end up a middle-aged woman signing away all her rights in exchange for the keys to a Cadillac I ain’t even gonna own.
Especially not when what I stand to take home is, when all is said and done, around $25 an hour before taxes with no benefits, no regular pay, no unemployment insurance, no worker’s comp, and so on. “But A.C.,” I remember asking him, “what if taking that gig gets my foot in the door, helps me meet people who could do something for me, and that kind of thing?”
“Do what for you?” he asked. “The same shit they’re doing now because you’ll let them?” Sometimes, he said, there’s a gig you can’t afford to be taking, and the one you most can’t afford to be taking is the one that lets them beat you down and screw you harder in the future because they know you’ll take it.
“But then someone else will get that gig,” I remember saying. He laughed. “Girl, now you’re mad you ain’t gonna get a gig you were gonna have to pay to get? I thought college girls were supposed to be smart.”
A.C. was full of tough love, but the things he taught me have stood me in good stead in every career I’ve had since.
So, no — I’m not mad about not taking those gigs. But I am mad that their numbers are increasing over the past year or two, and that it’s hard for fiber professionals to come right out and talk openly about this stuff. So I’m really glad to see discussion start up on Twitter with the hashtag #FairFiberWage. If you’re a fiber professional or a fiber arts student, you might want to join in and see where it goes.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this, please click the little green heart to let me know, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, here or on Twitter.