To Fee or Not To Fee. That is the Question


Should you ever give away your services (or products) for free?

This has been an on-going discussion in the speaking community. And recently I found that the same debate is taking place in the magic community. There are some of my speaking colleagues who are adamant that no one should ever give a speech where they don’t get paid. “Always a fee; never free” is their mantra. And there are quite a few magicians who are up in arms about a program called “The Magic Castle at Sea” where magicians agree to perform on cruise ships for no fee in exchange for a free trip.

It's inevitable that new entrants will dethrone the old kings. Markets change, we have to change with them.

What’s all the hooha about speaking for free? One concern is that if you do unpaid or low fee speeches, you will be labeled as such, making it harder for you to get full-fee speeches in the future. Personally I think this concern has been blown way out of proportion.

I make my living getting paid to speak. And yet I will, from time-to-time, work for no fee or at a reduced fee. This is always a strategic decision, and I turn down low paid/unpaid requests when they don’t meet my criteria (e.g., a good marketing opportunity, a good charity, highly desirable destination etc). However accepting these lower fee gigs has not branded me as a low-fee speaker and has not impacted my ability to get my full fee.

However, there is a bigger and trickier issue I want to address. One that is not about the individual, but rather the industry as a whole. This is the issue that ruffles the most feathers.

The belief is that if a speaker/magician/artist performs for free, they rob others the chance to be paid. Or if performers are willing to work for pennies on the dollar it devalues the market making it harder for everyone else to get their regular fee.

I believe that this is true to some degree.

I compete on a regular basis against people who charge less than I do. In fact, in my world of innovation, I am sometimes competing against the innovation vendors (e.g., innovation software providers, innovation consulting firms, etc.) who are not only willing to speak for free, they are willing to pay the event organizers tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor their speaking slot.

Competition is tough and it is getting tougher.

However, I am not one of the people complaining about the competition or pricing pressures.

I recognize that this is a reality of any free market. Markets change. What was valued yesterday may not be valued tomorrow.

Blackberry is probably upset that Apple introduced a smart phone that killed their market. But that’s a fact of life. Blackberry didn’t change when the expectations of the buyers shifted.

Taxi drivers are clearly upset that Uber charges less per ride and is eroding their monopoly. But it is inevitable that new entrants will dethrone the old kings. Getting regulators to shut down Uber is not the long-term solution. Just as hoping others will stop speaking for free is not a reasonable expectation.

Markets change, and we have to change with them.

Pricing issues are not the only concern. Technological shifts are also raising a concern for many in my industry.

Collaborative technologies have the potential to reduce the number of face-to-face meetings, reducing the need for speakers and entertainers. And there are some who believe that YouTube could kill the speaking industry. Their belief is that if you can get the entire speech for free online, why hire a speaker?

Technology will force every industry to adapt.

Speakers who give the same speech over and over with little interactivity should view YouTube as a threat. But for those of us who create a full-body experience for our audiences, we know that YouTube will never replace us. In fact, if used correctly it will generate more demand for our work.

Stop your whining and start innovating!

Pricing pressures, technological advances, demographic changes (e.g., Millenials), economic downturns, and other market shifts will continue to impact every company in every industry. Although I am using performance arts as an example, my point applies to everyone. Pricing models are changing in every industry.

The way I look at it, these pressures force me to up my game. If the traditional keynote speech becomes a commodity, I need to create new ways of delivering value. I need to think beyond the speech and ensure that I provide long-lasting results.

Am I concerned that other speakers are reducing their fees? Am I worried that new technologies may make my bread and butter business less relevant? Of course I am. Business would be so much easier if things never changed. But that is unrealistic, and potentially undesirable. I love innovation. I have dedicated my life to innovation. And I am a believer that innovation is the key to staying relevant and desired when competition heat up.

So stop your whining and start innovating!


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