The Fuss about Fees: Finding a Solution Begins with Understanding What is – and is not – Causing the Problem

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Performer fees are perhaps the most contentious topic in the air show business today, so polarizing and rancorous that large segments of the air show community simply refuse to talk about it. During the last decade, a tendency has developed among those who are impacted by this debate to position it in black and white terms: good vs. bad, professional vs. amateur, progressive vs. traditional. But it’s an issue that defies simplification. Opinions vary widely based on perspective and understanding those perspectives is critical to making forward progress on real solutions to the actual problems.  

The status quo appears straightforward. Most performers who don’t have a sponsor believe that all performers should charge a fee. Operating a warbird or sport aerobatic plane can be an expensive venture.  In addition to the expense of the aircraft itself, the increased costs of fuel and escalating insurance rates make it difficult for a performer to make a profit if he doesn’t charge at least several thousand dollars for a weekend performance. 

At the other extreme, several of the fully sponsored acts believe that their first obligation is to their sponsor. These performers say that, if that commitment to their sponsors sometimes requires a sponsored performer to waive his fee to perform at a venue where the sponsor wants to have a presence, then that is a business decision between the performer, the sponsor and the organizer. 

But it isn’t that simple.  

Non-sponsored performers who must charge a fee believe that they are at a disadvantage when forced to compete against sponsored performers who don’t charge a fee.  These non-sponsored acts are also competing against other non-sponsored acts that don’t charge a fee because their financial circumstances don’t require it or because they are just getting started and don’t feel that they are in a position yet to charge a fee. 

Now, throw in the people who do the hiring. Organizers say that their first obligation is to provide safe, quality entertainment and ensure that the show stays on solid financial footing. For them, how much they pay performers is secondary to other considerations, including the performer’s safety and reliability and the show’s overall mix of acts. 

And not every show has a large enough crowd or is in the right market to attract sponsored performers. Often, the shows that are in the best position to afford paying all of their performers are also the shows that are most attractive to sponsored performers. Moreover, though it may sometimes seem like it to performers working hard to get hired, there are few shows that use only sponsored acts. And the shows with smaller budgets that would benefit most from being able to eliminate some of the performer fees are often too small to be of interest to the sponsored performers.   

Some say that the current situation puts sponsored performers at odds with the non-sponsored performers trying to earn a fair wage. Others believe that the current system pits air shows with smaller crowds against shows with large crowds. 

For all those reasons and many more, air show professionals often have a difficult time being objective when making an analysis of what is best for the industry on issues related to performer fees.  But, for those who can separate themselves from their self-interest to consider the larger picture, it’s clear that there is no right or wrong answer. There are simply different perspectives.  

In fact, there are at least six distinct perspectives: the full-time air show performer; the part-time or occasional performer; the sponsored performer; the military event organizer; the large show event organizer; and the small/medium event organizer. Their perspectives on the difficult issues related to performer fees are directly tied to the impact that these issues have on their business. More importantly, understanding the perspectives of all the stakeholders in this issue should help everyone understand why this issue is so difficult to boil down to simple questions of right and wrong or good vs. bad. 

Let’s first consider the position of the performer who wants to charge a fee that allows him to make something like a living in the business. When they are able, they fly 15-20 shows per year. This group includes some of our industry’s most talented and well-known performers. 

For solo performers, fees range from $5,000 to $10,000. In most cases, they have spent many years and many thousands of dollars to hone their skills and develop an entertaining performance sequence. 

And yet many of our industry’s most experienced and talented performers are finding it difficult to book even a fraction of the shows that they booked just a few years ago. They often resent the fact that the first questions that they are often asked by event organizers are, “Are you sponsored?” and “Can you fly for free?”  

From their perspective, they are the victims of a perverse game of bait and switch. They built their businesses on the assumption that they could develop a good act and then get paid fairly to perform that act. Then the rules changed and they became unable to book even a fraction of the number of shows that they expected. They are frustrated and often disappointed in this new direction that the air show business has taken.  

They blame the sponsored performers who don’t charge a fee, the part-time performers who charge such a small fee that the full-time professionals cannot compete, and the event organizers who, from their perspective, seem too eager to avoid paying fees to performers.  

Theirs is a perspective that is hard to argue with. And few who hear an explanation of their plight can disagree that they have become victims of circumstances that they did nothing to create. 

Part-time performers who charge a nominal fee at all have been under scrutiny recently. Some fly just one or two shows per year.  They make no claim to being future Air Show Hall of Fame inductees. They are doctors and lawyers, real estate developers and trust babies who have become proficient aerobatic pilots and like to participate in a couple of shows each year. Or they are pilots who have invested time, money and emotion in a vintage warbird and like to occasionally share this flying bit of history with aviation enthusiasts. 

If they charge no fee or a very low fee, it’s because they have no expectations that their work as performers will put bread on the table. They are something more than hobbyists and something less than full-time professionals. They are safe, moderately entertaining and eager to be a part of the air show business. And they are – by far – the most numerous category of air show performers in North America today. An unscientific analysis of statement of aerobatic competency card holds suggests that as many as 250 fall into this category of air show pilot. 

To the full-time performers struggling to book shows, these part-time performers are sometimes referred to as “hobbyists” or “amateurs.” They may be ridiculed as having limited aerobatic skills. They are dismissed and derided for charging fees that don’t allow them to break even because they don’t make their living in the air show business and have no need to make a profit. 

From the perspective of many event organizers, however, they are a godsend. They provide moderately entertaining aerial acts at prices that make it possible for financially-challenged air shows to make it one more year. Or, when the budget only allows for two or three headliner-type civilian acts, they provide the late morning and early afternoon entertainment that spectators expect to see when they arrive early to the show site. 

And the part-time performers themselves just want to perform and they know that they have to price their acts competitively. Who has the right, they argue, to say that they should be obligated to accommodate the interests of others by charging a fee that might, then, make them unable to perform at air shows? Once again, this is a perspective that is difficult to argue against.  

For many in the industry, sponsored performers are all lumped together as though they were a homogenous group. In fact, no two sponsored performers run their businesses alike. There are sponsored performers who never charge. There are sponsored performers who charge a reduced fee. There are performers who are not sponsored, but pretend to have a sponsor so they can perform without charging a fee and not feel guilty. There are sponsored performers who say they charge a fee to avoid angering colleagues, but don’t charge a fee. There are performers who charge a fee, but then give back most of that fee by buying advertisements or hospitality chalets from the show. And there are many performers who – though they don’t consider themselves to be sponsored performers — fly free at one or two shows to meet obligations to in-kind sponsors, but charge a fee at most shows. 

For the non-sponsored performers trying to book air shows, the sponsored performers are bad news. From their perspective, the sponsored performers have contorted the time-tested economics of air shows. If they would just charge a fee, they argue, the industry could return to the way things used to be.   

But the sponsored performers have changed the traditional model. They see shows not as a paycheck, but as an opportunity to broadcast their sponsor’s marketing message. For them, the air show is a means to a different end. If it sometimes seems like they are operating their businesses by different rules, it is because they are. For them, the fee that they might charge a show is insignificant in comparison to their need to get their sponsor’s message in front large crowds in the right markets. If that means that they need do not charge a fee to perform, that is not just something that they are willing to do; it’s something that they feel obligated to do to meet the needs of their sponsors. 

Most of these sponsored performers recognize the impact that their new model is having on their colleagues. These sponsored performers see their business model as the future of the air show business and an important source of new revenue. Although not intended to hurt non-sponsored performers, most sponsored performers recognize this as an unfortunate, but unavoidable side effect of this new model.  

Recognizing that it is largely beside the point, but eager to make it clear that they are not trying to price non-sponsored performers out of the business, these sponsored performers also point out that, though they do not charge a fee, they are anything but free. They come with a long list of logistic requirements – hotel rooms,  cars, fuel, chalet space – that go beyond what most performers require. And those logistical needs usually come at a cost to the event organizer.   

Sponsored performers wonder why non-sponsored performers think they can expect sponsored performers to operate by a set of rules that they did not agree to abide by and which have very little to do with how they have chosen to run their businesses. Considered from a 35,000 foot altitude, this is a difficult position to argue with. 

The real decision makers in all of this are the organizers. And the factors that influence a show’s hiring decisions have changed considerably during the last fifteen years.  

There are basically three different types of event organizers: military shows, large civilian shows and medium/small civilian shows.  

Not long ago, military air shows hosted military performers. Period. But military leadership came to realize that, to get the public to the base, open houses had to become entertainment events and civilian performers were an outstanding source of aviation entertainment.   

But the hiring process for civilian performers at military shows has never been easy. To make a long story short, military organizers have no trouble at all hosting military performers. Civilian performers who will fly for free present some challenges, but only minimal. And, depending on the circumstances, pilots who charge a fee can present challenges. Moreover, military organizers have limited tools for generating additional revenue to pay for acts that charge a fee.  

And so, the individuals making hiring decisions at military shows are attracted to the acts that don’t charge a fee…whether that’s a sponsored act or a part-time performer. That’s not to say that the military show CANNOT pay a fee. But that particular pile of money is limited and subject to many restrictions.  With few exceptions, they wish that hiring civilian performers for a military show was not so complicated. And they wish that they had a larger performer budget or increased capacity to raise revenue to spend on civilian performers. But, right now, that’s not how military shows in North America are operated. 

Civilian air show organizers say this. “First, we welcome any opportunity we can find to reduce costs. Our first obligation is to the show, its survival and its profitability. Secondly, we have something of value besides money to offer to some performers. We have an audience of many thousands of people.  For a performer with a sponsor that wants to project its marketing message to current and prospective customers, our audience has value.  We believe that it is appropriate to pay cash to our performers sometimes, but to trade their performance for access to our crowd on other occasions. Thirdly, the event organizer is saddled with all of the risk and, therefore, must take whatever steps are necessary to minimize that risk. Finally, and there is no polite way to say this, our business relationship is between our show and those performers. We’re not oblivious to the impact our decisions have on the rest of the industry, but those decisions are, nonetheless, ours to make.” 

For the large event organizers, the value and attractiveness of their crowds is attractive to sponsored performers. So, though they may have the financial wherewithal to pay the performance fee of most any civilian performer, they now recognize that they may not have to spend that money because there are sometimes performers who consider access to their crowd valuable enough to waive their fee. 

Pundits might argue that this approach limits the variety of performers that the shows can attract; most sponsored performers are solo sport aerobatic pilots. And organizers with shows large enough to attract these sponsored performers are generally willing to acknowledge this. They either depend on military performers to provide that variety or they use cash to hire one or two unsponsored civilian performers to supplement the military and sponsored civilian performers. 

Considered from their perspective, it’s a reasonable position to take. The events are entertaining…or at least entertaining enough. Expenses are cut. Profitability is improved. If their first allegiance is to their show’s health and continued operation, how can it be a mistake to make extensive use of sponsored acts that don’t charge a fee? 

Smaller civilian shows often find themselves caught in a difficult spot. They would like to host sponsored performers who don’t charge a fee, but their audiences are not large enough to attract that kind of corporate attention. So, they depend on the full-time non-sponsored performers and the part-time performers who charge more affordable fees or no fees at all. Typically, these shows struggle to make a limited performer budget go as far as it can.  Putting together a program of entertaining air show acts can sometimes be difficult when wrestling with immovable financial limitations.  

Consequently, they spend where they can and look for bargains to offset the high ticket items. They often stretch themselves on their performer budget to provide the best line-up that they can, but they must measure those decisions against the possibility of less-than-expected sponsorship revenue, bad weather or some other combination of factors that might keep them from hitting their revenue projections. If they seem determined to get every possible price concession from their performers that they can, it’s often because they believe that the future of their event depends on getting as much bang as possible for their limited buck.  And preserving the health and continued operation of small and medium civilian air shows – the heart of our business — is something that the entire industry can support. 

So, opinions on all of this differ based on perspective. But if the complicated nature of the performer fee issue defy efforts to oversimplify, that does not change the fact that there is a problem. This fee controversy impacts not only the current group of full-time, non-sponsored performers; it also effects the attractiveness of our business to prospective new performers, the long-term entertainment value of the product we place in front of the public, and the continued attractiveness of our business to prospective sponsors.  

Still, the search for solutions will be helped if we acknowledge, as an industry, that the problems we are facing are both more complicated and harder to solve than we might initially believe. In addition to being unproductive, placing blame and pointing fingers at imaginary bad guys tends to keep us from the difficult business of identifying real solutions…solutions that will require our joint and concerted efforts to identify and implement.

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John Cudahy
John Cudahy, ICAS President. | John Cudahy first joined ICAS as the organization's president in June of 1997. He has worked his entire 36-year professional career in association management, including more than two decades as the chief executive officer of ICAS. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Cudahy holds a private pilot certificate and is married with two adult children.