The Business of Burlesque: 10 Steps to Starting Your Burlesque Business
If you have been following the podcast, you know by now that I am a Business Consultant and Multi-preneur who specializes in making business after business grow, and quite frankly, exist. For me, business is a passion above an occupation and I approach just about everything in my life AS A BUSINESS.
When I started performing with Cabaret and Cocktails, I immediately convinced my fellow dancers that we weren’t just a side-gig, but a real, honest to goodness, business.
We approach Burlesque like a business.
For some people, this will be more of a mindset than an actual, tangible act, but I genuinely believe that this is THE MOST important thing you can do for your Burlesque career. Burlesque is not some frivolous hobby I do with the girls so I can get away from the mundane Monday to Friday and have an excuse to drink. This is not something I do just because it’s fun, though it is certainly that. We are professionals. We have regular rehearsals and we work hard, and in turn, we always deliver quality performances and content on and off the stage, we’re reliable and consistent in our business dealings, we fulfill our specific roles within the company, and we invest in our business the same way we would if we were running a clothing company (sometimes it feels that way), starting a marketing agency (OMG another Instagram post), or fundraising for a non-profit organization (you can buy us a drink through our Venmo @cabaretandcocktails).
Whether you are a full-time performer or, like me, have another job or career, the mindset you create for your Burlesque business will make a world of difference. I am a firm believer that if you are getting paid in any fashion, you need to make this venture official. Here’s how:
#1. Decide if this is a business.
Ok, so I just said to treat it like a business no matter what, which is true, but in the eyes of the Federal Government and the (gulp) law, if this is truly a business, you need the paperwork to confirm that.
- Do you currently perform for more than your immediate family members and friends?
- Do you get paid to perform?
- Do you want to perform more frequently or long to perform out-of-state?
- Do you have performances expenses like rhinestones, specialty make-up, or a sewing machine?
- Do you ever sign contracts with your venues?
- Do those venues require insurance?
If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, then chances are, you need to make it official and begin the journey into owning your own business. Do you absolutely need to form a business entity to start your business? No, but doing so can protect your personal assets and definitely unlocks some serious tax benefits. Whoop whoop!
#2. The Fun Part
So, you want to start your business…GREAT! There are lots of “fun” parts, but the first of these is naming yourself. Remember how fun it was to come up with your Burlesque persona? Well, you get to do it all over again with your new business.
Don’t think too hard if it doesn’t immediately come to you. You could name your business after your actual name (Jane Doe LLC, Jane Doe Business, Jane Doe Does Burlesque), or your stage name (Bourbon Layne Burlesque, Bourbon Layne LLC), or something completely random (Night Stalker Inc). But pick a name. You can add a stage name to that as a Doing Business As (DBA) or an umbrella corporation (whoa, calm down) later.
#3. Apply for a Federal Tax Employer Identification Number
Some people will put this step later, but I always start here. You’ll need this number to apply with your state for licenses and permits and to open a business bank account, etc. Your federal tax ID number is what’s known as the Employer Identification Number or EIN and it works much the same way your Social Security Number does. Except different.
Do you NEED it? No, technically not, but to quote the movie “Ghostbusters,” I don’t “cross the streams.” An FEIN is required if you have employees, are operating as a corporation, or are planning to use a tax-deferred pension plan (did I lose you yet?), but one of the biggest benefits is that it separates “you” from your “business.” The FEIN is kind of like a Social Security number for your business. If I need to supply W-9 information to a venue, I will use my business’ information and NOT my personal social security number.
Plus, it’s free and can be done online. So just go ahead and get one now. Apply for Employer Identification Number Online
If you get to the end of the application and it asks for a bunch of money, you probably clicked the wrong button, so go back and double check. It should be free. Also, even though it’s an online registration, it only works during business hours. Sigh. Get it together, Government!
#4. LLC, Corporation, or a Sole Proprietorship?
What the what? I’m not going to get into all the nuances of your options in this post, but if you’re just starting out, I generally recommend a limited liability company to my clients. Why? Well, because I’ve been sued before—not for Burlesque and btw I totally won—and an LLC protects owners from being personally responsible for business debts. A sole proprietorship does not.
What does that mean? I’ll give you an example:
You’re performing on stage and a rogue rhinestone flies into the audience and blinds an unsuspecting viewer. They decide to sue you and the theatre for gross negligence, physical damages, and emotional turmoil because they now have developed an intense fear of shiny objects. Laugh it up, but this isn’t far off from an ACTUAL suit I once suffered through. You get a terrible ruling from the judge (you should have known she would sympathize with that eye patch she wore, herself), and are now forced to offer up all the money in your accounts. If you are an LLC, that’s only the business account. If you’re a sole proprietor, that includes all your personal accounts, including your house.
See? Now, the chances of getting sued are pretty low, but for me, it’s worth the few extra bucks and paperwork for the peace of mind. Totally up to you. I would venture a guess that many performers are Sole Proprietors. If you’re still not sure, the U. S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has this super helpful guide on the different structures, including the pros and cons.
#5. Create Your Company, Legally
Whatever happened to, -‘Hey, I have some apples, would you like to buy them?’-‘Yes, thank you!’ That’s as complicated as it should be to open a business in this country. -Ron Swanson
This is usually where I really lose people. The IRS, GE taxes, and who the heck is the Comptroller? Why does it seem sooooo complicated? Don’t get me started!
Each state has a website dedicated to helping you start a business right from your computer. Google it! And companies like the Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) can also help you navigate. If you look at the exhausting list of forms to fill out and want to cry, you can also try companies like Legal Zoom or Inc File. These websites are the equivalent of using tax software—you answer a few questions and they do the rest. Yes, it costs money, but if you are struggling with the minefield that is our Government’s paperwork requirements, just stop and pay “the man” to do it!
#6. Register Your Business Name
You’ve decided on which business structure you’ll use, great! Now you need to officially register your business name. Don’t worry! All this paperwork can be part of your company paperwork and Articles of Organization, in fact, I recommend it. If you filed with a company like IncFile, they will do this for you, but there are a few different ways to make this happen:
- A DBA (Doing Business As): I always get this. It doesn’t do anything for you, legally, but some states and structures require it.
- A trademark: This one legally protects you at a federal level.
- An entity name: legally protects you at a state level.
- A domain name: You need this anyway! Proclaim your excellence on the web!
#7. Determine Your State Requirements
Every state is different, sometimes VERY different and each requires different paperwork. Don’t neglect this step because it can bite you in the rear! And “I didn’t know” won’t work with the government. Some states require separate state tax ID numbers, so you’ll want to visit your state’s website and check the local laws.
#8. Obtain Licenses and Permits
And just when you thought you were done, you’ll need to apply for business licenses and permits for your specific state (and federally), as well as for your specific industry. Depending on how you filled out the paperwork, perhaps you are an educator, or a performing artist, or a dancing troupe…all these different businesses have different rules. Sigh. The SBA can get you started with their list of common federal business licenses.
#9. Open Your Business Bank Accounts
Oh man, it’s coming together!!! Now that you have all this delicious paperwork from the feds and the state, you can head on over to your favorite bank and open a business bank account! Whoo! Look for accounts that offer no fees or minimums if possible. I recommend taking $100 with you to open the account (many institutions require at least this much, but check with yours). It’s also a good idea to check the bank website to make sure you have all the required paperwork in-hand before you show up at the branch.
“But I already have an account!” Well, it’s extremely important that you separate out business and personal, and this is the #1 easiest way to do that. #2? Open a business credit card! It doesn’t have to be specifically “business” on the front of the card, but it should have your business name on it and be used ONLY for business expenses.
#10. Get Insured
Ug, another thing to pay for, I know! If you’re anything like me, you hate paying insurance because you’re literally paying for the “what-if.” Some insurances are required by law, like disability (TDI) or Unemployment (UI) (only applicable if you intend to bring on employees, or make yourself one in an S-Corp). Some venues will require general liability insurance to perform in them (check with your venue). And some insurances are purely optional, and vary in importance. Three types you are most likely to need:
- General Professional liability insurance: This is the one I recommend the most as it’s kind of a catch-all for your business. It includes things like injury, medical issues, financial loss (can anyone say COVID?), and lawsuits. Make sure you read the fine print as many companies won’t insurance what they consider “exotic” dance. Oy vey!
- Commercial property insurance: If you have a physical location like a studio or a theatre (lucky, ducky), you’ll absolutely need this one! Vandalism, accidents, idiots, or natural disasters can all happen and you’ll want your business location protected.
- Event Insurance: Some events and venues require special insurance on a per-event basis. These ones are quick, easy, and super affordable.
- Product liability insurance: A little less of an issue unless you sell a lot of products, logowear, etc. It’s hard to imagine getting sued because you sold a defective pastie, but….
#11. (BONUS) The REALLY Fun Part
Don’t get discouraged! I know this list seems long and daunting, but in reality, all this can be accomplished in half an hour, assuming you have uninterrupted internet, and minus the trip to the bank. But once you do all that, you are officially a business owner joining the ranks of entrepreneurs everywhere! Now you can write-off all the car rides to the craft store, feathers and frocks, rhinestones and rigging, and even trips to BurlyCon! What!?!?
But moreover, taking your place in the business world does something to you, as long as you take it seriously. When you are a business owner, you command attention. You radiate something deep inside—maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s power, maybe it’s just YOU!
I’ve coached many new business owners and I often hear that they just don’t know how to run a business. I won’t lie, being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone, but I absolutely believe that if you have the passion, you can make it work. If you need help…hey, that’s what I’m here for! Feel free to shoot me a questions or comment!
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