Burlesque Critic as Burlesque Show Sponsor: Is It Ethical?


by J.D. Oxblood

Doc Wasabassco, hosting his 9th Anniversary show, made a joke about bribing the “press” in the front row. He quickly commented that the “press” members were from Burlesque Beat, and that they were sponsors of the show. And he asked, “Is that ethical?”

It’s a great question.

First, let me explain the “sponsorship.” I’ve been covering Doc Wasabassco’s shows since 2008.

Burlesque Beat has been covering his shows—positively, for the most part—since our inception. Doc Wasabassco was an early supporter of our publication and our mission. I distinctly remember running into him at the Bell House during the New York Burlesque Festival, days after our launch, and he said that he had read our Manifesto and that he was on board, 100%. He was diggin’ our chili, he smelled what we were steppin’ in. So Doc started bringing us onboard as a “sponsor.” I put that in quotes because we never actually gave him any money. We plugged and promoted him, he put our name on stuff—like the holiday show (that had me onstage introducing a couple of acts) and last year’s anniversary show. And this year, with Vice Merchants, we hosted a private afterparty for Doc’s performers and supporters, an “Agents of Wasabassco” shindig, and again, Doc put our names on his show as a sponsor.

How’s that for fucking transparency?

Still, the question: is it ETHICAL? To be both press and sponsor?

Well, let’s talk about “press.”

You must have noticed the global shift in what counts as “press.” Even five years ago, a blogger was the kind of creepy-crawly you’d find by lifting a rock. Now, any dumb blog post can get picked up by the Huffington Post and suddenly it’s “news.” There’s “mainstream media” and everything else.

So is Burlesque Beat “press”? Yes. We offer third-party viewpoints on all things burlesque. We are not funded by any performers or producers. As a matter of fact, we are still some 90% funded by yours truly, the other 10% coming from the occasional ad. The co-sponsorships we’ve been lucky to find in the last year paid for specific events that we then poured time and energy into pulling off.

SO IS IT ETHICAL?

Yes and No.

No, for two reasons:

One: If we claim to be an impartial witness of all things burlesque, we should not allow ourselves to sponsor a show. It’s fine to recommend one show over another, but “sponsorship” connotes material participation, even if that’s not really happening.

Two: If we are a sponsor of Doc’s Anniversary Show, I shouldn’t cover it. I shouldn’t say anything critical of it—because that’s a dick move to Doc—and I shouldn’t praise it, because that’s essentially self-promotion, since I backed it.

Yes, for two reasons:

One: There is a well-set precedent for publications acting as a “media sponsor” (see Voice + NYBF and a zillion other examples.) I’m going to skip this because it’s just not interesting.

Two: We are the only dedicated press you have.

I’ll keep saying this until people listen or I get bored with burlesque (is that possible??) and start making bank off one of my other hobbies. We are the only dedicated press you have. (By “we” I mean Burlesque Beat and 21st Century Burlesque, and a few others like Seattle Press, etc.—it’s a small fucking list.) Sure, the burlesque world gets the occasional photo gallery in Time Out New York. You get stuff listed as a Critics’ Pick. Once a year you get a real push: the “burlesque is back” piece in the New York Times, or something awesome in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella.

But you don’t have a listing section in TONY or the Voice—you know, a section that lists your events, like a real art form: dance, theatre, art, music, film. You don’t have a dedicated listing section in any paper in any city in the world. [Note: PLEASE write in with any evidence that proves this untrue. If there is a dedicated listing section somewhere in the world in the form of traditional media,  would love to know about it and happy to link to it—ED.] You don’t have regular reviews in any mainstream media. The general audience has no source of reliable information to find the better burlesque shows—unlike a film buff, who has millions of sources at his disposal.

Even someone like me, who writes regularly about burlesque, has to be careful. I shy away from the term “critique” because many burlesquers can’t handle it, especially in the first five years of their careers. The comments on my website (“why didn’t you write about so-and-so?”) confirm it. The people I do criticize—take it as a given that I know said person, and I know s/he is open to it. I get a giant fucking erection when I see shit like the article Trixie Little wrote about Burlesque Hall of Fame 2013.

So, one more time for the cheap seats: Most people don’t know that burlesque exists at all. Sure, everyone YOU know knows about burlesque—but they know YOU. The truth is, most people have no idea. Because it’s not in the press. It’s not in front of them. It might be in the Zeitgeist influencing their car commercials (see the ad here), but they see that as retro. They don’t know about burlesque, because nobody’s telling them. And until that changes, burlesque will always be slightly out of sight, practiced by people who have to hold down a second job and make their own costumes.

SO IS IT ETHICAL? FOR ME TO BE A “BURLESQUE JOURNALIST” AND ALSO SPONSOR SHOWS?

Probably not. But I make negative dollars doing this. And it’s my website. (Mine and my wife’s, and believe me, she’s the nice one.) So until further notice—until there’s a paycheck, until there’s some serious competition, until I’m ridden out of town on a rail—I’ll keep doing what I do.

And Doc Wasabassco? Basically, I really like his shows, and I really like promoting them. And I’ll feel free to comment on the shit that I don’t like about them. Because I know he can take it.

JDX
Editor-in-Tease
Burlesque Beat

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  • Lady Aye

    Per your statement — Even someone like me, who writes regularly about burlesque, has to be careful. I shy away from the term “critique” because many burlesquers can’t handle it, especially in the first five years of their careers.”

    Putting aside the conflict of interest, I’m interested in the idea that in even such a small profession there’s no room for “critique.” No one holds back, from say equivalent-level stand ups, from even their first night. I’m interested in why burlesque gave itself a pass and if that’s doing anyone a favor. (That’s not a critique of your critique, it’s a genuine question on the industry as a whole.)

  • Franco Milazzo

    If anything, the situation in the UK has worsened over the year. While Time Out NY still flies the flag for burlesque, cabaret and vaudeville, Time Out London have let their cabaret section and Cabaret Editor Ben Walters go. Cabaret listings will now be in “appropriate” sections. Quite where burlesque fits into the remaining TO categories that is anyone’s guess. Theatre? Clubbing? Comedy?

    [Aside: your readers probably know but, in the UK, the term “cabaret” includes burlesque, circus, musical comedy, songbook, drag and all aspects of vaudeville. Unless, of course, you’re the artistic director of the London Festival of Cabaret. But that’s a story for another rainy day.]

    As the editor-i-c of the sole remaining website covering the variety scene in the UK in any great depth, I should be ecstatic in so many ways but I’m deeply saddened that Time Out’s decision will make it that much harder for cabaret shows with minimal marketing budgets (e.g. most of them) to reach a wide enough audience to break even. If there was a cheap and easy way to do listings, I would do so on my site in a flash. Smaller audiences could eventually mean that innovation goes out the window and only the cautious and the mainstream survive. Things will get worse here before they get better.

    As for the ethics issue: yeah, difficult one. I’m not sure I completely agree with your approach but there is no perfect one. Ask me more over a pint of beer.

  • Dangrrr

    Time Out NY does now have a Burlesque specific section in its magazine, at the back 🙂 Also, I’m just going to put my ass out there and say I think criticism in burlesque is necessary and important to our evolution and lifespan! The more aware we are of ourselves, the better we will strive to be!

    • Thanks for sharing Dangrrr! It’s awesome that TONY has a page dedicated to burlesque listings. TONY was an early champion of listing burlesque events (thank you Bruce, Raven!) I love the ongoing broader conversation about the pros and cons of ‘mainstream’ or ‘uptown’ burlesque. On the one hand it was always somewhat alternative – even in the good old days. How many legends have we heard talking about hiding what they did from their families… its encouraging that TONY actually took it upon itself to add a page just for burlesque while old kings like the Voice have essentially dropped everyone who was left who made that paper interesting. Thanks again, and I always look forward to seeing you put your fine ass out there. I love your work.

    • J.D. Oxblood

      Thanks for straightening me out Dangrrr.