Artist Management & Investing For The Future: Interview with Ray Benson
For over 27 years, Ray Benson has acted as manager to his wife, Disney Legend voice of “Ariel”, The Little Mermaid, “Barbie” from Toy Story and Tony nominated Broadway actress Jodi Benson. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Ray Benson has performed on Broadway and on international and national tours before he became a full time manager.
Ray joins TheatreArtLife to share advice on successful negotiation strategies, finding a great manager who works for you, and investing for the future along with a look back at his own Broadway career and building his collection of Outsider Art.
TheatreArtLife: How did your role develop from being a full-time performer to taking on manager responsibilities for both your career and your wife, Jodi Benson who is the voice of “Ariel” from The Little Mermaid?
Ray Benson: I had negotiated a couple contracts when I was cast in principal roles in New York and took over that kind of role from agents. I just tried to see what the costs were from Equity standard contracts point of view and then if I thought the role was worth a bit more then I would try it out. A couple times, I did ok with those negotiations.
I would say that I really broke into management in 1991. Jodi and I had moved to Los Angeles and she got a call to audition for Crazy For You, that was coming to Broadway. At first, she turned it down because she wanted to stay in LA. The more she said no, the more interesting it was for the producers to have her to audition.
The producers had seen over 500 women over the course of months in New York and LA and finally, Jodi decided to audition. Before she even got home from the audition, she was offered the leading role of “Polly Baker”. At that time, she had a manager and agent but over the course of six weeks, they kept screwing up the deal.
The choreographer of the show, Susan Stroman, ended up calling us and said, “Jodi, I think that the producers are ready to move on and they feel like you have had enough time to make a decision.” Jodi was a little troubled over what to do and came to me to ask what I thought she should do. Then she asked if I would consider taking over the role of manager for the negotiations.
I considered it, prayed about it and then decided to take over. The next day, I said yes and that I would be happy to try it out. I also felt that we needed to release her manager and agent because I didn’t think they had served her well.
Over a 24-hour period, I was able to negotiate a settlement with the agent and her manager as well as negotiate her contract for Crazy For You. Having everything signed, sealed, and delivered in 24 hours when it had taken her previous team over six weeks, I really felt like that was a God thing. I also think it was God allowing us to come together in a healthier relationship together as a couple.
That’s where it started so I negotiated that first year and then when it was time to renew, I was able to set a price that was twice what Jodi was making in the first year. I had at least five or six conversations with the representative of the producers who tried to de-value Jodi’s work and worth on the production. I understand that he was trying to save every dollar that he could but I saw it differently. It had a great year and if they weren’t willing to make it work for the second year, we were willing to return to LA. In the end, our requests were met and Jodi continued in the show for another year and a half, two and a half years in total.
It sounds like your transition into manager was happenstance and more of a trial and error/ “go for it” type of event. Did you ever take any classes or seek advice from other people?
I would definitely ask questions of other people and find out how they were managed by management and then some was trial and error, some of it error (he laughs).
You learn from mistakes and learn skills from negotiators, read about it and then decide that the goal is to make it a win-win. They are getting great value and you want to feel good about what you are doing. Then you can be totally fine with a particular salary. Through the course of the years, you win some and you lose some. You try to win more than you lose. I think you have to recognize that sometimes, you are not willing to walk away from a job because you really want to do it and you think it will be good for your career or you need the money – a variety of different things. You have to realize though, that it may not work out and you have to be willing to walk away from the deal.
There are times with certain projects that you hope you can set a desired target but at the same time not lose the job. That’s kind of where you have to find the balance or sometimes, you come back and reconsider that you have to give and take in some places. You give at certain times with the hope that it will come back and you will be rewarded in the future.
You are one of the most impressive negotiators in the business, how did you learn this skill?
I try to be very specific and people do not necessarily work with specifics. I like to dot my i’s and cross my t’s and I sometimes blow it. I will miss something from time to time but out of 200 emails going around and around, I just try to keep it all simplified. That just seems to work. I like to make situations win-win. If it just doesn’t look like those needs can be met or I can’t supply that need, then I have to walk away. I think in the negotiation process you have to be willing to walk away from something and that’s what a lot of people fear. They say, “oh gosh, if I do that or I don’t know, I can’t afford to lose the job…” You know, if you can’t afford to lose the job, then you are not operating from a point of strength, you are having to be dependent on what they offer you.
A lot of times jobs are like stepping stones as well. You might say, “I think I can learn from that and then that will help me advance to doing something in my gift set that I want to do in the future.”
You know at this point in time, for us, we are thankful that we have some things to fall back on so we aren’t at the mercy of having to say yes to every job that comes to us. That’s certainly a blessing, but at the same time we say yes to some jobs not based on the fee but because it helps our relationships. To say no sometimes doesn’t benefit you so you have to look at the big picture, and look at the other benefits over the fee. Sometimes you say yes because it’s politically correct when it’s a wonderful opportunity and there are benefits for the future.
How do you identify other benefits to negotiate if the gig you are negotiating cannot offer you what you want from a fee perspective? How do you enter those into the negotiation?
Everything has a dollar value outside of your fee. You might also consider flights, hotels, food, comp tickets, etc. Any perk has a dollar value and everyone has a budget. You have to keep in mind that you could break the bank with a salary, but you could also break the bank with all the incidentals. Some producers may have in-kind gifts coming in from sponsors, so I might try to work in those angles. If they do not have the cash for the fee but they may have some other avenues, I might encourage them to get sponsorship. They could get publicity or something like that to the budget, as opposed to them thinking that we don’t have it.
I try to work from different angles because again, I want everyone to succeed and win. Sometimes that works out and sometimes I have to get creative with different angles so that no one has to walk away.
Would you share how to identify if your manager is truly working for you and not for themselves?
I think you need to have a game plan with your manager and have a vision in mind as to where you want to see yourself going. If the manager and/or agent is on the same page, you will know, as opposed to them just booking you in a buffet type of career saying things like, “this came up so what about this?”, or “that didn’t work so how about this?”, with no end goal in mind.
In managing Jodi, the idea is to not to have to take every job. Some of the jobs that we did, we were good stewards with the money, so that there could be a day when we could say no and be ok. It wouldn’t be a bad reflection on our careers or that we wouldn’t be called again.
We have grown up in a business where you think your last job is your last job, until you get your next job. It’s important to just have a vision of where you want to go, as opposed to working just to be working.
A lot of times, work begets work and connections are made. We have known people who were in the ensembles of shows in which we held lead roles, that now own Broadway, from director or choreographer standpoint. You just never know who you are going to get connected with. Sometimes working to do a role just to be working and staying fit both physically, mentally, spiritually and relationally is sometimes a good deal.
If you can see yourself on Broadway and you would like to do it, then you need to go for it because you don’t want to have regrets. You don’t want to wish that you had done something. A lot of times, people will think that they can only see themselves on Broadway but sometimes they just don’t get the nod or maybe they aren’t as talented as they think they are or they get lost in having to earn money in another field and get away from their vision and dreams.
You have to have a laser focus of what you would like to do and you have to go for it. If you don’t think you can then you are probably right.
Getting back to your original question, management needs to be on the same page as you and sometimes they will have good stewardship. You are hiring them for the purpose of stewarding your career as well as helping you make decisions when you aren’t sure what to do. It’s important to build a good relationship where trust is involved and make it not just about the money.
Performers, directors, choreographers – the artistic side of entertainment may have someone negotiating on their behalf but a large part of the industry does not have this. Can you explain the steps of negotiating a great deal or package for an individual without representation? How do you navigate pushing just enough but not too far in that situation?
I am not quite sure how to answer from a non-performing side unless there is a division of management to be able to do that. If they don’t have a manager, many working industry professionals might be part of an organization that may have negotiated contracts at this time, like unions. There is not going to be a way to be paid less than what is negotiated by the union. Actor’s Equity gives us a specific scale for jobs with minimums and it doesn’t mean that you can’t exceed that.
One time, I was in the chorus of the show and was asked to understudy. I was fine with saying no to the understudy offer and just do my role with the show, so I set a price. The producers came back to me and asked how I came up with the price and I said, I think that is what it is worth to spend one extra day a week in an understudy rehearsal plus always be on guard to go on stage. Like anything else, you have to look at the return on investment. That is what it was worth to me. That fee was what it was worth to be “on the edge” ready to go onstage at short notice. Fortunately, the producers did want to see me in the role so they did offer to meet my fee request.
As far as other industry roles, you have to decide what you’re worth. If you make less than that, you won’t feel good about showing up and doing your job and you won’t be happy. You need to do your job with integrity and with a great attitude, anything less is unacceptable.
When you are asked for your salary requirements during an interview, it can be stressful because often people fear that their number might be too high to too low. Do you have any advice on how to get the employer to present their salary range for a position before having to give your personal range or number?
One thing that you can do is return their question with a question back. You could say, “I have a potential number in mind for my life and experience and you probably have a range of payment in mind. Why don’t you tell me your range of payment and I can tell you if that is close to my idea?”
You must do the research before entering an interview situation and decide what you are worth.
Here is an example: A pastor posed a question to his church by asking several different people, “what would it take for you to be happy?”
Pastor to person 1: You make $20,000 a year, what would it take for you to feel rich?
The person answers: If I could make $25, 000, I would feel rich.
Pastor to person 2: You make $60,000 a year, what would it take for you to feel rich? and the person answers: If I could make $80,000, I would feel rich.
The pastor kept going and then finally on the last person, he said, you make $5 million dollars a year, what would it take for you to feel rich? The person said, if I could make $10 million dollars, I would feel rich.
So, it’s all in relation to what people think would make them feel rich. Rich is a state of mind and current economic conditions, so if you feel like you could do the job and you would enjoy making $70,000 but they only offer you $50,000, you have to make a decision. If you take the job, then you are going to be a little grumpy from the standpoint of having to suck it up for lower pay than you wanted. If you do a great job and you’ve made yourself indispensable and you are great at what you do, you may be worth $100K the next time. You never know what they’re thinking.
You have to do your due diligence, and research what other people in that role/job are making in a range of companies. If you can create a salary understanding, then you can create an average rate for the industry and then negotiate from a starting point, but you have to do your homework.
How do you justify a fee rate to a client to help them move towards your ideal number?
In negotiating Jodi, for instance, I have had a history of knowing offers and knowing what I have been able to command for appearances, concerts and a variation of income producers. I also recognize that she is one of the few Disney Legends that still does her own speaking and singing voices. Others have retired or they do either speaking or singing. Jodi is rarer in that she is very active in performance. There is value to that. There is value in that she is a living Disney Legend. So, when I go to negotiate, I know what her rates have been in the past and sometimes, I will stretch the boundaries. If I can incorporate multiple events in one trip so that they are only paying for one flight, one hotel, and not multiple entities of cost structures, and in doing so, if I can incorporate income earning events for them then I can justify her salary. Sometimes, I have had to explain what she brings to the table because they may only see her as Ariel or a voiceover artist, as opposed to having a career on Broadway and being nominated for a Tony Award. I sometimes need to explain her body of work that maybe some people are not fully aware of so then they can see that they are definitely getting their money’s worth.
You run into negotiation variances all of the time where I mention a fee and someone will cough up a hairball and another person doesn’t blink, so you have to find a middle ground to set the boundaries of the project.
I ask questions like, “is this a paid event?” and if they say “no, it’s a freebie”, then I understand that they are coming from a budget standpoint where they will be responsible for paying the fee on their own unless I can help them create other income. If they say, “yes, it is a ticketed event”, then I ask the ticket prices and then I can start doing the math to create a ballpark of what their budget and expenses may be for the project. I always think that Jodi is worth more than she might get at times but she has had and still has a wonderful career.
Regarding investing for the future, what advice would you give regarding “saving for a rainy day” to people working in the industry?
When I was performing more often in shows and national tours, I noticed that people have a tendency to spend their money on very disposable items such as meals or clothing. You can only have so many leather jackets and articles of clothing. You can only eat so many expensive meals and then they would wake up one day wishing that they had been more conservative.
For myself and Jodi, we did a “for savings” plan and had money pulled out of our salaries every week that went to an account so that we could have something to show for our hard work and also so it wouldn’t be wasted. Then, we took that savings and reinvested it in variations of stock portfolios, real estate and in my case, being a lover of art, investing in art.
We tried a variety of investments so we didn’t place all of our eggs in one basket so the risk/ reward was more spread out. You want to have a wonderful career but you want to be able to do other things when you want as well. I think again, having a game plan and vision is important. You need to ask yourself, where do you want to be financially and shoot for that goal. We decided to not allow ourselves to get our hands on disposable cash and income. We sucked it up and sometimes found ourselves in tougher positions financially but those sacrifices allowed us to save money in the long run. We have enjoyed a nice lifestyle, but we have built it because when times of income were higher, we lived a very modest lifestyle. When we made less income, we didn’t really have to dip into our savings that much.
How did you get started in your career?
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and after high school, I attended Auburn University. I began with a major in Veterinary Medicine but then changed to Business and then Theatre. With only three quarters left to graduate, I decided to leave school to take a professional job. I had the option to go work at Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee or Theatre Under The Stars in Atlanta, Georgia. I auditioned for Theatre Under The Stars, and got the part out of 500 people and was told they would call me in a couple weeks. I had really wanted this contract because I would have received my Equity card right out of college.
I still hadn’t heard from Theatre Under The Stars when I had to make a decision about choosing Opryland, so, I took the bird in the hands. I had put myself through college and had debt so I decided to take the “sure thing gig”.
Before I left for Nashville, I needed to finish a run of West Side Story where I was playing the role of Tony, in Birmingham, Alabama at the Town & Gown theatre. It was the only theatre at the time in 1980, that had the rights to do the show while it was still running on Broadway. The producer of the show brought down Barry Moss from Hughes Moss Casting, one of the biggest casting directors of New York City.
By the time my run of West Side Story ended, I was five days late getting to Nashville. I came into a show and was put in touch with a young lady, Jodi Marzorati who had been assigned to help teach me the things that I had missed. We were a little like “oil and water” because I was a man of the world at 22 and I had this 18-year-old telling me what to do.
As the weeks passed, the cast tried to play matchmaker for us. We were all supposed to go to a movie and when Jodi and I arrived at the movie, everyone else bailed and it was just us. That ended up being our first date. I took her home that night and she pinned me up against the wall and kissed me.
Copyright Ray Benson personal archives: Ray and Jodi Benson
I did the summer productions at Opryland and stayed in Nashville for three more months doing some television specials and shot a pilot that was supposed to go series but got delayed for whatever reason. I got tired of the delay and decided it was time to go to New York.
I had paid off my school debt and with a $100 bill in my pocket and a couch to sleep on for two weeks, I flew to New York.
On my tenth day in the city, I looked up that casting director from West Side Story, Barry Moss, and gave him a call. He remembered me when I called and asked me to hold because he was on the other line. He came back on the line and said, how about you come to this audition in four days and see how it goes. Four days later, I auditioned for the first national tour of Oklahoma. It had just closed on Broadway and they were sending out the tour. I went and auditioned for James “Jamie” Hammerstein and Agnes de Mille and about eight other people sitting at the table. I had never been to a big audition and I really did not know what to do except other than sing but they also had me read.
After I read for them, Barry asked me to leave the room and five minutes later, he came out and said that I had the job if I wanted it. I said, of course! Two days later, I flew with Agnes de Mille to Toronto and she put me in the show as “Will Parker”. That was the beginning of my professional career in 1981.
What is the best role/job/gig have you done and why?
That’s easy! In 1985, I was the standby/ understudy for Don Lockwood, the Gene Kelly role in Singin’ In The Rain on Broadway.
I got to take over the role multiple times starring in that role, I don’t know that there is a bigger role than Don Lockwood on Broadway, so that definitely is a highlight of my career.
Copyright Ray Benson personal archives: Original Singin’ in the Rain Poster
What was the worst task you were given when you were starting out?
It was a task to do this role, that’s for sure. It would be a show; the name has escaped me that Jodi and I did the show together in Cleveland, Ohio, for the opening of The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. It was a show that had nice music but it was a stinker. I remember a couple of times just not going on stage to do incidental things that we were choreographed to do, just to dress the stage, when someone did a solo. That show was cringy-worthy for sure.
What do you think is your best skill?
I think connecting people.
What do other people think is your best skill?
Disconnecting people, just kidding. (laughs) I think probably that I am a faithful friend.
I have had the pleasure, as your niece, of following your journey in art collecting over the years, but I would love it if you would share it with our readers:
I got involved in the field of art in the “new born stage” as opposed to “embryonic stage” of what is known as “outsider art”. That was the coined phrase used to define art that fell outside of the mainstream of contemporary art that incorporated self-taught art, folk art, institutionalized art, art brut, and naive art. I identified with this art because I went to New York as an actor that had to do something because I had to do it; not because I ever thought I would make a great living at it or because someone told me to. I identified with this art because the artists creating it had something to say, and that motivation was driving them. They created art because they had to, not because they ever thought they would make any money at it.
Van Gogh never made much money in his lifetime from his art, it was appreciated after he died. My appreciation grew and I had the opportunity to meet some of the artists that I collected, before they passed away and so I built relationships. I’m a relational kind of guy so not only did I enjoy their art but I enjoyed them as the artist. That’s how I identified.
We all have something to say in life. I said it with my voice on stage and they said it on canvas, found art, found objects.
Copyright Ray Benson personal archives: From left to right: The Benson Collection Outsider artwork by Malcolm McKesson (1909-1999), Minnie Eva Evans (1892-1987), Moses Ernest Tolliver (1898-2006), Joseph Yoakum (1890 – 1972), William “Bill” Traylor (1853–1949), Adolf Wolfli (1864-1930).
If someone was interested to pursue education to become a manager, are you aware of programs or courses in the US or world-wide for this field of study?
I think that if I had to do it over again and start, I probably would have enjoyed going into sports management. Sports were and are a big part of my life but as with anything, if you are in the beginning stages, I would try to find people who do what they do well and I would try to work with them. Period. Those that do it well, not that they are necessarily the people with the most integrity or are the nicest people, but they are good at what they do and manage to succeed in representing their clients well.
How would you describe your life in front of the curtain/ camera and what happens behind the scenes, or in other words, your TheatreArtLife?
My TheatreArtLife on the stage is enjoying what I do and hopefully other people are too. Whether it’s solo situations or production, or doing something with my wife Jodi. I would say we are really honest. I think people get a snapshot of two people that have spent a life in this business while being married. We eat, breathe, sleep, work and play together and you know for the most part, that goes really well. Some people see though that we aren’t a perfect couple by any stretch of the imagination, so that’s on stage.
Backstage and offstage, I’m probably 51% introverted and 49% extroverted, so working in an extroverted business, I have the tendency, offstage, to enjoy one-on-one conversations with people. I enjoy people and getting to know them so I would rather isolate and concentrate on one or two people than I do a group of people, only getting to know shallow parts of them. At home, I enjoy my family but I also enjoy myself so I can enjoy time alone, time reading, time with God and time enjoying outdoor activities. It brings life to me when I see God’s creation and am able to enjoy it. That brings a smile into my heart and soul.
Copyright Ray Benson personal archives: Ray Benson hiking the Lake District in England.
How would you describe your “average” day in this season of life?
I’m sure that a lot of people wear a lot of hats. I wear the hat of Mr. Mom if I have Jodi booked out of town. Prior to kids driving, I was soccer taxi and chef, bottle washer, and clothes cleaner. When Jodi is home, I manage career, expenses, finances and the household. I dash in and out of my office a lot because I want to participate in our kids’ activities. I love the mobility of a cell phone and iPad. They allow me to do business when I am waiting and away from the office so I can conduct business anywhere I am. I am not an eight-hour office guy so I will find ways to be out of the office doing what I have to do and what I want and need to do.
Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give your 18-year old self?
I would give my 18-year old self the advice of knowing that spiritually apart from God I can do nothing, but I can do all things through Him that strengthens me. Knowing what I know now, God is the author of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. He is the author of wisdom, discernment, guidance, and God is not the author of doubt, confusion, despair, oppression, and anxiety.
I would tell my 18-year old self to move towards the fruits of the spirit and to know that there is health in my relationship with God where the world only wants what you can give to it. Until you can give the world what it wants, then it doesn’t really want you.
As a performer, as you grow and age, society and the entertainment business tend to discard you. You need to have a healthy outlook on yourself and, for me, it’s in knowing that my significance lies in my Creator that created me. This gives me joy, hope and a future. That is what I would focus on more, and less on trying to achieve the things of the world that are temporary and unsatisfying for the long haul.
Here is an example, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I had worked so hard to get on Broadway and when I finally did, as I looked out at the audience and heard the applause and the curtain went down, I was stunned. All I could hear was my voice in my head saying, “Is that all there is? That is what I have been striving for?”
I had to work through that. It’s a body of work, it’s about people, it’s not about my resume, it’s not about adding one more notch to my belt that I did that show. It’s about living life and living it joyously.