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Why you shouldn't sing for your supper


The Whole Bolivian Army (a band) explains why music should be paid for.

A couple of years ago, a small publishing house decided to come out with a new edition of Prosper Merimee's Carmen novella, and they wanted to publicize this event by having singers perform bits of the opera in various bookstores around New York and (they hoped) the rest of the nation.

Problem was, they didn't want to pay for it.

The person in charge of publicizing the event posted on a popular singer bulletin board, asking for interested parties and promising that most famous of all artist fees, "good exposure".  The event would take place during high traffic shopping times, the singer would be introduced by the store manager, and they would get free books and lots of publicity.

In the interests of discovering more details on behalf of my colleagues, and considering writing about the event for Classical Singer; I entered into a very cordial correspondence with this lady, inquiring as to what "lots of publicity" entailed. Would the singer's name and website be publicized in connection with the event? Would it be included in the documentation sent to the publishing trade and mainstream media? Would the singer be included in the press release?  She thanked me for my questions and ideas and said they would do all of these things; and in addition they hoped to film the performance and put it on YouTube (which, in fact, they did). She also asked me about the problem of finding an accompanist and paying them.

That's right. The pianist was to be paid, but not the singer, who would be bringing the central character of the story to life.

She asked me several times if I would be interested in singing myself, and finally I replied that as a professional singer I was not interested in promoting her business without financial compensation; but certainly there would be students and avocational singers who would be delighted to do so. And indeed, the one performance of which I am aware ended up being given by a very dedicated avocational singer who certainly derived a great deal of pleasure from the experience.

All of this preamble brings me to my point. Singers should never work for free.

More on that in a moment, but first, here's what I'm NOT saying:

I'm not saying you have to work for money. There are other forms of compensation --- experience, networking opportunities, the chance to work with people you really admire or can learn from, the chance to do repertoire you really want to do, to support a cause you believe in ... or just for FUN. There's absolutely nothing wrong in doing something just for fun.

I'm not saying that only professional singers should work. Young singers and singers in development, singers who are not at a developmental stage where they should be paid for their work, need performance opportunities, too. How else are they going to grow? How else are they going to feed their souls? Artists need to make art, and performers need an audience to perform.

But you should never, ever work for less than you are worth. And anyone who cares about classical singing as a profession and an art form should educate and advocate for appropriate pay and musical standards.

There's a letter making the rounds on social media, published by the British organist who wrote it. In it, he replies to an outraged church warden who excoriated him for "capitalising on the grief of others" by quoting, at request, his fee for playing a funeral: 150 pounds, or about $230.00, for an event lasting an hour and a half. (The church warden thought he should not have to pay more than  the same 25 pounds he'd been paying for the past 25 years --- less than $40, and no raises in a quarter of a century).

This letter, along with the above story, illustrates two of the common problems musicians face with simply getting paid. It shouldn't be any secret that most professional musicians derive their living from multiple income streams, including gigging things like weddings and funerals or concerts for clubs and organizations.  Often churches with a strong music program will protect their musicians to some degree by insisting that individuals booking their church use their organist and soloists and setting a basic minimum fee; but not all do so. And there is no established rate for, say, singing the Star Spangled Banner at a Rotary Club meeting or putting together an hour-long recital for the local women's club. Singers have to figure out what the "going rate" is in their town, usually by polling colleagues, and negotiate from there.

But these negotiations can easily be hampered by "civilians" such as the angry church warden above,  who are accustomed to paying amateurs an honorarium and fail to understand that the .  professionals deserve a professional wage. The laborer is worthy of his hire.

There isn't much a professional can do to avoid being undercut by an avocational singer who is doing a job for personal satisfaction rather than a living, especially if the person doing the hiring fails to see the difference in quality of service. (And indeed, some avocational singers are as good as any professional). But professionals should avoid undercutting each other, and should demonstrate the difference between a fully trained singer who knows exactly how to deliver what is expected and make the operation run smoothly by what he does and does not do, and a talented amateur whose passion may exceed his ability. There need be no snobbishness or superiority about this. They are two different levels of service; and the customer has a right to choose which he desires and thinks appropriate.

Still, there's nothing wrong with upselling. ;)

There is nothing wrong with educating the public on appropriate fees, either. (Perhaps refer those in need of such information to this excellent article by Fred Plotkin). A few years ago when I was teaching at a small university, we received a request for some student singers from a lady in a town about an hour and a half away. She wanted performers at her organization's dinner event, just a few songs. Great! I replied. How much are you paying?

The lady was perplexed. She didn't think she'd have to pay for students. Wouldn't they just do it for exposure (ah, the famous exposure again! Were Lenore Rosenberg or CAMI representatives going to be in the audience, I wanted to ask)? Oh, certainly they would feed them. Gas money? Well, she really hadn't budgeted for it.

This lady was quite shocked when I told her that we would not be sending any of our students to sing for her, for free. Our students were not going to lose an entire evening AND pay for a tank of gas for the privilege of singing a few tunes and getting a lukewarm rubber chicken dinner. (OK, I may have phrased it more politely). She needed to offer a minimum of $X per singer and pay travel expenses if she wanted our kids.

"But it's not in the budget!" she exclaimed.

"Are you paying the pianist?" I asked.

Guess what?

The same people who don't want to pay singers to work will pay the pianist; they will spend $300 on flowers and much more on booze and food. They'll spend thousands to rent a venue. And if they can afford to do all that, they can damn well pay their artists. Remember the hula hoop performer Revolva's open letter to Oprah Winfrey? You'd think if anybody could afford to pay performers, Oprah Winfrey could. Why is it culturally acceptable to ask performers to give away their work? In part, it's because we let them. Every time we accept a gig for which we're not getting appropriate value, every time we're too afraid to stand up to a parsimonious organizer and say, "This is what I get paid for this kind of work," and counter their objections, every time we let a friend or relative guilt us into driving three hours each way to sing some godawful pop song from the 70s at their nephew's girlfriend's cousin's bat mitzvah for the privilege of attending the party ... we're saying "It's okay not to respect what I do as a real job.It's okay not to pay an artist just because you think what we do is fun."

I run a summer training program and, more recently, a concert opera which currently does not pay its artists, other than the pianist. We're working on getting nonprofit status and fundraising so we CAN pay our professional artists, but in the meantime, we do offer some value: coaching, musical rehearsal, the chance to try out a new role in a safe and relatively low-profile environment, and get it on their resume. I feel bad about not paying my artists, but I feel good about offering something of real value to them.

More than once, local small church music directors have asked me to recommend singers. My first question is always, "How much are you paying?" Because that will tell me the level of singer to recommend. If they don't want to pay anything, I usually suggest they look in their own church choir for soloists, unless I know a good young singer who just needs the chance to sing the repertoire. If they aren't sure what they can afford, I give them a ballpark figure for what a professional soloist gets paid for the type of work they're hiring for. More than once I've said firmly, "I don't know anyone who will do it for that amount of money." Chances are, they can find someone who will, but I will not facilitate underpaying singers.

 Bottom line, singers, is to know your worth and demand it --- and then show up and do an excellent job. Behave professionally. Uphold standards. This strengthens your value and that of your colleagues, just as poor performance and behavior weakens it.

Know what you need --- financially and in other ways --- to make taking a gig worth your while. If, indeed, you are working for "exposure", demand to know exactly what that means. "Exposure" is dangled in front of performers as though it's worth a great deal, when the truth is that it's the equivalent of a lottery ticket. Maybe there will be someone important there who will discover you and rush you in to sing for his good friend who happens to be a top agent at IMG! Maybe someone there will be so taken with you that they will sponsor your career on the spot! Maybe someone will hire you to sing at her daughter's wedding!

OK, I'm being a little facetious here, but you get the picture. Things do happen, and networking is a very important part of our business. ( I once sat next to Larry Wasserman of Dispeker at a steakhouse in Arizona, where a bunch of college students were putting on a show. Larry was having a great time and I couldn't help but think how those kids would be plotzing if they knew a bigtime New York agent was in their audience. To my knowledge, he didn't sign any of them). But the point is, is that long chance of making the right connection worth the time and effort you're putting into it? That should be the icing on the cake, not the main event.

So if you're going to sing for "exposure", make sure you're exposed. Ask for the organization's mailing list. Ask exactly how you will be publicized --- will your name and photo and website or contact info be listed in any program or publication? Can you hand out flyers for your personal fundraiser or upcoming concerts? Can you sign people up for your mailing list? What else are they going to do to ensure you receive "exposure"? And by the way, if they are planning on recording you, do you have control over what is published and where?

Know when to say no. Is the organization making money off your performance? Are they paying graphic artists to design a flyer or newsletter? Are they paying a pianist? Are they paying the publicist who's putting this all together? Then you should be getting paid, too ... unless you have truly compelling reasons to waive your fee. If they are paying everybody but the singer, they don't deserve professional quality work. They should be getting a student or an amateur for whom the event could be important and worthwhile; they should be getting what they pay for.

Don't, in short, sing for nothing. Don't sing for "exposure" unless that exposure is substantial and quantifiable. Don't sing for charity unless it's a cause you wish to support. Don't sing to put money in other people's pockets unless some of it's also going in yours. Don't, my friends, sing for your supper.

Unless, of course, it's being cooked by Eric Ripert. Then all bets are off.