You know what I'm really, really tired of?
I'm tired of young singers who are working hard, trying to to their best, with an inferior toolkit that they paid an enormous amount of money to receive. I'm tired of young singers not being taught and encouraged and supported to have enough agency in their own careers to feel like they can stand up for themselves when they're being taken advantage of; of sometimes not even having enough information to know that they're being taken advantage of.
I'm tired of universities that graduate students with $50,000 in loan debt who are unemployable as singers because they haven't developed a marketable technique; or who have no idea what to do about developing a career, other than joining the ranks of thousands of other singers scrambling for a few YAP positions.
I'm tired of teachers who treat students disrespectfully.
I'm tired of "companies" and training programs that take advantage of and mistreat naive or desperate singers with bait-and-switch on promises, crazy rehearsal schedules, and questionable business practices.
And I'm tired of artists who do not support their own.
Nobody thinks they're the bad guy. Most of us are out here just trying to make a living, make our art, get along. There's never enough funding; the competition is very tough; people flake out on you; it goes on and on. Sometimes people get creative, trying to make ends meet. And we do all have to look out for ourselves --- certainly nobody else is going to do it. But it's not necessary to beat down others in order to find your place in the sun.
Artists should support, care, and advocate for one another. Today's young singers become tomorrow's administrators and teachers, and sometimes even patrons and donors. We are one body and an "us against them" attitude not only helps no one, but actively drags us as a community and an industry down. How can we demand respect from the world when there is such a lack of respect for each other?
Respect, however, has to start somewhere. It starts with self-respect, with knowing and valuing your own contribution. Young singers, you must educate yourselves about the business of singing. You must learn how to negotiate and to stand up for yourselves. You must learn not to act out of despair.
Let's address a few ways in which young singers can stand up for themselves.
- Know your worth.
If you are paying to sing, or if you are going to university, or having a coaching or voice lesson, YOU'RE THE CUSTOMER. You're buying something. Granted, it's a special something, something that can't be got just anywhere, and you need to be respectful, too. But you do not have to allow yourself to be walked all over. You have more power than you know.
If you have a problem, you first need to communicate and try to resolve it directly. If that doesn't work, start documenting incidents and take it to a higher level. Take it as high as it needs to go in order to get a result. If you need to, take it to the Board of Directors (or Regents, if it's a university) or write a letter to the Better Business Bureau and the local newspaper. Tweet about it. Write on their Facebook page. Be respectful, professional, polite, and persistent.
If things are really bad and you're just not getting what you need, you might have to walk away. You might have to transfer schools or leave a program and eat the loss. You might have to make a decision about whether to walk off a job or hunker down and power through to the paycheck. You make these decisions not on the basis of what you're afraid might happen if you do X, Y, or Z, but what your immediate needs and long term goals are, and what will best help you meet them.
- Know what you're getting into .
Whether it's a school, program, or small company, you need to vet the heck out of it before you get involved. What EXACTLY are you getting for your money --- or if you're being paid, what EXACTLY are you being asked to do? Talk to other singers who've studied or worked there. Find out what the organization's reputation is. Google the faculty or staff. And trust your instincts! If the teacher you're considering studying with or the administrator you'll be working for is rude, ditzy, crazy, or disorganized, take the words of the great poet and teacher Maya Angelou to heart: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."
- Don't be afraid to negotiate.
If an offer isn't good enough, by all means ask for what you need to make it so. They can only say no. The trick is, before you go in, know what you want, what you're willing to settle for, and what your dealbreakers are. Also, keep your ultimate goals in mind and keep asking yourself, is this offer going to help me reach those goals? Is it bringing me something else that I value sufficiently to make whatever sacrifices I must make to get it? When you begin negotiating, don't be apologetic OR aggressive. Be polite and matter-of-fact. Be enthusiastic about the project and take the attitude that you are collaborating with the person across the table to find a way to make this work well for BOTH of you! Tell them what you need and when it comes to numbers, if at all possible, get them to name a number first. That will give you a place to start from; if you're not experienced in the field, you may not know what a reasonable offer is. (Hopefully, you'll have researched it; but it's hard to get singers to talk about money). However, you WILL know what you need financially to make the opportunity feasible and inviting to you. That's where you start.
- Get it in writing.
I don't care if you're singing for your best friend's aunt's cousin's wedding or My Living Room Grand Opera, if you are being paid in money or in some other currency (rehearsal space, coachings, donuts) GET THE TERMS IN WRITING. If you fail to do this and subsequently are shafted, you get minimal sympathy from me and I hope you learned your lesson.
For smaller, less formal affairs, you're probably fine with an email string. However, I'd make sure, especially if there were multiple emails on the subject, that you combined all the provisions and agreements into one email and asked the other party to validate it. Then make sure you save the whole thing in a file you can easily find. Here's an example of what I mean:
Thanks for inviting me to sing at your Christmas party. It will be a lot of fun and I'm excited. Just to make sure we're on the same page, can you confirm that this is what you're asking for?
- I will arrive at 7 p.m. and stay until 8:30 p.m.
- I'll wear a formal gown in any color but black.
- I'll sing a 20 minute set of secular Christmas songs at 7:20 and another at 8:00 p.m.
- These songs are to be chosen from the list I provided, and I will take requests from that list at the party.
- You will provide the pianist.
- You will pay me $300 by check or cash before I leave the party.
I think that's everything! Please confirm.
For more formal or complicated arrangements, you should have a contract or letter of agreement. (You can download a free sample contract on my Business of Singing site HERE; as long as you're there, check out the other free resources). Do this even if you're working for --- well, My Living Room Grand Opera --- and they "don't have contracts". In that case, you say, "Oh, I'm just not comfortable working without something in writing. Here, I've got a standard one I use. Let me send it to you."
Getting something in writing is not ironclad protection by any means (nor is it legally necessary; oral agreements may be harder to prove but they ARE binding). But having something in writing will help you if the employer tries to change the terms of the contract (in which case you say, "I'm open to re-negotiation" or "I'm sorry, I can't re-negotiate our agreement; I've already made other commitments").
- Don't be afraid to demand that your agreements be honored
Singers are often so afraid of rocking the boat. It's true that if you do rock it, there's a chance you'll anger someone and not be hired by them again. But if they have treated you badly or unfairly, they will probably do it again, so you're not losing much. And often when you stand up for yourself, others will back down and even respect you.
If you run into a situation where your agreement is not being honored, even if you didn't get it in writing, you have options. Chances are you have emails, private messages, schedules and other information from the company, voice mails, even Facebook timeline conversations. Take screenshots. Bundle the emails which reference your agreement. Write to the employer, supply copies, and reference specific items: "Please refer to your email of 3-2-16, in which you released me from rehearsal on Tuesday 3-15-16. As you see, I was not a 'no-show' and that grounds for firing me is invalid." "The wedding did, in fact, start half an hour late and as you can see from this PM conversation we had on Sunday, I told you I had another commitment and would have to leave by 4. You agreed that you would pay me in full regardless. Please remit the remainder of my fee immediately."
If you fulfilled your side of the agreement in good faith, you deserve to be paid, but you may have to demand it, and you may have to be very insistent. If the amount of money is small, it's probably not worth your time or money to go to court over it --- you would spend more in court fees than you lost in wages, and depending on the laws in your state, small claims court will not enforce findings in your favor. That's right, they may find against your employer, but they won't necessarily make him pay. (I found this out the hard way when an unscrupulous person stopped payment on a check even after signing a letter of agreement).
However. You can, to some degree, put pressure on the welcher (again, depending on the laws of your state). In my case, if I had taken this person to small claims court and won --- which I was ready to do --- even if she didn't pay, the unpaid judgment against her would have gone on her credit record, and it is very hard to expunge. As I mentioned before, if there is a Board of Directors involved, take it to the President of the Board and to other board members. If you know any patrons personally, talk to them and let them know that My Living Room Grand Opera is shafting its artists. Call them out via social media. Be very careful what you say --- stick to the bare facts that you can support with direct evidence and include screenshots of that evidence. Out them to your colleagues (you'll be standing up for other artists as well as yourself)! In general, make a stink. Even if they don't believe you, you may get your money just so you'll be quiet.
You may not get your money --- you won't, in every situation. But it's important that you don't just walk away. Demand respect and demand to be treated like a colleague. And encourage your singer or teacher or administrator friends to do the same.
You see, there are people out there who will say, "This happens all the time. It's just the way things are. We can't do anything about it." But that was before the power of the Internet and social media put us all up in each others' grills 24/7. Now anyone has a free and easy way to connect with others and exchange information. And while it's very easy to start (or participate in) a witch hunt, it can also be a powerful tool if you do your research, support your case with real evidence, and keep your cool.
This is not about "us vs. them" --- a destructive and energy-sapping attitude. Educators, producers, singers --- we're all interdependent and if we don't always help each other as much as we should, it's usually not out of malice. But it's time to make progress. The only way that happens is if soloists stick together.
And progress is being made. A group of established soloists has been working together for better representation in AGMA and to encourage Opera America to help lead the charge in bettering working conditions for all singers, not just union members. Let's keep up that good work. Established artists --- it's time we stood up as a group and helped empower the young'uns as well as each other. Young artists, be loyal to your profession and don't let yourself be steamrolled. Conduct yourselves with dignity and ask for respect.
Every time a singer does stand up for themselves, every time a singer refuses to undercut a colleague, every time any of us holds out a helping hand ---- all of us are strengthened.