Protection for Independent Singers

Originally published by Classical Singer magazine in September 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Unmanaged and non-union singers frequently find themselves at a disadvantage when problems arise on the job. It’s particularly harrowing when trying to tread that fine line between standing up for yourself and attempting not to alienate a company to the point where they won’t hire you again. Tales of various injustices make the rounds among singers, but often no one seems to know quite what to do. Here are some ways singers can protect themselves in professional situations.

Always Get a Contract

The best way to ensure that you and your employer are on the same page is to put everything in writing; make sure both parties have read and signed it and both parties have a copy. No gig is too small to be covered by a written agreement. Subbing for a friend’s church job, and the friend is going to pay you out of his monthly check? Get it in writing. Singing at your sister’s best friend’s cousin’s wedding? Get it in writing. Gig with a small local choral group? Get. It. In. Writing.

Sometimes smaller organizations don’t have a standard contract to issue—but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have one. In fact, it’s a great idea to have your own standard independent contractor agreement on hand, which you can then offer to the organization. Simply tell them that for the protection of both parties, you must have a contract in order to work and then volunteer to send yours. There are many templates available for free online, but you can easily create your own. A basic agreement should contain the following:

  • The names of both parties
  • A statement that both you and the producer agree to enter into an independent contractor relationship
  • A description of services that will be performed, including any particulars such as “to be sung in English, with piano” or “the Artist will be paid his nonrefundable fee prior to the start of the ceremony; if the ceremony’s duration exceeds the time agreed upon, the Artist reserves the right to depart at the agreed upon time regardless of whether the service has been rendered or to agree to stay for a nonnegotiable rate of $50 per hour, to be paid immediately”
  • The date, time, and duration of the service
  • The agreed upon fee and details of when and how it will be paid
  • A cancellation/postponement policy
  • Allowances for contingencies (singer’s illness, acts of God, etc.)
  • A description of how any disputes will be resolved
  • The current date and signatures of both parties

 

Know What Your Contract Says

It rather goes without saying that you should carefully read any contract before signing it and you should always bring a copy of your contract to all engagements. Companies can and do make different arrangements with different artists, so it’s useful to be able to refer to your agreement if a difficulty arises.

For example, if a company has agreed to provide you with a private car during your stay and it turns out you’re expected to share, you can refer to the wording of your contract and use that to defend your position. If the company wishes to change the terms of your agreement, you can always agree to renegotiate, but this gives you leeway to make your own demands. “Fine, I will share the car—but I would like the company to pay for gas and parking.”

 

Don’t Sign It if You Don’t Mean It

If you are unmanaged, you’re negotiating your own contract, and this is a skill all singers should develop. It seems obvious, but if something really bothers you or if you have a need that must be met, make sure it’s covered in the contract before you sign. If you absolutely, positively will not appear nude on stage, and you think there’s any chance at all that you might be asked to do so, make sure you put a clause about it in the contract. Don’t like the company’s policy of paying you two weeks after closing? Insist on being paid in full at intermission of the final performance. Just insist before you sign the contract.

 

Resolve a Potential Problem Before It Happens

The best time to handle a problem is before it becomes a problem. If your contractual obligations are not being met by the company, don’t think that being a “team player” is going to win you points. It might—but if a company is unscrupulous or badly run, it might also mark you as a doormat, and the problems could escalate. Politely point the issue out and ask if there’s a reason for it and what you can do to help resolve it. Give the company the chance to do the right thing—it might, in fact, not realize that there is a problem.

Also, generally speaking, you should at least make a show of trying something out before complaining about it—your homestay, your costume, the special eye makeup the makeup artist wants you to wear, the staging that makes it impossible to support while singing your high C. Make an effort: try it a few times and then ask whoever is the decision maker for that particular issue to “help you out.” Don’t say, “I’m not doing that!” At least not at first. Try it and then say, “I’m having a problem with XYZ.” “This makeup is very runny and it’s getting into my contact lenses, which makes my eyes water and clouds them up so I can’t see the conductor. Is there a different product we can use?” “I’m sorry, but it makes me very nervous to hang upside down by my knees six feet above the stage while I’m singing ‘Sempre libera.’ I just can’t get my breath underneath me. Can you help me out?”

The one exception to the “try it out” rule is if there is a safety issue involved. If you feel a situation is unsafe, you are absolutely within your rights to refuse to rehearse until your concerns have been fully addressed. No paycheck is worth an injury that could have been avoided.

If you are met with negativity and a refusal to fulfill the obligations or with an argument over whether the obligation is being sufficiently met, you will have to make a judgment call about how important the issue is to you. If it is important enough that you are willing to walk off the job, be fired, or risk not being hired again, then you can press the point more forcefully. If it’s something you can live with, even though you don’t feel you should have to, you can register your dissent by saying, “Obviously we see this differently. I don’t feel this fulfills the spirit of our contract. However, in the interests of moving forward and creating a great show, which we both want, I will concede the point.”

Once you do that, you must not continue to complain. You can, however, use it as a bargaining chip if a future, more serious issue arises. “I agreed to share the car with my colleague even though the contract specifically states that you will provide me with my own car, because I understand that you don’t currently have the budget to fulfill that part of our agreement. However, I did not agree to sing an additional performance without compensation, and if you’re selling tickets to the dress rehearsal, that makes it a performance, not a rehearsal. I need to be compensated for my service.”

This singer got it partly right: “I had my first legit pro gig with a small regional company, as Sarastro in their Magic Flute tour,” writes a young bass. “The company was on a shoestring and had heavy volunteer involvement from one community matron in particular who insisted that I wear a chef’s apron with an appliqued sun over my tux. The apron was waist-down, putting the sun square over my bits like a sunshiny codpiece.

“After a rehearsal with this prop/costume, I talked to the executive director and asked him if something less conspicuous was possible,” he continues. “I thought he would discuss it with her or opt for something less conspicuous. He didn’t. I was about to go onstage at our first live performance and I flat refused to put it on. She insisted, and I insisted, and my cue came, and I went on without it. I know it caused a drama. How would you have handled it?”

This singer did the right thing by speaking to the executive director immediately—but he should have followed up and made sure there was a firm resolution decided before it came down to curtain time. Without a definitive answer in place, he should have worn the assigned costume for that performance and then addressed it with the executive director again. While the costuming choice may have not been to the singer’s taste, ultimately the choice was not his to make.

The opera company did not do anything wrong and was under no obligation to accommodate the singer’s request for a change in costume—although it would have been nice and in its best interest to do what was necessary to make the artist feel comfortable. With no resolution in place by curtain, it comes down to a judgement call about the singer’s level of discomfort and willingness to face the consequences of his actions. Given that he refused to wear the costume provided, the company would have been well within its rights to fire him. This brings us to our next topic . . .

 

Know What Is and Isn’t Reasonable

It’s important to understand what is and isn’t standard business practice and what constitutes professional obligation, as well as the person any concerns should be addressed to.

Safety issues at rehearsal or performances should be addressed immediately to the stage manager. If there is an issue with safety at your lodging which you are unable to resolve on-site, you should call the artist liaison or a member of the administrative staff. Many years ago, a friend of mine was hosted in a home with an older man who, as it turned out, was also housing a 14-year-old boy to whom he was not related. My friend discovered that this child was a runaway that the host had met on the Internet. He immediately packed his bags, loaded his car, and called the general director from the road.

If you’re uncomfortable with a costume, wig, or makeup decision, you should address it first with the supervisor of that department; if you don’t get satisfaction, speak to the stage director. But be prepared. Sometimes there will be some leeway for input from the performer regarding certain design decisions—after all, you are in charge of creating the character and you can probably make a strong case for why your Hansel should not appear in leather hot pants and a studded dog collar. On the other hand, ultimately those decisions are not yours to make. If it’s merely a design you don’t like, you may be stuck.

If there’s a musical issue, naturally you speak to the conductor—but be prepared to give a vocal reason for why you need a different tempo or time for a breath in that passage. The final decision belongs to the maestro.

If you’re uncomfortable with a staging decision, you speak to the stage director. But this is less cut-and-dried. How much input you have into the creative decision making depends on a variety of factors, including how collaborative the director is to begin with. You will have the most power to dissent if you are being asked to do something you find unsafe, morally objectionable, or distasteful. But, to be fair, you should protect yourself by investigating the stage director before you accept a contract. If you know you are going to be working with someone who is known for controversial interpretations or for a company that is known to do nontraditional stagings that may involve requests that are outside your comfort zone, you will be able to make an informed decision about whether to take the contract. And you can always ask questions ahead of time.

If you are uncomfortable with an administrative issue, such as being pressured to perform at a host or patron party for which you were not contracted and will not be compensated, or having trouble with the colleague you’re assigned to share a car with, speak to the artist liaison, if the company has one, or to an artistic administrator.

Essentially, you may have input into design and other creative decisions, but you should not expect to have the final word and you may find it necessary to compromise. Issues you should not have to compromise on include personal safety, clean and comfortable work and home environment, privacy in your homestay, reasonable accommodation of contractual obligations such as transportation, publicity appearances, and prompt payment for services rendered.

You should absolutely stand up for yourself, but choose your battles wisely. You don’t want to establish a reputation as a whiner or a difficult colleague. So don’t sweat the small stuff—but do keep an eye on it, in case it escalates.

 

What if It Escalates?

If you find that the number of things that are not as they should be are piling up, document them—even if it feels petty to do so (you don’t have to show your list to anyone!). Physically note when they happened, what was done or said, and who was present. Note whom you spoke to about the incident and what their response was. Note the date and time of the exchange. If these incidents snowball into something serious, you will have a log to back you up; it won’t just be your word against theirs. And if the incident should progress to legal action, a log will be helpful in proving your case.

Try to keep your cool and remain professional at all times. Even if someone else is blowing up in your face, you must remain—at least on the surface—calm and defuse the situation if you can. Acknowledge the other person’s position but repeat your view calmly and firmly. “I hear what you’re saying, but this is what we agreed upon. It’s right here in the contract. Is there another solution that would be workable for both of us?”

If you cannot reach resolution, you have to make a decision about whether to continue with the engagement or abandon it. Obviously, if you can complete the contract, it’s in your best interest because it may be the only way to get paid. If you have to soldier on, then make the best of it and do what you have to do to avoid further unpleasantness. Take the high road, take your paycheck, and go home.

The second best solution is to be fired, because then the company will be obligated to pay you even though you didn’t perform. Sure, it’s a blow to the ego—but in the end you get your money, and every story has two sides. The company may speak out against you, but if your personal reputation is good, a single bad experience won’t ruin it (though it may tarnish it for a while), and you can tell your side of the story as well.

 

Where Can You Go for Help?

To whom can you appeal for help? I’ve often heard disgruntled singers say, “Can’t we complain to AGMA? Shouldn’t they do something about it?” The answer is yes—but only if you are a union singer and the company you’re unhappy with is an AGMA signatory, and the company has violated its agreement with AGMA. And while AGMA is the singer’s union, it is not a universal authority, and its protections do not extend beyond the boundaries of its membership and agreements except in a very general way.

I’ve also heard some singers suggest appeals to OPERA America to censure member organizations who behave badly. But it is unclear that such an action would fall under its purview. OPERA America’s stated mission is supporting the creation, presentation, and enjoyment of opera. Advocacy is one of its goals, but is centered on representing the interests of the opera and performing arts community before federal agencies, Congress, and the White House. It is not an authority per se.

 

So, where will help come from?

The sad fact is that unmanaged soloists are more or less on their own in handling their affairs. It’s in your best interest to cultivate genuine friendships among board members and administrators—not only is it good for your career and the health of the opera company, but it can go a long way to resolving conflicts. The president of the board technically outranks the general director, so if you aren’t getting what you need from the administration, going over their head is an option (just be prepared for potential unpleasant consequences).

Of course, you will always be able to deal from a stronger position if you have taken steps to protect yourself. This can be a tough one for singers, but one way to protect yourself is to have good health insurance. If you are physically injured or become sick on the job, at least some of the medical expenses will be covered (and don’t worry—if you file for workers’ comp, your insurance company will make sure it is compensated). But if you’re at all worried about your health and safety on the job, don’t wait until something happens.

If you believe you are being subjected to safety and health violations in your workplace, you can file a complaint with OSHA, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Among other actions, you can anonymously request an inspection of your workplace, request tests to determine if hazards exist, demand to see the test results, and review records of work-related injuries and illnesses. There are multiple options for filing complaints, including an online form. Visit www.osha.gov/as/opa/worker/complain.html  for more information.

If you are injured on the job or can prove that an illness you contracted is the result of environmental hazards (such as chemicals or dust in a rehearsal space or the use of unapproved fog juice in performance), you may be able to file a workers’ compensation claim. If you are injured on the job, you should immediately tell the stage manager, who should ask you to fill out an accident report. If they don’t, you should request one.

You should also start the ball rolling on your workers’ comp claim as soon as possible. They can take some time to resolve, so you may require treatment before any payment comes through. And you may be entitled not only to payment of doctors’ bills and related expenses but also compensation for time during which you were unable to work. Laws differ from state to state. Call the state workers’ compensation board in the state where you were working when the injury occurred. A list of these offices can be found at www.dol.gov/owcp/dfec/regs/compliance/wc.htm.

Unfortunately, sometimes there is no satisfactory resolution to be negotiated. If the powers that be remain unsympathetic, you may be forced to turn to the law. You can first attempt mediation—the use of a trained individual who attempts to work out a settlement or agreement which both parties must accept. (Find a mediator by searching online for the state in which the dispute occurs.) It seems unlikely, however, that an opera company that is unsympathetic to a singer’s dispute would consent.

Another option is small claims court, which typically handles litigation involving private disputes which involve a limited, and relatively small, amount of money. For larger or more involved cases, consider engaging a lawyer. Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts is an organization dedicated to providing legal services and advice, including some pro bono, to artists. There is an online legal services request form on their website at www.vlany.org/legalservices/.

It may seem overwhelming and unfair—and it is—but as an independent contractor, there are in fact relatively few legal protections and recourses in place for you. All the more reason to prepare for contingencies to the best of your ability. In addition to the suggestions listed here, try to go into each job with a clear view of what you want to get out of it, what you need, and what you are willing to settle for.

Know your limits or at least have some guidelines. Know what you can and cannot afford to do—financially, morally, mentally, and artistically. Be prepared to defend your decisions. If a difficult situation arises, try to take a step back and figure out what the best outcome for you would be and what you can live with. You will never be sorry if you maintain your professionalism and take the high road. You may not get the outcome you desire, but you will emerge in the stronger position.