Musicians are notoriously close-mouthed when it comes to money. No one likes to talk about how much they’re getting paid! There are good reasons to keep your fees to yourself --- it can foul up negotiations for everybody if exact numbers become common knowledge --- but it makes it very difficult for young singers to figure out how much they’re worth on the market.
Please note that I am not talking about negotiations with opera companies, symphonies, and other big producers where you might expect to have a manager making the deal for you. I’m talking about those smaller or local gigs that singers tend to book for themselves --- weddings, corporate events, concerts, and the like. Pay scale for engagements like these varies greatly according to a variety of factors, but the most important thing to realize is there isn’t a right or wrong … there’s only what you want to be paid, and whether you can get it.
Before we get in to how to determine your fees, let’s discuss the rules. I have two, when it comes to gigging.
1. You don’t have to work for money, but never work for free.
People are always trying to get artists to work for “exposure”. It’s come to be a filthy word in the art world … but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re getting something of value to you in exchange for your work, it’s fine to work for no money. Just make sure that you get full value, and the person “hiring” you understands that they are paying you … just not in money.
2. Always get a contract.
Smalltime gigs often don’t offer contracts, but it’s always a mistake to work without one. A contract protects both parties by clearly outlining expectations, and it gives you something concrete to refer to or from which to start negotiations if one or both parties’ expectations change. And contracts needn’t be fancy --- emails can suffice when all else fails. But I strongly recommend that singers who do a lot of gigging have a standard contract they can offer if the producer doesn’t have one. It should include the date the agreement is made, the names, titles, and contact information for both parties; a list of the services being provided (including pertinent information like what language the piece will be performed in, how many rehearsals are included, who is responsible for hiring a pianist, etc.), the exact dates, times, and location when these services will be provided; everything that is included in compensation (fees, travel expenses, housing, food, non-monetary compensation such as access to the organization’s mailing list or free space for your next concert); information about when and how you will be paid; cancellation policy, and signatures from both parties.
More about contracts here.
Here’s a free template for a simple contract.
Now, we’re ready to talk money! Or rather, we’re ready to talk how to figure out how much you should be asking for.
ESTABLISH YOUR BASE RATE
Your first step is to establish a base rate. Your base rate is the minimum you need to make a job worthwhile, the minimum amount you will (usually) sing for. Think of it as the amount of money required to make you get out of bed and go to work. ;) This rate will change over time ---hopefully it will get higher! --- so just consider it a starting point.
You might want to establish two versions of your base rate: one per-job fee, and an hourly rate.
Any successful project begins with research.
1. Talk to other musicians.
As noted, people can be shy in talking about money, but they’re more likely to be frank if you approach them privately with an air of confidentiality. Don’t ask how much THEY get --- ask for the going rates, a ballpark figure or a range. “What’s the going rate for (voice lessons, concert fees, weddings, church gigs, etc.) around here?” “What’s the general range of pay for chorus work with that company?” “What do you think that Christmas party gig at GiantCorp pays --- ballpark?”
2. Check websites for pricing.
Many professional musicians have websites, and while they don’t usually list prices outright, you can contact them online or call for quotes. You don’t have to stick to your own instrument, either --- find out what it costs for a string quartet to perform at a corporate event or wedding for 3 hours, and you’ll have some information that will help you decide what you should charge for yourself and a pianist.
3. Talk to events coordinators to find out what the going rate is for corporate events, weddings, etc.
This is a win-win. Event coordinators often book acts, so getting on their radar might help you get some gigs; and they will know what their clients pay. Keep in mind that they will probably give you a range rather than specifics, and if they do the contracting themselves, they will probably give you the price they would pay YOU rather than what they charge the client; so consider tacking 10-15% onto that number.
4. Speak to business owners and corporate event planners directly.
Once you’ve established a connection, you can ask about entertainment budgets. Smaller producers might even be willing to discuss their overhead with you in general terms.
5. Check out rates for your local chapter of American Federation of Musicians (AFM). A union instrumentalist enjoys protections most singers don’t, including a standard rate of pay and minimum hours per call. You may or may not get that rate, but you can use it to help determine a ballpark figure that you want to charge. Many local shops have rate sheets on their websites that you can refer to, even if you’re not a member --- just Google “City Name AFM Pay Schedule”. These rates vary from location to location, so be sure to check out your local chapter to find out what goes in your community.
Armed with information, consider the variables that go into deciding what you’re worth:
• Your overhead. How much will it cost to prepare for the average job? Even if you’re not spending money on coaching or a lesson especially for a job, you have done so in the past and you spend money to maintain your instrument, establish and maintain your business, and promote yourself.
• Your expertise and reputation. Where are you in your career? What level of training do you have? How are you perceived in your community?
• Your time & effort. How much time will you need to spend to prepare for the average job?
• What services will be covered by your base rate? Keep this pretty basic: it costs $X for me to show up, run through two pieces with the pianist, and perform. Or: I charge $X per 30 minutes of music chosen from this list.
Now you can start to piece together the information and come up with a number you think is reasonable in your particular market. Remember, this is you BASE RATE, the minimum you’ll take to perform (other variables notwithstanding).
If you’re still not sure what your base rate should be, try one of these methods:
1. Add cost of labor and any overhead with the desired profit, and divide by the number of hours worked. This is a realistic way to see what you’re earning for your work, but it’s also depressing and usually futile exercise for musicians because the gigging market rarely pays what we believe we’re worth. If we stop to consider how many hours of preparation we put in before we show up to the gig, the number of rehearsals, and the performances themselves, we’re usually making a few dollars an hour. It makes sense to think this way for gigs where you can predict how much time you’ll need to prepare; for larger projects like teaching at a summer program, stage directing, singing chorus, etc. you’ll be better off basing your rate per gig.
2. Take what you charge for an hour voice lesson (or, if you don’t teach, what you pay) and double or triple it per hour you think you will spend on this project.
3. Think about how much money you’d like to make this year --- your annual salary (keep it reasonable). What percentage of your work comes from singing jobs? Calculate the dollar amount and divide it by the number of gigs you think it’s likely you’ll get, based on past experience. There’s your base rate. The tricky part about this one is that, of course, not all gigs are the same size, and don’t pay the same. If you use this formula, you might want to come up with “big gig”, “medium gig” and “small gig” definitions and prices.
4. Pick a number that just feels right to you and try it out. You will quickly know if you asked for too much or too little.
Beyond the base rate
Once you’ve decided on your base rate, you have a starting point from which to consider what your final number should be for a specific gig. Some things to consider in determining this:
• Who is the client? You might decide to charge less for a small local job or for people you know and like than you do for a stranger’s wedding, a corporate event, or a concert for a chic club.
• What services are they requesting? Are you expected to contract other musicians, create materials like playbills, come to extra rehearsals? If you’re being asked to offer services beyond those covered by your base rate, you should add to your invoice. You might even want to work out pricing on commonly requested services ahead of time.
• Are you organizing this project, or joining someone else’s project? Obviously if you are the organizer, you’ll be spending more time and effort and should get paid more than if you just have to show up and sing.
• What do similar jobs in your area tend to pay?
• How much money do you estimate that the producer is spending on this event? If the event is being held in a nice hotel with a sit-down dinner and open bar, they shouldn’t be skimping on the entertainment.
• Is the producer for-profit? Is this a fundraiser?
• Are there added benefits or annoyances? Added value, such as access to an organization’s mailing list, fancy accommodations for you and a guest, or the ability to promote yourself in a meaningful way at the event might make up for a smaller paycheck. Only you can decide. Conversely, if the producer is difficult to deal with, insists on nonstandard procedures, or wants you to sing bad/wrongly fached/wrong genre music, you might consider tacking on a little extra as an “annoyance fee”.
• How much time will you spend learning and rehearsing music? If your selections are standard pieces which require little preparation, you might consider sticking closer to the base rate. If you’re being asked to learn new music, and especially if you’ll be coaching it, tack on a new music fee (maybe a percentage of what you will pay to coach the piece).
• Are you responsible for contracting other musicians, such as the pianist? If you are in charge of identifying, hiring, and wrangling other musicians for the gig, you should definitely get a contracting fee. American Federation of Musicians members who contract get 50% more for up to 3 additional musicians engaged. That’s probably not going to fly for singers, but you can add a percentage that seems reasonable to you.
• Is there travel involved? Who is paying for it? If you’re being asked to travel for a gig, you should be reimbursed for mileage or RT tickets. If you’re not, figure travel expenses into your fee schedule.
• Is there an overnight stay involved? Is housing provided? If you’re being asked to stay overnight, consider whether you want to add a fee for the inconvenience. If housing isn’t provided, up your fee to help cover that expense.
• What other income might you be giving up to do this gig? If taking this gig means missing out on teaching, church jobs, and other income, be sure that what you’re making covers the lost wages or makes up for it in some other way.
Based on your answers to the above questions, you can choose to double or triple your base rate; or tack on a percentage or dollar amount according to each “extra” item on your list.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate or to ask for what you think you’re worth. There’s always some trial and error involved --- you’ll quickly learn how much certain producers are willing to pay, and how to read them. If you’re nervous, you can always start out with a lower price point and slowly increase your fees as you get more established in a community; but be aware that it can take years to build up your fees.
A good way to start negotiations is to ask straight out what their budget for entertainment is. Try to get them to name a number first and you can work from that. Don’t agree to anything right away, either --- always give yourself time to think things through. Tell them that you need to look at your schedule and factor in a few things, and you’ll get back to them later this afternoon or first thing tomorrow. Then make sure you do respond when you said you would --- otherwise, they may well move on to the next name on their list!
If the number they come back with is lot lower than you were thinking, be honest about it and kindly let them know why. You can use your base rate here. “I generally don’t work for less than $X unless there is some truly compelling reason. I’d love to work with you, however. Can we get this number to the $(a bit more than your dream number) range?”
People often try to lowball musicians, and they often don’t know what goes into preparing a performance. If they’re giving you a hard time about your fee, there are several ways to handle it. Stay positive and kind --- remember, they’re not trying to insult you, and your interaction with them may not only result in better money for you, but less hassle for your (and other musicians!) the next time they engage.
• “Figure” out loud. “Well, I won’t be able to hire a decent pianist for less than $X, and you want me to do a half hour program of new music, which is going to require X number of rehearsals for which I will have to pay the pianist $X each. So you can see that the base amount that it will cost me to do this concert for you, without even adding a fee for me, is less than your initial offer.”
• Gently remind them of your resumé. “I understand that that sounds like a lot of money, but please remember that in me, you are getting a highly trained and experienced professional musician. I have a doctorate in vocal performance and perform at opera houses across the nation. You certainly can get someone cheaper, but you will not get someone with my abilities and training for that price.“
• Quote that previously mentioned AFM local rate sheet. “In this area, for this type of engagement, professional musicians get $60/hour for a minimum two hour call and more for longer calls.” (You can also use these rates as a point of negotiation --- “You’re asking for a four hour call, which according to the professional musicians’ fee schedule should be $100/hour, but because I believe in your project and want to support you, I will do it for the two hour call rate of $60/hour. That’s a pretty significant discount.”
Learning to set rates, ask for what you're worth, and negotiate takes some research, some practice, and some confidence, but these are essential skills for anyone participating in the gig economy (and let’s face it, we musicians are the ninjas of the gigging world). You need to know how to do this, even if you have, or eventually have, an agent who does most of the booking and negotiating for you. But even the Bible says that the laborer is worthy of his hire, so don’t be shy. Do your homework, and then get out there, ask for what you’re worth! Happy gigging, everybody.
BEFORE YOU GO
The inspiration for this post came out of a recent live chat. It was so much fun, I'm going to experiment with doing them monthly. If you'd like to be included, be sure to sign up for my mailing list for advance notice, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@MezzoCindy). You can see the replay of the first live chat here.