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  • Writer's pictureZach Finkelstein

The Hidden Cost of Unpaid Labor.

Artist fees aren’t even close to the true cost of our labor. The price of taking a gig is way, way higher than you think.

A key goal of the Middle Class Artist is to provide creatives with an all-purpose toolkit, drawn from my background in economics, statistics, and political psychology, that can help you make critical career decisions based on rationality, not emotion.

Industry gatekeepers -arts admins, conductors, presenters, admissions officers- are counting on the fact that we love our work so much we will accept almost any offer. Full sticker price for a dream Master’s program and a graduation present of $80,000 in debt? Sign me up. A chance to perform a prestigious apprenticeship for 12 weeks at less than minimum wage? Hold my gluten-free beer. A six-month school tour of ‘Magic Flute’ for an honorarium that prevents me from getting a job that can pay the rent? Gotta help those kids discover Mozart!

One of the most important concepts in economics, and one that most artists don’t factor into their decision making, is the idea of opportunity cost. This is a $10 word to describe the benefits -fortune, fame, exposure bucks- lost when pursuing one of a number of mutually-exclusive options.

For example, let’s say you have an offer on the table to go to a summer festival in Italy where you’ll be immersed in daily Italian lessons, weekly coaching, staging rehearsals and performances. You’re triple cast as Figaro with a partial scholarship as compensation. It’s your only offer. How do you decide whether to go?

Here’s the thing: While you don’t have another offer on the table, you do have a slew of options:

  • Figaro band camp for six weeks;

  • Staying local with a part-time or full-time job, working on your craft, coaching, taking lessons, training your body to hit the ground running in the Fall for audition season;

  • Travelling to Italy yourself with the money and immersing yourself in the culture, coming back an Italian Rockstar;

  • Taking a few months off singing -audible gasp- and applying for an internship in a big city to pursue a dual career;

  • Working 9-5 and auditing business classes at your local university;

  • The offers you haven’t gotten yet.

Let’s examine two of those options: Figaro band camp vs. staying home and hiring your own support network to learn and sing through the role, plus income from a job. In this case study, the opportunity cost of Figaro band camp is essentially all the costs of training for it and getting there and staying there vs. what you could earn by getting a job and staying home. I’ll try and compare apples to apples by recreating those opportunities -weekly coachings and lessons, daily language training- at home so you are comparing only the cost of performing at a band camp in Italy vs. singing through it at home.

Before we can set up this comparison, we need to answer a basic question: what are you worth per hour in the marketplace right now? This is a difficult question to answer, but we can ballpark it as follows: what kind of local music opportunities can you get during this time, plus what kind of 9-5 are you working (or have worked recently) and could you work at again during this time? This is the most important part of the decision and will determine whether this opportunity makes sense financially.

Let’s say in our example you are a private teacher and you teach 30 hours a week normally at $40 an hour and have a church job that brings in $125 a week. This means your weekly wage is roughly $1325 or about $33 an hour ($1325/40 hours).

Option 1: Figaro band camp.

  • This option requires six weeks in Italy

  • Flight: $1,200

  • Meals: An additional $300 a week (you will have to buy your own food out every day versus cooking at home[MW1] )

  • Tuition: $3,500 after your partial scholarship

  • Your Time: Remember, you need to show up memorized, ready to rock. Estimated size of the role is 20 minutes of singing. You also have another 40 minutes on stage where you need to have everyone’s dialogue memorized in order to understand what’s going on. We can estimate your total time in preparing the role by ballparking two hours of practice per minute of engaged singing to learn, practice, translate, coach and memorize and one hour of practice per minute of engaged stagework, where you need to translate and memorize the action and act and react in character. We can also estimate we’ll need a coach for every ten minutes of music or so, we’ll guesstimate two hours of coaching will get you where you need to be on day one for this opportunity. (Note: every artist is different and these numbers will vary according to your own ability and comfort. Only you will know the true value of your time.)

  • Time spent learning role: singing (20*2 hours)+Active listening stage time (40*1 hour)+Coaching Prep (2 hours) =82 hours

Based on this napkin math, we can estimate it will take you between 2 and 3 weeks of full-time preparation to learn and memorize this role. If we space this out to around 2-3 hours of practice/training/memorizing a day, it’s more like 4-5 weeks of daily training.

Calculating the cost of your time is tricky, but necessary and now we know the most important part: your hourly and weekly rate at home.

Total Cost of Figaro Band Camp:

Taking into account your time spent and the total cost of Figaro, it will cost you $9200 to pursue this opportunity. However, that’s not the actual cost of getting a Figaro under your belt. To understand that we need to know the opportunity cost- what are you missing out at home?

Option 2: Home training

Another option would be to stay at home for six weeks and build your own program. You could still prepare the role (~82 hours), coach it weekly with a local expert, take lessons with your teacher, and take 20 hours of Italian with a private tutor. You could get a few friends together on a weekend and run through the opera once or twice with an accompanist (6 hours of accompanist time) and even add in some light staging. The rest of your time you could teach close to full-time, or if your students are out of town you could get a job in a music admin position over the summer, or as an admissions or development coordinator at your local school or opera house, and build up a viable dual career in administration.

In the first situation, flying to Italy and performing the role in a pay-to-sing, you would lose $9,200.

In the second situation, recreating that opportunity at home with friends and your local home team, you would actually gain $2,740.

The opportunity cost is the difference between the two options.

That means Italy band camp actually would cost you -$9,200-$2,740=$11,940.

The true cost is not just the tuition and the flights. In order to make a rational decision about whether to pursue an artistic opportunity, the true cost must include your time and must be weighed against other viable options, especially if you have a steady income you are giving up for travel. In this case, it would cost you an absurd amount of money to pursue this opportunity and skip out on your teaching job. This is not a close decision and for any young singer should likely be a pass.

When decisions are closer (between, for instance, two short $2,000 regional gigs and a $1,000 local gig plus your day job), then we can move past the basic math into psychological, harder-to-measure factors:

  • the prestige of the gig and gatekeeper involved;

  • the likelihood of the gigs abroad leading to additional opportunities;

  • the value of a free trip to [insert city] in terms of work- auditions, valued gatekeepers and alumni network that can attend your shows;

  • and your personal relationships: do you have a kid at home? Local will probably win out. Are the people involved in the travelling gig your close friends and it would be of great value for you to reconnect? Is it an opportunity to reconnect with family in the region? Have you already got 200 days booked this year and you’re heading to burnout? Pick the local gig and a home-cooked meal.


Advanced Decision-making: a bird in the hand…

In your mid-career you will start to recognize patterns in your work schedule. For example, a pro choral singer may often have steady work with summer festivals like the Oregon Bach Festival and the Carmel Bach Festival that often rehire the same singers year-after-year and provide a living wage. A larger voiced bass may find work every New Year’s Eve singing a symphonic Beethoven’s Ninth. Someone engaged in the Young Artist Program mainstage circuit is likely going to have full summers for years to come.

I’ve been working steadily as a professional concert tenor for eight years. In the past five years, I’ve reached full-time status in terms of wages and, what I consider full-time (~120 days a year on the road, 30-40 days a year working locally, and another career working data analytics from 7am-3pm during the week.) (Read my post, Up in the Air for a different look at what “full time” can mean.)

Every year, my December (Messiahs) and March/April (Bach. All of the Bach.) are bananas. Roughly 75% of my performance income comes in these three months. One year I had 11 Messiahs/Christmas Oratorios from November 25th to Christmas. This coming year I have five major contracts in March including two A-list symphony gigs. In 2019, I am booked December 1st to December 24th (and then all the church-y Christmas at home until New Year’s.) Yay me #blessed.

All this is to say, if I have an offer in one of those three months, I have a lot to think about. For example, I recently had an offer of an elite pro choral gig smack in the middle of December for two weeks. After a lot of thought, I said yes because:

  • It was the first offer from this group. In my experience, if you turn something down before you build a relationship and get rehired, they likely will not come knocking again;

  • I already had a Messiah with an A-list conductor scheduled in early December. Worst case scenario I was still on the map as a Messiah soloist in 2019;

  • The pro choral gig involves a lot of my work friends I’ve built up over the past seven years and it will be incredible to sing with them all again in a group setting;

  • I LOVE pro choral singing, it’s such a different feel from solo singing and bringing pro choral work into my schedule has rejuvenated my love of singing in an important way. Mixing solo and pro choral singing together in a season is a wonderful way to change things up;

  • This particular gig rehires mostly the same singers every year with at least a month of full-time, well-paid work every year. A ton of potential upside for future years;

  • The schedule is reasonable (no three-a-days), and there are two days off in the middle where my wife can visit (with my newborn boy! For another post. Oy. #childcare #howdoesthisevenwork)

  • Seven days of performances with days free means I can work my data analytics during the day and not lose a full week of income.

Almost immediately after I said yes to this gig, I received two offers: a $1,200 Bach Christmas Oratorio in a major city and a $1,000 quickie small city Messiah. Both would have required very little practice (I have both works memorized) compared with a challenging choral program of new music. I would have gained about 20 hours of practice time. And I would have ended up being away about half the time for a similar amount of money. It means I spend longer away from my wife and boy. Sigh.

It’s close, but I still think I made the right decision. I factored in my daily rate, the amount of time I was away, and the likelihood I would have received additional Messiahs (high) and the fact I already had one on the books, and it made sense.

As an up-and-coming artist, you will find yourself in impossible situations, where you feel lost, you’ve received conflicting advice and have no idea how to proceed. Some influential mentor might tell you if you don’t go to So-and-So summer festival and study with them over the summer, you’re throwing your career away. In these cases, it helps to have an impartial toolkit you can draw on to help you decide. It doesn’t all have to be about the dollars and cents, but some simple math and understanding of opportunity cost can help you decide if an offer really is a great opportunity, or you should pass it up for something better. And sometimes that something better is nothing at all.


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