A full-time singing career costs a million dollars. Seriously.
Imagine you have a million dollars, and someone offers you a wager. ”Invest it all with me,” she says. “We’ll wait 10 years, at which point you’ll have nothing 99 times out of a hundred.”
“Hmm,” you think, “that 1% must be one hell of a payoff with those odds.”
“Oh,” she says, “you’ll get nothing that time, too. Actually, not quite.” She pulls out a calculator, punches in a few numbers, and smirks. “That 1% of the time, you’ll owe me…$600,000.”
Would you take that bet?
If you’re a full-time performing artist, you already have.
For full-time performers, the game is rigged. There is simply no chance of making it given the start-up costs of building an arts business and maintaining it over time in a high cost of living city. The best-case scenario is you walk away early and have time to rebuild. The worst-case scenario is you have a middling career, strung along with a few opportunities every year, just enough to keep you going, and you are staring down the barrel of 40 at a mountain of debt with no other skills.
Below I’ll show you four case studies demonstrating that the inability to continue in a performing career and support yourself financially has very little to do with the expenses of running an opera business, although they are onerous. Or your abilities as a performer, although it is a necessary condition to be best-in-class. Success has to do with two major decisions you make when you are most vulnerable and know the least about the business: the amount you pay for your undergraduate and graduate school education, and the cost of living in the city where you build your career.
The only way to make a financially viable, long-term career from opera, based on those two expenses, is to build a dual career and to avoid the initial pitfalls of both student debt and supersonic living expenses. If you have debt, you’re 25, you live in NYC and have devoted 100% of your energy towards music, it doesn’t matter how many auditions you score, how many competitions you win, or how fast you build your career. You will never be able to climb over the mountain of red from your education and your living expenses. And by the time you realize that, it will be too late.
1. NYC: The Full-Time Performer Trap
If you live in New York, how many full-time singers do you know? Tons, right? According to my Facebook feed, I know at least a hundred.
How many full-time performers do you know still living there at 40, without the aid of a second job? A few, perhaps, who have sunk into treading-water purgatory in one of the top choirs in the city, making just enough to get by.
And how many of those have been doing it full-time for 10 years or longer?
To paraphrase Elizabeth Warren, I have a math for that.
Below is a table of what you might expect a full-time singer’s finances to look like over the next 16 years. I’ve based the table on the following assumptions:
The artist is engaged in a full-time undergraduate program in Music for four years, followed by a two year’s Master’s program. (An MA in music appears to be the table stakes for most opera companies these days.) Recent data suggest that the average tuition per year of an undergraduate degree in the US is $33,450, a Master’s costs $29,960 a year, and we can expect those costs to increase, on average, 8% a year.
The artist is based in NYC or a similar-sized market (London, UK) with a cost of living of roughly $36,000 a year and increasing with inflation (2%) every year. Cost of living includes basic expenses, such as “housing, utilities, rent or mortgage payments, food, clothing, taxes, and medical expenses”.
Business expenses are those the artist incurs to build their singing career: audition fees, travel, supplies such as scores, the inevitable pay-to-sing here and there, coachings, lessons, to name a few. These are conservative estimates, leading up to a $5k estimate per year (2019 dollars) once you graduate, adjusted 2% yearly for inflation.
Performance full-time gross income. This is what you might expect to make from gigs, below, if your career is a rocket ship. I’ve built in a few gigs in school, growing every year, with a big jump after graduation for a church gig and 20% income growth every year post-grad. This is someone who is not only getting rehired every year by organizations, but is probably winning major competitions (amortized into the 20% over 10 years) and improving their lot every year, to the point where they are comfortably singing full-time by 2034.
And now, math:
What can someone expect to make over the course of an undergrad degree, a graduate degree, and a NYC-based opera career full-time?
Over the course of a career starting in 2019, I would expect a full-time performer 16 years in to have LOST nearly $600,000. Wait, what?
In this time, you made over $400,000. Woot. Artists have value!
The problem is, it cost you a million dollars to make $400,000. Your cost of living over this time is $677,000. And your tuition ended up costing nearly a quarter of a million.
Your business expenses for your opera career aren’t so bad in comparison, a measly $88,000. (And that doesn’t even include the butcher’s cut for an agent, 20% for concert and 10% for opera work.)
Without cost of living and your tuition, you made $312,000 over 16 years, or $19,500 a year on average. But your cost of living was nearly twice that- even if you went to school for free, you’d still be underwater.
If there are any people living in NYC decades into a full-time performing career (just performing, no teaching or side-gig), they had most of the following advantages:
They have a patron, likely their parents, covering their living expenses like housing, food, and healthcare, and paying for them to be able to attend pay-to-sings and below minimum-wage prestigious summer festivals like Glimmerglass or Wolf Trap;
They live out of a suitcase. In reality, that means they don’t pay rent, but their parents pay the cost of storing all their possessions for the next decade and their friends pay the cost of housing and utilities when they are crashing in NYC for auditions, often for weeks at a time;
They have a partner who makes a lot of money, who can cover the tens of thousands of dollars in expenses and debt the artist can’t pay and cover their own expenses;
They are in perfect health, able-bodied, and have never had an emergency;
They don’t have health insurance or are on their parents’ health insurance;
They did not pay for their schooling or received a full scholarship;
They have had a major player in the field, such as a coach, teacher, or agent go to bat for them many times;
They won major competitions early on like the Met or Singer of the World and were smart about saving it all for the lean years;
They haven’t had lean years. Or even lean months. Ever. In terms of probability, they’ve rolled a 20 on a 20-sided die 100 times in a row.
There is almost no chance you are this person or will be this person. I’m not even sure this person exists post-Great Recession.
2. NYC: The Side-Gig Trap
The self-sufficient full-time singer waiting tables in New York is also a myth in 2019, at least in long-term viability. Below is a table of what someone working a living wage in New York or Brooklyn can expect based on the following assumptions:
They work 20 hours a week in college and grad school in a living wage job ($17.46 according to recent data)- perhaps as a class proctor, librarian, or work-study position, or in the service industry as an assistant manager or waiter at a mid-level dinner spot on weekends.
Out of grad school, they work about two-thirds time in a similar position (likely the middle or upper-middle of the service industry, or an entry-level admin role at a big firm) and, on average, one-third of the time gigging in New York or abroad. (And one-third for coaching and lessons. And one-third for auditions. We’re running out of thirds.)
Even with the additional $571,000 from their living wage job and $145,000 from performing, they still are in the red nearly $284,000. The problem again is expenses: 16 years in, they can’t get to a million on this income. They’re a lot closer to their goal than the “full-time” performer, but they still fall way, way short.
In the meantime, their career hasn’t progressed nearly as far as their colleagues in the first group. Based on the final performing income of $26,000, they are likely still doing a lot of mediocre, regional gigs and some church subbing, with no major A-list gigs. Maybe they have enough time off for one B-level opera gig a year.
It takes an immense amount of time and energy to build a performing career and they just couldn’t put the same amount in as the first group. They’re making roughly the same in 2034 as the full-time lottery winners in the first group in terms of income (NOT accounting for debt), but it doesn’t feel like it- the music opportunities are smaller and less fulfilling, and the bulk of their time is spent not on creative work, but in a monotonous job with no hope for advancement. Despite the financial improvement, this might be the worst-case scenario.
3. NYC with a Dual Career
Now what if you spend the time and energy building a dual career in New York while you’re performing?
For most, by year 16 this will be a robust vocal studio where you are charging a minimum of $60 an hour for coaching or lessons 25 hours a week, or 10-15 students a week at $100 or more an hour, taking summers off teaching for auditioning, additional training, and gigs. For others it will be a mid-level office job with career advancement and a generous leave policy, or a tenure-track academic position, or a second flourishing freelance business. Perhaps you run a small graphic design studio and work with Fortune 500 companies- when you’re on, you’re on (no music) and when you’re off, you’re a singer at auditions and gigs and rely on that income.
Even here, batting a thousand with a six-figure income and a comfortable middle-class life, they are still not going to hit a million dollars. They will still have $94,000 in student or credit card debt hanging over their head. The cost of an education and an apartment in New York is too much to bear.
Still, they are almost out of the woods. If the artist continues in this direction, they will be financially solvent by their mid-40s, although with no emergency savings and nothing squirreled away for swiftly approaching retirement. Not as bad as the first two options, but compared to other one-in-a-million shots like the NFL or Hollywood, it’s still brutal.
4. Dual Career in a Medium Cost of Living City
Now let’s take the above example with a twist: let’s reboot their career in a medium-cost of living, big-market adjacent city like Pittsburgh or Baltimore. (Again, living wage numbers for this bracket drawn from MIT’s ‘Living Wage’ website.)
We’re in the green to the tune of +$104k!
Our total expenses dropped from a million to $800,000- that’s a $200k career savings just by leaving New York and taking the train in a few times a month. We’ve paid off all our student debt, and even saved up for a little 2-bedroom condo to hang our hat. We have Airpods and an iPhone 11. And a cat! Life is good, and in our mid-30s we can see a comfortable middle-class life on the horizon.
And what if we added a 50% scholarship?
Now we’re crushing it to the tune of +$221k. We only spent $683k to get here and made $905k along the way.
We paid off our student debt years ago. We bought a cute little 3-bedroom in the suburbs, and we’re saving away money for retirement. We remodeled the kitchen and host bougey dinner parties. We have airbuds, an iPhone 11, and TWO cats. We are still jealous of all the full-time singers taking Instagram photos of the opera scores they need to learn on their hotel beds (#giglife #blessed #busy). But our local and regional work keeps us busy, and every once in a while, we get to work with our old superstar friends at a symphony or an opera gig.
What did we learn in this terrifying thought experiment?
This career is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes years, sometimes decades to build a book of business and requires an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money. If you are dedicated to full-time performing in a high cost of living city, you are going to run out of one of those three things -most likely money-, and then your race is finished. You will have to start over in a new career with a mountain of debt, no strong personal ties from constant travel, no work contacts, and, more likely than not, a slew of health problems from avoiding the health care system and its debilitating costs for a decade as a freelancer. You may have to pay for school all over again.
If you run it like a marathon, building a book of business slowly but surely year-after-year, growing outward locally, then regionally, then nationally, and in the meantime supporting yourself through other skills, you will have a chance to win the race. (Just stay off Instagram for your own mental health. #giglife #blessed #busy)
The two most important decisions you make as a professional artist are how much you pay for school and where you build your career. If you pay full sticker price for your education, financially it will be almost impossible for you to recover. And, even with a full scholarship, if you move to a high-cost of living city, it will be almost impossible for you financially to kickstart your arts career where the first step is pay-to-sing and $5/hour bootstrap opera gigs. These two decisions, education and location, are the biggest predictors of financial success as a long-term performer. If you want a career measured in decades, not years, you need to address these two problems early. If you did pay full sticker price, you are going to have to cut back on your dreams for a while and reduce your cost of living to as close to zero as possible. Move back home, live frugally, and build a second set of skills. And work like a dog for a decade building two careers at once, because you have to invest even more time and money in your business if you don’t live in a central hub.)
The third most important decision as a singer is what your second set of skills is, and how you can profit from them to propel your performing career. If you can build a second set of skills that plays to your strengths alongside your artist career, and grow this business to where you can rely on it for income throughout your career, your lifetime financial bottom line will be much improved.
Perhaps one in ten thousand opera singers make it financially on their singing alone in a high-end city, but for the rest of us: keep your school costs down, live in a medium-sized urban market, and develop a second set of reasonably well-paying skills. If you can do those three things, you just might finish this marathon.