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Do Artist Apprenticeships Pay a Living Wage?

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

By Jack Lindberg and Jordan W. Pitts

The dream of many young classical singers is to be accepted into a Young Artist Program (YAP). These apprenticeship programs run by opera companies offer young singers training with top professionals, performance opportunities, and a chance to build an international career. YAPs offer a shiny promise for young singers trying to gain a foothold in the industry: "Join our program, and we will provide you the skills and training to succeed and enough money to live on while you build your career." But do they deliver on that promise?

This article shows that the promise made to young singers is not always kept. Jordan Weatherston Pitts, tenor, and creator of the Young Artist Community Tracker, has collected economic data from current members and alumni from fifty-five young artist programs. We use Pitt's compensation data, in conjunction with data provided by the MIT Living Wage Calculator and, to estimate each program's offer of stipend, housing, and benefits adjusted for a location-specific weekly cost of living. With this information, we can answer the question, "Do YAPs pay enough to live on?". Across the 55 programs studied, we show three key takeaways:

1) Approximately a third of programs pay less than a living wage.

2) More than 75% of small budget companies (250K or less annual budget) pay less than a living wage.

3) 58% of companies pay less than 1.25x a living wage. For example, one of the largest companies in the US pays its young artists less than $20 a week above a living wage.

YAPs sell themselves on experience and exposure, Finkelstein finds in Young Artist, Big Business. However, that service comes at a tremendous financial cost. Singers at YAPs working for less than minimum wage may be getting ahead in their careers, but still struggle to pay their bills. Building off Zach Finkelstein's previous work, we standardize compensation schemes of a wide range of YAPs to help emerging singers make more informed decisions about the financial side of participation -- will a YAP leave them financially "in the black" or insolvent? With the economic instability brought on by the pandemic, the answer to this question is more important than ever.

While almost all Young Artist programs offer a weekly stipend, benefits and reimbursements vary widely. Some offer a combination of housing, travel, soloist rates for roles, and health benefits, while some offer none of these. For example, one YAP required Pitts to drive far afield in his own car for unscheduled concerts with no reimbursement for gas.

Compensation alone, however, does not tell the full picture. It's not enough to ask, "How much does this program pay?" but rather, "Does this program pay enough?". We can estimate this by weighing compensation against living wage. According to MIT, a living wage covers:

"minimum food, childcare, health insurance, housing, transportation, and other necessities, such as clothing and personal care items…The living wage is the minimum income standard that, if met, draws a very fine line between the financial independence of the working poor and the need to seek out public assistance or suffer consistent and severe housing and food insecurity…The living wage is perhaps better defined as a minimum subsistence wage for persons living in the United States."

While above the federal poverty level, a living wage does not include provisions for many of the comforts, essential business expenses like flights and coachings, and financial planning goals most of us hope to afford. It does not allow for additional business and quality of life expenses such as eating out, tickets to a show, a gym membership, audition wear, headshots, vacations, caring for your pet, emergencies, or saving to buy a house or retire. It is most certainly not an income level with any luxuries. First, we show the overall percentages of income above/below a living wage for all 55 companies; summer/educational programs are in the alternate colors (light red/gray).

We find that many YAPs leave their young artists in the red; of the 55 YAPs, 18 paid below or within 1% of a living wage. Most of the net loss YAPs are summer/educational programs. However, seven of these summer festivals paid at least 20% above the living wage.

Most full-season YAPs pay at or above a living wage. The best-paid YAP is 119% above living wage and the lowest pays 13% below a living wage. That is the difference between relative comfort and extreme poverty. In general, full-season programs put one more "in the black" than other programs.

We divide programs into groups based on budget size, an industry standard for approximate size and influence of a company:

  • A majority of listed opera companies have a budget of less than $1 million a year, while only 16% have a budget of over $15 million.

The next charts highlight the differences in compensation across the budget levels:

As the company budget decreases, their YAPs are less likely to provide a living wage:

  • About two-thirds with a budget between $250K and $1M paid less than a living wage, and three-quarters with a budget under $250K paid less than a living wage.

  • The larger budget companies are better overall, but some still put their young singers in financial danger.

Pitts recalls one YAP where he covered a leading role, and was involved as a singer/dancer in three shows:

“I only got paid $125 a week. Some days, we rehearsed 10 hours. They made us sing at an auction gala where over the course of the evening, the opera company raised hundreds of thousands of dollars - well over the amount needed to pay the young artists a living wage."

Companies that pay just above living wage force their singers to live paycheck-to-paycheck, just one emergency or misstep away from financial disaster. If we concede that paying only slightly above living wage (up to 25% more) also is risky, 32 out of 55 total programs (58%) surveyed do not provide adequate wages for their singers, including two of the highest budget programs and eight AGMA (union) houses.

To give credit where credit is due, we should commend the two YAPs doing the most to pay their young artists: Houston Grand Opera and Memphis Opera. They are the only two companies among the 55 surveyed to pay their young artists, when adjusted for cost of living, more than double a living wage. Company size cannot explain it: Houston is in the rarefied company of $15M+ budget companies, but Memphis’ budget, according to recent 990s, lies in the $1-$2M range.

Of course, the lower cost of living in these locations helps to make this possible, and programs in more expensive locales face additional challenges. But these two companies show us that reasonable compensation is possible if there is a will.

Young artist programs can provide valuable experience and connections to singers, but many come at a substantial financial cost. Too many full-year YAPS leave their participants living paycheck-to-paycheck at best, and many prestigious summer opera programs are a net financial loss for artists. In the end, young singers must realize they pay for the privilege of these programs. Currently, only those who can afford to sing for insufficient wages can take part in the YAP system. This leaves those without the financial means on the outside, looking in at an industry that excludes them not for their ability to sing but for their inability to pay.

As an industry, we must discuss the financial risks and rewards for those starting in their careers and recognize that an industry standard of participation in YAPs leaves young artists in financial danger and opens doors only for the privileged, those who can spend five summers in a row with no money to show for it. This closes the door on many, especially POC and minority artists who are less likely to come from privilege.

How can we hope to continue cultivating the artists of tomorrow if the financial barriers to entry are so steep? How can we create a diverse community of artists based on financial exclusion? We do not have the answers today. We do know though, that in the devastating economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 epidemic, most YAPs cannot offer a place of refuge.


Jack Lindberg, countertenor, trained at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Yale University.

Jordan Weatherston Pitts (New York City Opera, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Opera Saratoga) is an American operatic tenor that is passionate about young artist advocacy and performs regularly both in the USA and Europe. 

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