The scary math behind singer fees.

March 15, 2019

In honor of tax time, here's some scary singer math. 

 

I make my living primarily by travelling as a professional tenor soloist 4-5 months a year to perform with symphonies, choruses, and chamber orchestras.
 

The gross (very important word) fees are great compared to local work. I can expect on average around $2,000 USD a performance for the performance of a major work.

 

However, I see less than half of that in my bank account.

On a $2,000 USD fee to sing a work with orchestra, here is how I can expect that fee to break down:
• 20% goes to my agent (10% for opera): $400
• 20% goes to the federal government: $400
• 15% goes to self-employment taxes: $300
• Estimated 6% goes to coaching for the gig (2 hours per gig): $120. This varies wildly, on average I don’t need a coaching, but for my last new music piece I needed 9 hours of coaching.
• Travel and Accommodation: Even if they provide a place to stay, you are often paying for at least your cabs to local airport and getting around town: $100
• Food: as a soloist you need to spend time with your colleagues going out to restaurants and bars, on average for a week gig you can expect to spend about $150 in going out after shows and lunches.
(I also don’t pay state income tax, whereas most singers would lop off another $120 to their state. If you’re singing in NYC or LA/SF that's another 6+%.)

 

FEE-EXPENSES=TAKE-HOME.

 

$2,000-$400-$400-$300-$120-$100-$150= -sad tuba sound-
 

In sum, on a fee of $2,000, I expect to take home about a quarter of that: just $500. For concert work I take home about 25 cents of every dollar I make on the road. If my flight or hotel is not paid, or if I’m working for an up-by-their-bootstraps type organization (read: not a symphony) I will often lose money.

 

I can still make a good living doing this, but it requires huge sacrifices and a slavish devotion to penny-counting and constant prospecting for work.


Here are some key takeaways from this for young singers:

A hometown symphony or opera gig is critical for survival. That means you need to be in a big enough city to support a large orchestra and an opera house that doesn't pay in cheeseburgers.

If you are not saving at least 40% of your fee just for expenses and taxes, you are losing money on every gig. With careful management of your expenses on the road and an aggressive tax strategy, you can get your fees and expenses down to the 30-35% range, but to be safe you should budget for 40 cents of every dollar you earn to go to someone else.
You will need another career, preferably a non-freelancer one to avoid SE taxes/fees, for a long time. Possibly forever.

An agent is a huge cost. Be sure they are worth the $5,000+ haircut. I have one -shout out to Dean Artists Management!- and I value their work immensely. However, many singers do just fine without it.

(A sidenote for choral singers: because agent fees are such a huge part of a soloists costs and often solo gigs will not pay the full travel costs, a well-run pro chorus that takes care of you from A-Z can pay more than most solo gigs.)

Sticker price fee is almost meaningless. You always need to understand what you’re getting into in terms of travel, accommodation, whether your agent is taking a cut, what exactly is paid for and when you get paid. A corollary of this is sometimes a $600 local recital pays just as much after fees as a gig with a major symphony. 

Your cost of living -what city you live in, what you spend on groceries- and your additional income starting out are the single most important determining factors of whether you will be a successful singer. Great singing is a necessary, but not sufficient condition. If you are only taking home 25 cents of every dollar you make on the road, that means a $5 Starbucks Frappucino at the airport actually costs you $20: you need to make $20 (-$15 in taxes and fees) to pay for it.

• Because of the Frappuccino dilemma, you need a huge amount of gross income from many sources to survive as a singer. That means besides practicing, your most important activity is business development. Generate leads from people you know and follow-up with a recording or CD. Expecting best case for a contact to hire you every two years, you are going to need somewhere between 30 and 60 professional contacts (artistic administrators, conductors, choir directors, agents) who can hire or recommend you for gigs to make a full-time living. An unexpected corollary of this is a multi-year commitment to a YAP program can be a massive risk to your career development. If you are spending 2-3 years devoted to one contact (such as a young artist program or other apprenticeship), you are unable to start building the network of dozens of contacts you need to survive. And if that contact falls through, or they get bored and just start using the next cheap singer who comes up the ranks, you may never be able to make up the lost time spent on developing that relationship.

 

My next few posts will focus on the financial challenges of the early freelance artist career: how you can survive in year one, and how to manage your finances in a way that sets you up for success. Stay tuned!

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