How do you survive in Year One?
This post is for students, recent grads or those in their 20s and 30s trying to figure out how to string together an income from performing classical music. I’ll be focusing on what economists call a “living wage”- essentially, what it will cost you to stay alive in a major city. This includes food, housing, transportation, medical, insurance, and taxes. Additional costs you will need to consider are student debt and the cost of running your business as a singer.
The focus of this post will be on the challenges of Year One as a professional artist. We’ll try and fill the year with music income, using two different American cities and singers as case studies for success.
Your most important decision in Year One is not where you go to band camp next summer- it is where you decide to live. Do you move to a larger city like NY or LA with easy access to auditions? Do you live at home and commute? If you moved for school, do you stay there where the bulk of your connections are? Do you pack up and leave for [insert non-US greener pasture]?
The decision cannot be based on your emotional attachment to a particular place or school or group of people. For you to survive the next stage of your young artist career, you must base your decision on your personal finances: your cost of living and your expected income. If you can keep your income higher than your expenses for the next 10 years, and you build your skillset as a great singer, you will become a professional. If you cannot keep your income above expenses for the next 10 years, it doesn’t matter how good a singer you are- you will fail.
To produce enough music income, you will want to live in at least a mid-size city with a healthy range of local and regional opportunities. From top to bottom, these could include:
• A nationally recognized opera house. Net (after taxes and expenses) soloist fees for an early-career artist could be as high as $5000/month. Net chorus fees may be closer to $2000/month, depending on the size of the market. Compared to the odds of making your Met Debut, your chance of getting an opera chorus job out of school are decent. (Still an incredible challenge.) Chorus work is the bedrock of income for many young singers. This should be your first stop when moving to a city.
• A nationally recognized symphony. Net soloist fees could be as much as $3000-$5,000/per week. (As for chorus, most symphonies don't pay, and if they do, it's very little.) Tracking down the artistic administrator of the national symphony and sending them a recent recording of an orchestral work should be your top priority.
• Regional opera house. Depending on the quality of the house, income can vary drastically. I’ve seen as low as $500 for an opera run. If it’s an AGMA house though, you can expect $1,000 a week as a soloist. Choruses will pay very little and it varies widely by market. Probably not worth your time to sing in the chorus. It’s worth a coffee with a local singer to find out.
• Regional orchestras. Income can vary widely as well, anywhere from $500 to $2,500 a week. Because of their low fees and budgets, they will be looking for fresh, young (cheap) singers. These should be a top priority for you coming up the ranks.
• Local opera houses/bootstrap opera companies/opera on tap. These will pay you, on net, nothing. They are fun, and can sometimes lead to paid work, and are good for learning roles. However, your time starting out is an incredibly valuable resource and this should not be the focus of your search.
• Local chamber orchestras and choirs. Pay here can be surprisingly good for a young musician, but there is no floor. Without travel fees, you can very easily net $2,000 a week from a top city choir as a soloist. However, you can make as little as $200 a performance if you are not willing to stand firm and negotiate.
• Professional choirs, church choirs. Many professional city choirs and church choirs will be eager to hire you as a section lead. Be careful of the time you are willing to commit. It can make up a great deal of income starting out, but it can also prevent you from pursuing critical opportunities. December and April could easily be 90% of your professional solo income- committing to churches during these times for an international soloist is a big mistake. However, starting out you will need the income. A full-time church gig in a major city, along with a professional choir can easily net $8,000 to as much as a full-time wage depending on the market.
• Recitals. until you become an established professional, recitals are a black hole of time and money. Teachers and mentors will likely suggest you “make your own opportunities” coming out of school by putting on your own recitals. However, you can easily lose a month of your practice and work time to an opportunity like this, and it will very likely make you no money and lead to very little professional opportunity. Getting people out to recitals is almost impossible. A well-crafted, professional email with a link to your recording is a much more effective use of your time.
These local and regional opportunities should be the bulk of your focus starting out. They will provide you immediate performing experience and income.
Opportunities outside your regions, such as young artist programs, national and international symphonies and opera companies, and competitions are certainly worth a shot. However, you will have to decide if it is worth the loss of income for the small chance of success. (And yes, YAPs are lost income, even paid ones.)
The city you choose will have to provide both enough performance income and opportunity to move up to make a living, and ideally have a low cost of living so you can build these opportunities without living on rice and beans for 10 years.
To show how important cost of living is, below are two case studies of two singers, one “successful” and one “failure”.
Singer 1, Busy Dave in LA, 22
Busy Dave’s off to a great start. He found an apartment with roommates, he was the star of his conservatory on full scholarship, and he found a few local high-school students to teach. Out of 10 YAPs he applied to, he got into 2 and will be going to a top-notch, A-list summer program for 12 weeks. He won a major competition for lieder in Europe for $5,000. He’s the star of his local church, doing the solos for free as section leader, but hey it’s experience. From his school connections, he landed a role in one of the local opera chorus productions and he is working as a section lead at the LA chorale. He even jumped into a local California symphony as a Messiah soloist and he’s doing Don G with a local bootstrap opera company.
If Busy Dave was your student, you’d be so proud of his accomplishments! Here’s how his year broke down, though:
Top-tier Young Artist Program: -$800. He applied to 10 programs and had to fly to NYC three times. The $400/week he’s making at Shmimmerglass barely covers that, and he’s lost three months of potential income in LA while he has to pay his rent.
Competition: he made $5,000, but he had to fly to Sweden ($1,500) at the last minute. (He’ll probably net about $2,000.)
Freelance Teaching: $5000.
Local church section lead: $7,000.
Opera chorus: $1,500
LA Chorale section lead parttime: $4,000
California symphony Messiah: $2,000
Bootstrap Don G: -$50 after gas money.
Gross income: $23,650
Singer expenses (travel, coaching, etc.): $5,000
Net income: $18,650
Living Wage (Poverty Level) in LA: $30,602
Dave had a great year performing. He still lost nearly $12,000 USD in his first year and he had to borrow money from his family to survive.
Singer 2, Smart Suzy in Minneapolis, Age 24
All of Suzy’s friends moved to NYC and LA and San Francisco to make it big after school and are doing GREAT. Suzy’s a failure though: she moved back home to live with her parents in Minneapolis. She spent the summer after school as the young artist apprentice at Minneapolis Opera and has landed a small role this year as Frasquita in Carmen, as well as chorus in two of their productions. From her summer apprenticeship, she also caught the attention of the Minneapolis Symphony arts administrator, who hired her for the local Messiah, and again for a Beethoven 9 in the Spring. She bricked on all her young artist applications: she has nothing lined up for next summer and is FREAKING OUT. She has a steady string of local choral work, as section leader in her local church and in the local pro choir. Turns out, Minneapolis has an amazing choral scene and she’s made great friends along the way. She doesn’t teach, but through her connections at church she found a full-time job working in HR at a medium-sized local business. The owner is a singer in the local choir as well, and loves the fact that Suzy is trying to make it as a singer. He gives her as much (unpaid) time off as she needs to gig and take auditions. In her office job, Suzy is learning how to interact as a professional, do research, and improve her writing skills, but she wishes she was singing more like her friend Dave in LA.
Small role in Carmen: $5,000 (no travel expenses)
Two major works at the Minneapolis symphony: $7,000
Local church section lead: $8,000.
Opera chorus in two productions: $3,000
Elite pro choir: $3,000
Full-time HR job: $36,000
Gross income: $62,000
Singer expenses (travel, coaching, etc.): $5,000
Net income before taxes: $57,000
Living Wage (Poverty Level) in Minneapolis: $25,669.
Suzy is living at home, so subtract $8,484 from her minimum income.
She only needs to make $17,185 a year living in Minneapolis.
Suzy the failure, after taxes, nets about $25,000 USD this year, which she put towards her retirement and savings and paying off her student loans. She is well on her way to a life as a professional singer.
What are the key takeaways here?
• Becoming a professional singer has almost nothing to do with the pedigree of your young artist program CV or elite conservatory or how many competitions you win. It is all about your ability to survive for a decade or longer while trying to build a professional career.
• If you start local and build out, particularly in a place you’ve built connections, you will have a much better chance of immediate survival than reaching for moonshot $10,000 prizes and top tier apprenticeships.
• Big cities can be a valuable resource, but they are also a money trap. You can always take the savings you build from living in a smaller, lower cost of living area and commute into auditions or rehearsals.
• Every dollar counts. Student loans and business expenses, as well as health insurance and rent are all critical factors in making it as a professional singer. Swallow your pride, accept your privilege, and save money where you can.
• Building a dual career at the same time, like Suzy, can complement your skillset as a musician and still allow you the opportunities to perform and build a middle-class lifestyle and a family.
Dave is miserable. Suzy is happy. Be Suzy.
(Note: all cost of living calculations drawn from MIT’s wonderful living wage calculator.)