There is a gravitational force, a cosmic pull for all artists towards the spotlight. We can’t help but dream of winning the title role, performing the star-making solo to a crowd of adoring fans. We think we have something special to offer the world, and we’ve been conditioned in our training and early career to think of arias and art songs as the only way forward to a vocal career.
But flying solo isn’t the only way. And it’s certainly not the best way to get to a living wage or a healthy middle-class income. If you’re willing to check your ego at the door, there are many other ways to make a healthy living as a professional singer without all the stress.
The focus of this article will be on one of those ways: vocal chamber music. Here I’ll define a vocal chamber ensemble as a group of elite singers, either local or national, that come together for a week or more at a time and perform classic and new American choral works, either a capella or with orchestra. First, I’ll outline the financial elements, breaking down singer fees into six categories and providing three case studies to show that solo gigs aren’t always your best option. Then I’ll talk about the current American vocal chamber music scene and why you should take a closer look at this undervalued category of professional singing.
Artist Fees, Revisited
As I’ve mentioned before, your gross fee, the dollar sign an organization puts in your contract, is not what you actually make. Sometimes it’s not even close to what you will take-home. Understanding the difference between gross and net income is critical to surviving as a professional musician. Gross income is the line you put on your taxes; it’s what everyone says they are paying you. Net income is what you got paid (after fees, taxes, expenses.) Gross income is what your life looks like on Instagram (#blessed). Net income is what you look like in a Burger King bathroom applying make-up before your NOLA audition (#stressed). Know the difference.
To determine your net income, you need to look at six categories of information:
The artist fee. This is what is on your contract and what is called, for tax purposes, gross income. If this fee is low, it might be called an honorarium or stipend. (Note: if someone pulls out a thesaurus to replace the word ‘fee’, run away.)
Per-diem. Are you being paid money for the days you spend at a gig? Some very clever organizations pay your fee as part per diem, reducing the net amount going to your agent and the government. Per-diems up to a certain amount per day (roughly $60), if they are set up correctly, are also non-taxable. This means that $1,000 fee is a lot worse than a $600 fee with a $400 per diem. (I’ll show more on this in our case studies.) Even if the presenting agent is on a tight budget, you can at least ask them to put part of your fee in per diem. Congrats, you just got a 20% raise on the same amount of money! #taxwizardry
Your agent. If you have an agent, how much are they taking from your gross income? This could be related to where you do the gig as well. It could be anywhere from 10% to your firstborn son. My agent takes 10% from opera and 20% from concert work and withholds an additional 13% tax on whatever they take for Ontario work, because, Canada. For example, if I do a gig in Ontario for $1,500, they take $339 (20% is $300, 13% of that is $39) or 22.6% of my overall fee. Woof.
Taxes. this is the most difficult part to figure out and it depends on where the gig is. You’ll owe federal taxes, self-employment taxes, and often state taxes, and sometimes a gig will withhold a ton of your fee (in Canada as much as 30%) if you are working in a foreign country as a non-resident. As a rule of thumb, budgeting 15% for federal, 15% for self-employment, and 8-10% for state taxes is a healthy guesstimate (38-40%). In other words, 40 cents of every dollar you make goes to taxes. I said it in my first article, and I’ll say it again: if you’re not saving 40% of your paycheck for taxes, you’re losing money.
Travel, accommodations, and other reimbursements. This is the most critical category and the one you have the most control over in the negotiation process. Companies may not have the budget for additional fees, but there’s always a donor who will put you up or an orchestra member who can drive you to the gig. Understanding what part of your fee goes to this category will determine if you make any money at all on your gig. If it’s not local, you need to know the following:
Are they paying your big-ticket travel, either flight, rental car/mileage for your car, or train?
Are they paying for ancillary travel expenses such as baggage fees, Ubers to the airport, and travel to rehearsals and gigs? This is the most common thing I see missing from contracts and can add up very quickly. For example, if I fly somewhere and they do not pay for baggage fees (2X$30), they don’t pick me up at the airport (4x$30), and they don’t arrange transportation to rehearsals and the concert (4x$15), that can easily add up to $240 on a $2000 fee, more than 10% of my gross income.
Are they providing snacks during your call or drinks/food after rehearsal? This is different from per diem but still needs a line item in your budget. For example, most people need to eat something at the breaks of a four-hour rehearsal. And often you will need to go out at night with people to schmoozefests or bars- sometimes an organization will pay for it, sometimes they won’t. Often you are required to buy food and drink to participate in a schmoozefest. This can easily add another $150 a week to your budget, especially if you are in a food desert.
How long is the gig? Time is money. $2000 for 5 days work is a lot better than $4000 for a month away from home. This becomes more and more important as you grow in your career and start to build local work and a family. The easiest way to standardize your gross income is to math (clap) it (clap) up (clap): FEE* (7/X) where X is the number of days you are gone.
For example, let’s say you are doing a Verdi Requiem for $5,000 with the Chattanooga Symphony and you’re gone for 9 days including travel days. That’s $5000* (7/9)= $3,888 gross fee per week. Not too shabby.
Now that we understand how to calculate net income, we can compare three opportunities for young singers: one opera, one concert work, and one vocal chamber gig.
Facebook Post 1 from Mary the Mezzo: I’m SO EXCITED to make my Carmen debut this coming February at Bootstrap Opera in Chicago! #dreamscancometrue
Mary Mezzo landed her biggest gig yet with the biggest fee she’s ever received: $2,500 USD per performance. She’s coached the role of Carmen for years and performed it in undergrad opera workshops, and can’t wait to sing her first with Bootstrap Opera. She’ll be gone for four weeks: three weeks of rehearsal and a final week of tech, dress, and (two) performances. Bootstrap is generously paying for her flight but doesn’t provide housing for its singers (most of the cast is local and don’t mind. It means they’re more likely to be hired.) The opera house does not provide a per diem or food and the only options to eat near the opera house, where cast members eat lunch every day for a month, are pricey.
What is Mary Mezzo’s net fee for her exciting Carmen debut?
Artist Fee- Her gross fee (2 performances@$2500 each) is $5,000 USD.
Per diem- no per diem for food and her artist fee is 100% taxable. At $30 a day for 28 days, Mary is going to have to pay $840 in meals for her time in Chicago.
Agent- Mary’s agent takes 10%, another $500.
Taxes- Mary is going to owe about 35% in federal, self-employed, and state tax, or $1,750.
Travel and Accommodation- this is the black hole in Mary’s budget. Even though there was a board member who would have put her up if she had asked, Mary’s agent didn’t push back on accommodation, so Mary found a short-term rental for $700 a week. She’ll pay $2800 for the privilege of living in Chicago this month, along with another $60 in baggage fees and another $60 in airport travel and transit. Overall her travel and accommodations will cost her $2,920.
Her net income for the month-long gig is $5,000-$840-$500-$1,750-$2,920=$-1,010.
Mary is losing about $250 a week performing Carmen for Bootstrap Opera.
2) Facebook Post #2 from Todd the Tenor: Jumping in 4 #ailingtenor #BLESSED #Beethoven9 #NewCitySymphony #tenor #opera #giglife
Todd’s agent landed him a prime jump-in opportunity with the New City Symphony (NCS), 3 performances of Beethoven’s 9th for $2,500 USD. Not as much money as his friend Mary was paid, but Todd’s excited to perform this piece with full orchestra! The rehearsal and performances will take 8 days, Todd’s hotel is covered, and the NCS provided a $300 travel stipend for his flight. It ended up being a little more than $300 and he needed to rent a car to get to and from the gig.
What is Todd’s net fee for his jump-in with New City Symphony?
Artist Fee- His gross fee (3 performances) is $2,500 USD.
Per diem- no per diem for food and her artist fee is 100% taxable. At $30 a day for 8 days in a major city, he is going to pay $240 in meals.
Agent- For concert work, Todd’s agent takes 20%, another $500. (Note: this is the same amount Mary’s agent took, and her fee was $5,000.)
Taxes- Unfortunately, because they gave him a travel “stipend” instead of paying for his flights directly, Todd is going to owe taxes on $2,800 USD. Taking out 35% in federal, self-employed, and state tax, he will owe $980 in taxes.
Travel and Accommodation- Todd’s flight and hotel are paid for and he packs light (no baggage fees), but unfortunately, he needs to drive around to rehearsals and that means a rental car, and the hotel charges $20 per night in parking. Car rental ($300) plus parking ($160) plus his hometown Ubers to the airport ($60) will cost him $520 in travel and accommodation.
Todd’s net income for his eight-day stay in New City is $2,500-$240-$500-$980-$520=$260.
Todd’s weekly income from this gig is ($260/(8/7)=$227/week or about $5.60 an hour. If Todd had sung this without an agent and negotiated travel and accommodations on his own, he would have made about six times that, or $1,200.
3) Cam the Quiet Chorister, Facebook Post 3: None. He’s not on social media.
Cam’s a member of a well-regarded group of male choral singers called The Bro Consort based in Minnesota. Four times a year, they perform in Minneapolis and St. Paul (4 performances), and they rehearse four times the week of a gig for 90 minutes at $75 a call and are paid $100 a performance. They premiere a new oratorio every other year from local composers and record it. Their last one was nominated for a Grammy. That got them a yearly gig with their local chamber orchestra and Cam gets a solo. When they tour, members travel the region by tour bus (paid for by the organization) and organize all meals and hotels. They tour four weeks a year and pay $100 a day with a $50 a day per diem.
What does Cam net per week as a member of The Bro Consort?
Artist Fee- for his four weeks of work at home, he makes (4*75)+(100*4), $700 a week. Four weeks of home gigs is $2800. Four the four weeks of tour, he makes ($100*28) another $2800 for a total of $5600 for eight weeks of work.
Per Diem- But wait, he’s also paid in per diem! For the four weeks of travel gigs he makes another (28*$50) $1,400! His gross income for performing with The Bro Consort over 8 weeks is $7,000 USD.
Agent- Cam hasn’t even considered the possibility of getting an agent. The conductor functions as tour manager and that’s good enough for Cam. -$0.
Taxes- he pays 15% federal and 8% state tax. However, the Bro Consort pays its members in wages, not as self-employed contractors. So, while Cam can’t deduct any of his expenses, he also doesn’t really have any- the group handles all his travel and he just shows up to sing. He is only on the hook for half of what he would normally owe in self-employment tax, 7%. But wait, there’s more! Because they pay $1,400 of his money in per diem, he only needs to pay taxes on the $5,600 “wages”. He will pay 30% of $5,600 or $1,680. That’s a lot, but only 24% of what he really makes.
Travel and Accommodation- hotel and tour bus covers all his touring expenses. Every once and a while he grabs a beer and a burger, but for the most part there’s always food lying around, and Cam makes sure to bring lots of snacks with him on tour. For four weeks of travel, he spends about $10 a day or $280 on travel.
Cam’s total net income is ($7,000-$1,680-$280) $5,040 for eight weeks of work, half of what he gets to spend at home. And when he’s home, rehearsals are nights and weekends, so he can work his Muggle job without losing any unpaid time. His net weekly income for this gig is $630/week.
Cam had to put more time in overall than Mary or Todd, and didn’t get much glory besides his Messiah solo once a year, but he gets a lot out of it:
He earned more than Mary or Todd. A lot more;
The schedule allows him to keep a full-time job (with 2 weeks paid and 2 weeks unpaid vacation), providing him a living wage;
He has a group of intelligent, hilarious best friends at home and when he tours that keep him from the loneliness of gig travel;
He’s having fun. Remember fun? That time before student loans and 1099s and nervous bathroom audition warmups and the constant struggle when music was just super fun, all the time? That’s Cam’s career.
He’s not phoning it in, it’s challenging and musically exciting. The conductor is his friend, sure, but he’s one of the leaders of the Minnesota arts scene and is at the level of any choral director or top conductor. He’s performing major works and new music pieces, sometimes with the top local orchestra. He’s a recorded professional musician. This is not a plunk-the-notes in rehearsal choral gig.
What are some key takeaways?
Choral work can pay more than solo work, after taxes and fees. Sometimes a LOT more. The example I used for Cam is of a regional organization. There are nationally recognized vocal chamber ensembles that, comparing apples to apples, net weekly income to net weekly income, are competitive with pay for solos with major orchestras and opera companies. I know of at least a dozen professional singers who work mostly as choristers (with the occasional solo orchestra or opera gig thrown in) and make more than 99% of US singers calling themselves professional soloists.
Building local and regionally is always a smart play. Cam is constantly performing in the region and getting noticed as a soloist (once a year) around the whole region. The group he’s in has a great reputation and can lead to other opportunities. And he’s able to get free video/audio recordings from the conductor of performances that he can send around to symphonies in the region to try and get hired for concert work. He’s not spending $5,000 a year flying to NYC to auditions and he’s not having panic attacks in the bathroom at NOLA. He’s doing this with close to zero cost for expenses, fees, and business development.
A music career is flexible and filled with surprising opportunities and possibilities. Stay open-minded and flexible to new work. Don’t put yourself in a box out the starting gate; you might miss the exciting, fulfilling, joyful work right under your nose. If you’re a good colleague, smart, hustle, and do the work, and stay open to non-traditional music work, you will be a professional singer. It just might not look like what your teacher or coach said it would be.
Even though choral work can come out ahead, not even Cam is able to make a living wage from performing alone. Even if you’re smart about the math, even if you save all your dollars on tour and eat Rxbars and sleep in your car, it’s still not earth-shattering money. You are going to have to either work a ton at a very high level, or you are going to need something else to pay the bills for a long time, perhaps forever.