Money mindset in classical music

Classical musicians: how do you decide what to charge?

Classical music organisations: how do you set your fee budgets?

I’m Katie Beardsworth, and I run Polyphony Arts – an artist management and arts project management organisation focusing on classical music. 

Polyphony is about separate parts or strands blending together and becoming harmonious. Musicians today experience complex, multi-faceted professional lives which need to combine with personal or family lives which can be equally complicated. 

We aim to celebrate these complexities – they are what makes life and art so interesting – and to help musicians and music organisations and promoters make sense of them.

This work is all about understanding personalities and circumstances – how people work, what makes them produce their best creative work, how their lives and experience inform and enhance their work, and the challenges they face and how to overcome them.

The biggest challenge? How to make enough money as a performer, composer or other creative. 

I believe that there is a major money mindset problem in the classical music industry. Musicians under-charge (for so many reasons, which I am exploring in my money mindset work). Organisations then know they can get music for very little. Then musicians continue to under-charge, because they think that is the industry norm. 

(Disclaimer: there are loads of music organisations and artists that have great money mindset and set the value of music perfectly. This blog post is about those that don’t – and there are plenty of them, too.)

The solution? Both sides of the industry (organisations that pay musicians, and the musicians themselves) need to shake off the mindset that there is no money in classical music.

Why are fees a challenge? 

The freelance classical music industry (where most of my experience lies; please note I am talking about one-off commissions and performances, not ongoing work such as major orchestral setups) is challenging in several ways relating to fees and earnings:

  • It is not transparent. One freelance string quartet may be paid completely differently from another by the same promoter. Equally, the same string quartet may be paid completely different amounts by different promoters.
  • The process of selecting fees is largely based around what people ask for. Judgement calls are made about the financial capacity of the promoter, and fees requested accordingly. 
  • However, there is another factor at play here: the worth that musicians put on their own work.

How do we currently decide what our performances or commissions are worth?

This decision is highly personal and results in a huge variety of outcomes. Here are some of the considerations I’ve come across:

  • Stage of career (highly subjective; who has decided?!)
  • Budget of promoter, either real or guessed
  • Past experience
  • What they have heard others charge (again, this can be highly subjective)
  • Sense of self worth
  • The fact that musicians are perceived to enjoy their work (somehow translates to not deserving a full fee for it)

What’s wrong with this?

Where I find this problematic is that it results in the following outcomes:

  • People who have a low sense of the worth of their work get paid less
  • Marketing and networking end up being more valuable than the quality of the music
  • Organisations set their budgets with low fees in mind as there is always someone who will do it for less (and they have good reasons for doing this – dwindling audience numbers are a huge challenge, something I’ll go into another time)
  • There are venues that have entire concert series where there are no or very low fees, because they are in desirable locations (such as central London) and there is always someone who wants to perform there for the exposure and the potential to invite reviewers and other promoters

Transparency and fixed fees in the industry would make for a much fairer system. This could be set up to take account of experience – for instance, a rate for early, mid and late career musicians – so it’s not to say all musicians at all stages should attract the same fees, but something like this would avoid the phrase I hear time and time again – 

“as long as I come out of it with £100 that’s OK”. 

To do a concert takes the following:

  • The concert itself
  • Rehearsal on the day
  • Travel to and from the venue 
  • Rehearsal prior to the day
  • Years of complex, time consuming and expensive study
  • Talent
  • Expertise
  • Experience
  • Administration
  • Marketing

£100? For all this?

There are so many problems with this. 

  1. It excludes people who don’t have financial backing from parents/partners/savings etc from working in the industry. People who need this to be a sustainable income source can’t afford to work for free or for low sums.
  2. It means that venues, festivals and promoters set their budget expectations too low. 
  3. It risks some funders undervalue the cost of musicians (although many public funders don’t undervalue them and want funding applications to include good fees for musicians).

Musicians: what can you do?

Changing this system is a daunting prospect, let’s acknowledge that. However, if you feel stuck in your earnings, here are six things you can consider:

  1. Think about the time, training and skills it has taken you to become a professional musician
  2. Think about the fact that you don’t get sick pay, holiday pay, or any other employment rights (most freelancers have a higher hourly/day rate to account for this fact)
  3. Think about how much work you have, what your monthly expenses/outgoings are, and how well these work together. Essentially, do you make enough money?
  4. Look at Musicians’ Union and ISM published rates
  5. Look at Making Music’s Selected Artists Guide, which publishes fees for their selected artists. Think about where your experience sits in comparison with these artists. 
  6. Think about your own view of your work. Do you feel you’re being paid what you are worth? 

I always enjoy this image when considering fees…

[​​​​​​​This image is regularly shared on social media but I can’t find an original credit for it. I’d love to credit it appropriately if I can find its owner]

Music organisers and promoters: what can you do?

If at any point I’ve made music organisers feel uncomfortable in this post, that wasn’t my intention. Part of my work is to organise festivals and concert series, and I’m well aware of the challenges this brings. 

If you’ve read this far, I assume you’re up for trying to break the Catch-22! In my experience, promoters mean very well, so I am sure you won’t mind me suggesting some ideas.

So, here are things you can do as a promoter, concert organiser, or anyone who hires musicians:

  1. Believe that musicians are worth more than they are asking for. (Yes. They almost always ask for less than they deserve.)
  2. Fix fair fees that work within your budget, and stick to them. If someone offers to do it for less, offer them the full amount.
  3. Work on changing the mindset of your audience. Are they reticent about paying high ticket prices? Release blogs, newsletter stories and social media posts about the costs of training as a musician. Make sure your audience understands the picture, too.
  4. Don’t negotiate fees down. Or, if you really need to, make it very clear that it’s for budgetary reasons and not because you think the musicians are worth less than they’ve stated.
  5. Consider how your organisation is run. Are you largely dependent on volunteers? Might that affect your money mindset regarding music events? 
  6. Do what you can to get your budget raised. Apply for more funding. Advocate for good fees with your donors.

I believe in a future for classical music where musicians are paid fairly and music organisations are able to run in an inclusive, transparent way. 

Yes, musicians generally enjoy their work; it’s one of the reasons we do what we do. But so do hairdressers who are consistently voted as having among the highest levels of job satisfaction. 

The question is: when did you last ask your salon for a free hair cut?

“I don’t deserve to be paid”

Do you know what I hear from musicians all the time?

“I can’t charge that, no-one will pay it.”

“People get angry when you put a tip jar on an online gig.”

“We don’t work in music to get rich.”

What do all these things say, underneath?

I don’t deserve to be paid.” 

There are hundreds of nuanced reasons why musicians feel this way about money. I can often be heard proclaiming that musicians should never work for free – and I believe this! 

However, it’s more complicated than that. In fact, here’s a flowchart showing how complicated the decision can be.

Flow chart showing the decision making process of taking a free performing gig

This goes into the practical part of this complex matter – but doesn’t touch on the mindset issues.

In general, musicians don’t believe they deserve to be paid well.

And, organisations that pay them often don’t budget enough for what they need.

There’s a big money mindset problem here, on both sides of the industry. And, I want to change that.

I have an example for you, from this article from the BBC: 

Frank Turner’s Socially distanced trial gig ‘not a success’ –

This is an article about a really sad and inevitable thing for the music industry – proof that socially distanced performance can’t make enough money to be viable. 

However, the thing that really stood out for me about this article was Frank Turner’s decision to do the gig for free. 

When I first read the article, I was angry – another example of a musician missing out on their fee for something that they’ve not been paid to do in months. 

But, then, I read his words again. Here is a quote from the article: 

“…the singer-songwriter said he’d agreed to play for free, in order to “demonstrate willingness to try”, on behalf of the decimated industry. 

This is not the start of a series of shows like this – that’d bankrupt everyone involved” he wrote. “But it was, as I say, a gesture of cooperation, an attempt to feel out the situation with an eye to taking steps in a better direction.

“But most of all it was a [expletive] GIG. I have missed that, for sure. It turns out, live music really, really matters.”

Doesn’t this say it all? 

Musicians are desperate to perform. It is not just our livelihoods, it is part of who we are. This is the overwhelming thing that I’ve heard from musicians about lockdown. 

I’m committed to helping musicians and music organisations change their money mindset and get the music industry working better financially.

But, to do that, it’s no good railing at everyone to stop taking free gigs  – I have to understand the reasons musicians take the free gigs. 

I believe we’re in a vicious circle – organisations under-value musicians, musicians undervalue themselves, organisations know they can get music for less/nothing… and so it goes on.

I want to change this.

Will you share with me how you feel about being paid? 

Do you believe musicians can’t be rich? Or are very rarely rich? 

What feeds this belief? 

Things you were told as a child? Things you were told as a student? Your experience in the profession?

I want to know your money beliefs, because I’m going to make resources to help with them. Will you help me? 

By the way, here is Frank Turner’s blog post about the event, which is quoted in the article excerpt above, and is a very moving account of what musicians are feeling at this time.

This feels so hard, doesn’t it. Let’s work together to make changes for the better.   

Duo Tandem – “Two guitarists ahead of the curve”

It did not take a global pandemic for guitarists Necati Emirzade and Mark Anderson, otherwise known as Duo Tandem, to figure out how to collaborate across the thousands of miles that separate them.

Necati is a London-based Turkish Cypriot while Mark lives in his native Chicago. The two met whilst studying at the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music and began their collaboration in 2011.

Their latest album featuring the music of Turkish Cypriot composer Kemal Belevi, which was issued on the Naxos label earlier this month, presented a not only a technical challenge, but also a significant logistical challenge.

At the start of project Mark and Necati had already been working remotely for some six years, but up until then this usual involved working on at most two new pieces at a time. Now they were faced with producing 62 mins of music to a definite time frame. Three of the pieces had already appeared on their previous album, but this still left over 40 minutes of music to learn.

“It meant doing what we were already used to,” says Mark Anderson. “Just more, and on a larger scale.”

The two sent endless recordings back and forth using a metronome almost like a click track to ground and discipline the second voice. Then there were the WhatsApp conversations to play around with the results.

Necati sees that discipline as core to the success of the project:

“We agreed a schedule for learning each piece and deadlines for sharing recordings which is how we drove it forward. It was important to be systematic. That was the only way it could work. It might otherwise have been all too easy to let things slip, especially when you think you’re not going to see each other for two months. Remote working has to be efficient and targeted. Then there’s the accountability we owe each other as a duo which undoubtedly helps.”

The album was recorded in Holy Trinity with All Saints Church in South Kensington using sound recordist Luca Gardani with whom they have a longstanding relationship.

“The acoustics there are amazing,” says Mark. “You play a note and it sounds forever. It was also important that we were able to show Naxos the sound quality we would be delivering and give them the confidence that could and would be reproduced for their label.”

The three often worked at recording through the night after the church had closed its doors to the public for the day, often finishing at five in the morning.

“This is where the benefits of our remote practice came into its own,” says Mark. “It can seem mechanical while we’re doing it, but it does mean that when we are finally in the same room playing together, those basics are already dealt with and we can go straight to the real musical discussion.”

But then the task of editing began, organised between London, Chicago and Columbia, where Gardani is based. Once again their existing organisational skills came to the fore and the whole operation was directed via a giant Google spreadsheet colour-coded by tracks and edits.

“So now suddenly everyone is talking about the logistics of how to collaborate and perform on-line – we’ve being doing it for eight years!” says Mark. You can almost hear him rolling his eyes.

This album is very personal for Necati, grounded as it is in the folk melodies both he and Belevi grew up listening to, but with a classical approach.

“Play these melody in Cyprus and anyone, Greek or Turkish, will recognise them at once. We are a small community on a small island and when a community gets smaller, feelings get bigger so this music is very powerful.”

Reviewing the album shortly after its release, the Classical Music Pod podcast praised

Belevi’s idiomatic understanding of the personality of the guitar as a classical solo instrument and the textures and colours with which he adapts these folk melodies creating “a feeling of place and a knowledge of people will transport the listener: a summer holiday in a CD.”

Listening to the different tracks it’s hard to imagine Mark and Necati are not able to practise together for weeks and months, their playing is so interwoven expressing an instinctive, reciprocal musical relationship.

As The Classical Pod observes: “It’s almost like [listening to] one giant double-necked 4-handed guitar. Lightness, joviality, a willing to play with each other really comes across. You can tell when people are playing stuff that means something to them personally… these two seem so in command of their instruments, their ensemble, the balance of the parts. The warmth of their playing and the pacing of each arrangement is really, really spot on; a joy to sit down and listen to.”

Perfect Press Release with Polyphony Arts

Are you a solo musician, an ensemble or an arts organisation with a story you want to see picked up by the media? 

Not sure how to pitch your information in a way that will catch the editor’s eye?

As artist and arts project managers, we send out press releases all the time so we’re happy to share our experience of what makes the perfect press release. 

First of all, the clue is in the name: you are selling a story. That means you have information you want to present, but it has to be framed as a narrative and one with a hook to catch the reader’s eye. That’s a story. 

First: get your information in order. 

For example:

  • I’ve got a concert/event coming up/a new album coming out
  • Venue, date, time, label, launch date
  • I’m playing XXX/we’re presenting XXX/the album title is
  • Where can you buy tickets/find out more about the album

Now you have put flesh on the bones and turn those facts into a story. That means something different and/or original to make this a story an editor thinks their audience will want to hear.

“Violinist gives concert in Devon” isn’t exactly “hold the front page” material.

“Award winning violinist to returns to her home town with dazzling programme” already has two hooks in there to show why this story is interesting: this isn’t just any violinist but an award winner and, even better, it’s a local lass!

Think about your hook; think about what turns your information into a story an editor might want to hear.

Here’s a headline we wrote for an album launch in May:

“Classical guitar sensation, Duo Tandem, lead the way in remote collaboration with exciting new release.”

The hook here is the fact that Mark and Necati, have an amazing way of making fabulous music together even though Mark lives in Chicago and Necati lives in London. Given how everyone has been trying to work out how to get their music online during the Covid lockdown, this was especially topical.

Do you have any juicy quotes either about you or your event?

Here’s one from the same press release: 

“pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on classical guitars,” Minor7th

It was from a review of an earlier album by Duo Tandem, but it fitted our story perfectly.

Contemporaneous quote are also useful.

‘“We are delighted that Isadora will be the first to perform live music here again. The fact that she grew up in the town makes it so much more special for us and for our audience,” said the centre’s artistic director, Julia Wishbone.’

Tip: if you don’t have a quote, get in touch with friends/colleagues/the promoter and get one!

You’ve heard of the elevator pitch. You find yourself in an elevator with a big movie producer and you have just so long as it takes to get to his floor to pitch your script idea.

Tell your story simply and effectively and get back out the door. Editors are busy people and they get bored very quickly. If you haven’t sold your story within the first few lines, you’ve missed the boat.

You also have to consider what type of media you are aiming for. If you’re giving a recital to a small concert society in Norfolk, don’t target the national press. Look at local papers and radio. Get online, find the name of the editor (or better yet the arts correspondent) if you can, plus email addresses, phone numbers.

Tip: if you haven’t already, now is a good time to start building a database of press contacts.

If you have a good quality photo, send it along. 

If you have some online video performances, include the links.

And don’t forget to include all your contact details at the foot of the release!

Head your press release: “PRESS RELEASE” and put “ENDS” after the body of the text. All you extra information – your details and any links – come after that. Don’t send it as an attachment; copy it into the body of your email. 

We had a lovely live discussion yesterday about the ins and outs of writing the perfect press release. You can watch the full video here/above/below [sort when doing website]. 

Are you raring to go? 

We have a special offer for you. 

From 1 July 2020 we are launching a new service: Perfect Pitch with Polyphony Arts. You can send us your press release and we will perfect it for you. The service will cost £60 from 1 July 2020, but if you book any time before then, you’ll get 25% off. 

More details of how this works and how you can get your perfect pitch for only £45 are here. We look forward to hearing how you get on!

Katie Beardsworth and Margaret Pinder

Invisible barriers

Do you have something you want to do, but find you can never quite get around to doing it?

I’ve been thinking a lot about invisible barriers recently. I had a big one when lockdown started – I wanted to do exercise, but my usual swimming wasn’t an option. I used to run a few years ago before my son was born, so decided I wanted to start running again.

But, it was really hard. My mind was full of messages –

you haven’t done this for years, you’ve lost all your fitness, you don’t have the right clothes, you will be the slowest….

A friend of mine had told me about the Couch to 5k app recently, so I thought I’d give it a go. It worked a treat. I took a bit longer than the 9 weeks, but I taught myself to run for half an hour without stopping. To do that, I have to run two laps of the park. Then, because I’d been motivated by the app, I went further – I gave three laps a go, and I did it! 

I’ve just got home from running three laps of the park for the third time in about ten days, and I am so proud of myself. Exercise isn’t something that comes naturally to me, and I am almost always the slowest/worst at any sporting activity (picked last in PE, every time!). 

It feels really amazing to do something better than I did before, especially when it’s not something that comes easily. It’s spurred me on and the motivation will keep building alongside the success. My invisible barrier has been broken down!

The Couch to 5k app was essential to this success. It didn’t do any of it for me – I did all the work myself – but it provided the mindset, motivation and encouragement I needed to unlock my potential.

Many musicians have invisible barriers about pitching for work. Fear of failure, fear of what other people will think… perhaps even fear of success… there are so many, and I’m always thinking about how I can help remove these barriers.

I can help you feel great about pitching for work.

Our new service, Perfect Pitch with Polyphony Arts, launches tomorrow. Send us your pitch, and we will perfect it for you. We will use our experience as music agents and promoters to provide you with feedback that will ensure your pitch is the best it can be.

You don’t need to feel unsure about what you’re saying any more – we’ll provide that vital second opinion that will allow you to pitch for work with confidence.

Also, if you book before 1 June, you get 25% off.

What are your invisible barriers?

What are your tips for overcoming them?

Katie Beardsworth