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?

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