Show Me the Money

I find one of the hardest parts about being a professional freelance musician is knowing how to handle the financial side of things. There are all sorts of considerations. Should I become an LLC? How do I keep track of my taxes? Who should I have file for my taxes? Do I need to pay quarterly? What is deductible? The list is pretty endless.

On top of that, you have expenses: music to buy, instruments to purchase and maintain, lessons and workshops to attend. I would love to address all of these things in upcoming blog posts, but I wanted to start with one that I find to be the trickiest: What do I charge the client?

There are many scenarios that come in to play:

  • The client may contact you with a (non-negotiable) budget. Beware: almost all budgets are negotiable.
  • The client may be a friend and you don’t really want to charge your full rate.
  • The gig may be relatively easy and require little more than having you show up and play a song or two.
  • The gig may be incredibly extensive. We’ve all had these. The bride contacts you for a wedding and tells you to play whatever you want. Three weeks before, she has begun to make extensive requests, some of which may be impossible to render on just a piano or a guitar or a recorder. You may have more outlying expenses than you originally considered.

I can’t begin to address all of those situations. Instead, I want to throw out some observations that I think might be universal and have certainly helped me over the years:

  1. What is my time worth to me? If the gig requires an hour of playing, an hour of travel, parking, two hours of practice and an hour of rehearsal, all of that must be figured in. You may come up with different “rates” (which I would recommend that you do not disclose unless asked). For example, let’s say I have to bring my own keyboard and amp for a wedding reception. They want an hour of cocktail music. Practice time = 0 hours. Rehearsal time = 0 hours. Travel time = 1 hour (I’m gonna charge $15 an hour travel, this is totally arbitrary and may or may not reflect my real pricing). The gig and the set up take two hours. Sometimes I charge as little as $40 an hour for a coaching at my house (a singer comes over to work on music). I see this wedding as more of a corporate thing, so I’m going to charge more. I’m gonna say $100 for the hour, plus $50 for equipment rental, and $15 for travel. Total $165. There will be those clients and fellow musicians who say that I am charging way too much. And there will be clients and musicians who think that’s a ridiculous bargain. Where do you fit on the scale?
  2. Starting out: When you are first looking for gigs and wanting to pay the rent, it often seems like a good idea to take whatever comes along. By all means, do, unless you are certain that the style of gig will cause you to completely bomb. But NEVER settle for the initial offer. No matter what the client says, ask for more. Example: “I need someone to accompany my daughter on a simple Bach piece at solo and ensemble, no rehearsal necessary. It shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. Will you do it for $10?” Now, there is a world in which that might be okay…you know the person, you are playing for several other folks at the same function, and you can string it all together to make a decent payday. Nonetheless, it is essential that you lay down the reality of the situation with this potential client. Don’t whine. Don’t be arrogant. But do let them know that you have spent 20+ years practicing to be good enough to read this Bach piece without rehearsal. You have to put on fresh (maybe dry-cleaned) clothes and drive your car (use gas) to get to the gig. AND you pay your own payroll tax. Please, never forget that! Whenever you do a self-employed gig, you are essentially paying 15% more than you would have to if you had an employer. This WILL be reflected in your taxes. Suddenly, that $10 gig is $2 worth of gas, $1.5 payroll, at least $2 taxes, and you have just made $4.50.
  3. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO LOSE THE GIG. So important on so many fronts. First, there is another gig coming, I promise. Second, if you undercut, then we all have to. Eventually, and this is pretty much where we are now, the folks out there think we just do this for the love of it — we do not need anything as crass as money! We live on love!
  4. The best thing you can do to start is to come up with a base value for yourself. Again, this doesn’t reflect my reality, but let’s say I valued practicing at $20 an hour. I don’t actually pay myself that, but I think I’m worth that. I value coaching a singer at $40 an hour. I am guilty here of low-balling. I really need to get that price up to $50. I value corporate gigs starting at $100. In fact, I make it a rule (something I learned 20 years ago from a friend in Ohio) that I do not leave the house for less than $75.
  5. Do you need to be paid up front? It sure as hell can’t hurt!

OKAY. So this is quite the rambling post, but I want to get the ball rolling. Fellow pianists, please chime in with your thoughts and experiences. Maybe we can come up with something that is almost like our own scale. Or maybe we all are much more independent than that. I don’t know. I just want to hear your thoughts. And TEACHERS! Please share your thoughts too. I don’t teach, so I have no idea what one might charge for that…

Happy Gigging! ~ Jamie Johns

5 responses

  1. I always ask for a third up front, with the rest due a week before the engagement. That way, you know they’re serious on the front end. If the gig gets canceled, 60 days out I give a half refund, 30 days out no refund.

  2. This is great stuff! Thanks for writing up your thoughts. I freelance as a pianist in Chicago and I find that my rates and standards are often quite flexible. Other variables I take into account — Is it a busy or slow time of year; Is this a long-standing relationship; do I love the rep and people involved? I often end up listening to my gut feeling about the gig, but I would really like to set up a formal structure to rely upon.

  3. Marta, those are all excellent observations – thank you! Am I busy? Sometimes I charge more “on demand”. Do I love this kind of gig and the people involved – I’ve thrown out a couple of freebies in this arena, no doubt. Formal structure: that’s exactly what I’m talking about. And it’s probably something individual, but it should be considered and adhered to. I want to know, before I answer the phone, what my parameters are going to be!

  4. As the Mother of someone who has taken piano lessons forever, and the Organ as well as Piano peroformace degree and accompanying degree as a Master. I can assure you the dedication of these people. Can not be matched. Many use recorded music, DJs’ etc, but what would even compare to live music.! I of course still love Church music, and Classical which is just that CLASS. Skimp on something else to make your event grand!!!!

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