Inspirazione! : For Love Or Money? A Financial Reality Check for Singers

Last year I was performing with a soprano and as we were back stage waiting to go on, I complimented her gown. She said it was new. Then she laughed and said, “When these concerts are over I’m going to be so in debt!” Sadly, I don’t think she was joking.

In their book, Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin discuss taking a cold hard look at what your job is costing you. As with most financial cleanup programs, the book starts with seeing where your money is going. (How can you make any positive changes if you don’t know where you’re starting?) The book suggests looking at the costs of your job, such as transportation, wardrobe, eating out, etc. For a singer, those costs also include lessons, coachings, time off from other work, and something few consider, time itself. You should factor in the time it takes to learn your music, travel to rehearsal, and sit around at rehearsal. The singer I just mentioned might even be a step ahead of some—she at least had a sense of the “net” and not just the “gross” of what she was earning. Your gross income is what you are paid to perform; your net is what you are paid once you factor in all the costs I just mentioned.

If any of you are feeling uncomfortable at this point, feeling that some great appreciation of the importance of singing to your happiness is lacking, please take comfort. I agree with the Dalai Lama, who said, “If your basic outlook on life is, Yes, money is important, but there are also other factors equally or probably more important for one’s sense of well-being, then I think you will lead a happier life.”

I also heard a wonderful story from another Buddhist master, Ajahn Jumnien. He is a revered teacher from Thailand who seems to be the embodiment of joy and good humor. Last year I heard him tell a story about a very wealthy man who asked him to come and do a blessing on a new mansion. The man offered a fee in gratitude. The fee was less than the cost of the train ticket Ajahn Jumnien would have had to purchase to go and do the blessing. At this point in telling the story Ajahn Jumnien broke out laughing. Soon, everyone was laughing along with him. It was clear that harming oneself financially was a silly idea to him.

Many singers make that sort of choice every day, however. In this magazine last year, Cindy Sadler gave some great advice to someone in dire financial straits who asked what to do about her career. Cindy replied, in essence, that the singer should get her financial house in order and meet her basic needs first. I agree. What both Cindy and Ajahn Jumnien are saying is that self-care is every person’s first responsibility. It’s like the instruction on airplanes: “Secure your own oxygen mask first, before assisting others.”

So, how do you secure your own financial health? Here are some things to get you started. (If you want to take it a step further, see the sidebar for a list of some books I recommend.) The purpose is to gain clarity, to know where you are, not beat yourself up.

Do the numbers: First, you have to see where you are, financially. Many good computer programs, such as Quicken, can help you keep track of your spending. At the very least, you can buy a small pad for $1.25, write down your spending for a few months, and then tally things by category. I have a Quicken category called “performing expenses.” Lessons, gowns, transportation, audition accompanists, etc. all go in that category. Once you know where you are, you can come up with a spending plan that covers your needs, which should include saving for the future.

Do the math before you say yes to a job, and consider prioritizing higher-paying jobs. Follow Ajahn Jumnien’s example, and figure out what your expenses or lost wages will be before you say yes. Generally, oratorio can pay more than opera when you add up the hours spent traveling and rehearsing. You may not choose to take jobs based on the pay, but just as you wouldn’t buy a coat without looking at the price tag, keep your eyes open and know what you’re getting into.

Ask for more money. This may sound terribly obvious, but many singers walk into situations feeling they have no power. We’re all aware of how stiff the competition is, so we often think the fees have no wiggle room, but you’d be surprised. Just make sure you do this skillfully. Be an informed negotiator—do your homework about what people are paying by asking other singers and administrators. For more insight, see the sidebar websites for negotiating tips. (Women, in particular, should take a look at Suze Orman’s new book and her idea that you may be “putting yourself on sale.”)

Maximize your day job. Most singers have other means of financial support but often carry over the attitude of being an “underearner” to their day jobs. You may be undervaluing yourself. Make sure you evaluate your contribution and your expenses, and if appropriate, ask for more money or seek a higher-paying position. Extra hours spent at work are hours you could be practicing or relaxing, and a $5 an hour raise at a full-time day job would give you $200 more a week for lessons or expenses.

Let go of guilt. You are a human being first and a singer second, so at the very least, you need and deserve a place to live and eat, and places to find health care, recreation, and relaxation. Financial instability increases your stress and insecurity levels, and that won’t help your singing. Don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself or feel that it takes anything away from you as an artist, even though others or society may encourage you to feel that way.

Here’s a story that illustrates that point. I have a colleague who sings for one of the country’s major symphony choruses. One year the chorus went on strike. Many patrons were very supportive, expressing their appreciation and their wish that the singers be treated well financially. Others were outraged. One patron came close to this singer on the picket line and screamed at him furiously, “You should be doing this because you love it!” Imagine going to the dentist for a teeth cleaning and when the receptionist asks you for $85, you scream at the dentist, “You should be doing this because you love it!” It’s absurd. Yes, you love to sing. Yes, your primary motivation is love of your art and not financial reward, but that is no reason for you as an artist to be complicit in devaluing what you do or denying your basic human needs.

Society support of the performing arts has always fluctuated, and as a culture we’re in a tough time right now, with orchestras folding and mass media crowding out local live performances. It’s challenging not to take this personally or to internalize these negative messages, but it’s an important challenge to meet.

Singers exist within a wide spectrum of financial realities, and there is no right answer. The important thing is to ask yourself the right question: “What would make me happy?” Maybe you’re like Charles Ives and you can flourish as an artist while working your whole life in the insurance business. Maybe you’re a singer who can make a career as a performer for much of your life and feel comfortable with some level of financial instability. Maybe you’ll choose to piece together a career between singing, teaching, and other music-related work.

If singing is in your heart, that truth won’t disappear when you ask yourself some tough questions about what’s actually going on. Even if you discover that your so-called “career” is costing you money or bringing a pittance, that may only help you to realize the value you place on singing, and that your sacrifices are even more meaningful when made as part of a conscious choice.

Food for Financial Thought

None of these books will cost you as much as not knowing what’s going on with your financial life, so if you’re ready to take a step (or five, or nine) here you go!

Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money & Achieving
Financial Independence
, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.

• This book is a nine-step program with great concepts to change how you view work and money.

Earn What You Deserve: How to Stop Underearning and Start Thriving, by Jerrold Mundis.

This book really gets to the root of some attitudinal assumptions that can cause perpetual “underearning.”

Overcoming Underearning: Overcome Your Money Fears and Earn What You Deserve, by Barbara Stanny.

Similar to “Your Money or Your Life” above, but with a five-step plan.

Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny, by Suze Orman.

The latest in a line of great advice from the perhaps over-caffeinated but always spot on Suze Orman. With a five-month plan, this book provides more traditional financial planning advice, with tons of useful stuff about banking, credit cards, saving, investing, and general financial housekeeping, laid out with a simple checklist for each month.

• Here are a couple of websites if you’re trying to negotiate your own fees or a raise for your day job:

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at