How to Make More Money in the Arts: Ask!

BSR welcomes Boston-area singer and pianist Eileen Huang as a guest today. She shares some encouraging advice on how to make more money in the arts. Thanks Eileen!

We’d all like to earn more money, but asking for a raise or negotiating your fee in an endangered arts economy can feel awkward at best and inappropriate at worst. Working in an industry where cost-of-living raises and annual salary reviews are not the norm, you most likely won’t receive higher pay unless you ask. You deserve to be paid fairly for your talent and the quality of your work, and you are your own best advocate.

Evaluate the offer.

Before you negotiate, evaluate whether the offer is fair. In addition to the hourly or daily breakdown of income, remember to factor in:

  • Preparation time. Practice takes time, and time is money. If you have to pay out-of-pocket for coaching on difficult music or an unfamiliar language, that’s an added expense.
  • Travel time and expenses. A long commute or un-reimbursed travel fares can take a sizeable chunk of your fee.
  • Enrichment value. Beyond monetary compensation, a gig may offer benefits such as artistic growth, expanding your repertoire, the opportunity to premiere a new work, or new connections.
  • Good people. In regards to good people, I like to say, “You know them when you meet them.” More specifically, good people value your time, respect your opinion, and treat you courteously. As colleagues, they energize you instead of dragging you down.

Ask for a raise — politely.

If, after evaluating the offer, you’ve decided the fee is less than you deserve, don’t just walk away! Saying, “I’m not available,” is the easy way to avoid an awkward conversation, but it denies the organization an opportunity to address the problem. Even if the organization currently lacks funds, they can adjust their expectations for future engagements if you (and other potential candidates) are willing to speak up about compensation.

So, seize the opportunity to increase your wages, but be brief and polite. Freelancers often have the advantage of being able to ask in writing, which is less intimidating than asking in person. Here’s an example response to an offer of a new gig:

“Thank you for contacting me about this opportunity. I’m available for the services you need, but my standard rate is X. Is your budget able to accommodate this fee?”

If you are requesting a raise for ongoing work, or with an organization you’ve worked with in the past, here’s another example:

“Following two seasons of successful work for your organization, I’d like to request an increase in my fee from X to Y. Thank you for your consideration.”

Assess their response.

If an organization is offended or responds unprofessionally to your polite request, chances are they are not the type of people you’d want to work with. In this case, the conversation may have saved you from an undesirable work environment.

Budgets being what they are, it’s certainly possible that an organization won’t be able to accommodate your request, even though they’d like to. Assuming you have kept communications cordial, you may part ways amicably, and you are no worse off than if you had merely said, “I’m not available.” Below is a real-life email I’ve received in such a scenario:

“I inquired with [the hiring manager], and I’m afraid a raise is a no go. I’m sorry. Best of luck to you. I know you will find lots of meaningful — and hopefully well-paying! — work to do.”

If you are willing to compromise on your fee, freelance arts consultant Jonas Cartano recommends the following:

If I’m working with someone new, and I’m giving them a discount (because I like them, it’s a good project, it’s good exposure, etc.), I inform them of my normal rate and let them know I’m giving them a break. Then I wow them with my work, and if they want to hire me again, they know what my normal rate is.

In the best case scenario, you get the gig you wanted and make more money. Congratulations! You earned it!

For further reading, visit “How to Ask for a Raise” by Alison Green for The Cut.

A NOTE FROM BSR: Don’t forget to visit us at www.bostonsingersresource.org for more career advancement resources!

About the author:

Eileen Huang enjoys a career as a collaborative pianist in the Boston area, where she is a rehearsal pianist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Emmanuel Music and an accompanist for the Boston City Singers. She teaches on the music performance faculty at MIT, serving as a piano instructor, collaborative pianist, and coach. Also an accomplished soprano, Eileen has been a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus since 2006 and has appeared as soloist with the TFC, Wellesley Choral Society, and Nahant Music Festival. For more information, visit eileenhuangmusic.com.

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