Paying to Sing

Paying to Sing

by Elena Greco

singer in operatic viking costume sits atop piano with piano player New Yorker cartoon Warren Miller

Typical reading time: 5 minutes

October 17, 2010

I finally have to say it: the Emperor has no clothes. I finally have to say that I am against the practice of not paying singers, and of expecting singers to pay for every opportunity to sing. No other musician is asked to do this! No other professional is asked to do this. And none of them would be willing to. Why are classical singers treated with such disrespect?

When I was involved in an opera career, there was an insidious practice of asking professional classical singers to sing for no pay in opera productions and other performances. The idea put forth was that you might not make any money for the time, energy and expense you incurred doing the job, but it would look great on your resume and help you get another job in the future. The job in the future was, alas, also with no pay, but it would look great on your resume so you could….

When I came back to the music world professionally a few years ago, I assumed that things would be different in this more enlightened time. Unfortunately, I found that they are WORSE! Opera producers and directors now get to use the sad state of the economy as yet another reason for not paying singers. The same companies who were being unscrupulous with regard to their behavior toward singers a couple of decades ago are even more unscrupulous now. Everyone seems to be quite accustomed to the idea that professional singers sing for free, so much so that no one seems to question it.

Now, really. I can’t think of any profession where people spend decades of their life and thousands of dollars preparing for a career, only to be hired for a job and then expected to work for nothing. My survival job while working in the arts has always been working for law firms. Attorneys sometimes spend eight or more years and as much as $200,000 or more preparing to be a lawyer so that they will be hired by a good firm and make a good living. Imagine if they were hired by a prestigious law firm and told, “Congratulations. We’ve selected you out of hundreds of applicants. We’d love for you to join our firm. We’re not going to pay you anything, since you’re just starting out, but working here will look great on your resume so you can get a nice job later.” Are you kidding?! The attorney would likely tell this insane firm that he or she had not only spent enormous amounts time and money so that they could get a job working for this firm, but that they had student loans to pay off, in addition to rent, food and work clothing to buy, and that to ask them to work for nothing was totally absurd. If the law firm then said that they had a lot of expenses running the firm and therefore couldn’t afford to pay the attorney, again, that would be pretty ridiculous, right?

I used to play the harp. I can assure you that if an orchestra hired me for a job, they assumed that they would have to pay me, just as they would pay a violinist or a tuba player. I don’t know of any other profession, even within the music field, where people are expected to work for nothing.

For anyone reading this who isn’t a singer, please know that it takes a lot of work, time and money to prepare a role for performance. As far as I’m concerned, a prepared role is a product, and when you sell a product, you get paid for it.

The reason people spend years and thousands of dollars preparing for a career is so that they can obtain work, and work means pay. If you hire a singer to do a performance at which you are selling tickets or making money, the singer should be paid. Yes, I know that you might have a lot of expenses with regard to paying for the theater, buying costumes and paying a director and a conductor. But that is not an excuse. You pay those people, and you pay the instrumentalists, and you must pay the singers, too. To do otherwise is not only unethical but horribly disrespectful. Why would you think that singers in an opera are less important and therefore less worthy of being paid than the musicians or directors?

I have actually witnessed a performance at a local opera company where the singers were not only not paid for their performance, they were expected to go into the lobby at intermission, in costume, and sell sodas and popcorn, then go back to the stage and finish the opera. How incredibly disrespectful to the singers and to the music. There are companies now where the singers not only do not get paid, they are expected to PAY to buy a certain number of tickets to fill the theater for the producers, thereby not only offering their professional skills but saving the PR people some work in filling the theater. This really should not be tolerated. Do you really think singers have such a low opinion of themselves and are so desperate that they will pay for the opportunity to sing in public? And why do we, as singers, continue to give them that impression by cooperating with this?

I’m not saying that there are not situations in which it is all right or even beneficial not to be paid or even to be expected to pay to sing. There are certain situations in which not being paid is fair, when both parties get something from the arrangement. For example, there was a concert production which was really a studio class for the singers, in which they were expected to pay a small amount to sing, but in return they received professional coaching in a role for which they wanted to audition for other companies in the future, and a chance to perform that role for the first time in a public but tolerant environment, and they were given (not expected to pay for) tickets to sell if they wished, for which they could use the proceeds to offset the cost for themselves. There are many young artist programs in which the singer might not be paid, or might be expected to pay something, but receives training and coaching that is valuable in furthering their career. There are opportunities to sing through a role in an informal setting where the coach or director asks for a nominal fee to cover their time. THIS IS VERY DIFFERENT FROM EXPECTING A SINGER TO EARN MONEY FOR YOU WITHOUT COMPENSATING THEM.

I sometimes sing with a group called the Allegro Singers, which is a group of opera and Broadway singers who sing for senior residences and other such groups. I don’t get paid for it, but neither are tickets sold. It is not a moneymaking venture, but service. I don’t know if the director breaks even for the time and work she puts in. In this case, I really love the feeling of performing for people who really need the entertainment, and it gives me a chance to perform new repertoire in public for a forgiving audience. Everyone benefits.

If you have a burning desire to sing (don’t we all?) and don’t have a job lined up, then sing for a charity, where someone truly benefits from your art – or for another singer! If we support each other in this endeavor, I think we can make a difference.

I certainly don’t have a problem with anyone offering their art in service. But performing in a production where tickets are being sold is not a service, it is a job. My problem is with companies who just expect to hire singers and not pay them, because they know they can get singers to sing for free. This situation feeds on itself, which is what has been happening for decades. As long as there are singers who will sing for free, companies will continue to expect them to, and as long as that situation continues, there is no motivation for companies to pay singers in the same way that they pay instrumenalists and conductors. Singers must take a stand on this, or there is no hope.

I understand being so desperate and eager to sing when you are young that you are grateful for the chance, and don’t care if they don’t pay you. But you must think of the ramifications of your doing this. It affects you and everyone else in the profession, and there will come a time when you need to make a living, and this practice will prevent you from doing so.

As singers, we need a pianist or a guitarist to accompany us when performing in concert. Would you think of hiring a pianist or guitarist to play with you, and expect them to do so without your paying them? Would you really expect an accompanist to play for nothing? It is their profession, and that is how they make a living. It would be absurd to expect them to perform a job for you without paying them, right? Yet singers do that very thing every day.

And I would also suggest that we take a look at all the many master classes and summer programs and so-called services that are offered to singers at sometimes astronomical prices. Some of them really are wonderful and worth the price, and I’m glad they are offered. But I wonder if quite often singers do these things simply to have another opportunity to sing, since jobs are scarce. Do we really need one more class or program? After we’ve been singing professionally for 10 years? Again, I’m not suggesting that some programs aren’t incredibly valuable, but there seems to be so much taking and so little giving, financially speaking, when it comes to singers.

Classical singing is an art requiring years of training, thousands of dollars, physical and mental discipline that most professionals can’t begin to imagine, a will of steel and an extremely sensitive nature, combined with a great vocal instrument. It is a profession worthy of respect. I beg singers not to debase themselves and the rest of us by allowing unscruplous producers to continue to put on productions in which they don’t pay their singers. All we have to do is NOT SING WITHOUT GETTING PAID. How unreasonable is that? Isn’t that what everyone else does?

Why are we different? If we are doing our job for someone who hires us for their project, whether it is an opera or anything else, we should be paid, like everyone else on the planet. Giving it away for nothing lowers the respect others have for our profession and perpetuates this situation. Please don’t do it!

ElenaGreco2See Elena’s bios for more information about the author.

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