The first time I ever priced my own flute work was around 2010. I was a junior in high school and decided to open my own private flute studio. I had won some local competitions but didn’t yet have a high school diploma, so I charged $10 per lesson. That number jumped a bit in college, but my pricing was very inconsistent. I felt uncomfortable raising rates for students that had been with me when I started, so some were still at that $10 rate, while new students were closer to $20. It was a spectrum, but a messy one born out of a desire to avoid difficult conversations and the potential for hurt feelings among clients. In 2016, I moved to New York to pursue my master’s at Juilliard, and I decided to do some research and get control over my teaching business. From a few talks with other grad students who offered private lessons, the prevailing wisdom was “charge whatever you want,” with the going rate for an hour lesson landing around $100. That number sounded huge to me, but with 6 years of teaching experience and training from a world-class institution, this seemed like a fair rate, and one I would be comfortable charging.
I felt uneasy accepting the offer, but I needed the money, and this was what I had been trained to do since starting flute at the age of 12—say yes to everything. I was told time and time again that that was the way to get ahead. If I didn’t say yes to this client, then someone else would get the job, and really, any money was a lot more than $0. So I accepted. I said yes almost immediately, not bothering to look up where this student lived or how long it would take me to get there. In the end, in order to travel to the student, teach an hour lesson, and get back home, it took me well over 3 hours. This didn't even include extra time spent listening to recordings, arranging custom sheet music, sourcing listening materials, writing recommendation letters, chatting with parents and teachers, the list went on. All told, my net per hour rate was back where I started six years ago: $10-15.
This scenario happened again and again in various jobs across the music industry—going into “the final round” for a music admin job thinking that $40 per hour would be an AMAZING salary, finding out that this final interview was actually my first day of work, and being told as I was walking out the door that I would be paid $20/hour. Signing an actor-musician contract for a new show, so excited to be performing not under the stage but on it, not knowing that the $100 honorarium I would be paid would end up being the only payment for over 100 hours of work. And each time, I could feel that I was doing myself a disservice. Each time took a toll on my mental health, but I was too afraid to speak up and earn a reputation for being difficult to work with. I was worried that the gigs would stop coming. And saying yes to these things was going to lead to more and higher-paying work in the future, according to my mentors and teachers.
For myself and many of the musicians I’ve spoken with over the years, pricing services and discussing payment with clients is often a highly emotional task. This “say yes” approach has a dark side—it doesn’t teach musicians how to accurately value and price their time and in fact actively discourages them from doing so. Musicians say yes to hiring offers as quickly as possible because our industry thrives on competition and rewards the lowest bidder. It creates an industry that thrives on unpaid or underpaid labor and teaches clients to undervalue the services of performers. But let me ask you this—would a contractor think twice about charging for a site visit? Would a lawyer balk at asking for compensation for the research hours required to prepare their case? No. So why should musicians be any different?
I had hit a sort of musical rock bottom: participating in anything even remotely involving my flute, extra arranging/consulting/teaching/recording for free, discounts for lessons that were over Zoom, the list went on and on. So I made myself sit down and list out the exact number of hours I was putting into each gig, lesson, and job. I then divided the payment for each by the true number of hours I was putting in. Same thing with gigs that paid per service—I added up all the service payments, then divided by the total hours spent prepping for the gig onstage and off to get an accurate measure of what I was actually being paid for my time. Then I took it a step further—what would be the final number I would take home after estimating my tax withholding? It was uncomfortable (and I’ll be honest, a little sad) at first to see that $100 earned was never really $100, but once I became accustomed to this adjusted fees vs. gross fees mindset, I found that I had much more of a sense of control over my time and my worth. This practice made me get honest about what I was willing to trade my time for, and for the first time, I began thinking as a small business owner creating opportunities for myself instead of an individual allowing opportunities to happen to me.
If this practice feels new and scary, I want to be clear—it is not your fault. Music programs and conservatories actively deprioritize teaching financial literacy to young musicians, and our industry as a whole is suffering as a result. Though very different from how we are taught, I encourage you to think of yourself as a business and all that that entails. Do your research; seek accurate information to set rates that honor your time and skills. If you decide to donate hours or resources for a job, know the reason why, set limits, and account for them before you accept the gig. And lean on the community. It’s our greatest asset.
I hope that by helping you with these calculations and challenging you to think in a new way, we can help you divest from what makes money matters so emotionally fraught. As a musician, you have something beautiful to offer that our society dearly needs. When we become more informed, we can change the culture, and EVERYONE deserves to be paid a livable wage.
— Emily Duncan