The sliding scale and justice-oriented economics

It is absolutely possible for musicians to push for rates that fully recognize the worth of their services, AND have an awareness for the impact they can make to access and economic justice.

However, we acknowledge that it often feels like these two things are directly pitted against each other. If “access” means lowering financial barriers to musicians' services, how can most musicians still earn their living? And if musicians always charge what they're worth, how will classical music ever be accessible to those who can't afford it?

But there's a solution: the sliding scale is a tool for economic justice that benefits both you as the working musician and your clients, without compromising either party. The power of the sliding scale is that it widens the breadth of economic access points, while averaging out to the worth, or “true cost,” of your services.

  1. Sliding scale AVERAGE = true cost
  2. Sliding scale RANGE = increasing access
Basic sliding scale illustrating average and range

If you can incorporate a sliding scale into your practice, not only will you allow for greater economic diversity across the clients you work with, but you will also be defining for yourself your range of acceptable rates. This is super important! You'll probably be much less inclined to take on low-paying gigs if they fall outside of your sliding scale. By defining a lower bound for yourself, and by knowing what's “below average,” you're being intentional about what's worth your time and why.

The sliding scale doesn't fit every context that you'll ever come across as a musician, and you should use your discretion to decide if it's suitable for your needs. But it's a flexible tool, designed to help you and your clients be thoughtful and intentional with each other when discussing the “money question.” In the rest of this article we'll dig into the details of how the sliding scale works and how you can begin to incorporate it into your practice.

1. Sliding scale AVERAGE = true cost

To determine the average of your sliding scale, check out our article on setting your hourly rate. It's important to remember that, while you might expect many gigs to fall on the lower end of your sliding scale range, defining your average gives you a great way to measure if you're actually getting paid what you deserve. If it happens that you're not reaching your average, you'll know to prioritize new clients who are able to pay you more.

2. Sliding scale RANGE = increasing access

The range of the sliding scale allows each of your clients to pay according to their economic comfort level, while respecting the value of your services as an average. We suggest choosing a range of up to 50% on either side of your average, but you can restrict this according to your risk tolerance. For example, if you determine that the true cost of your services is $50/hour, you could offer a sliding scale range of $25-$75. If you feel uncomfortable with such a wide range, you are welcome to narrow it down. Some of your clients would pay on the lower end, some would pay average, and some would pay on the higher end; in the end it should all average out. You would allow your client to select their price based on their circumstances.

The process of your client selecting their price should ideally be a thoughtful one, approached with trust and openness on both sides. Reassure your client that you aren't judging them on their response. Feel free to share this graphic to help your client work out where they fall on your sliding scale.

— Gloria Yin, ed. Emily Duncan

Sliding scale FAQs

It's hard to prevent the possibility that someone will pay you less than they can. However, the sliding scale thrives on trust and communication. If you suspect that your client is taking advantage of you, the chances are that you'll have a difficult time working with them in artistic contexts too, so for your own wellbeing you should pass on working with them if you can. There's also a growing body of research (and a few personal anecdotes) which suggest that if you give people the option of being generous, most people will take you up on it as they are able! For example, in research on “pay what you want” scenarios (see further reading below), audiences end up paying more than what ticket sales would originally have charged. So in the end, the sliding scale should balance out to your average or even to your advantage. If you end up earning much less (or more!) than your average, consider seeking out clients who might balance it out, to help with your own income or with your contribution to access.

Finally, and most importantly, it would be a shame if we didn't open ourselves up to being part of a fairer system just because we're afraid that a small minority might not be honest with us. Being conscientious in the world today means creating and living our own microcosms of fairness and justice as much as we can.

Yes! Feel free to borrow or adapt this:

“I am pleased to offer my (teaching, performing, etc.) services on a sliding scale. Doing so allows me to accommodate a wide range of financial situations for my clients, while ensuring I can still make the living I require.

The true cost of my services is $50/hr, but I would accept payments in the range of $25-75/hr. Consider paying on the lower end of the scale if ( ... ), or consider paying on the higher end of the scale if ( ... ). I leave the choice to you, no questions asked, acknowledging that these considerations are complex, and I trust that you think about your circumstances honestly.

Please be mindful that if you ask for the lowest end of my scale when you can truthfully afford the higher end, you are limiting access to those who truly need financial flexibility. And if you are able to support the higher end of my scale and choose to do so, you are allowing me to continue my commitment to access and therefore contributing to economic justice in general.”

You're probably asking this question if you're considering taking on a low-paying gig. The unfortunate reality of our industry today is that most gigs are currently low-paying. These low-paying gigs could be some of the most fulfilling gigs you do... or the least. Your own risk tolerance will tell you if it's worth the gamble, but we don't recommend ruling out low-paying gigs immediately. If it's financially viable for you, you could consider taking a low-paying gig for reasons such as:

  • Your enjoyment (e.g. good music, good people, important occasion)
  • Building skills in a new area or genre in which you aren't experienced but would like to grow
  • A project you believe in that's just getting off the ground
  • A favor to friends or family

Another way to think about it: between “good pay,” “good people,” and “good music,” you should try to accept gigs that have at least two of those things.

Iron triangle for choosing gigs

Finally, if you have an awareness of why this gig is low-paying for you (long hours, time-consuming or expensive travel, etc.), you would be in a great position to try and negotiate your pay. When negotiating, be specific about your needs; for example, you could say it would be really helpful to receive an extra $50 to cover travel costs, or you could ask if a carpooling situation can be arranged. If you need help deciding whether a gig is low-paying, you can use our calculator to determine the adjusted take-home pay you would earn for each hour of your time.

Have any thoughts or questions?

We'd love to hear from you! Make your way over to our contact page to send us a message.

Further reading and resources