On My Mind—Behind the Numbers

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Improving on the economic picture for freelancers.

Alison Reese is Editor of Harp Column.

Alison Reese is Editor of Harp Column.

Early in my career, shortly after graduating from college, a friend overheard me talking with a potential client about my gig rates. After I got off the phone, he asked me how I could charge money for playing. “Shouldn’t you play because you love it, and not because you want to make money?” he asked, appalled at the thought of me profiting from playing.

I was completely taken aback by my friend’s outrage over my playing for pay, but even more so by his doubting the source of my motivation for making music. “Yes, I love playing the harp,” I replied. “In fact, I love it so much that I want to make my living with it.”

While no one would ever expect a dentist to put in a filling in for free or a plumber to fix a leaky faucet simply because he has a passion for pipes, there is a perception in our culture that artists are different—that somehow doing something enjoyable should be its own compensation. But the financial realities of being a freelance musician are far from enjoyable—high costs of education, instruments, and insurance; long hours without paid vacation; and constant battles over relatively low wages. We decided to take a closer look at those wages in our “National Gig Rates Survey”.

Based on our findings, 57 percent of full-time professional harpists make less than $30,000 per year. Not awful, unless you consider that these are self-employed musicians who must also cover the costs of health insurance, life insurance, and retirement benefits out of that annual income. Now it’s awful.

Annual income is low because gig rates are low. Harpists simply aren’t charging enough per gig to make a decent living. Why aren’t they charging more? Two reasons.

First, nearly half of the gigging harpists out there (43 percent in our survey) have another job that is unrelated to the harp. That means they don’t have to rely on the harp for their livelihood—they can use the harp to supplement their income. When your gig income is just gravy on your household budget, then you don’t have to earn $500 per wedding—making $150 will do just fine. Albeit unintentionally, these undercharging harpists are wreaking havoc for the 57 percent of harpists who rely on the harp for their entire income.

Secondly, many freelancers look to the “going rate” in their area when setting their fees, essentially letting other harpists define what they charge. The “going rate” can be a powerful force—when you constantly get turned down because a client found a cheaper option, you feel forced to lower your rates or risk not booking anything. After all, something is better than nothing. The problem is, in the long run, you simply can’t sustain a career on just “something.”

I will admit that my frustration with undercharging harpists boils over every time I hang up the phone with another bride or choir director or event planner who has found someone who will play the job for half my fee. I have refused to lower my rates, but I also have refused to resort to pitching myself to clients, thinking, “I shouldn’t have to do that. They will get what they pay for.” But this survey was a wake up call for me. The freelance market doesn’t allow for the luxury of that mindset anymore.

My rates remain unchanged, but my mindset is different. I have to convince potential clients I am worth every penny and be proactive and creative in going after work. There will always be undercharging harpists out there. It feels unfair if you’re trying to make a living, but it is not illegal and it is always going to be a part of our profession. We are trained as artists, but if we want to be freelance artists for the long haul, we have to think like businesspeople. •

Alison Reese is editor of Harp Column. She is a freelance performer and teacher in West Michigan. E-mail her at areese@harpcolumn.com.

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About Author

Editor of Harp Column, freelance harpist, private teacher, hot yoga lover, and grammar geek.

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