Professional Ethics of What to Charge

Posted In: Performing

  • Keymaster
    Harp Column Staff on #188349

    This thread is for discussing the professional ethics of playing for pay. How do you determine the “going rate” in your area? Is it ever OK to volunteer or play for less than the going rate? What should students charge?

    Since this topic can be controversial, we ask you to keep things friendly!

    carl-swanson on #188322

    I don’t play for a living. But as a harp technician and rebuilder, I have had conversations about this with many harpists over the years. The bane of all working harpists, and there is one of these in every city in the country, is the dilettante harpist who has had 4 lessons and hires herself out for $75 per wedding. There are also professionally trained harpists who will make a point of undercutting everyone else and play weddings or functions for $150.

    On the surface, you may say that people have a right to charge what they want, and if they want to play a wedding for $75 or $150, that’s their business and their right. But at those rates, these people are literally loosing money by charging those rates. When the costs are added up-the harp, the insurance, the harp mobile, the cart, the music, the gas, possibly parking, the clothing, and all the other related expenses-then the person who is undercutting everyone else is making nothing on the job. In the commercial world, there are foreign companies that will sell their product in the U.S. for less than it costs to make the product, in order to put their competition out of business. This is called “dumping” (because they are simply dumping their product on the market) and it’s illegal. In the harp world, someone who is undercutting everyone else is in fact “dumping” and that too should be illegal. These people do this because they have money coming in from somewhere else, either a husband or family money, and therefore don’t have to turn a profit themselves. But this is grossly unfair to the larger harp community and devalues the service that these musicians provide.

    Alyson Webber on #188324

    I’m glad this has come up. I feel we are already veering off the intended path, but I hope others will chime in with some numbers…

    I started playing the harp as an adult, almost three years now, but I think I am doing pretty well as I have a lot of musical experience. I’d say I’m a solid “intermediate.” I started playing the harp because I missed performing music and the french horn really isn’t that fun to play or listen to without other instrumentalists. That being said, I just purchased a pedal harp with the expectation that within a few years I will play with enough confidence and solidity that I can start working paying gigs. I currently play in parks for tips to help assuage (minimally) the cost of strings and regulations, not to mention lessons and the harp payment.

    I do have a full time job. But my harp maintenance and costs (while perhaps less wear and tear on the instrument and strings or escape regulation a little longer) are not small. I don’t have the income to play this instrument in the long term without some help from playing the instrument.

    My question is this: When the time comes, how do I begin playing for money? I will have less experience, less repetoire, less ability to quickly pick up/arrange a requested piece of music than all of the harpists in my area. How do I compete? I do not plan to or desire to undercut anyone, but I also have no idea how I plan to acquire any jobs. Traditional economics would suggest I lower my price, but in this instance, there is a morality associated. It isn’t just business, it’s ethics.

    Sylvia on #188326

    Alison, everyone has to start somewhere. That’s why I never put down anyone who shows up with less experience because I was that newbie once, and it’s not fun…it’s very difficult to get the guts to go out there, have a decent rep, learn all the mechanics…how long does it take to get there, set up, change clothes (if necessary), etc. I’m sure I was probably dissed, but my teacher taught me…when someone asks you about another harpist, you say…she/he is a lovely person and plays beautifully. That’s what I say, even if I don’t know, and I never dis anyone because it would just make ME look bad.

    When I started, those many years ago, I was undoubtedly “undercutting” without any competition in mind. I knew I was just sticking my toe in, and I didn’t want anyone to think…gee, I paid ___, and she didn’t do a very good job. I’m sure they got their money’s worth. I’m very grateful to the people who actually hired me because I needed to be out there working in order to learn. Someone has to be the doctor’s first patient.

    It took me many years to acquire my repertoire (see my website or other websites to get ideas for rep). It is all memorized, and the only time I use music is if they throw something at me without enough time to learn it, or I’m accompanying someone.

    Off my soapbox, I gradually raised my prices as I felt more competent. Now, I am very subjective about prices…as in, if I know the place is a difficult entrance or someplace I don’t like to go, I will charge more. If they don’t hire me, that’s OK. As for competition, I think the main competition here would be keyboardists and string quartets, not harpists. I do charge more if it’s farther away or outdoors. I didn’t mention my rates because I’m in a very different place from most of you…S. TX is its own little world. (you can read my book for an inside look at harping here) I think rates depend a lot on your location.

    carl-swanson on #188332

    I don’t agree that if you are new or less experienced to giging(weddings, background music. etc.) that you should charge less.
    Being a professional means doing something for money, and if you are playing the harp for money, then you charge the going rates. If you don’t, you are undercutting everyone else. If you get asked to do a gig that you feel you are not ready for yet, then pass it on to another harpist who IS up to it. But if the going rate in your area for a wedding is $325, then anyone who is playing weddings for money, regardless of their level of playing, should be charging $325. Stated another way, you either charge the same rates as everyone else, or you play for free. There is nothing in between.

    Sylvia on #188334

    I feel the way I do because there is no other way to learn and improve than to be out there. I did what I felt was right.
    We all come from different perspectives and different areas of the country, so there will be no agreement on this, I’m sure.
    Playing for free definitely undercuts, and I don’t think any of us should do it. We have a huge financial and time investment in what we do.

    carl-swanson on #188337

    Here’s another way at looking at this question. Look at it from the perspective of the client. The client(bride, bride’s mother, groom, etc.) is hiring a musician, probably for the first and only time in his/her life. Whoever is doing the hiring is going to call around and ask about fees. The client, knowing nothing about professional music, can’t tell the difference between someone who has had 4 lessons and someone with a Master’s degree from Juilliard. To the client, every harpist out there is the same, and it’s just a question of finding the cheapest one. So he/she calls 9 harpists and gets quotes of $325 for the ceremony. Then he/she calls the 10th harpist and the quote is $125. Which one do you think is going to get hired?

    Sylvia on #188338

    They will either go to your web site and/or ask for a consultation. Either way, they will know how you play.

    Victoria on #188343

    This is a stupid question, but how do you find out the standard rate in your area? Most harpists don’t readily tell their “competitors” that info.

    I have never played at weddings myself so I have no experience. But I think if the client gets an average quote of say $300 and get one of $100, surely they won’t blindly immediately hire the cheaper one? They could ask for bios, samples etc…and if in the end they do decide to hire the $100 harpist, they are aware of what they are getting Sorry, I did not mean to offend anyone, just my opinion.

    As for rates, a friend of mine lives overseas and he said harpists there charges $1000-3000 for an event.

    Alyson Webber on #188368

    Since it is clear there is a spread of opinions on the subject, here is an idea of a compromise. Just to put the idea out there – looking for honest responses from professionals.

    If the a new player in your area advertised that the first three weddings they played would receive a 50% discount on the regular rate on account that the harpist is gaining experience, how would that make you feel? The idea behind this is to give the new harpist an opportunity to land some gigs to get experience, transparency of the “risks” for the bride, and a limited amount of gigs “lost” by other harpists to undercutting. This also implies that instead of getting a cheap harpist, the bride is getting a discount on a service that has a going rate.

    Also, if I am out playing for tips and am approached by an individual who on a whim thought I could play for an upcoming event, I feel that I should be able to charge whatever I want. In that case, the individual is seeking to hire me, not a harpist.

    Victoria, local AHS chapter meetings? A harpist dinner round-up? I don’t know, but I would probably try to get some of the harpists together for a social event to all discuss business and get to know each other. It would feel dishonest to ask for a quote for services without explaining who you are and why, and it would feel creepy to introduce yourself out of the blue to talk about money.

    Gretchen Cover on #188369

    I live in a small area in Florida where there are not many harpists. Periodically, we call or email each other to check gig rates. United you stand, divided you fall sort of thinking. I generally only play duo with my guitar partner professionally so our rate is higher than solo harp.

    carl-swanson on #188371

    First off, thanks Kim for setting up the separate thread. I never meant to hijack the original discussion. To me it is, like it or not, a major factor in what the market will bear in any given area. But maybe it’s better to handle it as a separate topic.

    Victoria, in reference to your sentence, quoted here: “But I think if the client gets an average quote of say $300 and gets one for $100, surely they won’t blindly immediately hire the cheaper one?” I go back to what I said in my post, that 99% of people who are hiring a harpist are doing it for the first time, and they literally cannot hear the difference between a rank beginner and a highly trained professional. They simply assume that any harpist that is available to play their function plays the same as everyone else who is available. This statement sounds ridiculous to us harpists, but I can assure you it is true. Frankly, all of us do the same thing with medical doctors. We assume that a doctor is a doctor is a doctor.

    Alyson-I don’t agree with any discounting of price for any reason. You’re either hiring yourself out or your not. I want to add here that Jan Jennings set me straight on this. She insists that if any of her students take paying gigs, they charge what a professional charges, because they are competing with other professionals at that point. The problem with this whole discussion is that most everyone here is looking at it from the perspective of the harpist. Force yourself to see it from the perspective of the client, who doesn’t know anything about the harp or professional musicians and doesn’t care. They want a service, and they want it as cheap as they can find.

    Years ago Felice Pomeranz and Carol Kulzer would have a meeting once a year to which all professional harpists in the Boston area were invited. The point of the meeting was to set minimums for various type of services(wedding ceremonies, receptions, background music, etc.). The point was not to tell everyone what to charge(i.e., fix prices), but rather to set a minimum below which no one would go. That frankly is what unions do, and it’s called collective bargaining. It was emphasized at each of these meetings that anyone could charge whatever they wanted and whatever the market would bear, so long as they didn’t go below these minimums. I think that is fair.

    As far as a person new to gigs is concerned, I would suggest another way, and that is for the new person to go out on a couple of jobs with an established harpist, possibly sharing the job (but not the pay), to learn what goes into playing one type of job or another. It could even involve the new person paying the established harpist something for doing this,(like harp lessons!).

    Alyson Webber on #188372

    Hmmm… An apprenticeship. That’s a pretty good idea, Carl. That way, you can see the inner workings. I suppose the inexperienced harpist may also gain confidence with friends, acting out a typical service while the harpist plays, and has to time the music to the flow of the processional, etc. Of course, nerves will play a role when an actual wedding is involved and the photographer is taking pictures through your harp…

    carl-swanson on #188374

    Apprenticeship is one of the best ways of learning anything. I think that if a starting out professional harpist did this with several harpists, he/she would get a feel for how different harpists deal with different situations, and would see what was the same and what was different about how the professionals played their jobs. It does not however deal with the issue of very untrained beginners going out and playing jobs. I don’t know what anyone can do about that.

    David Ice on #188375

    Our local chapter mails out a self-addressed stamped envelope to all the professional harpists about once every 4-5 years for an anonymous survey of how much you charge. No signatures, etc., just check off boxes with things like (“For a performance of Ceremony of Carols do you charge a) $100, b) $200 , c) $300) type of thing. That way nobody has to publically disclose their rates, and then we tabulate and mail out the results (i.e. Ceremony of Carols range $200-$400, average charge $375) so people can draw their own conclusions. It’s so anonymous that once I was tabulating things up and thought, “gee, this is right in line with what I charge!” until I realized it was my OWN sheet….I didn’t recognize my own check marks!
    But back to another question, playing for free…. I occasionally will play for free, but it has to be for a cause that really “resonates” for me personally. We all get inundated with “worthy causes” that want our talents freely given. I almost always say no….but…..for example, I just played a funeral for a 15 year old kid who committed suicide because he was bullied and he was gay. A church called me and asked if I would play for free…they were stepping up to help this family and a kid they’d never met. Other churches had refused to do a service, but this church said they would help out and YES, they would hold a service. They were donating funds to pay the funeral home and donating the church itself (and staff, and flowers, and a color printed program, etc.) for the service–again, for a kid they had never met. Of course I said yes….and it was one of the most profound services I’d ever played. (I wound up joining that church because of that experience.) Another time I said yes was for a group holding a candlelight vigil, “Parents of Murdered Children.” OF COURSE, I said, tell me when and where and I’ll be there. But these exceptions really resonated for me and I would have gone anyway. A tea reception for the Society for the Preservation of Trans-Siberian Fruit Bat Watercolor Portraits….well, I doubt if I’d feel so inclined! I use a dodge a friend gave me. If I get a call I don’t “resonate” with (and the above two examples are the only ones in 20 years!) I will tell them I only do 2 charity functions a year and I’m already booked up for this year, but if they will call me in January 2016 we can see if I’m available then. They NEVER call back.

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 49 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.