Three Little Words – “What’s your fee?”

This is a guest post by saxophonist Adam Larson.

As a musician, I find that one of the most difficult things to do is to negotiate fees for yourself for performances, recordings, etc. As an artist, I can relate to what I believe holds truth for many of my colleagues, which is that we often are so wrapped up in our practicing that when we get offered an opportunity to showcase our abilities, we have a hard, sometimes agonizing time, naming our price!

Many performance opportunities that I’ve had in New York City come with a payment structure already set-up, which for better or for worse, takes the negotiating skills out of the conversation. The advice in this article is geared more towards the musician who has an opportunity to define what (amount) and how they want to be paid for a performance.

Through conversations with many peers and colleagues, I’ve found that it would seem that many people tend to either undervalue (ask too little) their performance or ask for a figure that is so ridiculously high that a potential talent buyer couldn’t possibly take them seriously. Here lies the important question – How do I price myself in the ballpark without high- or low-balling myself?

Over the course of my career thus far I’ve had an opportunity (and continued opportunities) to refine the process that has worked for me in answering this question. In the 12 years that I’ve been a part of price negotiations, I’ve never once had someone respond in a way that brought the conversation to a grinding halt. Each potential gig should be viewed as its own situation and thus the prices you set for yourself should welcome flexibility.

One of the most important factors in pricing yourself for any particular event, is to look to history as in indicator. What has the status quo been for groups who have played this event in the past? Have groups played this gig in the past?

In the beginning of negotiations I always give the talent buyer an opportunity to give me more information than perhaps they should. A smart talent buyer will always keep their cards close to their chest and put the onus on the artist to name a price first, because that will give them an idea of where the artist’s head is at. If by chance you come across a talent buyer who is transparent enough to tell you exactly what budget they are working with, this is a huge advantage to you as the artist, as it gives YOU a clear indication of where THEIR head is at.

Let’s explore the more common of the two scenarios:

After you’ve solicited the talent buyer for information about pay scale/structure, and they’ve come back and basically put it on you to “make the first move”, there are SEVERAL things you should consider before jumping the gun and naming ANY price; high or low. Factors that should cross your mind are travel, accommodations, incentives, etc. However, these considerations are extremely vague, and if you make the mistake of not considering each of them in-depth, chances are you will pay for it by quoting yourself too low. So, let’s break down each of them.

  1. Travel” – You should be thinking about how much time it’s going to take you to get to the gig- that could mean “oh the gig takes 45 minutes to get to for me AND MY SIDEMEN”, or it could be complex…Perhaps as the leader you have to fly in and fly out to the gig, and your sideman are the people doing the driving to the gig. If anyone has to fly, you would be wise to consider the time spent getting to and from the gig that is involved to play the gig, and figure that into your overall quote. Time is money and although a performance may be a 60-minute engagement on one afternoon, if it takes you a total of 2-3 days to complete the gig, you should absolutely consider this when working on your quote. Make sure you are clear on whether or not the talent buyer will pay for your travel or if it is the responsibility of the artist; this should greatly affect your quote as well.
  2. Accommodations” – Make sure that the talent buyer is committed to your housing situation. Do not ever assume anything- if you want a 4-star hotel with a gym, specify it! You may not get it, but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t say anything.
  3. Incentives” – make sure you and the talent buyer are clear on how your merchandise can/cannot be sold. If you take a gig at a lower quote with the assumption that you can make some more money on the top in merchandise and you get to the gig and you find out otherwise, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot; twice. As an aside, you can maximize your total sales by using a tactful incentive for the audience members, pending the situation. For instance, let’s say you play a concert at a Church and you’re selling CD’s for $15. What would happen if you decided to let the audience know that 20% of all CD’s were going back to the Youth Programs that day. I don’t know about you, but if pre-announcement I stood to sell maybe 3 CD’s and collect $45, and post-announcement I sold 10 CD’s at $12/piece, I’d be much happier to come away with almost three times the profit and you get to do something to give back – isn’t that slick?

It should go without saying that ALL of this should be specifically detailed in a CONTRACT! I could write an entire post about the importance of contracts, but suffice it to say that before you call anyone or make any plans for a gig, you should absolutely have a signed and countersigned copy of a contract, ensuring that everything has been accounted for. After being burned on a deal when I was 18 and having to go through a lengthy series of calls, emails and lawyers this past summer, I can’t stress how important it is to get a deposit for your gig upon execution of a signed contract. To me, this shows the talent buyer that you’re serious and in return, by them paying you a deposit (at least 50%), it shows you that they are equally as serious. As artists, we don’t have time to deal with payment headaches, so I highly recommend adding this to your contract if it is not already a part of it.

I hope at the very least that this article has been thought provoking and ultimately helpful.

Good luck!
Adam Larson


Saxophonist Adam LarsonAdam Larson

Adam Larson is a jazz saxophonist, educator, recording artist and clinician based in New York. He recently earned his Master’s Degree in Jazz Performance from Manhattan School of Music and has established himself as an accomplished performer around the US. He currently has two album releases, Simple Beauty and Overdue Ovation, and is one of the original 10 Teen Jazz Artists.

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Published on: August 26, 2014

Filled Under: Music and Career Advice

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