Why Are Live Performances So Expensive?

As the manager and music director of a vocal ensemble, I am the person who negotiates the contracts with employers. Often, people are shocked at the price we charge ($100 per performance, per hour, per person). Somehow they think that the price of $100 is unfair, for an hour or less of a person’s time. But these people are not looking at the big picture, and instead of the $100 an hour salary they are envisioning, they are not counting what goes on behind the scenes.

Bank vault with pallet of currency piled high

Money Stacked

In the first place, for musicians, this is a job. In most of the world, music is considered a trade, like plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. Many musicians are members of a union, too.

The music director gets paid very little overall; this is the person who selects the music, based on the capacities of the singers and the requests of the employer. Often this means tracking down (or creating) an arrangement which suits the vocal capabilities of the singers in the ensemble, a process which can take up to several hours for each song. Then the music director has to get copies to each person in the ensemble, which can take another hour at the copy machine, or scanning and uploading to emails. (In our ensemble, we perform only public-domain music; otherwise, the music director has the obligation of buying all the parts, and securing the permissions necessary to perform each copyrighted piece of music.)

And now comes the serious part of the work: practicing. Professional musicians don’t just practice music until they get it right; they practice their music until they can’t get it wrong. That could mean at least half an hour for a two-minute song in their native language, and longer if there is a problem with words or pronunciation, or a difficult passage in the music that must be mastered. All this time is without any pay whatsoever. And finally, there comes the rehearsal, where singers put the entire performance together. Again, the music must be rehearsed together until there is no possibility of failure, which could mean another half hour for each three-minute song. In many groups, rehearsals are also not paid.

If the singers come in costume, then there is the added wear and tear on their costumes (where the wholesale cost of the materials alone can add up to hundreds of dollars), the gas and time used in getting to and from the performance, and the warm-up on the day of the performance. So, for an hour’s performance, there is approximately twenty hours of work involved for each person behind the scenes. Even with multiple identical performances, singers are barely making a profit, unless there are a significant number of identical performances.

The same holds true of instrumental ensembles, with the added expense of wear and tear on their instruments. (For example, bows for string instruments should be rehaired at least eight times a year, at an average price of $60.) And, in addition, there are the administrative headaches of scheduling, contracts, payments, and other activities which the audience doesn’t see. Those all add to the costs borne by the performers.

So, while performing can be, and often is, lucrative, the fees charged are not outrageous, because of the intensive preparation involved in putting on a great performance. So don’t try to shortchange the musicians you hire; give them the respect their hard work deserves!

One Reply to “Why Are Live Performances So Expensive?”

  1. This is an insightful and informative article. I will never look at the “free” musical performances I attend the same again. Thank you for shedding light on the true expenses of musical performers.

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