Career 101: Contracts

You're a musician, just out of school, finding your way in this cold, dark world, when SUDDENLY: "Dear Musicianlytype - we, the Yourtown Philharmonic, would like to present you in concert next season. Are you available to perform for our chamber music series in March 2015?"

GREAT SUCCESS! A job! You've gotten the gig and are on your way! But what to do now? (other than practice!) At this point, your music school education will begin to fail you: though you've practiced thousands of hours, know the history of all the things, and can identify the structure and analyze any work by Dallapiccola that's thrown your way, you haven't the slightest idea how to negotiate or write a contract so that you'll be well paid for your services.

This isn't uncommon. How many college graduates are prepared to negotiate the salary for their first job? I mean, c'mon, it's MONEY! And it's ALL YOURS! Music students have an even harder time with this. After those thousands of hours in the practice room, practicing (of all things) ruthless self-criticism, it's difficult to determine just what your services are worth on the market, much less how to put that on paper in contract form.

Chances are, you'll be doing most of your own negotiation and writing your own contracts, so if you're still in school, get a headstart on your classmates and begin writing contracts for everything. Playing a wedding? Give the bride a contract. Community orchestra gig? Contract. Adjudicating a concerto competition for your old youth orchestra. Send 'em a contract. By getting in this habit it will be much easier down the road to both submit a contract for negotiation and know that you're getting everything that you need to perform at your best.

What goes into a contract for performance? A few things:

1. Fee - duh.
2. Dates/times - also, duh.
3. Description of the type of service - will you be playing a concerto? In a section? Are you contracting for a wedding trio? Be specific about your duties.

These boilerplate sections should be on every contract. As careers progress, contracts get longer and more detailed. You will require more and more things (a cover from the sun/weather for outdoor weddings; a private bathroom, not accessible by audience members, for recitals; or a bowl of blue - ONLY BLUE - M&Ms and a Pad Thai dinner - AFTER the performance - in your dressing room when you make it big) that will be added to your standard contract.

But what about fee? That's the most important part, right? How do you decide what you're worth? What will the market bear? This is simple: ask. When you answer that email from the Yourtown Phil, iron out details. Who else is playing? Where will it be? When will it be? And - HERE WE GO! - what is the budget for performers? While you should have some idea of what you'll need to be paid, understand that the presenter, in this case Yourtown Philharmonic, may only be able to afford so much. 

If you believe you are worth (and require) $500 for the concert, but their budget allows for $400, then you must negotiate. Meet in the middle. $450 sounds alright. Or accept their $400 but ask for a service to offset some of your fees, perhaps requesting the Phil pay for a hotel room for the length of your stay, or contribute toward your travel fees. Maybe a per diem to offset your food costs. No matter what, it goes in the contract.

If Yourtown Phil comes back with an offer of $100, but you really need $500 to make it work, consider the following trio of elements that should go into such a decision (as told to me by Jennifer Bewerse and modified - slightly - by me):

1. The gig pays, and will result in a profit
2. The gig is helpful to your career
3. The gig - in some way - nurtures your soul

If only one of these elements applies - that is, two are truly not applicable - then skip the gig. Say no. Very rarely is profit worth hurting - or at the very least, not helping - your career. I doubt your career will progress much if playing this gig kills you a little bit on the inside. And, while playing beautiful music with awesome people may make you feel all warm and fuzzy, a net loss on the gig will certainly not help pay the bills. These things must be considered. How many of us have played gigs that sound good ($175 > $0) but crush your soul and don't help you in any way?

That said, if you take a loss on the gig, but it is helpful to your career (real exposure!) AND makes your soul feel good (I, too, like to enjoy my career choice), then perhaps it's worth it. Send Yourtown Philharmonic an email saying, "YES! Sign me up! Also, here's my contract…"

P.S. - does anyone want to actually see real contracts and contract riders? Let me know over at bookface or on the tweeters.