How to be a choir leader Part 4: The touchy subject of money

In our ‘How to be a choir leader’ series so far, we’ve covered why you want to lead a choir, what sort of choir you’ll lead and how to network to get a choir started. This week, we’ll look at the sometimes difficult subject of money and discuss how you can ensure that your choir project is financially viable.

It is an oddity of human life that the artistic and the financial often mix very uncomfortably. We don’t expect an accountant to complete our tax return for nothing; we don’t expect to leave a restaurant without paying the bill, yet it’s quite common for people to express genuine surprise when musicians ask to be paid for their work. Go figure.

Whatever sort of choir you’re planning to lead, it’s vital that you get the financial foundations right, or you could end up seriously out of pocket. Even if you’re lucky enough to be funded by an organisation like a school or company, you’re never going to be given a blank cheque, so you’ll need to go through the budgeting process whoever’s footing the bill.

Work out your fixed costs

Some of the costs associated with your choir will be same whether you have 1 singer or 50: your rehearsal venue, your accompanist’s fee, any sound equipment you use, insurance. These are your fixed overheads and you need to make sure that these costs can be covered regardless of the popularity and success of your choir.

Don’t forget that equipment wears out and breaks down. Anything you use regularly will have a finite life and may need replacing at some time, for which funds will be needed. When you calculate your fixed costs, include a contingency that will cover repairs and replacements.

Work out your ‘per-head’ costs

In addition to your fixed costs, there will be other expenditure that depends on the number of singers in your choir. The most obvious example is sheet music hire or purchase, but there could be all sorts of costs that will grow as your choir grows: refreshments at rehearsals, transport, uniform, folders. Will these be covered in the fee or subscription your choir members pay? Will they be asked to pay for these items individually? If your singers are going to be asked to pay for things themselves, in addition to whatever they pay for being part of the choir, you’ll need to be up-front about that.

Think through additional costs

When you’re caught up with enthusiasm for a project, it’s easy to put the boring, nuts-and-bolts stuff to the back of your mind and assume that you’ll deal with it later when the need arises. Unless you are independently wealthy with a large fortune to fund your endeavours, you really need to think through all the financial implications of your choir project. Even relatively inconsequential costs could, over time, spell the difference between financial viability and an expensive hobby that can’t be sustained.

Examples of some of the costs that might fall into this category are printing, postage, telephone, domain registration, web hosting and maintenance, digital storage, performance licences, statutory fees, legal costs and first aid training.

Spend some time thinking through all the activities your choir might undertake and jot down any associated costs. Once you’ve captured all the possibilities, you can come up with a reasonable estimate of what you’re likely to spend. And remember, always over-estimate costs, under-estimate income.

Remember that your time is valuable

Whether you’re looking to make a career as a choir leader or you’re doing it as a hobby, you need to factor your time into the mix. Running a choir is a lot of work and most of it happens outside rehearsals and performances. Be realistic about how many hours you’re going to spend on this project and work out how much you need to be paid to make it worthwhile, even if that’s simply making sure that you’re not out of pocket on your phone bills.

Establish where the money’s going to come from

How will your choir be funded? It may be an obvious question, but the answer might need some serious thought. Perhaps you’re looking for a grant from an organisation, in which case you’ll go through a process of presenting your budget and agreeing your funding.

You may be looking to your singers to fund the choir; they will pay for the pleasure of being part of the group. That’s fine, but you’ll need to work out how much they will pay. What’s the minimum number of singers you expect to join? How much will they each need to pay to cover the costs of running the choir?

Another consideration is how, and how often, your members will pay. You might want to opt for a ‘pay as you go’ model. The advantage is that people will be willing to pay a higher price because they are not being asked to make a long-term commitment, and they won’t pay when they don’t attend. The disadvantage is that if attendance is poor, so is your income.

An alternative is to ask your choir to pay a subscription for a period, perhaps a year or a quarter. You will have an assured income whether your singers attend or not. The downside is that the longer the commitment, the less people will expect to pay.

Will you be looking to get income anywhere else? Concert performances can attract a fee, but they’re unlikely to be particularly well paid. You will undoubtedly be approached to perform for nothing, possibly at festivals or other local events. You may want to accept some of these opportunities because they will be particularly fun or challenging for the choir, but you will need to work out how the costs will be covered.

Depending on the size and style of your choir, you may be able to attract bookings for more lucrative gigs, like weddings or corporate events. Be sensitive to the potential pitfalls of offering amateur singers for professional engagements. Amateur singers who pay to be part of a choir are your customers, so you can’t treat them like employees. You might, therefore, not be able to demand the kind of commitment and availability needed to accept professional gigs. If you do, say, perform at a wedding for a good fee, where will that money go? If you’re using the money to invest in your choir, there may be no problem. However, your singers may be less impressed if you’re being paid a sizeable fee for something that they’ve given up their time for (especially if it’s not a great experience for them).

However you decide to handle these issues, just make sure that you’re always acting with integrity and in the best interests of your choir. Your singers come first.

Legal and ownership issues

A detailed discussion about the legal aspects of starting a choir is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that wherever you’re located, there will be legal implications to forming a choir, just like any other organisation. If you’re going to run a choir as a business, will you form a company? If the choir will be non-profit, will you create a charity? Will the choir members own the equipment and any other assets associated with the choir? Will you? How will your structure and record that ownership.

I hope you can see that what seems like a very simple proposition – let’s start a choir! – needs a great deal of methodical planning. It shouldn’t put you off. Doing the groundwork now, properly and thoroughly, will set you up for success and avoid expensive surprises further down the road.

Comments on How to be a choir leader Part 4: The touchy subject of money

  1. Avatar Mel says:

    I started a community choir 5 years ago. I didnt ask for a wage. The choir is now 100 strong and events etc are getting more frequent. We have already given away almost £15000 to charities and I have been gifted around £300 twice a year for past couple of years. Can you tell me if the choir can gift me any more without it affecting them, but also affecting my tax as i also work fulltime in a poorly paid job. I love running the choir but would like to make some money for all the work i do.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Mel. Sorry for the delay in replying to you. I’m not sure from your description what sort of set-up you have with your choir. You say you started it, but then that you have been ‘gifted’ money, which suggests that someone else is in charge. As far as I know, your choir can pay you whatever they want to, and in my opinion, if the choir is successful, they should be paying you a decent amount for your hard work. However, you would, of course, have to declare that income for tax purposes.

  2. Avatar Jessic McGowan says:

    hmmm… when you have just 4 then 6 then 10 people in your a cappella choir it’s easy to say… we don’t need insurance, they can pay week to week, the limited profits go to me personally, I pay for the tea bags and milk… someone brings a cake….
    but I can see it may get more complicated if the choir grows.
    Thanks Victoria, another useful article!
    Jessica, Australia

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      You’re welcome Jessica.

  3. Avatar Jane says:

    On the subject of money I would be really interested to find out from any other music directors what sort of fee they consider fair – I get paid a fixed amount per rehearsal (2 hours) as does our accompanist

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Jane. Personally, I approach this from the other direction – what do you need to charge? If you work out your overhead and what you need to charge, and your choir isn’t prepared to cover that, it’s a bit of a non-starter. I think it’s quite common for leaders (who aren’t in charge of the choir management) and accompanists to get paid a fee for rehearsals and performances, rather than a salary.

  4. I belong to a fifty-strong local choir. We sing for pleasure and do two concerts in April and again two concerts just before Chrtistmas. We are not a business and aat the moment not a charity. Whilst our assets currently amount to just over £5K this is not our annual income – most of which comes from members subscriptions. Do we need to register as a charity or can we just carry on as we are? We do have a Constitution and a Committee.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi David. It firstly depends on where you are in the world. If you’re in the UK, I’m confident that there’s no requirement that you register as a charity. I’m not a lawyer, and if you’re in any doubt about your legal and financial status you should consult someone suitably qualified, but I think your choir would be classed as an ‘unincorporated association’, with its assets owned by the membership.

  5. Avatar Henry Sears says:

    I run a community choir in West Wales. I often get pointed towards sources of funding for community choirs but my choir cannot access them because of it being my own ‘sole trader’ business. I wish to move the choir into a different business category in order to remedy this, but I don’t know what’s the best basis on which to set it up – whether a charity or the more ‘businesslike’ community interest company, or any other model? Advice as to pros and cons and what would work best would be gratefully received.

    BTW, I love your site – it feels like an absolute gold mine!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Henry. Thanks for your comment and your kind words about the website. I’m going to preface my reply by saying that this is very much my personal opinion – I don’t have sufficient expertise on different business/non-profit models to advise you, but here’s my two penn’orth.

      I think you have to make a fundamental decision about whether your choir is a community venture or a business. If you want to make your living at it, then you have to decide whether that’s viable, then work like crazy to make it a success. The up-side is that you retain autonomy. The down-side is that financially, you’re on your own.

      I don’t know much about Community Interest Companies. I had a quick look at the website and it’s certainly an interesting prospect. However, it struck me that there looked to be a lot of hoops to jump through and possibly quite burdensome regulation. If you can handle that, it might be just the ticket for a business that looks to be profitable, but has a strong community angle.

      Personally, I wouldn’t go down the charitable status route. Charities are very closely regulated, and rightly – they get significant tax breaks and they have to prove that the funds they attract are used for charitable purposes. I know from friends’ experiences that applying for charitable status is no easy thing and that the ongoing reporting requirements are very detailed.

      Christine and I have never regretted our decision to run our choirs as a business, but I recognise that the same structure might not work for other types of choir in other locations.

      I hope you’ll keep in touch and tell us what you decide to do. If you decide to go down the CIC or charity route, we’d love to know how application process goes.

  6. Avatar Jacqueline says:

    Hi Victoria, as usual a VERY interesting and most useful article. Having taken over in January as Musical Director of my local ladies Barbershop chorus in which I have sung for a year (hopefully more communication soon on this via your page on comments on ‘starting a new choir/newbie Director!) I am hoping to fulfill my desire to start up a series of choirs/sing along groups for varying ages/genres of music and your article covers so many pitfalls which could be encountered – definitely food for thought before committing to any definite arrangements! I am always so encouraged by everything that I receive from Total Choir Resources and regularly check my e-mails with anticipation for the next installment, whatever this may cover!

    Please keep up the good work! – smiley face (but I don’t know how to access this!)

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Jacqueline. What fantastic feedback! It is SO good to hear that what we’re doing is well-received. Obviously, we get an idea that the content is valued by our readers and listeners because the numbers on our subscriber list keep growing, but nothing beats hearing positive comments, so thank you.

    2. Avatar Sarah says:

      Here’s your smiley face :-) xxx

  7. Avatar Rosemary Moore says:

    Thanks for this article, very interesting. I would really appreciate at a future point some discussion about insurance for choirs, what type to obtain and ideas about who to go to for this – if you feel able to cover this topic.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Rosemary. Thanks for the comment. I’ll look into doing something about insurance. It’s a subject that affects us all.

      1. Avatar Sara says:

        Just a quick question re. insurance. I currently have public liability insurance which is specific to my community choir. However, I am about to start up another community choir elsewhere and my insurance company say that I would need a separate policy. Is it better to just cover me personally or to have cover for the choir itself?!

        Many thanks for all your posts, always very helpful and encouraging.

        1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

          Hi Sara. I think it might be a good idea to talk to a broker and shop around a bit. It might depend on what sort of legal entity your choir is. Christine and I run our choirs via a limited company, so it’s the company that carries public liability insurance. Therefore, any activity by the company is covered. If you two choirs will be two different organisations, you might have to insure separately.

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