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.