Why are choir leaders embarrassed about money? Part 1

It’s a phenomenon that I’ve come across too many times to dismiss – choir leaders are embarrassed about money! If you’re immediately thinking that you’re not at all coy about things financial, well done you. I think you’re probably in a minority. You can feel duly smug as you read the rest of this article.

There are two main areas that seem to cause problems, judging by the emails we receive. The first is the remuneration of choir leaders by choirs. The second is the remuneration of choirs by event organisers. In this article, and my next one, I want to look at both of these issues and see if I can come up with strategies for getting comfortable with the financial side of choirs.

Being paid for your work as a choir leader

There are tons of reasons that people lead choirs, and some of them involve working for nothing, for example as part of belonging to a church, or in a larger role as a teacher. However, many choirs that operate for the enjoyment and entertainment of their members will pay their choir leader. It’s all pretty straightforward when there’s a salary or stipend involved. If you’re offered a position and told what the remuneration will be, you either accept it or you don’t.

A choir as a business

Where people seem to come a bit unstuck is when they want to run a choir as a business, like Christine and I do. Many, I would say most, choir leaders in the Total Choir Resources audience have come to the role via other careers, be they musical or not. One effect of a tangential move into choir-leading seems to be the imposter syndrome we’ve talked about before. Many of us seem to drastically under-estimate our value to our choirs and assume that if we charge fees that make the work financially worthwhile for us, no one will join.

Do the sums

Enjoyable though it is to lead a choir, it’s vital that we don’t bankrupt ourselves in the process. If you’re running a choir as a business, you have to work out what you need to take home each year by way of profit (effectively your salary). Work backwards from that figure, and decide what each member of the choir will have to pay. Always be conservative in your calculations about likely income from performances, and likely recruitment and retention of singers. Conversely, be generous in your estimates of overheads and costs.

When you’ve crunched all the numbers, if you can’t make the venture financially viable, you’ll need to think seriously about whether it’s worth doing at all. Few of us are sufficiently wealthy to dabble in professional roles that lose money.

The value of your work

Another issue worth considering is the value placed on your work by the choir. You have skills that help to make your choir enjoyable and inspiring for your singers. You do a huge amount of preparation and behind-the-scenes work. You should be paid! And if you choose not to be, for whatever laudable reason, you should at least be paid expenses so that you’re not out of pocket.

When Christine and I started our choirs, we pitched the fees very low because we were worried that no one would want to join and we felt that what we were offering wasn’t worth very much. When it came time to raise the fees, we panicked like crazy and spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying about how to announce the increase. You know what? No one left, and no one minded. The only comments we had were that the choir was worth it and was cheap at twice the price!

Comments on Why are choir leaders embarrassed about money? Part 1

  1. Avatar Tebogo Leeuw says:

    I am board member of a clap & tap music,my wish is too see this choir growing and been in a position to pay at least each chorister at the of the year something.secondly most of our members are unemployed how can u advice to help them with projects through the year.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Tebogo. You’ll find lots of articles and podcasts on this site about how to plan great performances for your choir. Best of luck.

  2. Avatar Ian says:

    There are a lot of conductors who work for nothing for a variety of reasons. The trouble is that they then become hard to replace as the choir try and recruit a replacement on the same basis. My advice, for what it’s worth, is for all conductors to charge a wage whether they want it or not and then donate it back, preferably via gift aid, if they choose. That way the choir is used to paying for expertise and can subsequently recruit from a larger pool.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      THanks for your comments Ian.

  3. Avatar Kelly says:

    Sorry, I know this feed is oldish….. but I wanted to enquire about salary.
    I run an all women’s community choir. It’s a pay as you go Choir.
    My committee is shocked that I don’t take a salary for my personal time and fuel for running the choir every week.
    I just wanted to see if anyone leading a community choir takes a salary from the weekly fees?

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for your message. Choirs are run in many different ways, some are charity based or part of a church and others are businesses. I can’t speak for all but our choirs are run as businesses and yes we do take a salary from the weekly earnings. This covers our venue hire, refreshments, insurance, first aid training, music and any other costings associated with the choir as well as our time. Even if the choir isn’t your main job or business, you should at the very least be covering your own expenses for fuel. It sounds like this is something your choir committee would be more than happy with.

  4. Avatar Deborah Lamble says:

    We are a small choir of only 11 members and we pay £21 a month by standing order. There is no other option except when you first join then we take £5 and put it in a pot until they become full members and then its a standing order. This means that no taking of money or chasing people goes on in rehearsal. We have enough money to cover all our hall hire, music, teach tracks and advertising. We use the extra £1 a month to pay the annual subscription to our musical association that we belong to.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      That sounds like a fair way of doing things. When you have a very small choir, late payment by one member would be disastrous.

  5. Avatar Sarah larkin says:

    In response to the question of late payers I’d put the fees up for those who pay late but make it seem like those who pay early get a better deal! Like an early bird fee! So maybe those who pay for a term in advance get the equivalent of a session free. You can make private arrangements with those who need to pay weekly etc.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Good tactic!

  6. Avatar Fiona Macardlr says:

    Any suggestions as to how to deal with late payers… I have 3 choirs, one where I am employed by an association and the other 2 are my own. One member, who is certainly not in financial difficulties, belongs to my 2 choirs ( one of which has only 14 members) and resolutely refuses to pay until the last minute every term and even then, having had to be reminded, gets me once again to state why, how much, the dates and what it covers, despite the fact that this has all been explained in an email. This is part of my income, not pocket money, despite the fact that the charges are extremely reasonable. I ask to be paid during the first month of each term. Those in financial difficulties are waived

    I find that this very stressful and also interferes with the way I perceive this singer as a person.

    Can anyone help?

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Personally, Fiona, I would stop indulging this person. When I started out as a choir leader, I probably would have said differently, but these days I wouldn’t put up with the hassle. When you’re running your choirs on a business footing, your choir members are your customers and, of course, you want to please most of them, most of the time. However, it works the other way too. You are quite entitled not to deal with people you don’t want to deal with.

      I would ditch all the reminding and explaining, assuming that you’ve made your rules and expectations clear to everyone. If this person fails to pay in time again, in accordance with rules of which he is fully aware and with which he has agreed to comply by being in the choir, I’d give him a final warning and say that if he does it again, you’d like him to leave the choir. After all, when he fails to pay, he’s expecting his fellow choir members, and you, to subsidise him.

  7. I have always kept fees as accessible as possible – being able to say that it’s a square £5 a week is really handy I think. So when people are signing up for the term or half-term if they can equate that to an accessible weekly cost then I think that helps. The other thing I do is say is that if people are going through real financial hardship (because of unemployment, or difficult circumstances) then they don’t need to pay, or can pay less, or on individual terms. The reality that it is only a few people who come forward for this, but the fact that there is that option is a support to those that may genuinely need it. So far, in 4 years, I don’t think anyone has abused that pricing policy – they have all been cases of genuine need. Each year there are maybe between a 2 or 3 that don’t pay, with 5 – 10 paying less, or splitting payments across each month instead of each term.
    My choir is big – 180 singers – so clearly it’s easy to absorb a handful of free subscriptions, but even when we were smaller (30 at the beginning) I had this policy in place and I think – for a community choir – it gives off the right kind of message.

  8. Avatar Mary says:

    As well as genuine hardship, there are some people who simply refuse to pay, no matter now low the fee is: They believe that choir should be free – or even that they should be paid for singing. It’s sometimes very hard to distinguish between them, and those who simply cannot afford it due to factors outside their control.

    For most choirs, the only approach is simply to not even try recruiting them. I recommend being very up-front about membership dues or fees (on you website and promotional material). The only exception is if you are running a professional choir where performance fees provide enough income to cover stipends for singers. (I’m guessing the professional musicians running choirs like that are unlikely to be reading this sort of website for advice!)

  9. Avatar Shirley Whitelaw says:

    Many of our choir members say we don’t charge enough. They are the ones whi donate to our “scholarship” fund to support those whose budgets are limited.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Shirley. I like the idea of helping people with choir fees, but I’ve always feared it would be a minefield to try to determine who should qualify for help. How do you manage the system?

      1. Avatar Catherine says:

        The choir I sing in has reduced rates for students and the unwaged.

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