"Exposure" isn't Payment for Singing. MONEY is.

I once received an email asking if I would sing a series of concerts for what was a very low sum of money. As is typical in negotiations, I countered with an offer that was higher and noted that if my request exceeded their budgeting, I would gladly put them in touch with other singers. Pretty standard.

The presenter said there were no more funds, but s/he could offer exposure, which is when I ended the exchange with a friendly “My fee for this would be $X and I’d be happy to work with you later for less time and/or more money.”

To put it in terms of clothing, I was offered minimum-wage pricing, I countered with discount-store-level pricing, and forewent industry-standard prices because they were unrealistic for the situation. (Calculated out by the hour, this gig paid significantly less than the temp job I quit in December.)

It didn’t work out. Oh well—c’est la vie. This was a situation in which I thought, “Hey, ok, maybe another time. What’s next on my list?” and went on my merry way.

Then came the second round of emails. Keep in mind the first conversation had completely ended and weeks had passed since then.

What I read was the most disrespectful, patronizing email I’ve ever received. It was a helping of “I’m going to give you a second chance,” flavored with “You’re young and you need this gig,” a splash of “this opportunity could mean the difference in you getting future gigs,” a dash of “OUR organization gives you credibility and WE will give you exposure!” a greasy side of “Your colleagues are doing it for what I offered you [then listed my colleagues who had accepted the fee],” and topped it off with “You’re not making the right decision.”

Hold the phone. “I’m going to give you a second chance”?! What is this, the cheating ex-boyfriend come back to beg?! No, my response was no. No is a complete sentence. Thus endeth the conversation. And this person had the audacity to come back and tell me that *I* was being given a second chance?

Puh-lease. I was not born yesterday.

My response was a blunt three lines of 1) I told you the first time, I do not bank on exposure, 2) my colleagues can do what they want, and 3) my answer remains no.

That relationship has ended. And I’m OK with that—no one has the right to talk to anyone else like that and I absolutely will not tolerate it. And to tell me which of my colleagues agreed to what fee—highly unprofessional, disrespectful, and back-handed.

Mama don’t play that game.

The point that I hoped had gotten through, although I highly doubt, was that I do not bank on exposure—literally. I bank with money, just like everyone else. Occasionally I bank with favors and on swaps—traditional barter culture is alive and well. But really, I am a human being who has invested a ginormous amount of money in her education and training, I’ve got great experiences under my belt, and I love to expand my skills and learn new pieces, all the while working with great organizations from small church congregations to pillars of music in the Midwest. We are all in the same industry and partake in the same market. We are all in this together.

There is a deeper level at play here that is not obvious at first glance and may push buttons for a few people so let's go:  I’m a woman asked for what I wanted (I negotiated) and then I said no (I ended the conversation).

*Nicole pushes random buttons and ticks off a whole bunch of people.*

In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker aptly notes that

when a man says no, it’s the end of the conversation;

when a woman says no, it’s the beginning of a negotiation.

In my totally unscientifically-researched, real-life experience, this is very much true for a large portion of the population. Not everyone operates in this way, but in enough of it that when I need to negotiate, I brace for either impact (worst-case scenario) or further development (best-case scenario). Occasionally the response is a resounding yes, and then I go celebrate.

The early seeds for learning to negotiate began with the book Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Just the chapter titles give you an idea of the breadth of this topic: “Opportunity Doesn’t Always Knock,” “Nice Girls Don’t Ask.” “Low Goals and Safe Targets.” Babcock & Laschever thoroughly hash out the conundrum women face every. single. day.

Luckily they also wrote a second book entitled Ask for it: How women can use the power of negotiation to get what they really want. BOOM. Read it. Understand what to do and then do it.

Add to it that I run my own business—it’s an entrepreneurship or, because it’s just me, I qualify as a “Solopreneur.” I’m a female solopreneur. I deal with money, I’m comfortable talking about money, I like to learn about money, and I enjoy taking care of my money. I even geek out over finding efficient ways to enter transactions in my bookkeeping.

I’m a woman entrepreneur who knows her own value. That can be really uncomfortable for other people. I have the brains and support network to determine if a gig is going to make me happy enough, proud enough, and/or paid enough. I do not call myself satisfied when someone else has "been kind enough to let me do something.” (Barf.) This can rock the boat for a lot of other people—people who are happy to assume that when you are a single woman, that you are either a) still supported by your family (?!), b) have a trust fund (???!!!), or c) have a sugar daddy. (Barf.)

The saddest part is, within the last 18 months, people have asked me each of those last three questions.

Just stop and take that in for a second.

So even though I am comfortable with money, budgeting, and investing, have my head straight on my shoulders in regards to which gigs are good projects, and I run the two branches of my business (music & German) with organized flair, my being is often reduced to someone who is a "starving" artist and therefore I must be dependent on “someone who is taking care of me.”

I work. I teach. I sing. I coach. I practice. I write. I recommend. I network. I bust it to get things done and I know what my time is worth.

And my time is worth a lot more than the suggestion that someone else should “take care of me,” the heinous idea that it’s ok if I don't get paid much because someone else is paying my bills, and that “exposure” is something for which I should hope because God forbid I actually form a career out of good, old-fashioned hard work and get paid appropriately for it.

What I really hope for is to be an excellent example for younger (women) singers and entrepreneurs. I hope that they see that I am in charge. I am my own boss. I hope they realize that it is not a marriage/someone else's money that will define them, but who they are as people, and that it is possible and achievable for them to run their own business(es), too. If they want!

What I pray for every time I adjudicate is that I can create a sense of accomplishment for the student when I fill out that adjudication form—that no matter their score, they will feel respected and challenged and that it will give them new motivation for singing and give them the true sense that they belong in music.

What I strive for when I sing is to connect with everyone listening. To give all the listeners a moment in time that takes them away. Life is hard and music makes things a lot better. To entertain people, to give them something to laugh at, to be moved by, to bring tears to their eyes so they might revisit a precious memory or work through a bit of grief.

This is what I bank on.

It takes money to get there—money to pay the rent, buy groceries, pay the cat’s vet bill, put gas in the car to drive to adjudicate, to pay for coachings so I’m ready for gigs, buy flight tickets. It takes me managing my money well and negotiating conditions and fees high enough that my business runs, pays me enough to live on decently, and I can continue to work in this business. It makes me happy and keeps my bank account happy, too.


Updated on 5/21/24.


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