Sing for Free—A How-to Guide for Creating a Singing Donation Budget

In 5 Tips for Taking a Gig (or Not!) I brought up this rule of thumb (from Ratgeber Freie) on taking or turning down a gig:

Does it make me happy? Does it make me rich? Or does it make me proud?

There are gigs that definitely won’t make you rich AND they are incredibly valuable. Because it’s inevitable that people will call you up during the year and say, “We don’t have a lot of money, but…” or even “We don’t have any money, would you sing this as a favor?” Sing for free? I think not!


But hold on for a sec.


There are a couple of situations in which it is appropriate to sing for very little money or even, yes, for free. And there is a limit, which I will get to.

  1. The Goose Bumps. A gig pays next-to-nothing, but you get goose bumps and the “oh-my-goodness” chills when you read the text and play through the score. This is NOT the “oh, wow, that’d be so cool…” reaction. This is the “Stop the train, where did THIS come from?!” reaction. This kind of situation happens maybe once a year…if even that often! So d o it. Do the work. Sing it. Pour your heart out. You won’t regret it.

2. Favors. You already know when it’s time to “sing a favor.” Your best friend’s wedding. Your Great-Uncle’s funeral. A short project for a musician friend. Know when it’s time to ask for a favor, and know when it’s time to return one. And know when it’s time to pay into the favor bank because you might need one in the future.



TIP: Keep the reigns tight on favors. And don’t ‘spread the word’ about them, either. Your reputation as a professional, paid performer depends on it. Maintaining a professional reputation is key to your success; once people know that you are a paid professional, they tend not to call you for freebies and cheapies. However, word does get around if you sing for cheap or for free; this devalues your work, our industry, and eventually, people don't think of you as a professional, but an amateur.

3. Donations. And here’s what I mean by donation:  A) you sing once a year at your church, for free, and are doing special programming; it’s one rehearsal and the church services. Or B) A non-profit organization asks you to sing a program at their event and you forego an honorarium (or donate it directly back to the non-profit). You need to clearly communicate that these are clearly donations and not favors.

To put it in monetary terms, think of a budget worksheet. In every budget worksheet you’ll see the section “Donations,” a percentage of your yearly income. If your yearly percentage works out to be $200 and you made two, $100 donations in March, you’re done for the year. That means, come Christmas, when everybody and their brother starts calling for a donation, and your budget hasn’t changed, you need to say no. One appropriate response is “I’ve already made my donations for the year.” This is the same and wholly appropriate for making Singing Donations. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to create a Singing Donation Budget.


Creating your Singing Donation Budget


Look at previous years’ schedules:

  1. How much singing did you do and how much did you get paid for it? Calculate what your average hourly pay was. (And since we singers operate as independent contractors, remember that this is *gross* income.)
  2. How many Singing Donations did you make?

Calculate roughly how much time previous years’ Singing Donations took. How much time did you need to schedule rehearsals? Mail music to the accompanist? Did you have to special order music ahead of time from a publisher far away? How many rehearsals were there? How many hours of rehearsals did you have?


Calculate how much you donated by taking the hours you spent on Singing Donations and multiply it by your average hourly pay (#1). That’s how much money you donated by way of Singing Donations last year. Now, is how many Singing Donations you made (#2) proportional to the total amount of gigs you had?


Take some time and let this sink in. Make a truthful decision about how many Singing Donations you will make in the next year that’s aligned with your yearly budget, your other financial (cash) donations, and your time budget. (I’ll talk time budget in another Open Intervals post.)


Here are two Singing Donation Budget examples:

  1. Singer Susan determines that she won’t sing any big projects for little money this year, but she will do a church service for free at her own church. And she’s going to call up a music director friend who needs a favor returned and sing a short recital at that church for free. Singer Susan’s yearly Singing Donation Budget is full.
  2. Singer Sally received a HUGE favor from true friend Composer Caroline when Caroline recommended Sally for a gig; the gig came through to the tune of Holy-Huge-Honorarium. Sally knows Caroline needs a singer for a demo recording and offers her services in return. In addition to the Special Music Sally will sing at her church for 3 Christmas Eve services, she’s filled her Singing Donation Budget for the year.

We are professional singers, we have studied long and hard to be able to do what we do, and we deserve to be paid for it. We also deserve the opportunity to give to our communities, the people who support what we do, and we deserve the right to put appropriate boundaries around it, as with any healthy budget. It’s the path of giving and receiving; selling a service (our singing) and giving donations (as cash or as singing), just as any other business would do.


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