It can be difficult to establish an hourly rate as a musician. We’re not, after all, like other industries. We aren’t selling widgets, and we don’t have specific costs of employees or raw materials to base our calculations on. Furthermore, as friendly as we all are with each other, we often have no idea how much other musicians are making in our area. Consequently, I think the answer for most of us is usually: as much as I can get.
While it may be a acceptable (or at least common) to tailor our rates to the situation, let’s try to nail down a formula here that we can use to establish a standard base rate. Then we’ll talk about how to use this base rate.
How do other industries establish hourly rates?
Many freelance industries use what’s called a target return pricing strategy that may be helpful to us as musicians. With this technique you begin your calculations with what you would like as the end result. For instance, lets say you want to make $50,000 a year. You simply calculate how many billable hours there are in a year and divide $50k by that number. Bam! – that’s your hourly rate.
In theory, this might (might) be a good way to establish a blanket hourly rate for all of your projects. If you assume a 40 hour work week and 52 work weeks a year, that would equal 2,080 hours. If you want to make $50k a year playing music, and if you were playing music 40 hours a week, you would need to charge $24/hour. But that’s not really how being a musician works, right?
Target return pricing for musicians
There is some debate, even in the regular business world, about the number of billable hours in a year. What about vacation weeks? Sick days? Holidays?
It’s probably more complicated in the musician industry. How many billable hours are there for musicians each year? It’s a difficult question because our schedules rarely adhere to the 9-to-5 standard. I think a better question would be: How many billable hours do you expect to sell each year and how much do you want to make from them?
For example, let’s say you have a steady gig that pulls in $30,000 a year and takes up 30 hours a week. You wouldn’t mind working another 10 hours a week (520 hours a year) and your target annual income is $45,000. To turn those 520 billable hours into $15,000, you’d have to charge $28.85/hour.
$15,000 / 520 billable hours = $28.85/hour
You’ll also need to fill up those 10 hours a week with billable work! But that’s another article altogether.
What do I do with this information?
Certainly, many of our jobs as musicians are not paid on an hourly rate. We are usually offered a flat rate per performance/service/gig and that’s that. However, you can use your calculated hourly rate as a standard against which you are able to tell a GOOD GIG from a bad gig.
For instance, let’s say, again, that you’ve decided you have 10 hours a week to sell and, again, you want to make $15,000 with that time. A music store in the next town over calls you and wants you to teach lessons there for $30/hr. To start, they are offering you 4 hours a week.
When we think about this gig, we should take into account not just the 4 hours you will spend teaching, but also the time it takes to commute to the store, and any prep time you’ll need during the week for the lessons themselves. You determine that the drive takes 30 minutes round trip and you figure you can do the gig with an average of 30 minutes of prep time each week. Altogether, that’s a 5 hour commitment a week. For the 5 total hours they are offering to pay you $120, or $24/hour overall.
You’ll remember that we already established that you would like to make at least $28.85/hour, so you know that their offer is less than your ideal. You might still take the gig, of course, but at least this will give you a good idea of generally how valuable the gig is to you.
Let’s have another example before we move on. Say you are called to play the ceremony for a wedding. Let’s say the gig is 45 minutes away (one way) and requires no rehearsal. You’ll need to arrive 15 minutes early and the service will last 1 hour. They have offered to pay you $200.
Altogether – assuming you leave immediately afterwards – it sounds like this gig will take 2.75 hours of your time. For $200, that would mean roughly $72/hour. If your minimum is $28 that’s a good gig! You can feel good taking that offer.
What are other musicians charging?
Obviously, there are going to be variances in what different musicians are charging based on geography and salary expectations. Its no doubt reasonable for a musician to expect a higher salary for more years of experience or education, and I understand LA often pays better than, say, Houston (sorry Houston). Nevertheless, there is a great value in knowing what other musicians are charging for similar projects. Yet, as I alluded to earlier, competition and convention often make it very uncomfortable for musicians to talk to each other about money.
For that reason we’ve set up a forum called How Much Should I Charge? where you can ask other musicians for their thoughts on pricing and hourly rates. You do not need to register for an account to post on this forum, and if you feel squeemish talking about money you can always write your posts using an anonymous screen name.
I’d also like to point out several websites and studies that cite hourly rates for professional musicians. PayScale.com has an interesting collection of charts on the average hourly rate of singers and musicians based on years of experience, geography and more. SPOILER ALERT: for musicians with 10-19 years of experience they list $40.96 as the overall going rate. Also, according to PayScale.com the pay is apparently quite inexplicably high in Atlanta, GA. Maybe we should all move to the ATL?
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics has an extensive list of earnings stats for musicians, gathered, I assume, from the annual census surveys or other government sources. According to the Bureau, the middle 50% of musicians in the U.S. earned between $10.81 and $36.55/hour. They do note, however, a wide variation in the number of hours worked by musicians and the difficulty in acquiring accurate information.
If you are a union musician, your local will have a list of established scale minimums for the jobs in your area. Contact your local office or sign-in to your local’s website for more info.
The numbers that I’ve used here should merely serve as examples in the equations. I can’t give you a definitive answer as to what we should all be charging per hour – and as we’ve seen, even the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has a hard time with it. Nevertheless, the techniques I mention here will give you a good idea of what you should be charging after you’ve decided how much you want to make and how much you expect to work.
Don’t forget to visit our forum, How Much Should I Charge?, and thanks for visiting MusicianWages.com.