ArticlesEntrepreneurshipEssaysFeaturedIssuesMarch 2019

KNOW YOUR WORTH! How to (Politely) Turn Down Free or Underpaid Work by Fluterscooter

A favorite conversation amongst classical musicians is about money.  Not about how much we are all making (I see you laughing), but about how we are constantly being robbed of our value.  We have all gotten those calls for what sounds like an amazing gig until we hear “but we don’t have a budget” or “we will provide meals but that’s all” or “this is great EXPOSURE” or my personal favorite, “you will be paid if the song gets placed”…and so on.

After graduating from Juilliard, I was involved in the hip hop and pop music world.  Producers and beat makers, who were often not musicians themselves, would call me into the studio (usually after 10pm) and have me play flutes or keyboards over their tracks.  I am sure they sensed my naivete and took full advantage of that. They mentioned the tracks would go to famous artists, and I thought I would strike it rich by working with them!  Of course, as a recent graduate, I was broke.  Broke, like, having $2 in my bank account and needing to find where I could get the most Top Ramen packets.  We’ve all been there.  I had been going to the studio for a few months at this point, and I still couldn’t find the right time to talk to the producers about when I’d get paid.  Maybe I was scared, or I just didn’t know how to start the conversation, but it got to a point where I began feeling taken advantage of, and I started getting fed up.  Even if, out of good faith, they could have offered me $100 for my time and services, I would have been happy.  So then, doing what any responsible musician should do in this situation, I called my local Musicians Union.


No matter where you live and work, there is a local Musicians Union.  The American Federation of Musicians is comprised of over 80,000 musicians and offers many free resources, and you can find your local union on their website.  In my situation, the local 802 helped me get all my owed money from the studio work, and then some. It was a surprisingly easy and fast process. The union rep and I met and calculated how many hours I worked and when, how many instruments I played, and for what artist/song/record label. They then contacted the record label with a “grievance,” and every time, I received a check for what I was owed according to Union rates.  I learned a lot in the process, too.  For example, if you “double” on alto flute, piccolo, pennywhistle, get paid additionally for those doubles.  If you work after midnight, you get overtime rates.  The Union provided me with the knowledge to make sure this would not happen again, and it had me realize the importance of negotiating my fee.

(even if that means turning down work)

“What is your fee?”  I still don’t know the answer to this question because it varies so much depending on the situation.  However, it is something we should at least have an idea of, when put on the spot. If you reply with “whatever you can afford” or “I’m flexible,” you are already giving the impression that you do not have an idea of your value.  When asked, I look at a few factors to determine a fair fee.  First, travel time.  Your hours spent in transit are hours spent not working, so factor that in.  The venue is also important.  If it is a smaller college or venue, they will most likely not have as many funds as a larger one (although this is not always the case).  Research past artists who have performed/taught at the venue, and if you feel it is appropriate, ask them what they were paid.  Start high so you can negotiate down.  It’s like bargaining at a street market. Always know your bottom line, and if it is not accepted, walk away.  And, of course, get everything in writing.  This may sound like a no-brainer, but always make sure to get everything in writing, even if it is just an email or text stating what and when you will be paid.


As long as artists continue to do work for free, all artists are affected by it as it continues to perpetuate this never ending loop. When one person takes free or underpaid work, it is setting a precedent that we all undervalue our craft. The level of flute playing is higher than ever these days, and colleges are accepting and graduating more flutists than in the past.  It is understandable that recent graduates need to get out there and network, but this can happen without agreeing to do work for free.  However, if you are looking for a teaching job, this can be difficult, as many universities just don’t have funds to bring in guest artists.

From a recent PHD graduate:  "I think when I was first not so experienced in the beginning of my career, I needed to do work for exposure. But as I became more familiar with gigging, etc. that’s when I realized I already got the exposure and that was the time for me to start respecting myself more as a serious musician. However, the only way to get an academic teaching job while not having any adjunct positions is to make myself known, especially in my state and local region. There’s no way around that. Funds are limited at institutions.”

The bigger question here is why institutions do not have the funds. How do flute studios allocate budgets for guest artists and festivals?  And why do professors/departments think it is ok to not pay someone a fee to give a master class? Conservatories and universities should be offering classes on this on both a student and professor level. The conversation about money needs to start NOW and not be something we’re afraid to talk about. “Scared money don’t make money” as they say.

And if you are doing work (and lets not call it "work," because work implies getting paid) for exposure, at what age or point in your career should you feel that you've been exposed enough?

(when there is none)

As mentioned, many higher institutions do not have the funds to bring in guest artists, but there can be ways to still find money and sponsorship. One example: supplement the free work with a department that does have the money. I often do this when I combine recitals with talks to music business or entrepreneurship classes. Was your dissertation on French flute music? Contact the French department at the university to see if they would be interested in a lecture/recital.  Or, ask if you can sell your CDs (or flute bags ;) after your class or concert.  What kind of flute do you play? Often, flute companies will sponsor their artists' and emerging players' events to bring more exposure to their instruments. There are opportunities; you just have to ask, and get creative!

We live in a time that under values the arts more than ever (I am speaking mostly about the USA).  Arts programs are being cut, audiences are shrinking, jobs are diminishing.  We all know this, and as much as we want to see things improve, we must make the best of what we have and start thinking differently.


There are many volunteer opportunities available in our communities, and offering your services to a cause or charity you believe in is always a great idea!  However, when it is a university, concert venue, or any arena which pays artists to perform or teach, these are NOT ACCEPTABLE places to volunteer!  We must stop this cycle, and the only way to do so is to stand our ground and make everyone know our worth.



2 thoughts on “KNOW YOUR WORTH! How to (Politely) Turn Down Free or Underpaid Work by Fluterscooter

  • Liz Trinidad

    This is so true but the bigger problem here is that there is no one teaching how to charge. If you go online you have a million courses on how to about anything. But there is nothing for classical musicians. How to you find your worth? How to even approach anyone for anything? This article establishes great points but no actual steps by step that one can take to start charging. If people would actually start creating courses on how to charge or how to pitch masterclasses. This courses are much needed and would be a great passive income for those who already know how to do this.

    • Exactly. Which is why I suggest these classes start at the university level! And yes, courses need to be created. Stay tuned!

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