At the annual national gathering of SLNA in June 2019, a forum took place where we began to discuss how we get paid for this work we do. The conversation flowed far and wide – the subject affected us all, and there are many aspects to it. There was general agreement that song leading is often not recognised as 'real work', by others (the singing community, but also a larger, social attitude towards artistic/creative work) and often by ourselves as we feel uncomfortable about fundraising efforts on our behalf, or negotiate low or no-pay deals in order to 'prove ourselves/our profession' (“hope labour”) or reflective of low self-esteem, or despair at trying to work within a commercial model. There were also really helpful ideas and tips that came out of that forum, some of which have found their way into this preamble to our pay guidelines. What emerged most strongly from that meeting was the need to survey our members, to gain a better understanding of how much work people were doing, and how much they were getting paid for it. And a clear call (carried forward and established as a resolution at our subsequent AGM) that SLNA, as a professional body representative of song leaders, should provide some guidelines for fair pay for those who do this work.
“There is a culture of user pays nowadays. But I’ve also noticed that if something is free, its is perceived as being without value.” – SLNA member
As the SLNA committee prepared to survey our members, two things became apparent. The first was that the pay rates for song leaders were greatly influenced by the availability of funds to pay them rather than their professional worth or the length of time they put into their work. However, instead of surveying models of funding song leaders, we focused at this stage on discovering how many hours work song leaders were doing, what type of work, and how much they were currently being paid. Some song leaders (and the singing groups or committees who support them) have been more successful than others in structuring a fair rate of pay for their work, and our subsequent guidelines reflect these successful models. The means by which these rates get funded is a separate area of discussion, and our initial thoughts are published HERE.
“If I were to get paid what I should, the choir wouldn’t survive…” – SLNA member
The second thing that came to our attention was that there was a section of our membership for whom these pay guidelines would not be a helpful fit. That is, those who use song leading in their day-to-day work as part of a larger body of work: music therapists, for instance, and schoolteachers. Pay rates for these professions are already established, and they have their own professional bodies and unions to advocate and negotiate on their behalf for fair pay. SLNA welcomes music therapists and teachers as members, recognising that many of the practical skills that we are sharing in our network are useful for therapy or in the classroom, but these pay guidelines are aimed at those who primarily identify as song leaders for their profession, or who clearly define song leading work as part of a portfolio of contracts.
Independently from our song leading discussions and survey, the wider creative community in Aotearoa is exploring the same kinds of issues. In 2018 Creative New Zealand and NZ On Air surveyed a range of creative professionals about sustainable careers for artists and arts practitioners. A great deal of data was gathered, and the results have been published and are accessible on the Creative New Zealand website. For the purposes of our pay guidelines, a significant statement from this is:
“most (63 percent [of respondents]) don’t feel that their remuneration is fair, and consider $26 per hour as the level from which they would start to feel that it’s fair.”
At the time of writing (November 2019) they have established six draft principles to inform further discussion. Many of these speak directly to the work SLNA is doing in establishing pay guidelines. The six draft principles are:
that artists and arts practitioners:
- feel their creative practice is valued and regarded as ‘real work’
- are remunerated fairly for their work
- are well positioned to adopt a portfolio approach to achieving a sustainable career
- are prepared for a career in the arts and cultural sector
- can access support to grow and develop a sustainable career
In mid-2019 SLNA asked song leaders from throughout Aotearoa to respond to a questionnaire about the pay they received from leading singing groups. The questions were designed to find out how many hours a person was working for one specific group, and so they were invited to complete a questionnaire for each choir/group that they led.
SLNA pay guidelines
The following information is meant as a guide for song leaders, and those who negotiate with them regarding how much they are paid for the work they do in leading a choir or singing group. Song leaders, and the groups they lead, have a wide variety of methods of remuneration, some of which we'll outline below, as well as sources of funding to enable the song leader to be paid – information about the latter is a separate body of work which we’ve begun HERE. All this discussion is an up-to-date version of work-in-progress, and we are sure that it will be added to over time, providing a more complete picture of the ways and means that song leaders are paid for their work in Aotearoa. We welcome your reflection and comments on this as on all matters SLNA, so please contact us if you have something to add to this issue.
The kind of work that members of our organisation do varies greatly, and many of these variations play a part in negotiating how much a song leader should be paid. Inevitably, the activity of song leading itself is only a small, highly visible and quantifiable part of a process which includes research, arranging, learning, and preparation beforehand, as well as a period of self-reflection and reception analysis after leading the singing group. Creative projects such as concerts could involve additional planning, as well as collaboration with other performers, instrumentalists and creatives such as lighting or sound engineers, as well as group debrief and wrap-up. In addition, song leaders undertake a number of non-creative administrational tasks, both group-specific (such as sending an email newsletter or attending a committee meeting) and as part of a wider 'portfolio' of work (self-promotion, organising workshops for visiting song leaders etc).
It is often hard to quantify the number of hours that song leaders spend in creative and administrational work away from their time 'in front of the choir' even in the simplest of situations where a person leads only one singing group. This difficulty is compounded by many of us having 'portfolio' careers, collating a number of small song-leading and other jobs, and often spending short periods on each project throughout our working day. Layer on top of this additional portfolio work outside of the song leading sphere, or domestic work (often both) and it becomes even harder to establish just how many hours are being dedicated to a specific singing group – and therefore to be paid fairly for the work we do.
Our survey respondents generally worked with each choir or singing group they led for around 2 hours every week, and a common trait was to work roughly to the school calendar year, thus having 4 x 10-week terms. In addition to time in front of the choir, song leaders spent a considerable amount of time either in preparation or administration work for the group – this varied widely, from 1 to 3 or more hours a week, with an average of an extra 2 hours per choir. The total number of hours worked should be considered when setting a fair rate of pay, as well as investment in equipment, costs for professional development, travel and license payments to teach/perform songs. Paying for some of these other costs, is another way that the group/choir can reduce the financial burden on the song leader.
- Overall hourly rate (song leading, prep, admin) $25-$70 or
- Song leading (teaching) rate $50-$175 plus
- Prep/admin rate $25-45
” It’s a good rule of thumb to make sure you charge enough that you can fairly pay someone else to step in for you” – SLNA member
It is unusual for song leaders to be paid the same hourly rate for teaching and prep/admin hours. All too often, there is no pay at all for hours spent away from the choir, and the practise has come to be that their rates of pay for choir hours are relatively high, in recognition of this. Neither of the two pay guidelines above reflect this scenario. Instead, SLNA advocates that song leaders get paid for every hour that they work, and so these guidelines suggest either a flat rate for all hours worked, or else different rates for teaching and for preparation/admin (a model already successfully used by a number of members). In either case, when deciding on remuneration the total hours worked should be taken into consideration.
We've shown these rates on a sliding scale. Some of the things that might affect how much song leaders charge are:
- The professional level of the song leader: how long have they been song leading (this or other choirs), professional development undertaken, cultural and educational experience, and how much the song leader has been (or is) paid for similar work.
- GST and tax obligations
- The amount of regular (rehearsals) and occasional (concerts, events) work the group undertakes
- The size of the group: large (50+) or small (less than 15) groups are equally challenging to work with, and both require additional and careful prep/admin
- How long the group has been established: a younger group requires more prep and admin work than one that has been going for a few years
- How much prep/admin time really needs to be done by the song leader – if some tasks can be done by volunteers within the group, the amount of hours that the song leader has to be paid for admin can be reduced, and therefore in real terms their hourly rate is better.
- Whether the workload of the song leader includes sourcing, transcribing, arranging or even composing original material for the choir. Sometimes this work is included in the hours’ remuneration, other times (particularly for original compositions) a separate fee or commission is negotiated. Rates for arranging/composing and other creative work are often different from regular week-to-week work, and SLNA may suggest rates in future for this kind of work. Meanwhile, we would recommend visiting the Composers Association of New Zealand Commissioning Guidelines at http://canz.net.nz/useful-info...
Occasional work such as concerts or extra rehearsals should be charged separately, at a pre-agreed rate.
Consideration should be given to other benefits song leaders can negotiate to help balance their contributions – payment for PD workshops, SLNA membership, a percentage of the profit from performances, travel allowance, etc.
Rates should be reviewed regularly (suggest annually) as song leaders develop professionally, and singing groups become more established, change size or alter their recreational/performance balance.
 Variations in income from subs are not being considered in setting fair pay rates for song leaders. SLNA has deliberately set these guidelines separately from the matter of sourcing funding for song leading work, which is a part of ongoing discussion about successful financial models for singing groups. Although the two have been historically linked, this has led to unsustainable financial circumstances for song leaders, some of whom are expected to work completely voluntarily or for as little as $5/hr
 Groups that are in the early days of being established require more preparation and administration work by the song leader, in addition to more agility and professionalism in dealing with early fluctuations in membership and developing vocal experience in the group. This unfortunately comes at a time when it is unlikely that there will be strong choir management (other than the song leader themselves), nor a legal entity established that can apply for funding from sources outside of their membership – the result is that song leaders can often work for little or no pay at the beginning of a job – something reflected in the CNZ/NZ On Air survey results which identified a growing trend for creatives to be expected to work unpaid during the establishment phase of their career.
Variations in income from subs are not being considered in setting fair pay rates for song leaders. SLNA has deliberately set these guidelines separately from the matter of sourcing funding for song leading work, which is a part of ongoing discussion about successful financial models for singing groups. Although the two have been historically linked, this has led to unsustainable financial circumstances for song leaders, some of whom are expected to work completely voluntarily or for as little as $5/hr
Groups that are in the early days of being established require more preparation and administration work by the song leader, in addition to more agility and professionalism in dealing with early fluctuations in membership and developing vocal experience in the group. This unfortunately comes at a time when it is unlikely that there will be strong choir management (other than the song leader themselves), nor a legal entity established that can apply for funding from sources outside of their membership – the result is that song leaders can often work for little or no pay at the beginning of a job – something reflected in the CNZ/NZ On Air survey results which identified a growing trend for creatives to be expected to work unpaid during the establishment phase of their career.