The Business of Singing: Contracts!

Sweet readers, we all know that singing requires us to be our own managers, accountants, and PR representatives, but since our business courses in conservatory totaled 0 (trust me, I counted them twice), we all have to learn our hard business skills on the fly. So here's another pro tip on the business of singing: always read all of your contracts.

Even if you've worked for a company before, read every line of every clause before signing to make sure there's nothing new. Contracts aren't just agreements of when and where you're singing- they're binding legal documents that cover liability and responsibilities before, during and after the gig. And you won't have much (or any) negotiating power on any of these things after you've signed, so be aware in advance of what you're agreeing to in writing. Obviously we all check contracts for the basics, like performance dates and fees, but here are some additional things to watch out for:

  • When is the hiring organization not required to pay you?
  • What responsibilities/rights/recourse do you have if something goes wrong, and what responsibilities/rights/recourse does the organization have if something goes wrong?
  • What expenses are covered? What expenses are not covered?
  • Are there any additional appearance requirements?

Sometimes clauses buried on, like, page 4 will require your presence at donor events, or will release the company from certain expenses, or will release the company from paying you if a performance is cancelled. If you're working a lot and super busy, it can seem like a chore to sit down and read everything in detail, but when you're planning your schedule and finances, details like these are all good to know beforehand, right?

I Don't Like What I Read- Now What?

If you don't want to agree to a contract's terms - like you don't want to agree to a possibility of no fee or you don't want to release the company from covering particular expenses - then you can always request a change, clarification, or addendum. Be specific in your request, and, as always, consider keeping your tone in all correspondence business formal. If the company really needs you, they may be open to an alteration to their contract language. The worst they can say is "no", right?

And if they do say no, then it's important not to take it personally, because a singer's bargaining power on contract clauses is limited by the overall music economy. It's just supply and demand: the hiring organizations are few and financially strapped, and there are way more of us singers available to do the work for which the organizations are hiring than there is actual work. So if you, Singer McSingerton, get offered one of those coveted contracts but you don't like the company's terms, then odds are dozens of people are poised to shove you out of the way and sign the shit out of that contract as is, even if it promises the conductor their firstborn child. So don't take it as anything other than a supply-and-demand decision if a company says "no", because your particular lack of leverage doesn't reflect the quality of your art, training, or talent, and isn't something to see as a fault in you or a slight by them. It's just the economic environment of our business. 

How Do I Handle It If Something Goes Wrong?

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, I always say. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in the performance business, so this is the main reason why it’s a good practice to read your contracts in detail. You’ll have in the forefront of your mind what’s covered and what isn’t. So when that inevitable something goes wrong - like sickness, miscommunication, extra expenses, extra performances, cancellations, etc. - and your contract doesn’t cover your losses in that situation, you can:

a) In the middle of the problem, ask for something in writing that acts as a contract addendum (i.e., "we will plan to cover this cost as a one-time concession to Singer"); or

b) After it's all over, make an appeal to the company for that one-time concession. For best results, include all the details of what happened, reference any relevant clause in your contract, and make it clear that your request is limited to just this one thing (by granting a concession, they wouldn't be opening the door to any further liability).

If the company won’t or can't make a concession and it's clear that the signed contract has cut off any avenues for recourse, then you can let the company know you’re disappointed in the policy (but try not to take it personally if this doesn’t get much of a reaction, because see above re Supply and Demand), and definitely use the experience to guide you on future contract negotiations.

Of course, there's always option c) fighting the company for a concession. This can be a noble choice that reflects well on your sense of your own professional value and your focus on trying to raise industry standards for singers like you. It can also burn bridges, so consider this step carefully before taking it, because word can get around about conflicts like these, and your personal brand should always be protected. So if you do take this route, consider keeping your correspondence firmly on the side of business formal at all times to minimize the drama, and, if you can, try to get an objective perspective on what legal standing you have. If you already released the company in writing from any potential responsibility for the issue at hand, then it's hard to make a case for restitution afterwards. They just have to point to your signature on the contract. So you'll have a much better chance of a positive resolution if it's something that was never in the contract in the first place or if you're so well-established in your career path that a little bridge-burning when pushing for a concession won't hurt you. As they say, no publicity is bad publicity.

Also keep in mind that no company every intentionally gets into a contract conflict with a singer: any clauses that don't pay expenses or for cancelled performances, etc., are there to keep the company as financially protected as possible. The company has to balance its concerns with those of its artists, and everyone's allowed to protect their financial concerns when it comes to contract negotiation and conflict resolution.

And of course, singers can get the short end of the stick in the financial concerns department because of that massive supply and demand issue, so the most important thing we can all do for ourselves and our industry is work collectively to change the economy of our business by increasing arts funding and creating opportunities to work. Now I know that seems like a non sequitur because economic growth seems sort of ridiculously big picture when what we're talking about here is contract clauses, but hey, how do you think industry standards get improved? Change the supply and demand relationship, and you change the conditions for workers. It doesn't happen overnight, though, so in the meantime: don't take it personally. And read all of your contracts!

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Angela Jajko, mezzo-soprano, is the Editor of the BSR Blog. A popular performer of opera, operetta, musical theatre, and oratorio, she has been praised in such publications as the Boston Globe and the Herald for her “peaches and cream” voice and dramatic delivery. Her recent performances have included acclaimed appearances with Opera Providence in The Romany Maid, as a featured soloist with Cape Symphony in “Passport to England” in the Barnstable Performing Arts Center, as Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore with Longwood Opera and The New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society, as the alto soloist in Handel’s Messiah with Maplewind Arts, as the alto soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with Boston Cecilia at All Saints Brookline, and in the role of Prinz Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with the North End Music and Performing Arts Center Opera Project in Faneuil Hall. Angela is the Alto Soloist at All Saints Brookline, and has also appeared as Miss Hannigan in Annie with Crescendo Theatre Company, The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot at Theatre at the Mount, selections from Carmen in The Greater Worcester Opera Gala in Mechanics Hall, Tessa in The Gondoliers with The Sudbury Savoyards, Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with New England Light Opera, Carmen with Greater Worcester Opera, Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan with New England Light Opera, the roles of Ruth, Buttercup, Phoebe, Katisha, and The Fairy Queen in concert with the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and as a featured soloist in concerts with Opera on Tap, Masstheatrica, FIRSTMusic, Ocean Park Festival Chorus, Parish Center for the Arts and New Hampshire Opera Theatre. Her performances have also included the roles of Carmen, Theodorine, Augusta, Marcellina, Hermia, Savitri, Pirate Jenny, and La Zia Principessa. She has also performed with Odyssey Opera, PORTopera, Granite State Opera, Longwood Opera, BASOTI, Harvard University, and the International Lyric Academy in Viterbo, Italy.  She has been honored by the American Prize competition and holds degrees in Vocal Performance from The New England Conservatory of Music and the University of California at Los Angeles.  She is currently the Associate Executive Director of NELO, an artist coordinator for Opera on Tap Boston, President of the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society, a Board Member of Boston Singers' Resource, and was recently a Board Member of L’Académie, a critically acclaimed orchestra specializing in performances of French Baroque music in health institutions. She has served as Costumer for a number of productions with companies including Guerilla Opera, Company One, NELO, BASOTI and Longwood Opera. She has also served as a Director for NELO’s Rising Stars program and in other productions as Assistant Director, Stage Manager, and Props Master. She has extensive experience in administration, office management, and event management in a variety of industries. Visit her at