Back to the Celtic Harp Main Page    Advice on Becoming a Professional Musician

First of all, there is no magic formula. Music, like any other trade, is intrinsically tied to the society that supports it. How much you choose to charge will ultimately depend on a large number of interconnected factors, all of them relative to where and when you are living, and what kind of music you are offering. Some of the factors include:

Notes on Jargon       Supply & Demand       Style & Appearance       Location      
How much people can afford vs. How much you "should" charge     Unions & Copyrights
Contracts & Getting RESPECT When You Play
Equipment & Amplification     Specific Advice for Weddings

Supply and demand

Like it or not, supply and demand play a large part in the music business. Artists and musicians have bemoaned this fact since time immemorial, but it's not about to go away any time soon. Fact is, if you live in an area where you are the only harpist, you will get more gigs and can afford to charge more. If you live in a highly populated area filled with many other talented and experienced musicians, suddenly you have competition, and it's survival of the fittest.

Style and Appearance

Unfortunately, the people hiring you may not have a clue as to what is involved in the creation of good music. They may have never hired a musician in their life until that point. So while how much you charge or how good you look may have nothing to do with how well you play, it will directly affect how often you get hired.
If you dress like a slob you aren't likely to get hired by the kind of people who can afford to pay you what you really deserve for the time and effort required.
But on the other hand, if you charge exorbitant fees and only dress in tuxes and/or evening gowns, you'll never end up playing in those places which are often the most rewarding and fun. I've heard many tales of people running into members of the Chieftains at a local pub, or meeting their future teacher and mentor at a folk festival, or getting a contact with a major record label while talking with friends over coffee in a neighbourhood cafe after a gig.

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Location: Size of town or city where you're playing

To really get ahead in the music world, you have to have contacts. You have to get to know other musicians, learn the rhythms of your local music community, get known by people. This is especially important in a small town. While you may be able to wow people with credentials and a big price tag in a big city, in a small town it's more important that people recognize you, that they've heard you before and think of you as a decent person. In the town where I live, it took me fully four years to get my foot in the door of the music community. From there I met people, mostly through jam sessions, freebies and charity gigs. Once I knew people, and people knew me, I started getting job offers, and then offers to join groups. Now I'm in several musical groups, and play regularly in my town and the surrounding area, both solo and with those groups.
Where my former harp teacher lives, in Toronto, it is more important to have a fistful of impressive credentials. She has those in spades, as well as an impressive resume of jobs such as playing for various Toronto musicals. While harpists are a relatively rare breed, she does have to deal with much more competition than I do, and people will be relying more on her ability to sell herself than on knowing her personally or having heard about her from a friend.

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How much people can afford to pay

Charities, for instance, often will not be able to afford your standard rates. While playing for a good cause may not be financially rewarding, it's great PR (not to mention all the warm fuzzies). Just be careful not to get stuck in a rut by doing a long string of freebies. Turning down a charity event for a paying gig does not make you evil; musicians have to eat too! And don't forget, you'll need a nest egg for unexpected repairs, regular tune-ups, equipment upgrading, etc. Most of all, beware of that deadly cliché: "But it will be great exposure!" This may be true, but any time you play in public you get exposure; in fact, you're much more likely to get a lucrative job out of the contacts you make at a paid performance. (For example - our trio gets a lot of weddings from word of mouth, when people see us play at other weddings). Getting a good reputation is important, but the majority of people that will contact you after meeting you at a charity performance will be wanting the same thing - a volunteer. Most people set a limit on the amount of free or reduced rate gigs they'll do a year - for instance, I volunteer at a couple of regular events each Christmas, plus doing maybe 2-3 reduced rate gigs over the rest of the year.

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How much you "should" (or want to) charge

Keep in mind that feeding yourself properly and keeping a roof over your head is important, even if your pride says otherwise. The bottom line is, don't sell yourself short. Don't be afraid to charge what you think you are worth. At the same time, be aware of your situation and the reality of trying to make a living in the world. When you play for cheap, you don't just make less money than you should, but you undercut everyone else too - which can anger your fellow musicians who are trying to make a living charging a decent rate. At the same time, you don't want to charge so much that only really rich people can afford to hire you (ok, well maybe some people do, but most of us think ordinary people deserve nice music too!).
Also, don't be afraid to be honest with people. Naturally, you don't want to get a reputation for being desperate (if everyone knows you charge low rates because you're trying to get yourself out of debt and will accept just about anything, they will hire you on that assumption, and feel cheated if you want to charge more). But at the same time, many people are willing to negotiate fees, or make compromises. And it doesn't hurt if you are willing to do the same [Note: This doesn't mean charging differently for every event - you should have a regular rate that you stick to, or people will be tempted to take advantage of you, and it will get very confusing! However, for example - if someone is offering me a very lucrative, long gig, I sometimes negotiate waiving, say, the transportation charge or the amp charge - but only do this if you have previous experience, and only if you feel that it's really worth it]. If you think you are charging a reasonable rate and your potential customers are hemming and hawing because they think it's a little too pricey, don't be afraid to explain to them your reasons for what you charge. Many people forget that musicians put in hours and hours of practice time, not to mention the time spent driving to gigs, warming up, tuning up, talking to your customers, attending rehearsals, etc. If you gently remind people about the huge amount of prep that musicians have to do, they are usually quite understanding.
You may notice that you have not come across any actual numbers yet. The best thing is, to find out how much other people are charging in your area, and go from there. Talk to other harpists, look at other peoples' flyers, do some walking through the yellow pages, attend a few concerts. Make sure you do your research. Find out what's appropriate for you in your area.    [A quick example only: I live in a small city in south-eastern Ontario, Canada; currently (2013) I charge $120 (Cdn) per hour, and my trio charges $270 per hour; plus we add on extra for transportation, rehearsals, and bringing our own amplification; we always have the client sign a contract, and we require a minimum non-refundable deposit of $75, more for longer commitments or out-of-town events. Harpists in big cities like Toronto may charge over $250 per wedding, and that's not counting the reception or any of the extras; also, pedal harpists may charge more because they have a bigger, more expensive instrument to cart around.]

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Contracts - And Getting RESPECT When You Play

Unfortunately, people will sometimes try and treat live musicians with all the respect they show a portable stereo. There are ways to avoid this unflattering treatment. First of all, don't be afraid to remind people that you are a real person, and your harp (or other instrument) is not a piece of furniture. No matter what you are getting paid, you are a professional, and deserve the respect due any working person. Don't be shy when it comes to telling people, politely but firmly, "Please don't stand there, I need to see the bridal party"; or, "I need a chair without arms", or "Please don't put me right by the door, or the harp will be going out of tune every five minutes", or even "Could I please have a glass of water?". These are all perfectly reasonable requests, and no amount of monetary compensation justifies people treating you badly. At the same time, remember that if you lose your temper, you might destroy possibilities of future gigs or contracts.
Some of the above things can be written right into a contract. I personally like to stick to a one-page contract, so people aren't overwhelmed - and also so there's a chance they will actually read the whole thing! Here are some of the things it's good to have in a contract:
  • Exact date, time, and location of event (a phone number for the venue is also a good idea, and you can request that the client includes directions if you haven't been there before)
  • Name, phone number (work and home), and address of client (also e-mail if applicable)
  • Amount of fee/charges (i.e. hourly rate, or flat fee agreed upon)
  • Specific notes as to your needs (shelter from the elements, chair(s), amplification, lighting, etc.)
  • Notes on any extra charges (driving, rehearsals, amplification, etc.)
  • Places for your client's signature and your signature and current date
Some people will do up a new contract for each client; others may have a "blank" contract that they modify and/or fill in accordingly (I find the latter a lot quicker, and more consistent). You can either fill in and sign two separate contracts, or keep the original and mail or fax a copy to the client. Whatever happens, be sure you have a copy to keep - and bring it (or a copy of it) with you when you go to play, in case of any disagreements or misunderstandings.

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Equipment & Amplification

A harp cart or trolley can be a life-saver (or at least, a back-saver), even if you play a relatively small harp. Outdoor events at resorts, festivals and so-on, will often have a fair bit of distance between where you can park and where you're expected to play. It's good to get a lay of the land before you arrive at the event, so call ahead if you're not sure. Personally, I use the "Kart- a-Bag", which you can read a review of here. There are a number of other similar carts available through harp stores and hardware stores, however you'll want to make sure that you get one that is practical for your situation, i.e. fits in your car, isn't too heavy for you to lift, compacts for storage, and can fit all your equipment on it safely.
Other essential equipment to always have on hand includes:
  • a good quality music stand (I keep a spare stand in my car at all times);
  • a comfortable folding chair that is the right size for your harp (preferably a neutral colour, black is good);
  • a cushion to use on those uncomfortable plastic lawn-chairs that they often make you sit on at weddings (ditto on the neutral colour);
  • a spare tuning wrench (I keep one in my glove-box);
  • spare strings (I mainly bring these when I go on long out-of-town events, but it never hurts to have them around);
  • an electronic tuner (incredibly helpful in situations with lots of potential background noise, regardless of whether or not you usually tune by ear);
  • music stand light(s); and of course,
  • a good quality case for your harp (to protect it from dents, scratches, weather, and clumsy/unobservant people)
Advice on amplifying your folk harp can be found in this section. (Note that if you are buying a new harp, you can also look into electric and electro-acoustic harps, which have amplification built in.) Some essential equipment that you will always need when playing amped (aside from the obvious, the amp itself) are:
  • extra cables,
  • extension cords,
  • microphone stand(s) (if using external microphones, rather than a pickup), and
  • extra batteries (for extra equipment like EQ mixers and preamps, also for your electronic tuner and stand lights).
  • If you're using one of those portable battery-powered mini-amps, it also helps to have an extra chair or stool to put the amp on.
    For some idea of what can happen when you forget to bring the right equipment, or when you encounter the unexpected, these two gigs stories are drawn directly from my own experience (on the same weekend, no less!):
    Gig story #1, Part One: Always Bring the Trolley
    Gig story #1, Part Two: You Can Never Predict the Weather

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    The pros and cons of musicians' unions is just as sticky and thorny a pile of issues as it is in any other trade. Since I am not aiming to start any riots or flame wars, I won't even attempt to get into that here. Like with any other controversial issue, there are really good reasons on both sides, and ultimately the decision you make should reflect your own needs, goals and beliefs. Talk to people who are in unions; talk to people who aren't. Get a balanced view.
    Be aware that many orchestras, theatres, and even some restaurants and bars will only hire unionized musicians (this tends to be more of an issue in big cities than in small towns).
    On the other hand, many musicians decide to "go it alone", and resign themselves to having to write off certain opportunities (if, for instance, they have no desire to ever join an orchestra or be part of large-scale productions, it may not ever be an issue for them).
    To learn more about what unions have to offer, a good place to start is by contacting the American Federation of Musicians. (You can get to their homesite by clicking on their name). They represent both American and Canadian musicians, and it doesn't matter what style of music you play. If you live in a country other than Canada or the USA, try calling your local orchestras and/or music schools, or try doing a search for "music-unions" on the Net. For information on copyrights and playing copyrighted material, click here.

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    Notes on Jargon

    A "gig" generally refers to any paid performance. A "freebie" is self-explanatory (playing for free, or for a small honorarium only). Note that both these terms are slang, and you'll want to avoid them when talking to potential clients, or when writing up promotional material. Instead, try terms like "event" or "performance". Some people have what they call their "charity rate", which is a (fixed) reduced price they offer to charities; this is helpful if you don't want to be stuck haggling each time you agree to help out an under-funded organization in your area.

    Back to Notes on Playing for Weddings