Unlike regular season positions, music festivals have an added bonus by offering their exclusive location as an added incentive to performance and travel pay. Add to that varying levels of accommodations (from “you’re on your own” to gratis top-of-the-line private housing), travel pay, and proximity to major airports and you have all the elements for the basic formula many musicians consider when looking for summer work. Consequently, festivals located in idyllic locations typically have some leeway over those needing to leverage monetary compensation and travel pay to a larger degree.
Trading location for pay is an established fixture in the among both part-time and full-time orchestra rank-and-file, though (as discussed later in this post), I often question the sensibility of this trade-off. More on that later.
Unfortunately, the sharp increase in gas prices has thrown that delicate balance out of whack. Not only is it far more expensive for musicians (not to mention seasonal staffers and patrons) to drive to music festivals but musicians are having a much more difficult time flying with instruments due to increased airline fees. As an example, if a Chicago based musician wanted to play in the Colorado Music Festival the estimated fuel cost is nearly $400, a 47% increase compared to last summer.
This post touches upon one of my gravest concerns for musicians looking to earn a living as orchestral performers. In my post earlier this year (reprinted in Los Angeles’ Overture Magazine) The Real Cost of Driving to Gigs for the Freelance Musician, I demonstrated how one’s seeming profit is drastically eaten away by fuel costs and other travel expenses.
Taking musician summer festival compensation on even a cursory run through Drew’s Gig After Gas Online Calculator makes most summer gigs (outside of a select few festivals) seem like a dubious proposition for generating a profit.
If we musicians make no money doing festivals, why do we do it? I have played a lot of orchestra festivls over the years. Some have been awesome, some have been grim, but few of them have been dull, and in hindsight, I don’t regret doing any of them!
Still, it is valuable to take a few moments and break down some of the pros and cons of these summer activities. Here are a few of the major reasons why musicians play summer festivals:
1. Paid Vacation – Musicians (especially freelance musicians) often have neither the time nor the discretionary income to take an honest-to-goodness vacation, and a summer festival is therefore the closest thing that many musical folks get to taking time off. Better a working vacation than no vacation, right? More on that later…
2. Working in Paradise – As Drew discusses in his post, getting a chance to make music in a pretty place is one of the driving force behind taking summer festival work. Non-musicians may not understand this compulsion, but playing a concert in the crisp mountain air, an exotic locale, or (as I do each summer) in wacky boathouses and barns in the middle of Lake Michigan is a feeling that just can’t be replicated.
3. Filling Slow Months – Music doesn’t really….well…. pay that well! Freelance musicians and orchestral musicians in orchestras without a summer season often find themselves besotted with work in the chilly months, only to be completely and utterly unemployed in the warm months. While work may disappear for them, those pesky bills keep coming! Taking some summer work (even low-paying work) is therefore preferable to no work.
4. Recharging Creative Juices – Many musicians grow weary of the monotony of their regular work, and taking off for a few weeks in the summer allows for meeting new friends, playing under different conductors, learning new repertoire, and getting a few weeks of fresh faces and places can be like a B12 shot of creative juices, keeping a musician inspired for the entire year to come.
5. Social Reasons – Musicians tend to be social creatures, and many folks simply view festivals as a time to party down. The meager pay offered by many festivals is not so grim if viewed as beer and pizza money rather than mortgage and health care money, and many orchestra festivals become shaggy hippie affairs as musicians stay out all night partying at local joints, doing hikes, and spending time on the water.
Pros and Cons to Summer Festival Work
1. Two services a day… is that really a vacation? – I have played many summer festivals in beautiful locations, only to find myself locked in a rehearsal room morning, noon, and night. The problem with summer festivals is that they keep wanting you to do some dang work when you’re there. While you may be there for a vacation, your employers think of you more like summer staff, and even if they don’t the audience certainly does! You’re there to take care of business, and your personal enjoyment typically comes second to the job.
2. Very few days off – I played a festival in a gorgeous West Coast location many years ago. I was there for three weeks, and I got (drum roll) two whole days off! I had two services a day for nearly every other day I was out there. This, friends, is typical. How many mountains can you climb in two days? How many rivers can you canoe? Again, you’re not actually going there for vacation (right?), but having an idea of how much down time you get while at a festival is a smart.
3. Colossally bad pay – Now, not all summer festivals pay poorly. In fact, most of the gigs I’ve done in the summer have payed close to what I typically make for equivalent work in Chicago. But many festivals pay astonishingly poorly, with little to no travel compensation and a pitiful per-service rate.
Here’s an example of the latter. While this festival was quite enjoyable, even a cursory glance at the following number will have you doubting the wisdom of doing such a festival. As you can see, I lost so much money doing this festival that I could have easily taken my wife and I on a great vacation:
Per-Service Compensation: $26
Number of Services Per Day: 2
Days Worked Per Week: 6
Festival Length: 3 weeks
Total Days Off: 2
Travel Pay: $500
Distance I Traveled (Round-Trip): 5200 miles
My Mileage Costs According to 2007 Federal Compensation Rates (50.5 cents/mile): $2,626
Actual Travel Costs According to the Gig After Gas Online Calculator (71.9 cents/mile): $3,738.80
My total per-service compensation for the festival: $1,134
My total compensation including travel pay: $1,634
My net loss according to the federal mileage rate: $992 loss
My net loss according to the Gig After Gas rate: $2,104.80
Weighing the pros and cons
As I said earlier, I have played a huge number of summer festivals. Some have lined my pocket with a little cash and some have put me deeply in debt. Not being made out of money, I’ve jettisoned the latter and embraced the former, though some of my best memories come from those crazy low-paying orchestral festivals I used to do.
Is it worth it? Well, define “worth it.” I tend to be the kind of person who looks at these things as paid vacation, despite the long hours often spent. I like the change of pace, the unfamiliar colleagues, and I find that summer festivals give me creative energy and help to keep me inspired. For these reasons, I embrace them and don’t ponder the financial nuts and bolts very much.
I generally don’t look at the festivals I’ve done as income generators (though I do come home with a profit from the ones I do these days). I could easily make more money staying at home and teaching, but I enjoy the change of atmosphere and break in routine.