Artist Financial Profile: Dr. Lisa Neher, Composer & Performer
Adam Schumaker is back with another case study of a musician’s income—the next small chapter in an evolving theoretical Guide to Musician Finances. This time he speaks with Lisa Neher, a composer and performer, about the money taboo, the musician’s eternal hustle, realistically “making it,” adjunct teaching, and the ins and outs of working with your PRO.
Since my first Artist Financial Profile featuring Tony Manfredonia, I have been receiving some wonderful messages via Twitter and Facebook responding to the article. Many people seemed relieved and/or encouraged to see a case study of a specific musician’s income—a small chapter in an evolving theoretical Guide to Musician Finances. Some people also mentioned that they have been questioning their own rat-race struggle to achieve financial security in the arts and that the first article helped them start to consider next steps.
Whatever your takeaway, these articles are meant to be helpful. As an author and interviewer, I am trying to display the incomes of these fearless people without emotion or criticism, so that we may all simply look at how they have used money to live and as nothing more than the tool it is.
Let’s break down the taboo some more. Here is Dr. Lisa Neher:
Lisa Neher is a composer and mezzo-soprano currently based out of Portland, Oregon. She received her DMA in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Iowa in 2016 and has been working as an adjunct professor of voice, a private voice teacher, a composer, a performer, and a composer-performer. Originally from South Seattle, Lisa moved to Iowa City for her DMA and then to Cedar Rapids to live with her partner, prior to her most recent move to Portland.
Lisa and I spoke over a slightly troubled Skype connection and probably raised more questions than we answered about the money taboo, positioning, realistically “making it,” adjunct teaching, and the ins and outs of working with your PRO. As a “continually emerging” composer myself, I think Lisa speaks for many of us when she wonders how feasible a life as a composer-performer really is.
Lisa, like my other interviewees, has agreed to share her finances with our NewMusicBox readers. We hope that this uncommon practice is informative and valuable to the new music community as we all navigate these mysterious seas together. When I asked her how she felt about sharing her finances, Lisa was honest with her reply:
It makes me feel nervous about having a conversation in an article…but also I’m mad about that nervousness…so I’m like, “Let’s talk about it. This is dumb. It’s hurting all of us.”
The Problems of Moving
For 2018, Lisa’s income as a composer/performer/teacher was affected by her move to a new city. The move was purposeful: Lisa wanted to be in a larger music scene for her own career advancement. Her partner was the first one to get a job that initiated the move. Being a freelancer, Lisa spoke about the difficulty in making connections in a new town, without prior contacts and established support systems. As a private voice teacher, it is almost impossible to build a studio of students from the ground up without being there. Some work was done in advance, like sending introductory emails to local high school and middle school conductors at the start of the school year, but it was easier to reconstruct her private student base by actually being in Portland. Lisa felt fortunate to be sharing fiscal responsibilities with her partner, which allowed her more transition time. She explains that she “would have handled the lead up to the move differently” if she had been on her own.
As a freelancer, much of Lisa’s work and income are built from personal connections and networking face-to-face. Maintaining the normal day-to-day hustle while moving home bases is ultimately problematic. Where do you find the time to network in your new city while you finish up your work in your old town? Moving in June left the summer pretty barren. Adjunct positions for the fall had been filled, and many people do not seek out private lessons until the school year starts up again. Once the fall came around, Lisa was able to start up her studio and get on the radar of professors at Lewis & Clark College to do some temporary adjuncting and subbing for music history courses.
Lisa’s made about $25,560 in 2018 and it breaks down like this:
$12,200 Collegiate adjunct teaching (mostly private voice, some coursework) at three different colleges and universities
$6,500 Teaching private voice lessons (only $500 of that income total was earned in the fall)
$2,160 Composing income (which includes commissioning fees, plus about $120 in ASCAP royalties and $30 from the sale of a score)
$4,700 Performance income (as a mezzo-soprano soloist or ensemble member)
The median household income for Portland is $71,931. During our discussions, Lisa suggested that $60-70k a year is her personal income goal to live comfortably. Keep in mind that Portland, Oregon, is on the high end of the national average (the median income in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is $54,465), and this income is household, which 50% of the time indicates two earners.
It is important to note that Lisa’s 2018 income could have looked much different if she had stayed in Cedar Rapids. Understanding that the bulk of her work was between January and June of 2018, with a bit of extrapolating, it is possible that Lisa’s yearly income could have been closer to $45k – $55k with the same sort of work. Moving to Portland mid-year drastically affected her teaching studio and her potential adjunct income. (She also notes that the adjunct teaching schedule in Iowa, though a great opportunity, was not sustainable for her well-being.)
This is a lesson for freelancers thinking of moving: consider the costs of starting over again. As Lisa expressed in her interview, if it were just her as a single person, she would have had to network in the new city (Portland) far more intensely and have secured an adjunct or arts administration job prior to the move to make moving fiscally possible.
Concerns of Sustainability
Lisa had a lot of concerns about the musician’s eternal hustle. Discussions in new music circles seem to focus on the abundance mindset, networking, creative productivity, and other entrepreneurial tactics. Thought leaders like Garrett Hope (Portfolio Composer), Jennifer Rosenfeld (iCadenza), Dale Trumbore, and Angela Myles Beeching paint an optimistic picture full of ways to advance one’s career. Sometimes this information can be overwhelming, and we start wondering how much one can do in a single day. Lisa is concerned about burn out and for good reason. Is this lifestyle sustainable? Can one meet their income goals without having to become famous, or without having to develop a high-end teaching system or coaching business? We want to believe it’s true, but the sheer amount of things one must do to succeed seems daunting, especially when stacked against actual income.
Freelancing as a composer and a vocalist also has its particular challenges. Lisa expressed a certain “fixed” cost for much of the work she does. Small to medium-sized choirs and ensembles that hire her as a performer only have so much wiggle room for negotiating her artist fee. When teaching private voice lessons, she can only flex rates so much depending on the going rate of the area. Many times, for gigs, she has to either accept the fee at the rate the organization offers it, or not take the gig. Lisa also found that her peers don’t like talking about those fees, maybe because they are lower than where they should be.
“With gig work, there seems to be a specialized kind of not talking about [money].”
ASCAP and Performance Royalties
For each of these financial profile articles, I am trying to find a small focus area within what are pretty natural conversations during the interviews. With Lisa, there was a lot of mystery surrounding performance royalties. As I have been writing this piece, Lisa started to get more sizeable royalty checks from her PRO. I felt that readers would benefit from learning about her experience with increased performances of her works and submitting performances to ASCAP.
As Lisa was discussing the mound of performance documentation she submits, and all of its tediousness, she was ultimately wondering if the work put into claiming performances was worth it. She speaks for us all when she says: “ASCAP royalties… I can’t predict what will get royalties and what won’t.” No matter which PRO organization we are personally affiliated with, I am sure many of us feel this way.
I myself recently submitted a ticket to ASCAP asking about how payouts worked, specifically for educational concerts, and what I learned was (quoting from the email I received): “Performances given under Educational licenses are credited or not credited according to a random sample by date used only in the Educational field. Only performances that take place on sample dates will be credited.“ Luckily, we were also able to get some clarification from ASCAP thanks to a phone call with Cia Toscanini, vice president of concert music. Here is a summary of our conversation about performance royalties for both education and professional concerts.
The email I received above is accurate. Concert programs from educational performances (at colleges, universities, schools, etc.) are collected from licensees and ASCAP members and compiled in a year-long survey. Then a sample survey is done of all concerts within a specific time range and performance royalties are paid out from those performances that fall within the sample. ASCAP samples October 1 through September 30; publisher royalties are paid out in the following March, and writer/composer royalties are paid out in April. In Lisa’s case, some of the publisher royalties were not paid because the performance was not claimed as a publisher. Don’t worry, she still has time to correct that. Toscanini stressed that everyone should register as both a writer and a publisher, and claim performances as both, to receive maximum benefit.
The census for professional concerts (non-educational) is different in that every performance is collected and paid, so long as they are claimed by an ASCAP member or submitted by a licensee and the licensee is up to date on their payments. ASCAP has primers for members that are basically an extremely thorough checklist for concert music performance claims. They can be found here. BMI offers similar resources.
Lisa was generous enough to share her ASCAP royalty activity, especially upon the good news that she received more this year. Here’s the breakdown, for those wondering how it might work out:
In 2018, I was paid $64.03 as a publisher and $64.03 as a composer = $128.08 for 1 performance of my large mixed chamber ensemble piece Twister by Durward Ensemble at Kirkwood Community College in August 2017.
Note that these payments came about three-quarters of a year later. Lisa also registered as a composer ($50 one time fee) and a publisher (another $50 one time fee), so that she received 100% of the royalties for her activity, instead of just 50%. For those wondering, Lisa only gave her publishing company a name for ASCAP (D.C. Al Platypus) and has not set up a truly separate business.
As I was writing this article, Lisa was excited to do even better this past year (2018) with her ASCAP royalties. She also was willing to share these figures:
I just got payment, in April of 2019, for two other 2017 performances, but this will go into tax year 2019 (which begs the question, what took them 18 months?)
October 2017, my marimba solo Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at Cedar Rock House in Quasqueton, Iowa; November 2017, Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at University of Northern Iowa in a faculty concert; November 2017, my marimba duo Thaw was performed at the Sacramento State Festival of New Music in California.
For these performances, I was paid $506 as a composer and $391.26 as a publisher. No idea why those numbers are different.
After speaking with Cia Toscanini, we figured out that a few things affected Lisa’s ASCAP income. First, some of the performances were not claimed as both a writer and a publisher. It is important to do both to receive 100% of the royalties. Delayed payment from the yearly schedule as previously described, usually comes from licensees not paying their fees on time, delaying the payout for the creators.
Lisa also claimed six other performances in 2017 with no royalty payouts. It is possible that these payments are still in the queue somewhere, waiting fee collection, or that they were not part of the sample survey. Only two of those were performed in an educational setting, unless the libraries and museums that were performance spaces were part of an educational institution.
ASCAP does have a messaging system built in to the member section of their website (as I am sure does BMI), and they will get back to you via email when you ask questions. It is worth asking, as performance royalties can be a great side income early on, and as your performances increase, have the potential to become a substantial part.
Continue the Discussion
If this article series speaks to you, I urge you to begin building your network of financial confidantes. Before you have to invoice someone, before you negotiate commissioning fees, before you set your rates, talk with your colleagues and mentors, if they are willing. Find like-minded individuals in similar situations and talk actual dollars. You may be surprised. You may find reassurance. Hopefully you will both be encouraged to protect your worth.
Financial knowledge and literacy doesn’t happen overnight. Tackle one thing at a time, when you can. I know my interview with Lisa has encouraged me to register with ASCAP as a publisher—I’m not sure why I was holding back! But I will save figuring out the royalty distribution formulas for another day.
Stay informed, and be an advocate for your artistic and financial worth. The next article in the series will feature the ensemble loadbang, to give us some financial insight into the nonprofit ensemble world. For all of those interested in freelance life with a performing ensemble, it should be a very interesting interview and a fun article!