When I started playing the piano for weddings,, not only did I have no idea how to figure out what to charge, I didn’t even know how to charge. Hourly? A flat rate? Should there be an extra charge for requests? What about travel?
For the first several months I was making up quotes on the fly. I’d blurt out a number based on how desperate and/or insecure I was at that moment, whatever the latest marketing book or article I’d read said, or however big or small I imagined their budget was—based on the venue.
It was very confusing for everyone involved, and I would not recommend this pricing method.
There are a few things to take into consideration when you’re deciding your pricing. Let’s look at the biggies.
What are the Going Rates for Live Wedding Music?
The best way to figure out what to charge is to find out the going rates in your area.
Sounds easy, right? Ha! This can be tricky for two reasons:
1) Many musicians don’t post their rates; and
2) Openly discussing prices with your direct competition could be awkward, or raise questions . . . to say the least.
There’s always the option of doing a little underhanded spy work — i.e., contacting musicians and asking for a quote as a pretend-prospective-customer. Yes, I admit doing this once upon a time many years ago. In my defense, I wasn’t just doing it to get prices. (Honest!) I was also researching how to respond to a lead and seeing what did and did not impress me as a pretend-prospective-customer — and frankly, that part of it was very eye-opening.
Would I recommend that a beginning musician do this? Probably not. It wastes another person’s time, and being deliberately dishonest is usually a bad idea in general.
If you do want to contact local musicians, I’d suggest telling them very politely that you’re new at this and you’re hoping that they’ll be kind enough to share their rates with you. I would also suggest that you add another simple question or two, so it comes across as less stark than just, “Hey, what are your prices? Thanks.”
If they’re not forthcoming, fine, just move on. But who knows, they might surprise you and be super helpful or even pass some leads to you someday.
I contacted a few pianists in other cities who had nice-looking websites and appeared successful. (The fact that they were not in Atlanta made it considerably less awkward, as they were not my direct competition.) I asked them a few questions about pricing, advertising, and other issues that I was curious about. Not everybody had a lot to say, but I believe everyone responded and no one told me to shut up and leave them alone. Quite to my surprise, Chicago pianist Kathie Nicolet was so helpful that she became my mentor-by-email and years later we still keep in touch via Facebook.
Quote a Price per Job, not an Hourly Rate
Once you decide how much to charge, it’s important to package your services at the right price and cover all your costs. My prices are based on the job, my package deals give more bang for my clients’ buck, and I charge for extras.
Offering a price per job, versus an hourly rate, is a good idea—especially for weddings. This shows people that you’re flexible and not out to nickel-and-dime them for every minute of music played.
If the ceremony starts 30 minutes late, I won’t chase the couple down later to tell them that they owe me more money for that extra 30 minutes. And at the same time, if someone tells me I’m only required for x number of minutes—and that works out to y dollars per hour—I get to tell them I charge by the job, not the hour.
If you look at the pricing packages on my site, you’ll see that the bigger the package, the bigger the “bang for the buck.” For example, I charge $300 for just a ceremony OR cocktail hour, but you can get me for both at the bargain price of $400.
There are two reasons that I do this:
1) Everyone loves to get a deal; and
2) A significant part of the job, to be honest, is preparing and just showing up.
I’m not going to write contracts, learn new music, have a phone consultation, send emails back and forth, block out an evening, play for the event, and drive an hour and a half round trip to earn $100, and you shouldn’t, either.
But, if I’ve already done all that, sure, I’ll play an extra hour for only $100 bucks. See the difference? Good package deals make everyone happy.
Don’t Forget to Set a Price for Any Extras
I charge an extra flat fee when I have to bring my keyboard. It covers wear and tear and insurance, not to mention the extra time it takes to haul it in and out of the car, set it up, and tear it down.
Personally, I don’t normally agree to work at venues that are more than an hour and a half drive one way, but when I do I charge a travel fee.
And if I’m asked to learn a large amount of difficult music I charge extra for the time. Thankfully, that rarely happens. (And to be perfectly honest, if someone wanted me to play Rachmaninoff, I would probably decline the job. No amount of money is worth that.)
If you’re a wedding musician who is either new at this or just unsure of your current pricing, I suggest you take some time to look at my Packages and Pricing page — not because it’s so wonderful, but just to get some ideas to get started.
And you can always email me if you have any questions. I love to chat with other musicians, and I enjoy helping other people. It makes me feel smart. 🙂
Should I Post My Prices on My Website?
Not all wedding professionals list their prices, and that’s usually for two reasons:
1) They simply can’t give an accurate quote until they know more about the specific job (this tends to be more with, say, wedding planners and photographers more than musicians); or
2) They want to have a chance to show the value they offer and sort of “win people over” because they announce their price
The way I see it, if someone’s going to flee my website in horror when they see what I charge, then we probably weren’t a very good match. It would’ve been a waste of everybody’s time for them to have to contact me directly to find that out.
The other thing is that when I’m looking to possibly hire someone, I appreciate having as much information as possible from the website. I don’t appreciate everything being a Big Mystery. In fact, when I was hiring an editor for my books (yes, that is a plug), I immediately eliminated anybody who was unclear about their process or their prices.
When someone’s planning a wedding, the last thing they need is Fifty Big Mysteries To Solve before they can even begin. Think about it: would you want to make an appointment with (or call) multiple venues, bakeries, photographers, florists, caterers, DJs, and so on just to find out that almost half of them are completely out of your price range?
So that’s why I personally choose to post my prices. Oh, and I should add that it saves me time, too. I rarely get calls anymore from people who are visibly disappointed (or worse, irritated) when they hear how much I charge.
If you’re not comfortable posting your specific prices for whatever reason, I definitely suggest at least listing a price range or a starting price.
My final bit of advice about pricing is just remember that you can always make changes. Don’t think it has to be perfect from the start, and don’t agonize over it too much. Pick some reasonable-sounding rates and move on.
Should I Play for Free to Get Exposure?
Oh dear. Every musician out there is either grinning or rolling their eyes right now, because this is something that we talk about all the time.
Once you put out the word that you’re a musician, people will appear from all corners of the earth asking if you’d be willing to play for “exposure.”
This is code for: We won’t pay you for your services, but you should be thrilled to work for free because of course the people at the event will hear you play and then beg to become your paying customers.
This, of course, never happens.
The whole idea of “playing for exposure” is pretty silly, if you think about it. I mean, think about the last time you were somewhere that had live music. Did it ever cross your mind for even just a second to run over to the musician and grab their business card because they were oh-so-wonderful that you wanted to hire them for something else? Of course not. Guests at an event are there to enjoy the event, not poach the performers, service providers, and staff.
The only time you might get some leads is if you’re playing for an event that’s specifically for wedding professionals who possibly have some reason to care who you are. Otherwise, if you play for free, the best you can hope for is a nice review or testimonial that you can use.
Oh, and possibly a cake. I once received a surprise package about a week after I played for free for a charity. It was a caramel cake as a thank you, and as silly as it may sound, it was very exciting.
If you really play your cards right, and ask beforehand, you might get fed for free at the event, which is a nice treat to get a meal at the Ritz-Carlton or somewhere.
But the worst thing that can happen is that you get a reputation as “the musician who works for free.” Then people will start asking you to play for free for more events, which really defeats the whole purpose of trying to break into the business (and could possibly even
your fellow musicians, who rightly feel that you’re devaluing the professional by constantly offering free services).
Having Said all That . . .
I did, in fact, play a couple events for free when I was starting. At the time, I was silly enough to believe that having my business cards out, being graciously introduced during the event, and being listed in the program would be a great way to get business.
In reality, they never led to a thing — not even a single phone or email inquiry.
But it was totally worth my time and I’m glad I did it.
However — and this is very important — I moved on quickly.
Playing background music for three hours is trickier than you may think, and I was glad to get in some “test runs” before anyone actually paid for my services. I got a feel for how to pace myself, and it helped me figure out whether or not I had a big enough repertoire (I didn’t). And frankly, it was more than a little scary to play for a tuxedo-and-gown event for the first time. I felt like a total imposter. I probably would have been terrified if these seemingly intimidating people had paid me to play for them.
So sure, play for free a couple times if this is a new thing for you. And by all means, play gratis for a charity that you have a connection with and truly want to support.
But don’t do it expecting to get any paid gigs out of it, because you won’t. And don’t make it a habit. Musicians deserve to get paid for their services, and that includes you too.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful. If you’re a wedding musician (or want to become one), be sure to check out my post about The best way to get wedding gigs.
This was a modified excerpt of my book Giggin’ for a Livin’: How to Make Money Playing for Weddings and Special Events. It’s available in paperback and the ebook versions are available on Amazon, iBooks, and Kobo.
What readers have to say:
“Grab a copy if wedding gigs are in your future. The book is generous, well-written, and full of great tips.” — Robin Meloy Goldsby, Steinway Artist and Author of Piano Girl
“Jennifer has paid her dues, and learned the ropes. Now she shares what she’s learned with the rest of us…Read her book and incorporate some of her ideas. It will make you more efficient and look more professional. And who knows, it may just help you land some really great gigs!” — Frank Baxter, webmaster for PianoWorld.com