Obsession and Profession: Making a Living as a Classical Guitarist
Andrew York has a built a caeer as a performer, recording artist, and publisher.
For most guitarists, it isn’t easy piecing together a full-time career in music
By Blair Jackson
I’m going to go out on a limb and state that almost no one aspires to become a professional classical guitarist to get rich. That isn’t to say that none become wealthy, but it’s hardly ever the reason a guitarist chooses to devote thousands of hours of blood, sweat, and tears to such an incredibly difficult and demanding undertaking. For most, the rewards are mainly intangible, derived from the satisfaction of learning and mastering a beautiful and complex art form, the deep spiritual nourishment and sheer bliss that both playing and listening to great music regularly provide, and feeling the tremendous support and connectedness that runs deep in the classical guitar community.
“Getting rich” and “making a living” are two different things. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to discard the first and focus instead on the second, which is something that thousands of classical guitarists around the world are doing—in most cases by cobbling together a career from numerous music-related paths: performing, recording, teaching, writing and publishing new music, promoting concerts. There are all sorts of avenues today’s guitarists can and do take. It’s a little bit of money here, a little bit there, and with any luck (actually, a lot of hard work and creativity), it adds up to enough of an income to keep the wolf away from the door and to banish thoughts of having to find work outside of music. Of course, one person’s definition of “making a living” can vary considerably from another’s—there’s “happy to just be scraping by” vs. “contentedly comfortable,” and many shadings and variations therein—whatever the case, if playing the guitar is your profession, congratulations! That’s a real accomplishment.
Being the curious type, I’ve wondered about the varied income streams that classical guitarists are tapping into, and I thought it might be interesting—and perhaps instructive to guitarists still hoping to make the leap from passionate hobbyist to full-time professional—to look more closely at some of these areas. So, I approached some players at different levels of achievement, concert promoters, and teachers, and asked them to reveal details of how they earn their living, and the finances of the guitar world in general. By e-mail, I asked the same questions of each respondent and they answered the ones that were relevant to them. In exchange for their candor, I promised to reveal no names or specific organizations; this is not about who makes what, and how. This is not an exposé; rather it is designed to present some collective wisdom about the state of the profession.
Keep in mind that this is a small sample size and there will be many exceptions and variances from every generalized and specific figure you read below. None of this is set in stone. What a guitar festival in an American city pays might be quite different from what a small venue in North England might pay the same artist for a one-nighter in a small, local church. [Note: All the money amounts are in U.S. dollars.]
Not surprisingly, the fees that guitarists earn from performing in concerts vary wildly and depend on many factors, including the fame/reputation of the player, the venue and/or event (Festival? Guitar-society offering? Solo? With orchestra?), expenses expected to be covered, number of other acts sharing the ticket income, whether a foundation or other philanthropic body is involved, etc.
Q: What is the range of fees a guitarist can expect for playing a concert?
One person who has been intimately involved in British concert production noted, “If the guitarist is unknown, then he or she can expect not much more than $200, plus some expenses. If he is an established player, he can expect $750, which is typical at an international classical guitar festival. If the player is world-class, then the fee could be up to $2,000, $3,000, or more. A top quartet may earn as much as $5,000 or more.
A U.S.-based concert producer answered, “$1,000 to $10,000. A rare player will go over that, if they can sell tickets. John Williams used to get $20,000 or more, but those days seem to be gone.”
A top international guitarist wrote that he is paid $10,000 for two concerts at a venue, $5,000 for a solo recital, $2,500 for a chamber music concert, and $2,500 for a classical guitar society recital.
A less well-known (but still international) artist added, “For solo recitals I get $950 to $2,500 depending on how long the recital is. If I play with an orchestra I earn around $4,000.”
A third guitarist, who occasionally plays in a duo, said he and his playing partner recently split a fee of $8,000 for a fairly high-profile concert in a nice U.S. venue. The same guitarist mentioned that festivals vary greatly, with one in New York paying $1,500 for a concert and another in Germany topping out at $3,000, even for big names. “The thinking is you need to string together a bunch of festivals in Europe and make it that way,” he said.
Another view: “I don’t play concerts generally as a classical guitarist, but as co-runner of a classical guitar club, I can put my own view on booking a guitarist here. Because there are a lot of small societies in the UK that are run on a shoestring, when we book a guitarist we are unhappy to pay more than £200 [nearly $300] for a whole evening, and prefer to give them a percentage of the door takings, with a smaller minimum, say £120 [$180], just in case people don’t turn up. I would imagine that, unless there are some seriously rich guitar societies here, many others would do the same.”
One more comment: “It is important to mention the enormous help given to guitarists by music companies such as D’Addario, Savarez, and La Bella. Their generous support for festivals, competitions, and concerts has been, and is, vital for many young guitarists. The D’Addario Foundation, in particular, stands out in its phenomenal support of events all over the world. Its own New York City concert program for new young guitarists over the years has also helped many onto the ladder of success.”
Q: How are expenses dealt with, from travel to food to lodging?
Former promoter: “If it is a one-off appearance at, say, a festival, then the artist’s travel costs, plus food and lodging, are usually covered by the organizers. In the case of small guitar societies, the artist often stays with one of the organizers to minimize costs. The agreed-upon fee will usually include an amount for travel.”
Top guitarist: “Usually presenters pay for your flight in economy class. A round-trip flight ticket from America to Europe averages around $800 to $1,000. There are some countries and managers that negotiate an all-inclusive fee where you have to deduct your flight expenses from your fee, and then the manager will get his percentage from the whole fee as well.”
U.S. producer/promoter: “It depends on the deal and the artist’s leverage. With popular acoustic players, a per diem and lodging are usually expected. Classical players tend to try and get housing included.”
Another guitarist: “Some guitarists, if they’re higher level, ask for airfare in the fee, but for many there is no airfare or room and board; you’re on your own to work that out.”
A third guitarist: “Sometimes promoters don’t have the money to pay for international travel, and in that case I depend on foundation money or other sponsors.”
Q: How does the addition of a master class affect an artist’s fee?
Here, the range mentioned by the respondents stretched from about $200 to $600, usually added on top of the performance fee, but sometimes included in the lump-sum payment. The very top-tier players can ask more.
Recording and CDs
Q: Does anyone make money off CDs anymore?
As most of you know, the recording industry is not what it was 20 years ago, before the current generation of music consumers stopped buying CDs, because they could find all the music they wanted online, in many cases, for free. The days when Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, John Williams, and a couple of others could sell close to 100,000 copies of an album are long gone. Today, the top strata of players can still earn decent money from album sales—either CDs or digital downloads—but, as in pop music, too, the numbers aren’t what they once were. Today, sales of 10,000 classical-guitar albums is considered very strong (the same is true with jazz recordings), but most CG CDs sell considerably fewer; many never break 1,000 copies and don’t earn back the investment in recording.
While there are still prestigious record labels that put out guitar music, advances to the artists tend to be small—if they’re offered at all. Indeed, some artists on major classical labels find themselves paying out of pocket in advance for recording expenses (rather than the “old school” practice of the label paying for the recording and then sales of the finished CD chipping away at the artist’s debt to the record company). For some artists, it’s worth it to work this way because they at least reap the benefit of having the label’s promotion and distribution arms behind them to (hopefully) get the album out to the public. Increasingly, though, musicians of every genre are opting to make and sell their albums independently as a way to keep expenses down and to have unlimited access to “product” to sell at concerts.
So why go through the trouble of recording at all? Well, an album is a calling-card of sorts. It shows an artist’s skill and style and demonstrates the sort of repertoire that he or she likes to perform. Some guitar music gets played on classical radio stations, which is good exposure, and selling CDs at concerts can be lucrative over the long haul. CDs are also the way that younger musicians get their music into the hands of concert promoters, so that can have an effect on bookings. That’s one reason why so many debut albums by classical guitarists are like hour-long, mixed-repertoire recitals: “Here’s what I can do!”
Of our respondents, one whom records for a major classical label, said he had paid $12,000 to make his most recent recording. “Then, I pay $9 for each CD I buy from them to sell in concerts for $20, from which the venue usually takes 15 to 20 percent of the sales. Making a CD is an investment that through time you recover through the sales of CDs after performances; there is basically no profit in them. Recording is a way to make your artistic statements, and an excuse to do PR and get reviews.”
Another noted, “I didn’t receive an advance to make my CD and it cost a lot. Recording, mixing, mastering, designing the booklet, translations to other languages in the booklet, photos, etc. all add up. And also, the record company must have its share: I get my copies to sell from the record company. When I started making the CD, it was not with the intention of earning a lot of money. I just wanted to have a product to represent classical guitar music and myself. That, I think, is very important to have. One does not have to have a record company to do that, of course, but I wanted to do it as professionally and perfect as I could. But people who make the CDs themselves earn more money, because it is much cheaper.”
A last word on this issue: Many artists are excited when they learn that their CDs have been added to streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music. It is, potentially, great exposure. But the reality is that no one—not Beyoncé, not the Rolling Stones, much less Julian Bream—is making more than a pittance from having their music streamed online. If anything, having access to entire albums online gives consumers a reason not to buy the CD, because there it is, essentially for free.
Q: What about publishing? Do “name” composers sign contracts that give them advances against royalties? How are they paid, in terms of a percentage of the retail price of sheet music?
“In my experience,” wrote one classical guitar insider, “many guitar composers have a basic agreement with a publisher, with perhaps a small advance royalty payment. Then they will usually receive 10 percent of the retail value of their music sold. However, like CDs, total sales of many published works are very small. The income from their compositions is enhanced when they are played on a recording. If a major artist, such as John Williams, includes a given piece on one of his records, then the composer could enjoy a respectable royalty.
A guitarist/composer adds, “Unless you sell lots of books [pieces], you only make an occasional smallish amount. My best-selling publication has, over the years, sold a few hundred copies. As I usually get 10 percent of the book price (about £15), I get £1.50 a time, so through the years I have probably made a few hundred pounds in total. My other original works with [various large and small publishers] have sold only a small handful each (same percentages); I bet I have only made £100 in total over all those. One company sent me an Italian contract, which I didn’t read properly, for one of my pieces—I found out after that I get nothing for sheet music sales, but only get royalties if it is ever recorded or used in a film or TV program. So unless you are a Roland Dyens, or another large seller of music, you make a paltry amount from publishing your pieces—when you can actually get publishers to accept your pieces at all, which is another tale entirely!”
“Royalties for pieces in the UK are paid either because they are played in a concert venue covered by PRS [the Performing Right Society; now called PRS for Music; the U.S. equivalents are ASCAP and BMI], played over the radio or TV, recorded on a CD, or used in TV or film. Well, the first category of playing pieces in venues is very hit-or-miss. Because many guitar recitals are in churches, or different sorts of clubs, they either don’t pay out at all, as they are not on the list of venues covered by PRS, or they are paltry sums, namely a few pounds a time, (depending on the size of the piece and number of listeners at the venue). If, however, you get your 20-minute piece played at the Royal Albert Hall, with 3,000 people watching, it’s a very different story. But get your five-minute piece played by a top artist, playing at a local club with 100 people in the audience, and it might get absolutely nothing. And many guitarists play at such venues all the time, so the writer gets zip from those sorts of gigs.
“Having had a piece of mine played by a duo which was recorded for radio, and broadcast once over commercial radio, I can vouch that that pays much better. The same piece (about 15 minutes long) at a small venue, might pay £10–£15. Over the radio? £150 each time.
A small publisher: “Whenever I sign up anyone to publish their music, they never get an advance. Payments are paid out at the year’s end and they are usually 10 percent of the total music sales, and 50 percent of any monies received from recordings, broadcasts, etc.”
A final thought: “Performance royalties seem more lucrative [than from sales of sheet music]. The best thing is to get a piece into a movie score. I’m still getting royalties from a piece played on the soundtrack of a film maybe 15 years ago. They come in from all over the world via ASCAP. I’m not the composer but own the publishing rights.”
While there are certainly a number classical guitarists who make most of their income from a combination of performing at concerts and selling CDs, the great majority of professionals earn some—and in many cases, most—of their living through teaching, either by having a steady position at an elementary or high school, college, conservatory, or offering private lessons, or both. The list of guitarists past and present who have taught at colleges large and small would include most of the successful players you know. Landing a position offers a steady paycheck, schedule flexibility that usually allows for touring in summer (and at other times), and also is critically important in educating the great guitarists of tomorrow. Salaries differ greatly depending on myriad factors, so it’s very difficult to generalize. And the requirements of different positions also vary greatly—sometimes, particularly with young guitarists, teaching involves large groups (which is not easy); others teach to just a few students at a time over the course of a school term. Private teaching is another animal altogether.
“Being the head of a guitar department is certainly today one of the surest ways for a guitarist to guarantee an acceptable and regular level of income,” wrote one respondent. Fortunately, today there are many excellent guitar departments throughout the world. This was not the case in the 1970s. And such positions are often very prestigious.”
How does one compete for such a post? “Better have a doctorate and be a competition winner with some recordings and tours under your belt,” wrote another.
As for private, one-on-one teaching, it seems to depend on the fame of the guitarist, where the teacher is located (Big city? Small village?), and the amount of interest in classical guitar in the region. In other words, the range is wide, running anywhere from about $45 an hour on the low end, up to as much as $225 for a top-flight player (or well-known teacher).
Other Income Sources
One of the responding guitarists has managed to land a sponsorship deal with a company he likes that pays for some PR and marketing for his concerts in exchange for having signage and their product on-hand at the concerts, as well as at receptions after concerts, private recitals, etc. As he said, “I offer them my image, and they ‘come’ with me on tour.”
A veteran observer mentioned, “I know quite a few classical guitarists who play for weddings. There are a number of good books of suitable ‘wedding’ music arranged for classical guitar. Others play in hotel bars and lounges—the Great American Songbook arranged for classical guitar. Others will play a selection of South American music in similar venues. I also have known a few guitarists who have written music for advertising played on radio, television, and movies. In addition, they may appear on a program as an extra playing in the background.”
Then there’s this one: “I seem to be a rarity, because I find it easy to listen to a guitar piece, and then know exactly where it goes on the guitar, and duly write it down, as I have with hundreds of pieces over the years. The best thing about that is the reputation it gets you, as so many people who can play me into the ground cannot do what I do at all. But I cannot charge by the hour, because an average four-minute piece might take me a total of 15 to 20 hours over a period of weeks. But I can only charge £25 to £40 per piece—not 20 hours at £28 an hour, which is my teaching rate. That would work out to £560 for a four-minute piece, and no one is going to pay that! But it has earned me a reputation for doing it, so that is worth more in my opinion.”
Finally, from a guitarist/concert producer: “I bought a cottage on the beach, my wife planted a beautiful garden, people started asking us if they could get married at our place, and we now have 80 to 100 weddings (ceremony only!) at our home each year. Guess who plays the guitar at every wedding?”
What’s YOUR Story?
Everyone has a different story about how they make ends meet as a classical guitarist, or how they plan to in the future. Tell us about your experiences—good and bad—and perhaps it can be part of a future addendum to this article.
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Classical Guitar.)