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The Impact of a Weak Economy on the American Singer
James Busterund
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Voices12/1/2004

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In March of 2000, the United States stock market reached the pinnacle of an unprecedented 18-year bull market. The market had experienced a once-in-a-century buying mania that had been fueled by the euphoria over a “new economy” and business opportunities related to the Internet. Many individuals and businesses prospered. Opera companies and orchestras were no exception. Charitable giving surged resulting in expanded concert and opera seasons and burgeoning payrolls.

Three and a half years later, the flow of money has reversed its course. The economy, and, therefore, the stock market have faced a recession resulting in increased unemployment and lowered consumer confidence. In the middle of this economic retrenchment, the chilling and sobering effects of 9-11 left their marks. As the economy stumbled, benefactors began to pull away from their generous commitments to non-profits. The cycle has continued forcing performing arts companies to cut back on plans for seasons both current and beyond.

Will this trend continue? That is anyone’s guess. Business cycles come and go, and this current slow down in the economy may last as long as the previous boom. The boom lasted 18 years. The U.S. economy is still on shaky ground 3 years into the slow down.

How does all this economic uncertainty impact a young singer? What does one do to prepare?

To begin, one must come to understand and accept the realities of the current environment. Those realities include the following:

Well-established singers have had to compromise their careers by taking work with smaller companies than in previous years. Also, they are forced to take lower fees.

Contracts have been undergoing some alterations even after having been signed. There have been “negotiated” settlements in which income has been deferred for up to a year for some singers.

In the worst cases, there have been some orchestra bankruptcies, leading to a complete fracture of the contractual agreement.

According to Janice Mayer of Janice Mayer and Associates, LLC, an artists’ management company in New York, there is a sense that opera and concert opportunities for singers are shrinking. As budgets are cut, the supply of available jobs contract. Yet, there seem to be some encouraging developments in the field. In discussing the current environment, Ms. Mayer says, “As tough as things have been recently, the industry seems to be stabilizing somewhat. The industry is better prepared than previously to cope with the tenuous situation.” From a stock market perspective, that makes sense. The markets have improved substantially over the last 12 months.

After gaining a greater appreciation for the market environment (opera and concert), singers may further help themselves by putting in place a financial plan. One assumes that a plan for career development has been addressed, at least to some extent. However, a financial plan may prove equally critical.

Typically, self-employed professionals have a great need for financial planning. Where most salaried people enjoy benefits offered to them by an employer in areas such as insurance and retirement, the self-employed usually must fend for themselves.

Perhaps the most important part of any plan for a singer, particularly in the current economic environment, is the budget. Without a steady paycheck to rely on, a singer needs to learn to wear two hats: that of the employer and that of the employed. A singer’s budget should include the following:

monthly living expenses
contributions to a rainy day fund (best to keep five or six months living expenses in reserve)
if there is anything left, a monthly contribution to a retirement account

Another important topic for young singers to grasp, referenced earlier in this article, is that of charitable giving. An understanding of the tax advantages and mechanics of charitable giving may prove extremely worthwhile, particularly in understanding the motivation of a potential benefactor. Here are the mechanics of charitable giving: a benefactor makes a gift of securities (usually appreciated stock) or cash to a qualified charitable organization (for example, a church, synagogue, or school). The benefactor receives a tax deduction in the year of the gift. Then the charity sells the stock and has cash available. If the gift is of an appreciated security, i.e., General Electric stock purchased more then one year earlier for $2,000 and now worth $3,000, the benefactor owes no capital gain, even if the charity sells the security. The charity is exempt from the capital gain on the gift, so they pay no tax on the gain either. Obviously, this is a win for the benefactor and a win for the charity.

Take this to the next step and the practical level for the singer. The singer gives a concert with a local charitable organization. Gifts are made to the organization in lieu of ticket sales. For instance, a benefactor gives some appreciated stock. The charity sells the stock and pays no tax. The benefactor receives a tax deduction. Then the charity pays a fee to the singer for the concert. The fee goes directly towards singing lessons or an audition trip and is therefore a deductible expense for the singer. Here the singer wins, too. If the enterprising young singer is fortunate enough to have a benefactor and/or a charitable organization willing to help, then a strategy like the one detailed here would be a terrific way to leverage the participants. However, be sure to confirm with a tax professional before implementing any of these strategies. Most charities and benefactors have tax professionals available to advise all concerned.

In conclusion, a young singer will be well served by understanding the effects of a sluggish economy on the opera and concert marketplace. A difficult (read: shrinking) economy translates into a difficult (read: shrinking) market place. The reasons for this trickle down effect are many, but certainly as charitable giving drops, opera companies cut back on productions, resulting in fewer available jobs. The fundamental tenets of supply and demand influence a singer’s career, too.
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