Recently, a young acquaintance --- who has repeatedly asked me for advice --- read a response I'd written to a thread about management, and proceeded to complain to me about a lack of free resources for young singers and (as she perceived it) a lack of quality in the available resources. Here are the remarks that inspired her:
"I have said it before and I'll say it again. I don't care how big the name is on the door, you HAVE to do your research before you shell out a cent of cash. That goes for universities, voice teachers, pay-to-sings, and yes, management. It is PART OF YOUR JOB as the CEO of your very own singing business to develop perspective about the business so you can make good decisions. Too many singers are, understandably, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the information one has to digest, and they either don't know how to do the research or they panic and cling to the first opportunity that looks sorta okay. I understand how hard it is, but you do NOT have to go it alone. GET HELP. Read Classical Singer and the Opera America publications which are very good. Read the files which have been posted here FOR FREE. Read the many blogs that offer FREE resources to singers, like Mikhail Hallak's Notes from the Bench, like Susan Eichhorn Young's Once More with Feeling, like Kim Witman's Wolftrap Opera blog, like mine. Talk to older, more experienced singers and other industry experts. Take a workshop or get a consultation when the time is right. You need to talk to the people who are DOING IT RIGHT NOW. You will not find all the answers in one place and it won't happen overnight, but you will begin to learn what the questions are that you should be asking, and you will begin to develop the perspective about the business and your own place in it."
My previous blog post, Shark-proofing for singers, also addressed this issue and offered many resources, some free, some paid. The aforementioned young singer didn't consider colleagues and mentors to be resources --- at least not until I suggested it to her --- and her complaint about the resources I had cited boiled down to this: she had to work too hard to find the information she needed; often she couldn't find exactly what she was looking for; if it was free, it was often coupled with advertisements; and that nobody has taken the time to create a clearing house of information with exactly what she needs and wants in it.
Several experienced singers and industry professionals chimed in to advise this young lady that nothing comes for free. It's just a matter of who's paying the price, in dollars or in time. Who's spending the time on the singer forums to share their experience, which many people do as a way of paying it forward for all the help and advice they're received in their own careers? Who's spending the time to research and organize the information, to code a website, to purchase a domain name, to create and maintain a site? Time is indeed money. If someone has taken the time to do all that and puts an ad on the site or occasionally posts to advertise their business --- what's the big deal? They're trying to get a little something back for their investment. There's no obligation for the audience to do so much as click on a link.
A few days later, this great article on the proper way to network appeared in the New York Times. Although not directed specifically to singers, it very much applies. And there's nothing fancy in there: it's about common sense and good manners, which sadly, many people lack. The internet is in part to blame: there is so much "free" information out there --- not all of it worthy --- that many people come to expect that they should get everything without having to pay for it.
Of course, singers are constantly bombarded with requests for application fees and myriad ways to spend their money on developing their careers, and are also frequently asked to provide their services free of charge; so no one can blame them for seeking freebies wherever they're available (although as someone who frequently provides freebies, I admit it rankles when the effort seems to go unappreciated). But this is all the more reason to take a stand and 1. Refuse to sing without some sort of compensation and 2. Research, research, research before you spend your money. No one is going to do it for you ... unless, of course, you pay them to.
As someone who has benefited greatly from the generosity of other singers, coaches, directors, conductors, and a variety of other mentors, I feel obligated, and am happy, to pay it forward by sharing what my own life in the business has taught me, and offering perspective to singers trying to find their way. No one who is both talented and hard-working should miss out on the help they need due to mere lack of funds. But consulting is also one of my income streams, and I can't afford to give it away all the time. My solution is to offer general information in public forums, and very specific, in-depth advice and problem-solving for consultation, career coaching, and workshop clients.
In short, we singers should be generous with each other; and in most cases, people are, incredibly so. But that generosity should flow both ways. If you're using a service, even one that appears to be free (public radio, anyone? The Aria Database? The LiederNet Archive ?), donate. If you're using musicians, pay them in some meaningful way other than "exposure" and a plate of whatever you're serving the guests. If you're hitting up a pro such as a voice teacher, coach, stage director, or yes, a consultant for advice, and you've done it once without paying ... next time you need to offer to pay. (They may not take it. But you should offer). These people are artists too, and they're not, contrary to popular belief, getting rich off of you.
If someone does you a favor, say thank you in a meaningful way. It's just common sense and common courtesy. Post about the help you were given on social media (don't share that it was free) or write a testimonial for the person. Share their publicity posts. Comment on their blogs. Tell your friends about them. Thank yous go a long, long way, especially because so many of us forget to say them.
The science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote, "Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.” Singers certainly know the effort and pain of birthing a career! And it's very easy amidst that struggle in this challenging, often overwhelming business to become so focused on our own problems that we forget to extend ourselves to others.
But the truth is, the business is so much better for all of us if we share, and if we treat each other with care. Let us realize that what is "free" to us usually cost someone else. Let us respect each other's contributions and work. Let us strive to be generous, to be honorable, and to support one another. In this way, we strengthen each other and the business of singing.