To Fee Or Not To Fee

While it might seem like today’s title is setting up a conversation about ticket fees, it’s actually about audition application fees.

On 8/8/2022 I posted a short quiz asking readers to select which scenario they thought was most common when musicians audition for an opening. The multiple-choice selections provided each combination of scenarios involving exclusive fees and deposits. In this context:

  • An application fee is a nonrefundable and charged to all who apply, regardless of whether they are invited to the audition.
  • An audition deposit was presented in both refundable and non-refundable arrangements.

The Correct Answer

Based on decades on best practices, professional orchestras do not charge application fees and only require refundable deposits.

That practice is so entrenched that most orchestras still require candidates to provide the deposit using dead-tree paper checks. These are either physically destroyed in front of the candidate or retuned when they are at the live audition.

Of the 207 responses, the majority selected the correct answer, but approximately one-third, 37.7 percent, didn’t. The next most common incorrect choice was audition candidates pay an application fee and if invited, provide a refundable deposit.

Interestingly enough, that’s the scenario that triggered attention on this topic after seeing it in practice at a professional US orchestra currently advertising a position.

For those who aren’t already aware, auditions are an incredibly expensive endeavor for audition candidates. In addition to travel and lodging expenses, those playing cello, bass, tuba, harp, etc. have even higher expenses related to transporting their instrument if they need to travel by air.

At the most basic level, the practice of requiring refundable deposits satisfied a good middle ground for both employer and candidates. Among the most precious commodities related to auditions is time and deposits offered mutually beneficial safeguards:

  • They help the employer schedule time as accurately as possible based on the number of candidates that submitted the deposit.
  • They guaranteed a space in the audition process for candidates.

By making the deposit refundable, it satisfies the base needs for all parties involved.

Having said that, requiring application fees risks disrupting this balance and driving a new wedge into the existing “us against them” chasm that exists between employers and musician employees.

Moving forward, we’ll continue to examine this topic. I’ve reached out to one orchestra currently charging an application fee to learn more about that decision as well as service organizations dedicated to improving diversity among professional orchestras.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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