Why you need to make time to discuss the finances of your music group

Making Music's Membership & Services Manager, Ben Saffell, asks some key questions about how groups can achieve more sustainable and diverse income

Do you worry about the financial health of your music group? You are not alone if you do - it is the single biggest challenge our groups face. Nearly all groups who don’t renew their membership with us don’t renew because they have disbanded, and that usually comes down to money.

So what’s the solution? There is no magic bullet. It’s tempting to think of funding (grants, trusts, crowd etc.), and this has its place; it can be great for solving a specific problem (replace your old piano) or a one-off project (commission). But it’s not a long-term solution, often comes with strings attached and involves lots of work. And the simple reality is that there is less and less funding available.

We think the real answer is a sustainable and diverse income; growing and securing existing income streams and developing new ones. Put simply, it’s the Good Life – self-sufficiency.

This may be stating the obvious, but sometimes that can help to clarify your situation, focus your aims and develop a plan.

A good question to start with is: what do you want more money for?

  • Have you been dipping into reserves and just want to stabilise and break even?
  • Would you like to make a small surplus to breathe easier?
  • Maybe you want to turn a decent surplus so you can expand and invest?

Enough of theory and planning, there are lots of things you can actually do, from small tweaks to huge overhauls.

Making sure you take advantage of Gift Aid on member subscriptions, for instance, can be a bit of work to set up, but it will boost your income every year, not just once. There are many other options that we will provide guidance on over the coming months.

For now I will focus on membership fees and ticket sales. For most groups these form the bulk of income, so growing them is a good starting point, before you look to add new income streams.

You can start with pricing tweaks – have you undervalued yourself? Can you increase subs? Are ticket prices too high? Would lower prices mean more seats sold and more money overall?

But you should also ask bigger questions and think about more significant changes to the way you operate; would a different approach to membership and events help attract more people and more money?

Commitment levels, pricing structures and repertoire all affect why people join music groups. Might a flexible, casual membership package attract new people? Can you include activities other than a formal concert in events, or do something proactive to demystify classical music? Do you have to do four formal events per year? How about an open final rehearsal instead with a more informal feel?

These types of things may represent a big change for your group, indeed too big a change. A low commitment membership might change the culture of your group too much. Repertoire and formal performances might be a key factor in why existing members are members.

You don’t have to change everything, rip it all up and start again. But if money is a problem, and you need more sustainable and diverse income, then it is a good idea to at least ask these questions. Tweaks can help in the short term and funding can plug a gap, but long term solutions often require a bigger shift in the way you operate. Being open to change and making time for proper discussion is a really important first step.

Going back to groups disbanding; a common thing we hear is; ‘expenditure was higher than income for too many years’. The key word is ‘years’. If you start asking questions now you have time: time to increase existing income; time to find new income; time to change the way you operate. This can (and should) be gradual, keeping the things that work and changing other things slowly. But if you start now, you have every chance of success – whatever that may look like for your group.

We will be producing guidance with ideas and suggestions over the coming months and as ever feel free to contact us with questions or just to talk things through.