Increasing your income, part 1: Membership subscriptions

This resource is part of our ‘Increasing your income’ guidance, which looks at ways to find and grow sustainable and diverse income for your group. It will focus on how to make the most of your membership subscriptions to help put your group on a secure, long term financial footing.

Membership subscriptions are the main source of income for the majority of our groups and so deserve careful consideration to make sure you are maximising them. This resource is split into three sections:

  1. Setting, adjusting and increasing fees
  2. Discounts
  3. The bigger questions: could you do something fundamentally different to increase your membership numbers and therefore income?

Setting, adjusting and increasing fees

As subscription fees are often such a big part of income it is sensible to have regular reviews – either yearly or bi-yearly at least.

Reasonable increases in membership fees are a perfectly fair and legitimate way to help make your group sustainable and meet rising costs. Your members are members because they enjoy making music. Most people understand that there are costs involved in running a group and accept (and are happy) to pay to pursue their interests and hobbies.

Whether you are setting fees for the first time or reviewing your existing fee structure there are several things to think about:

  • Do a sensible and realistic assessment of what members get for membership and how much it costs you to provide it.
  • Look at membership for similar groups – and not just music – think about local sport and amateur dramatic groups.
  • Speak to the members: be open and clear and communicate what you are doing and why:
    • ask if they feel they get value for money or how they would feel about an increase.
    • explain and justify your decisions;  a seemingly arbitrary and unforeseen increase may get peoples backs up. If members are aware it’s a possibility and understand why they will be more accepting.
  • Be fair and reasonable – if you put them up by 50% each year it will soon prove counter-productive.
  • If you do increase fees then make sure you also give due consideration to concession prices to ensure people aren’t excluded by price.

It’s not all about direct increases in fees

Gift Aid: it is often possible to for membership charities, like many of our groups, to claim Gift Aid on part of the membership fees they receive. In its most simple sense this relates to calculating how much of the fee counts towards a member’s personal benefit (e.g. musical tuition) and then then split the fee into two; personal benefit and the rest. The ‘rest’ part might be eligible for Gift Aid. It is more complicated than that and does require a bit of work to set-up. For most groups though it is well worth it - and once the initial set-up has been done it gets easier to claim in the following years. Read our detailed Gift Aid guidance to find out more.

Price structure: think about payment options and not just price. £90 for a term is good value but is still a lot to pay in one go. Breaking it down into monthly or weekly payments might be more attractive. This should be the same for concession prices too.

Reduce you membership fees: Maybe your fees are prohibitively high. Lower fees might mean more members and more money over all. It comes with risks of course and shouldn’t be done without careful consideration; think about how it might change your membership, for example.

It is also worth considering that keeping fees the same for a long period of time (rather than increasing them) effectively amounts to reducing them. Often using discounts can be a good way of keeping fees the same but build in flexibility to attract new members (see below).

Ask for a donation: instead of putting up the fee you could ask for donations in addition to the fee. This could be an open amount or offer various fixed amount options. Being specific about what the donation will do can be a good idea – for example £20 will help us buy XXX. There is the risk that people won’t donate, but if you have consulted your group you should have a fair idea of how they feel, and it has the advantage of allowing people to give what they can and not be priced out.

Be creative: adjusting and tweaking fees can be really beneficial but there is room to be creative and try something completely new. By their very nature the more unusual or different ideas aren’t one size fits all and they depend very much on your group’s circumstance. One example we heard of was a group doing a membership auction in which members bid for a set number of ‘premium memberships’ which came with benefits attached. Possible benefits include: being able to choose the repertoire for a concert (from a list selected by the MD), 10 free concert tickets or something silly like not having to be on the tea rota for a term. At the beginning of the year/term the members bid for the ‘premium memberships’ and the highest bidder wins. This approach will not work for every group (and could be counterproductive) - but it is a good example of a group thinking creatively and trying something new that worked for their situation. 

Discounts

Discounts are a fantastic way to ensure your group is accessible to as many people as possible and can really help attract new members. However you should be aware of offering too many and discounts becoming the expected norm. It’s a good idea to regularly review your discounts: why were they introduced, how are they being used and are they doing what you want them to do? Here are a few ideas that could help:

Reduce/remove discounts: One group we know of decided to keep fees the same but to remove discounts. They had a discount for paying for the year in one go rather than termly. The discount was set up to help encourage commitment when they started up. But once they were well established with good engagement they found that members were happy to forgo the discount and pay the full price for a year, gaining them an extra £600 per year.

It may be that introducing discounts is a better option for your group:

A taster membership: a cheap price for someone who is interested but not sure. 5 weeks for £5. You could even run separate taster or beginner courses before they join the main group. This might mean extra costs initially (venue hire etc.) but could be worth it in the long run if it means more members. You could also look at ways of reducing costs such as having the beginner course an hour before the main rehearsal at the same venue.

Family membership: reduced fees for a family – it might encourage a mum to bring her partner and children along. It doesn’t have to be restricted to parents and children either - aunties, nephews, grandparents.

Group membership: why restrict it to families – you could offer household membership for people living together; the more people from the household, the bigger the discount. 

This could work for many types of groups - work place discounts for colleagues, discounts for people who are in the same sports team. These can be especially great for recruiting new members:

  • People are more likely to take the plunge and try something new if they can do it with friends
  • If they like it they have a whole load more colleagues or team members to convert.  

Returner’s discount: how about contacting some old members and offering them a discount to re-join?

New to the area discount: a reduced discount for people who have just moved to the area.

Young person’s discount: a student concession rate is common but what happens when people stop being a student? They may not have much income but the discount has gone. Could you extend a student discount to under 25s?

Earn discounts: could you offer discounts to existing members as incentives/rewards for:

  • Joining up two new members throughout the year
  • Selling 50 concert tickets throughout the year

The bigger questions

Increasing existing fees and looking at discounts can make a real difference and might be all you need to give you a boost and make the finances that little bit more comfortable. But you can’t keep putting them up every year indefinitely and if your financial problems are more serious it might be worth taking a wider and longer view, and asking some bigger questions about your membership.

Ultimately more members will mean more money – so maybe a change in the way you operate and your membership structure will help grow membership and income.

There are different ways to approach this and it is hard to give specific advice, but what we can do is provide examples that have worked for other groups to help you start thinking. First though a few things to bear in mind:

  • What works for one group won’t necessarily work for another. But think about the basic principle – it might just need some changes to suit your particular circumstance.
  • You can’t and shouldn’t do it all:
    • Any changes have to be balanced against what’s good about your group and what makes it work.
    • Changes can (and should) be small and gradual
  • It won’t happen overnight - be patient and give the changes a chance. That said don’t be afraid to stop or change if it isn’t working. Having a clear idea of the expected outcome (e.g. income targets) and timelines will help monitor this.
  • Get buy-in; significant changes to the way you operate will only work if existing members are on board and understand why new things are being tried. Spend some time talking to members and give them a say before you decide anything.

A more flexible membership

Making a regular commitment can be a barrier for some people joining a group – some people simply can’t and others don’t want to. Finding a way to offer these people a way of taking part when they otherwise wouldn’t can help boost numbers and income.

  • Offer a weekly membership – you only pay when you attend
  • You can still have termly and yearly memberships but make room for others who want to come along when they can.

This does of course have implications on how rehearsals will run and working towards a concert but there are ways of mitigating this: 

  • Offer a non-performing option; some people are happy to just be able to sing or play every few weeks when it fits in their schedule. Could they ‘pay as they go’ and agree not to perform – so as not to disrupt the normal rehearsal process.
  • Catch-up workshops; if occasional weekly members do still want to perform you could arrange a weekend catch-up workshop shortly before the performance. If you give fair warning you could make it a mandatory part of occasional membership.
  • A mini project; people might not be able to commit to 12 weeks of rehearsal but could commit to four. You could form a smaller group within a group for these people. The main rehearsals can continue and the mini project can perform different pieces at the same concert.  This type of thing could work well off the back of a Come and Sing/Play day – offering a low commitment option for new people who attended the Come and Sing/Play day.

One common worry about having a more flexible membership is the lack of commitment or engagement from members. You could overcome this by:

  • Having a much reduced yearly fee – so people feel invested in it and then a weekly fee to be paid only when you attend. You can still offer termly and yearly options for those who prefer it.
  • Offering a bundle option: you can buy 15 weeks of membership across a year – to be used when you want - for a reduced rate (compared to paying weekly). If they come to a 16th, 17th or 18th etc. they pay a reduced rate for those weeks too.

Change what you perform

As well as commitment, repertoire can be a barrier for people joining a music group. Your repertoire is obviously a huge part of what your group is. We are not suggesting your choral society suddenly becomes a pop choir or your pop choir performs folk songs.

But doing the same tried and trusted repertoire might not be that appealing for potential members. Could you try something new or more challenging? A common worry here is that it might not pull in the audience – which is fair enough. But do you need to have a formal performance? Could an open rehearsal work just as well and cost less? See our Increasing your income: events and ticketing resource for more on this.

Could you build in a way to listen to the ideas of your members and potential members? Ask for repertoire ideas and bring your group on the repertoire decision making process with you – if there is a reason you can’t do a specific piece but will consider it for the future then make that clear. 

Change where you perform

We mentioned a mini, low commitment project as be part of your normal concert above, but could you have one completely separate to your usual concerts? A short term project in an unusual or different venue might attract new people, as well as invigorate existing members. This type of event/project can give your group an extra dimension and make being a part of your group that bit more valuable and inviting. New members involved a one-off project may then go on to join the main group – or if you run a mini project every year you might find they keep coming back every year.

Further Reading


We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.