It’s interesting to report that of all my recent Gobs, the one that provoked the largest response from fellow old pros was the one on money. Some of them, prompted by their own experiences, felt that there were more gobbets of information that I should be sharing. I’m not remotely surprised by this. I was once at a post-concert dinner in Amsterdam where the salaried administrators were all talking about music and the working musicians (including two top composers) were talking about the best place to exchange their fees into pounds. (It used to be the Bank of Abu Dhabi near Hyde Park Corner but anti money-laundering laws came in and the bank hurriedly closed; not surprising as you could walk in with a thick envelope of foreign cash, but without any ID, and quite simply change it into pounds, and at brilliant rates. Now, if it’s cash it’s Marks and Spencer for me. Much less exotic.)
So here, in fairly random fashion, are a few more things on the money subject, some of which may have nothing in particular to do with singing abroad, but which are mind-numbingly dull:
- Cash-flow is almost certainly going to be a worry at some point in your career, no matter how successful you are. As I said in the Money Gob, you will come across times when you have massive and regular outgoings but you have to wait for a good while, sometimes two to three months, before you get paid. You will almost certainly need an overdraft facility of some sort to tie you over. Personally, but it’s not everyone, I have found a mortgage bank account to be a life-saver. But of course you need to have a home/mortgage to have the account and, ideally, a fair amount of equity in the home to spare too. So, if you’re reading this as a struggling beginner who’s still living at home, then you’re probably already thinking “yeah, well, bollocks to you, thanks for nothing”. But, further down the line, when you’re up and running, it’s something to bear in mind. In the immediate future, be prepared to talk to your bank about a facility. Shop around for a bank that understands your needs. A small business account may end up being your best bet, especially if they offer you a couple of years of free banking. This is all sounding worryingly like the Personal Finance section from the Mail on Sunday.
- Someone suggested I should bring up the idea of having a euro account. You can have them in the UK now but I’ve always thought they’re not worth the money; last time I looked I thought they were too expensive to run. Besides, you may well find yourself having a bank account opened for you if you work for various companies. As I said before, in Barcelona the Teatre Liceu opens you an account – a proper account with internet banking and the works – which I kept open for a while. Los Angeles Opera offers something similar, though in dollars obviously. My wife worked in Strasbourg where they did the same thing. We also have a German account, a hangover from Lucy’s days on contract in Cologne, which is handy mostly for the next thing on my list. Just a few euros in one of these accounts (and you probably should stick with one in the long term) should keep it ticking over.
- German pensions. I alluded to this in the last Gob. If you work in Germany for any length of time there’s every chance you will be enrolled in the Bayerische Versorgungskammer, a pension fund. While you’re working there, payments will made into the fund, building you up a little nest egg. However – and this is the reason I bring this up – if you stop working there you MUST keep paying €150 a year into the fund or they will wind it up. If they do wind it up you lose every pfennig that’s ever been paid into it. Having a German account makes it a lot easier to set up a standing order to make sure you keep enrolled. It may not seem very exciting right now to be thinking about your old age but a little German pension when you retire could prove to be a very good idea.
- Being paid abroad. There are so many variants on this. I’ll give you as many as I can from my own experience. Most houses will ask you where you want your fee wired at the end of the run. Chances are you will just say your bank account in Britain. You will probably be landed with half of the wiring fees, sometimes all of them, sometimes none. I would strongly advise against any express wiring as it will cost a bomb. These days a normal international wire should take very little time indeed. Some houses pay the day after your last show, some leave it until a specific day of the week when they do payroll and some (tut-tut Italy) leave it a good fortnight for reasons best known to themselves. It is not unusual for there to be a flurry of emails between colleagues who have just returned home from a job along the lines of “I’m getting worried as I haven’t been paid yet!” Italy is the only country where I have not been paid for a job. It was a long time ago. I was doing three concerts in Tuscany. I got 2/5ths of my fee in cash while I was there and was promised the balance by wire. It never came, nor did it for the British soprano. In trying to get it we hit a mafia wall. Seriously. The fees had been purloined by a promoter with connections to the mob and it disappeared into a bank that didn’t really exist. Back then there was nothing we could do. Italy has long had this reputation and it is still quite common for a theatre’s money man to come round in the interval with your pay statement to demonstrate that you have been paid. This is to encourage you to continue with your performance – a throwback to the days when things got so bad that people refused to return to the stage for the second act until they’d been handed their fee in cash. Anyway, back to the present. There are still some dodgy practices around (Nice Opera had a bad record for quite a while – again, a mafia town) but though I’ve had to wait longer than I would like for my fees to come through, a little trust generally seems to get you by. Though in these straightened times I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few horror stories getting ready to hit the airwaves.
- Some houses will let you take your fees in chunks, as long as you’ve earned them, but if you’re wiring them home piecemeal be aware that you will probably have to pay a wiring charge each time, even if it’s to a euro account. Some won’t pay you until the run is done, full stop. In the USA they may well give you a cheque at each performance, which you then have to pay into the bank account they have helped you set up. It’s rather out-dated but what they’re used to. The Monnaie in Brussels used to give you a cashier’s cheque at the end of the job, which you then had to take to a specific bank to cash and from where you could arrange to wire the fee home. I’m not sure if that’s still their arrangement but it was a pain in the backside. In Milan, you never have any dealing with a money man in La Scala. Instead you have to go a particular bank around the corner, take a ticket, wait for about 20 minutes, then talk to a specific cashier who deals with the theatre’s account. It’s all rather strange but given the chaos in the opera house it at least reassures you that your fees won’t be purloined. Probably. Don’t forget your passport.
- Whatever method you choose, it’s a good idea to have a record of your BIC, IBAN and Swift Code numbers before you leave home for a foreign job. These are your bank details in funny form which are probably somewhere on your bank statements. I seem to remember that this may be changing and the Swift Code at least may now be defunct. Whatever – take every scrap of detail about your bank account, including your bank’s address.
- For what it’s worth, in general and if I can, I try to live within a budget determined by how much cash I can draw from the opera house as an advance on my fee plus the reimbursement for my airfare. That usually covers most of my cash needs and saves me having to visit ATMs and drawing money out of my bank at home. The rest I pay with my trusty Post Office credit card (see Gob 2: Logistics) which not only means no exchange commission but which also means, with luck, that I may not have to pay the credit card bill until after I’ve received my fee. Of course if the opera house won’t give me an advance then that whole scheme goes for nothing.
- When your wire comes through from an opera house the exchange rate at which your bank will convert your fee from, say, Euros to Pounds can vary enormously from bank to bank. It’s annoying. You could possibly save some money by using a foreign exchange service like Travelex that give better rates of exchange on large amounts but I’ve yet to be convinced it’s worth it. Have a google and see what you think.
- If you get a foreign bank account, make sure you can easily arrange wires home, say via online banking, or you could find yourself stuck with a pile of cash in a foreign account and no way of getting it out of the country!
- It has been pointed out that some European countries are currently taking 15% in withholding tax and others, as well as Holland, are taking nothing. I wish I could draw up a chart. Not even the good old internet has a list that I can find. HMRC does a list of withholding rates for counties with which the UK has a double-taxation agreement (I can feel your eyes glazing over) but that’s for share dividends, not hard graft. Needless to say it’s complicated. “Double-taxation agreement” means that the tax you pay abroad can be offset against UK tax. If you can find a country that pays you as a singer that doesn’t do this then I will eat a very large and extravagant hat, topped with hat sauce and served with a large side portion of hat.
- Somebody thought I wasn’t clear that you should take an A1/E101 to every EU country to prevent them taking social security payments off your fee. As I said, some houses won’t need one, but err on the side of caution and get one anyway. Things change.