Organists: our advice

Wednesday 6 April 2011

This advice page outlines some of the key issues that you may encounter as a professional organist, including advice on tax and employment status, contractual matters and relations with church personnel.

Working in churches and synagogues

Many churches and synagogues engage professional organists to play at their services. The types of post range from cathedral organists employed full-time and conducting a professional choir to organists who play for only one service per week in a church without a choir. Whatever your particular circumstances, here we outline some of the key issues that you may encounter.

Cathedral (and other full-time organists) usually work as employees and are paid a fixed monthly salary. They are sometimes also provided with rent-free accommodation tied to the post.

However, most organists work part-time on a self-employed basis. Many part-time organists are paid a fixed annual salary set in relation to the number of hours they are expected to work. This number of hours should include time spent at services, rehearsals, on administration and  planning music and attending liturgy meetings. You should calculate the time for a service from the time you have to be present before the service begins until the time you are able to leave after the service has ended.

If your pay is set in relation to a fee per service, you should build into this fee an allowance for the time you spend in rehearsing and other preparation for the service, including related meetings.

In addition, if you work on a self-employed basis – and our latest survey of organists suggests that the majority do so -  you should build into your fee provision for sickness, holidays and pensions. However, as a self-employed organist, you will be expected to undertake private organ practice in your own time.

For more information about setting your fee, please go to our advice page about organists fees.


If you are self-employed, you will probably have the right to use a deputy for a service or rehearsal. Usually, the prior approval of the Minister should be obtained. Where you engage a deputy, you should invoice the church or synagogue for your services in the usual way, and then pay your deputy the fee you have agreed.

If you are employed, you will probably not have an automatic right to use a deputy. (If you had this right, it probably means that you are not truly an employee.) However, your Minister may well agree to the use of a deputy if there are good reasons for you to be absent.

Weddings and Funerals and other Special Services

Fees for weddings and funerals should allow for time spent discussing music requirements with the wedding couple or relatives of the deceased, preparing and practising the music and, where a choir is involved, taking one rehearsal. It is common practice to negotiate an additional fee for recordings (see our advice page on organists fees).

It is normal practice for the organ, and other musical instruments in the church, to be reserved for the use of the organist. If you are the resident organist at a church, you will usually have the exclusive right to play at weddings and funerals in that church and to receive the agreed fee. When another organist is used instead, your consent must first be obtained and you will still be entitled to be paid the standard fee.


Fees for broadcasting are usually based on a single UK transmission with additional payments for repeats or overseas sales. Contracts with the BBC are subject to standard terms and conditions which are negotiated with the ISM and published in the ISM/BBC Radio and TV Agreements. These Agreements also specify fees payable to recitalists, accompanists, directors of music, organists, lay clerks and choristers. Fees with independent TV and radio companies should be negotiated separately.

Recording Contracts

The two principal forms of payment for recording contracts are flat-fee and royalties. A flat-fee will buy out some or all of the rights of the organist in the performance. This may be more appropriate for session work. A royalty deal will normally be expressed as a percentage of the dealer price or retail price, sometimes with an advance payable against future royalties. Record companies often include deductions for ‘packaging’ and promotional copies in their standard contracts which reduce the effective royalty rate. You should be particularly wary of any clause which allows the record company to recoup recording costs from the artist’s royalty.

You should seek advice from our legal team before entering into any recording contract.

Tax and employment status

Employment status has significant implications for your tax affairs. If you work on a freelance self-employed basis, you will be taxed under Schedule D and responsible for organising your own tax affairs.

Generally speaking, employees pay tax and national insurance under Schedule E on a Pay As You Earn (PAYE) basis.

For more information on the differences between employed and self-employed status, you should consult our Employed or self-employed? advice page. If you are unsure about your employment status you should contact the ISM’s legal team for further advice.

For detailed advice on tax issues call our legal and tax helpline on 01206 368994.

ISM standard contracts

The ISM publishes two standard contracts, one for employed organists, and the other for self-employed organists. Organists and churches can choose which type of contractual relationship is most appropriate for them.


All employees (whether working full-time or part-time) have a number of rights in law. These include:

For more information, see our advice page on what to look for in a contract of employment.

Contracts for weddings and funerals fall outside the scope of the employment contract. They are usually freelance engagements, taxable under Schedule D.

Safeguarding and child protection

If your work as a director of music brings you into contact with children and young people under the age of 18, you should ensure that you comply with your church’s safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures. You may be required to undergo a DBS Enhanced Disclosure. Any deputy that you appoint must also comply with the church’s safeguarding and child protection policy and obtain a Disclosure if indicated. If you are self-employed you can apply for a DBS Disclosure through the ISM - contact for further information or call us on 020 7221 3499.

Go to Child protection: the law for more detailed advice about safeguarding and child protection issues.


You should make best efforts to ensure that neither you nor others at your church unlawfully make copies of sheet music and that you obtain all necessary licences before making any copies. With very limited exceptions, it is a breach of copyright to photocopy music that is in copyright. Generally speaking, a musical composition will be ‘in copyright’ until 70 years after the death of the composer. In addition, the typographical arrangement of a particular edition also enjoys copyright protection for a period of 25 years from first publication. This means that the printed layout of an edition may be ‘in copyright’ even if the composition itself is ‘out of copyright’.

Christian Copyright Licence International (CCLI) specialises in providing churches with a range of photocopying licences, appropriate to their needs.

Performing Rights

It is a breach of copyright to perform a musical work which is still 'in copyright' in public, without first obtaining the consent of the owner of the copyright. PRS for Music, which handles performing rights on behalf of composers and publishers, has waived its right to remuneration for the performance of music as part of an act of worship. However, this waiver does not extend to concerts or recitals held in churches. For these, you need to obtain a licence from PRS for Music.

For detailed advice about copyright you should consult our advice page Copyright and performers’ rights

Booking Other Musicians

As an organist, you may sometimes be asked to arrange for the services of other musicians – a trumpeter for a wedding, or singers for a special service. If the booking is made on behalf of a church or a wedding couple, we recommend that there is a separate contract between the musician and the engager (such as the ISM Performance Contract or Contract for Music at Special Services) to make the contractual arrangements clear.

You should obtain the consent of these musicians before any recording is made of their performance. An additional fee is usually paid to them if a recording is made. 

Relations with ministers and other church personnel

The relationship between you and the minister, churchwardens, elders or members of the Church Council may not always be an easy one. Here are some guidelines which may help to minimise any difficulties: