When you decide to write music for Film and Television as a full time job, you’ll soon realize that from that moment on it is not just about your music, but about the music business. There is so much to know and to learn about the process of negotiating a deal. I am going to share some of the experience I have made so far, hoping that it will help you with your negotiations a little bit.
When you are offered a composer job, your first instinct is probably to sit and start writing music right away, but, once you navigate the industry a bit more, you’ll find out how important it is to negotiate and sign an agreement before the actual composing work starts. With that in mind, the moment you decide to become a full time composer, you could also consider taking a music business class at Music College, which I did and found very helpful.
Negotiating and signing an agreement at the beginning of every collaboration is good for your mental health (once the ‘red tape’ is out of the way, you can concentrate on the active, creative part of the job, with much less pressure) and also, since you are now a professional composer, you need to know exactly what the terms of the gig are and if you are ok with them before you accept the gig. The few times when, as a beginner, I delayed this process, I found myself later in a difficult position in getting what I had asked for, and sorting things out was quite stressful and time consuming. I know that monetizing your passion may sound strange at first, but talking money and / or other forms of compensation (I will get back to this further on) is just part of the composer job, exactly like the creative side of it.
If initially you feel uncomfortable asking, just remember one thing: you invested so much time and money in building your skills and then the related business, think of tuition, of all the time spent practicing and even building you rig. You probably made so many sacrifices to get to the point where you are able to offer an industry standard service, it didn’t happen overnight, so it is normal and fair that you get paid for it. Don’t be afraid to speak openly and to ask for how much you think you need in order to complete a score. I learned it through my experience: whoever is respectful of you and of your work and is willing to collaborate with you will have no problem in taking some time to negotiate and sign an agreement. It is about mutual interest and respect. It is about taking the industry seriously.
There isn’t a specific, unilateral answer to this question; basically the decision is up to you, but I’ll try to guide you a bit through the process, starting from some of the common terms used and situations you may find yourself in.
Just one note: I am talking about negotiating as a freelance composer for indie productions; when it comes to studios, I suggest you have an agent or a manager negotiate for you.
When setting up the value of your music, try and think objectively about your skills and experience and about your career goals, but, this said, there are other factors to consider.
Based on the budget you are offered (other factors we’ll be discussed in a bit) it is up to you to decide if you want to join a project.
Let’s start from the situation where you are offered what you think is a reasonable amount of money.
Your composer services are usually paid with a fee that includes writing, orchestrating, mixing and mastering the score. Depending on the budget, you might be able or not to record live instruments. This is a discussion to definitely have when starting a negotiation. I would say, the important thing is to be honest: remember that as a pro you need to get paid to make a living, so keep that in mind when you compare the time expected to complete the score to your neat earnings. Have an open conversation at first on what you can offer and can’t offer for the budget. Again, don’t be afraid, you need to be taken seriously as you took seriously the preparation to get to the profession and, as a business, you are branding yourself and don’t want to be known as a cheap composer. Some may at one point think that your music too is possibly cheap, if you don’t give the proper value to your work in the first place.
When you negotiate this upfront fee, you also have to know what the back end (royalties) is going to be, and if there are some. Are you going to earn royalties because the film is going to run on television, or streaming platforms? I suggest you do your research on how this payments work and on how much they would possibly be, based on the future distribution of the film, before you agree on the money you are asking for to deliver the complete score.
What if an opportunity arises, but the budget is below your standards?
Again, there are no strict rules. You and you only can set the bar for the value of your music and how much you are willing to give away to get a specific gig.
Once you have secured yourself some work that will provide you a living (including work as an assistant composer to an established one that will give you also a lot of experience and chances to learn fast about the profession), there are exceptions that you might consider.
Let’s say you are building your career and are creating recurring collaborations, but then some productions may come to you offering low rates or will ask you to work on spec for projects like, for example, proofs of concepts or pilot episodes.
Among freelance composers there is a long dispute going on between those who are in favor and those who are against working for lower rates or even for free.
I am not totally in favor or against it, as long as you ask the right questions about the project, its potential in future development and you get specific answers from the director and / or the producer on what are in details their plans once the low budget project is finished.
In my opinion, these kind of gigs are worth it if they offer you some perspectives. There are plenty of serious and reliable people who just don’t have a budget at the moment, but will probably get it, but also, unfortunately, other people will just want to exploit your music without paying for it. It is sad, but true and saying this I hope to spare you some delusions and troubles. \
For me, for example, sentences like: “you will get exposure”, “I am working on other projects in the future and we can work together again” are not enough. I usually ask specific questions like:
Basically, just bust be careful, ok? As a full time professional composer you can afford only a few “passion projects” a year and you need to pick them carefully. If they aren’t good money, they must be valuable in other ways, otherwise the risk for you is to have to go back to film scoring being a hobby and you will find yourself with a failed business. Again, there are no specific rules and free lancing is always a gamble, but, once you think you can trust those people, or maybe you have successfully worked with those people already so you can trust them, it is time to negotiate.
These situations above deserve a different kind of negotiation. You won’t get for sure the rate that you decided to put your music on the market for, so this is when knowing your rights and the things you can negotiate comes really handy.
Since the rate is low and your music is valuable, here are some examples of things you can ask for:
There are other things you might ask for as a different kind of compensation, these are just some examples. As for every decision regarding your career, it is also important to build around you a small circle of trusted composer and filmmaker friends as well, so you can talk to them about the deal. The final decision has to be yours and yours only, but it is always a good idea to see things through somebody else’s eyes and experiences as well.
Here is a list of the points you usually will negotiate:
You can get good Composer Agreements templates for free through the membership of composers or filmmakers organizations, or from the Music College you attended, or from a professional entertainment attorney (it is always worth asking for advice, if you are not sure about what you are signing).
Since writing for Film and Television is about skills and creativity, but it is also, after the initial licensing fee, about royalty earnings that can be pretty substantial (or not), to make sure you receive what you are due, you must know what is in the contracts that you are signing in terms of what is absolutely due to you and it is standard (please, never give up your writer’s share in indie projects) and what is open to negotiation, instead. The more you know about these topics, the more chances of success you are securing yourself. There are loads of rules and laws regarding the different kinds of music royalties and they also vary from country to country.
This article is just a small summary of a complex subject and it is based on my experience, and I am not an attorney, so, please, don’t consider this as legal advice, but just a chat between fellow composers.
Best of luck with your negotiations!
Born and raised in Italy, Elena Maro is a Los Angeles based composer for Film, Media, TV and Theatre, songwriter, and singer.A former professional ballet dancer, orchestra lead singer, and studio and TV vocalist, before moving to USA in 2016, Elena worked for many years as a singer songwriter, composer, sound design artist, actress and playwright for theatre productions also with symphonic orchestras and popular Italian singers and actors.As a freelance composer, she has completed several Film, TV and Advertising projects, for clients both from Europe and from USA, while at the same time she has been writing additional music for films on Lifetime, Ion Television, Channel 5 UK, Amazon Prime and other VOD Platforms. She is a Television Academy Voting Member.
She is the recipient of four Global Music Awards, one for the Orchestral Suite #1 from her score for the western film “Miss Happy” and others for her scores for documentaries. Her Christmas Jazz Song “As Long As You Are Near”, recorded at Capitol Studios during Chris Walden Masterclass, was awarded an honorable mention as a finalist at The Great American Song Contest in 2019.Elena is the lyricist for “Today - Say No to Child Labour”, a pop song included in the world campaign against child labour by ILO - UN Agency. The line she wrote ”give the voiceless your voice” is the concept that moved her to make music for media. She says: “I want to make music with meaning for meaningful projects”.Elena keeps on developing her craft and musical voice and her eclecticism covers a wide variety of styles.She loves thinking outside the box and creating every time unique, distinctive scores and songs that will give each project a recognizable sound.Her approach to scoring is, first and foremost, to serve the story with honesty and respect.
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