A guide to freelance music composition rates, with tips and advice from experienced professionals in the industry
Musicians and composers set the mood of the stories we love and cherish the most in our hearts. Without musicians, horror films would be lacking in atmosphere, and the most compelling stories just wouldn’t work as well on screen. Having a powerful score is a key part of any audio-visual work.
Most musicians learn quite early on how unusual it is for them to be regularly employed in studios. Sure, there are many who are – but a lot prefer to work freelance instead, especially if they are working in music composition. The work of a musician is often project-based.
If you are just starting out, you may be wondering about freelance rates and how to work out your prices, for both live and commercial projects. How do you work out composition and music rates for your clients and projects?
Not being a musician myself, I thought I could get in touch with someone taken straight from the craft. For this piece, I reached out to two of our top musicians on Creativepool: Johnny Yates and Cato Hoeben, both shining stars in our latest Annual 2020 Awards. Here’s what they had to say!
The Story of Water was awarded a shiny Bronze prize in last year's Annual Awards. Credit: Johnny Yates for Virgin TV
How do I charge for a music/sound project?
Because musicians work on such a vast variety of different projects, it makes sense for most composers to charge on a per-project basis. While live musicians may choose to charge a day rate plus expenses, commercial and film composers tend to have clients which prefer a fixed project fee. This is the case of Cato and his clients.
“I’ve tried charging per minute of finished music with some success, which takes into account everything from session musician fees to studio costs. Most clients I work with, however, prefer a package deal, where the fee is set for a project within defined contractual boundaries,” Cato explains.
And while some composers choose to charge a day rate too, this can be a dangerous approach. Day rates try to include all the relevant studio and recording costs, but these can easily spiral out of control for both parties involved, leading to adjustments and negotiations in fees and prices.
Johnny agrees with the project-based approach too. He rarely charges a day rate, as his clients prefer to have a clear understanding of the schedule and all the steps involved in the process.
According to both musicians, it is also important to ensure that your rates are fair and you are not undervaluing yourself. As creatives, we have the tendency to self-assess our own skills and sometimes think that we are worth less than what we actually should be paid for. We’ll cover that in a later section below, but you should suppress that voice telling you that you are charging too much. Your clients will understand, and you will help spreading awareness about what is a decent rate in the industry, helping keep it afloat in the long run and setting the ground for future composers as well.
So in a nutshell:
- Most musicians charge on a project-basis
- Clients tend to prefer clear packages with well-established schedules
- Day rates may work for you, but make sure to plan the costs with surgical precision!
- Try to charge fairly for your skills to keep the overall industry afloat
Cato's Lone Wolf project was awarded People's Choice in the Annual 2020 Awards. Credit: Cato Hoeben for the BBC
How do I calculate the costs of a project?
Most freelancers generally calculate the costs of a project in a similar fashion. It is no different for musicians.
Both Cato and Johnny decide their rates based on a number of factors:
- Kind of usage;
- Publishing Agreement.
Additionally, and quite specifically to the music industry, you should also consider the type of media where your piece will be used. Rates will be different if the track is used for a film, a TV ad, radio or online, and you will be able to charge differently depending on whether you are selling your publishing rights or not.
This leads to different musicians having to deal with different costs, which will have to be tweaked depending on the project – and sometimes size of production as well. A film with a multi-millionaire budget will be able to afford higher rates when it comes to music, especially since your work could have global exposure.
Film composers may have to factor in orchestra costs and everything related to score preparation and synchronisation rights. But Cato admits he likes to cap his fees when it comes to smaller projects, such as indie games.
Cato explains: “While a performing artist recording an album might also have studio costs, the usage is often negotiated differently, meaning the costs also often differ considerably. The same goes for songwriters, who negotiate things like percentage splits for future synch revenue & royalties. A session musician on the other hand often provides a full buyout, thereby selling all their rights over the recordings to the buyer. Although if you are part of the Musician’s Union, they have minimum fees you can charge, which helps as a starting point for budgeting. If a project is small like an indie video game or a short film, then I usually cap my fees at a reasonable level and specify what is included in a contract to avoid misunderstandings.”
Johnny adds: “Depending on how global the project will be and how big the client is, you want to first set a rate that covers your overheads, e.g. rent/mortgage, equipment and to keep you afloat. I would also find out if it’s being broadcasted worldwide or in a specific continent. So if it’s played on Netflix, broadcast channel and how long for exclusivity will play a huge role in setting my rates. You usually charge more for bigger the exposure.”
Like in illustration, if you can’t make money from royalties with your own work (which is often the main way in which musicians make a living), your prices should go up to at least partly make up for a lifetime of missed royalties. Your clients will certainly understand.
So in a nutshell:
- To calculate the price of a project, consider these key factors:
- Budget of Production
- Type of media
- Publishing Agreements
- You may be able to charge more for quicker delivery
- Increase your rates if you have to give up rights to using the work
- Include professional expenses (studio, orchestra costs, score preparation etc.)
- More time to develop the project = rates go up!
Cato's soundtrack for the Snow Spider was shortlisted in the Annual 2020 Awards. Credit: Cato Hoeben for the BBC
Common mistakes when pricing music and sound work
Especially if you are just starting out, you may feel a bit lost when working on your personal rates. Though there are some resources out there available for you, you may be misled into believing that a certain practice will be healthy for your work, or for your own industry.
First of all, both Cato and Johnny advise against undervaluing yourself. You shouldn’t overcharge a client, but you should never undercharge them either. Take some time to research your client, consider all the costs and don’t base your fees on being ‘the cheapest’ on the market – there will always be someone willing to work for less than you, or even entirely for free.
It may be useful and a good practice to work out what your minimum rate should be (something to keep you going for a while, at least), and then add costs from there. Projects that will take several weeks to complete should be able to sustain you for much longer than something which can be delivered in days.
At the same time, you are not alone in this and you can rely on the advice of other experienced composers/societies that will be able to help you out. The freelance community is extremely compact and always willing to provide support, so you can be certain that you will find someone able to help you in your freelance journey.
And when that one difficult client comes, don’t give in too easily. Stand your feet even with difficult clients, and always aim to be paid exactly what you are worth. It will benefit the industry in the long run – but most importantly, it will benefit you too in the short term.
One of the many featured projects from Johnny's profile. Credit: Johnny Yates for Channel 4
Examples of music/sound rates and prices
When it comes to music composition, rates will vary enormously. Different media require different kinds of work and different ways to approach each project, meaning that TV ads will have completely separate costs compared to radio and online.
You can find some guidance on a number of websites and resources we will list further below, but for the time being, here are some examples to help you move in the market. These rates have all been taken from the 2020 Rates Card by PRS.
- For TV use, you can expect to charge at least £6,300 for a 30 seconds piece, for worldwide usage and online rights.
- If you are working on a per-track basis, you can charge at least £9,400 on the same terms. This is the absolute top tier for TV usage – you can play with your rates accordingly depending on other projects.
- Radio ads can pay £900/30 seconds and at least £1,350 per track.
- Online ads can pay at least £600/30 seconds, £950 per track.
- In film and cinema, you can charge at least £10,000 for a full feature film with multi-millionaire budget, or £1,500 per track.
- Worldwide trailers will pay at least £9,500.
- For a high-budget game, you can expect to charge at least £5,000 for the entire original soundtrack.
There are countless resources online that can help you move around in the market and find more information about music rates. We took the above sample rates from the PRS For Music website, but there are several others that you can consult.
The PCAM and the Ivors Academy are always willing to provide resources and guidance to freelancers looking for help. On their websites you’ll find articles and guides, but also clear ways to help you structure your fees in advertising and beyond.
Lastly, the Musicians’ Union is fundamental for any freelance musician in the UK. Members will be able to access a minimum fees guideline and they will have all the assistance needed to wade through their first experiences as freelancers. If anything, all these resources can be an excellent starting point from which to begin structuring your fees and working out your business.
I hope this guide was useful and it will get you on the right track to start charging for your projects straight away! Feel free to share your own experience with music composition rates in the comments section and let us know if there’s anything we missed.