The 3 Best Ways to Charge Clients for Custom Music

Most composers feel uncomfortable talking about money and rates, but it's important to charge for what your time is worth.

Getting past the "icky" feeling

In my experience, composers feel uncomfortable talking about money with clients for two main reasons. The first is a fear that putting a price tag on their art will devalue it. This is often the result of putting your work on a pedestal, a common pitfall of new composers.

The antidote to this is to compose and release a lot of music (every day if possible) and open yourself up to constructive criticism with a trusted community (like in the Sonic Storytellers Facebook group!). These habits remove the temptation to dwell on music you've written in the past and shifts your focus to the present.

The second reason composers feel uncomfortable talking payment is quite the opposite: a self-deprecating lack of confidence that their time/art is actually worth money. Sometimes, this feeling can only be alleviated by "ripping off the band-aid," so to speak, and having that first direct conversation about payment.

This will make subsequent conversations with future clients much easier. It will also help composers understand that music is a crucial part of the storytelling experience and worth paying for.

Here are 3 tried-and-true methods for getting past the barriers of rate discussions when charging for custom music:

1. Charge by the Hour

This method is great for young composers trying to get a career going. It's the most simple, straightforward way to charge for custom music, especially if you're still figuring out your workflow and how long things typically take. It's also the most popular way of charging in the video game music space because this is largely how developers bill their time as well.

Start your rates low if you take this approach. This way you can start tracking how long certain tasks, types of music, and genres take you to compose without the risk of overcharging the client. This data will come in handy as you grow in your career, especially in methods 2 and 3!

So how much should you charge? Well, there's no cut-and-dry number. It depends on a large number of variables like client budget, your skill level, the amount of requested music, and negotiation. But let's do a little bit of math (I promise, just a little bit) to give you a starting point for setting your rates.

Let's say a client requests a piece of music. You determine through conversation with the client and a comprehensive creative brief (a topic for another blog post) that the piece of music will be a minute long.

You estimate that it will take you 3 hours to create that piece of music, but you add an extra hour just to be safe. So that's 4 hours of composing time (not including revisions). We have our first number to work with!

So after negotiating with the client, you land on $200 for that piece of music. ($200/4 = $50 per hour).

Entry-level jobs in the United States start anywhere from $8 to $15 per hour, so I'd say $50 per hour isn't bad at all!

When you're all done, you'd send your client an invoice with the item of "Custom Music" and your billable hours multiplied by your hourly rate. Easy!

Sending invoices online has never been easier – here are a few free online invoice creation services:

2. Charge by the Track

After you work with a few clients charging by the hour, you'll start to feel more confident in your abilities as a negotiator. You'll have a growing body of data on composition timeframes, a blossoming portfolio, and hopefully a few kudos from the clients you've already worked with (even in the technological nirvana of 2018, there is nothing better than word-of-mouth referrals & testimonials).

Rather than billing by the hour, you can cut out the middleman and charge by the track. If you've been diligently tracking your time, you should have a pretty clear idea of how long things take you. Let's say the data shows the average track (plus revisions) takes you 5 hours. At the above rate of $50 per hour, you can sum up the value of your deliverable at $250 per track.

This method is one of my personal favorites. However, it's important to reiterate that you should have a clear idea of how long things take you before charging by the track. Otherwise, you risk undercharging or overcharging your client.

This can also give you some negotiating wiggle-room because, despite the length of the track or the requested genre, you have a set rate in mind (in this example $250 per track). Regardless of whether it's a solo piano piece that takes you an hour to produce or a full orchestral track with 30+ instruments, your rate per track doesn't change.

3. Charge per Project

This method is best suited for the film scoring world. Film projects often encompass a lot more than just sitting down at your workstation and composing. There are spotting sessions, constant communications with the director and producers, revisions, and often very tight deadlines.

You'll usually get booked for 2-3 weeks and work exclusively on that project. In a real sense, film creators aren't just paying for a set number of pieces, they're paying for you. Therefore, it's way simpler to ditch any hourly or track-based models and go straight to a lump sum.

Film projects differ from video game projects in two main areas: production time and budget. Films often have very fast turnaround times and inflexible budgets.

Video games, on the other hand, often see very long development cycles, so your work may be intermittent. That's why it makes more sense to charge hourly or by the track when you're working on games. Also, budgets are far less certain (especially in the indie world and anywhere crowdfunding is involved).

Of course, this begs the question: "How much should I charge for this project?" A little math will go a long way here.

Let's say you're booked for three weeks to work on a documentary (this actually just happened to me). I asked myself: "What is the baseline income I need to make these three weeks of my time?" Remember, when you say "yes" to something, you're saying "no" to several other things. The next thing I asked was: "What are my major needs this month that will really move the needle for my business?"

The answer to this was my new PC build along with some new gear, especially since my trusty iMac recently bit the dust. Also, it was my wife's birthday recently, and I wanted to set aside some funds to spend on her as well. With these things in mind, I was armed with my "why" when going into negotiations.

It turned out that my price was higher than what they'd budgeted, but because I presented my case, they worked with me and paid the amount I requested. (I'm telling you, this tactic works!)

Break out separate purchases on multiple line items

Whenever you can break up your creative fee from a  music gear / production fee (or some other fee), it's extremely valuable!

In this recent documentary project, I not only charged for my time, but also for sample instruments that were required to make this project great. I broke my invoice up into a music production fee as well as composition fee. The latter covered my time and work, while the former covered the actual gear I needed to make the best product possible.

Bonus tip: The first person to speak in a negotiation loses

Business transactions are never neutral; there is always (for lack of a better word) a dominant party.

When a producer or game developer needs you more than you need their money, you are in the driver's seat. Oftentimes, this is reflected by who speaks first. When you approach a client, you are subject to their wishes, price points, and desires. When they approach you, you have the real negotiating high ground.

You do remember what happened when Obi-Wan had the high ground, don't you?

The above adage is especially true in regards to talking money. If you were to name a price that's grossly under the budget of the developer, they will leap at that deal with glee knowing they're paying a lot less than they had planned (and probably less than your time is worth).

When they say their budget first, you're in a much better position to know their expectations and budget, and how to respond in such a way that helps you get fairly compensated.

It's not always possible for beginning composers to be in this position, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it as a powerful way to get paid for what your time is worth.