When trying to negotiate an agreement as an audio contractor, it’s important to know your ideal conditions. Contracts often contain compromises, and so it is important to know where you are flexible. If you can find projects you are passionate about, you may find that contractual deliberations go smoother by default.
Always Have a Contract
I once hired someone I knew for a long time to collaborate with me on some music for a project that was a work for hire. In my haste and naïvety we never put together a subcontractor's agreement for rights assignment, and later on they decided in bad faith that they wanted to challenge the right of the client to use the music. The client, out of fear of breaching their own contracts with other parties, put all their indemnity on me. We ultimately had to replace the music we wrote, which I also had to pay for. As you can imagine, this ended up costing me quite a lot of money. I never thought something like that could happen, but Murphy's law reared its ugly head. From them on, I've always made sure to have a contract. Let this be a lesson to you!
The Speculative Wizard
It’s important to gather as much info about a project as possible up front, and then speculate about the outcome of the project before you even lay out contractual terms. How much work do you estimate will be needed? Do you think this project will be financially successful? What will the schedule be like, and how convenient or inconvenient will it be? The answers to these questions can all affect your cost. If you feel the project is destined for greatness, you might consider asking for a revenue share (typically called ’back end’ in the film industry). If you’re less certain, or you need money to live on in the present, it can be better to ask for a higher fee up front. There is no shortage of options and variations when it comes to negotiating a contract.
One of the many considerations in coming up with an asking price is estimating the value of your work as a part of the greater whole. Music sometimes comes together very quickly, regardless of its quality. The contributions of coworkers may take far longer to execute and be of a different level of importance to the success of the project. There is no cut and dry method in regards to estimating the worth of sound to a project. Either way, this is a complex, subjective issue that deserves careful thought.
What's the Budget?
It’s never a bad idea to ask if there’s a budget. Sometimes, especially when working with larger companies, you may find that their opening offer is already higher than yours.
Gambling With Your Time
You may find a great project to work on that either has no budget or is non-commercial, like a student film for instance. If you have the bandwidth, feel strongly, and think the project could garner lots of attention, a pro-bono project can be a great career move. Sometimes, a commercial project may not have a budget, but there is the possibility of revenue later.
Being a freelancer is all about relationships. Working purely for a revenue share is an act of faith and investment in the success of a project. It may not yield any financial rewards, but your colleagues will appreciate your generosity and belief in them, and it may solidify your relationships with those people. You may find yourself working with them again in the future.
There are many secondary sources of income that can arise from a work commission. Some of the most common are soundtrack sales, licensing, and royalties from music ownership. I always try to keep the rights to my music, and 100% of the proceeds from soundtrack sales when possible. These can be great ways to pad your income on a project, and also provide you with an additional set of negotiating points when trying to draw up an agreement. On a project with a very small budget, you could ask for full ownership of your music, as something to compensate for a less than desirable flat rate. This would also enable you to generate more income from your music in the future, should others wish to use, stream or perform it.
There are times when asking the public to help fund your involvement in a project is a possibility. I have seen successful Kickstarters whose sole purpose was to pay certain team members, such as composers or sound designers. A project you are looking to join may already be running a Kickstarter to raise money for its development. They might consider including the expense of your services as part of their crowdfunding goal.