First let me say to those reading this in the United States, I hope you’re enjoying the tail end of the Thanksgiving break. To those outside the U.S., I hope you’ll forgive my weak attempt at a segue from a real-life holiday to a blog post title.
Right, so with ‘thanks’ and ‘giving’ on my mind, I thought I’d share some views on what is probably my least favorite aspect of the work many of us do; figuring out what to charge / what you’re worth / what is fair compensation for the work you do. I suspect at this point we’ve all heard the whole right-brain vs. left-brain argument/concept, how creative types’ brains just aren’t wired for business. While I don’t profess to be an expert on the matters of neuroscience or neurobiology, let me offer a (creative) alternative viewpoint. That creativity is in fact key in business and that as artists and craftspeople we have unique abilities, perspectives and ideas that can lead to an effective business approach, structure or management style. However, I would also argue that as artists and craftspeople we tend to be more sensitive, humble, self-conscious, self-deprecating and have a great capacity for empathy. All of which makes the process of evaluating the value of our time or creative output and placing that monetary cost on a client especailly difficult, sometimes painfully so.
While some might struggle with profit margins, ROIs and covering overheads, I struggle far more with how my rates might impact how I’m perceived, how much of a burden the cost of my services will be on the larger project or individuals paying me, how my creative relationship with the client might be muddied and whether or not they’ll think my work is “worth it” compared to similar services they’ve received before which might lead them to feel they didn’t get good value out of me.
Unfortunately this conundrum has been exacerbated no end thanks to the internet which has made the world a much smaller place. Previously, a director may have a handful of referrals of sound professionals in their “local market”, a couple of which might be available for work to consider. Today however, with social media, forums, portfolio websites, and other sites like Craigslist, Mandy and Fivr, clients have unlimited choice at all possible levels of expertise, talent and cost. You can do whole projects remotely now too meaning location is no longer a barrier to competition safe for maybe a language gap if you’re going international.
The first time I started having to deal with all this was while I was in college in Boston. In my second year I started taking on ‘outside projects’. A senior thesis short film for a student studying film at a local college, a small indie game with students studying game design at another. Initially I didn’t charge for my services. I saw these as win-win scenarios where I got to flex my creative muscles, experiment, make mistakes, work with a client in a relatively low pressure situation while they got some free music or sound for projects they weren’t going to benefit financially from. Sometimes they would feel guilty not being able to financially compensate me properly but would still manage to offer a token offering which I in turn, with equal guilt, would graciously accept. I learned to appreciate though that compensation need not always be financial, that I was benefiting in other ways whether it was opportunities to learn, to experiment, to form new relationships with clients, a credit, material for my reel, future referrals, skill trading, simple favors or strong friendships initially built on a generous offer of service
Even today, with more experience, some strong credits and referrals, I’m not beyond taking on projects where there’s no financial compensation. My conditions for these kinds of opportunities are narrowing as other things take up my time, but I’m still willing to entertain “working for free”, if I’m passionate and excited by the content, see myself benefiting in one of the ways I previously mentioned, and providing that no one else stands to significantly benefit financially from the work I’m contributing to. Anyway, back to college…
About a year after starting to take on the additional projects, things started to change when they became more commercial in nature. I was still in the mindset of trying to accrue credits and experience, which led me into some relationships where in hindsight I felt I was being taken advantage of. I would argue with myself that as I was a student and couldn’t necessarily give them much of my time, so I’d meet their minimal needs simply for credit, only then for their needs to expand ten-fold which I would meet out of desire to please. The worst situations were when I would feel I was being taken advantage of not in hindsight, but in the middle of a project. In some cases that led to bitterness which fed into the work and the quality would suffer. Compounding all this, (and similar to the issue with the internet I mentioned earlier) I was trying to market my services in a huge college town with a horde of willing and eager students who were all in competition with each other. This massive supply of potential labour naturally pushed the prices down to practically nothing. Seeing this reminded me a little of that scene in “Finding Nemo” where all the fish collectively push the net to the sea bed and led me to appreciate how it’s important not only to value your work for your own sake, but for the community at large as we are all responsible for small pieces of the wider impression or clients form of what “we” are worth.
With all that said, and in the hope it may help others, here are some things I consider when I struggle to decide what to charge for my services:
Professional and commercially-minded clients should want to pay for services because…
- It’s an indication of professionalism.
- It’s an indication of aesthetic quality they may otherwise not be able to assess.
- It makes the service provider more responsible and responsive to the client.
- It provides the client leverage to ensure quality and timely delivery.
- It improves the impression of the client in the service provider’s community resulting in the very best vying for their employ.
If you consistently undervalue your time and work…
- You may set unreasonable expectations both for yourself and the rest of the community.
- You may begin to feel bitterness that might feed into the quality of your work.
- You may deny yourself practical access to the appropriate resources/facilities a project deserves simply though lack of funds.
- You may develop a reputation and referrals based more on your low rates than the quality of your work.
- You may have a career you can’t sustain.
If you consistently overvalue your time and work…
- You may lead your clients to develop unrealistic expectations for your work.
- You may lead your clients to feel they’re being overcharged and that you’re more concerned with your income than their project.
- You may lead your clients to overlook you on projects where they now feel they can’t afford you.
- You may develop a reputation based more on your high rates than the quality of your work.
- You may loose out to fairer bids.
With all that in mind, for projects which don’t meet my “working for free” criteria stated earlier in the article, the sweet spot for pricing my services is where these two conditions are met:
- No matter the outcome of the project, I won’t feel taken advantage of.
- No matter the outcome of the project, I won’t feel I took advantage of my client.
This never produces me with a single exact number, but I usually end up with a range within which the sweet spot sits. Too low and I begin to feel like there might be potential for me to feel I was taken advantage of. Too high and I begin to feel I’m taking advantage of the client.
To end, here’s a great quote from a Boom Box Post… post, also linked to below with some of the more helpful resources I’ve found when trying to figure out fair compensation for sound work.
In the freelance world, we enjoy many freedoms. The most important one is the freedom to choose whether you are perceived as a professional or a novice, and that is expressed first and foremost by your rate. Don’t short change yourself. The more you charge, the more your time and experience will be valued. That is, if you can back it up with truly solid design work.
- GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey 2017 – Game Sound Con’s annual survey featuring income statistics
- Motion Picture Editors Guild Wage Scale Information – IATSE Local 700 union rates for various project types and positions
- How to Set (and Get) the Right Price for Your Audio Work – Boom Box Post’s helpful breakdown of how to put a bid together
“As has come before; many of these posts will be philosophical in nature. Some will be in contradiction to previous postings. These are not intended as truths or assertions, they’re merely thoughts…ideas. Think of this as stream of consciousness over a wide span…Please bear with us as we traverse the abstract canals of audio musings.” -Designing Sound