If you’re skilled on your instrument or have developed strong mixing or other engineering skills, you may find yourself offered freelance work at some point. When that happens, it’s important to know what to ask for, how to structure the job so you’re not overworked, and how to deal with the logistics of payment.
Due to the Internet and digital technology, the process of music production has become much more decentralized over the last couple of decades. Nowadays, most freelance studio-musician and engineering situations are freely negotiated by the parties involved. There are no longer pricing structures or work-rule standards to govern them. If you want it to work out favorably for you, it’s good to have some idea of what you want to charge (either on an hourly or per job basis), what the market will bear, and how to structure in some protections for yourself in the deal.
I’ve had many situations where someone approached me about playing on a session, and asked me the question: What do you get? In those situations you have to make a calculation based on the circumstances of the offer. The first part of the equation is, what do you think is fair pay for your time and expertise? Next you have to look at who is making the offer, and factor that in when you state your rate. If it’s a struggling singer songwriter, you may want to quote a lower figure than if it’s, say, a well-off doctor who’s decided to record a vanity album.
Another factor to take into account is how badly do you want the gig? If you’re trying to get your feet wet with playing sessions or mixing, you may be willing to take a low figure just to get the experience under your belt. Hopefully, your client will like what you do and hire you for more work in the future, or recommend you to others. The bottom line: If the gig will help advance your career, take what you can get. If it’s simply a financial thing for you, don’t take less than you feel you're worth.
Typically in these situations, the client will expect to pay you on a per-song or per-job basis, not by the hour. The latter is especially true if you’re working remotely from your studio. Unless a client really trusts you, it’s unlikely you’ll be offered a per hour amount for a job where you’ll be working on your own.
Do the Math
Where things can get more complicated is if it’s a large project where the amount of time you’re working is not clearly defined. For example, let’s say you’re offered $3,000 to mix a 12-song album. While that might sound like a lot of money, if you do the math, and divide the number of songs into the fee, you realize you're only getting $250 a song. That would mean in order to earn, say $50 per hour, you'd need to mix every song in five hours or less. Sounds doable, but when you factor in the back and forth with the client, and the revisions he or she will inevitably ask for, it means you've got to work pretty quickly, and keep careful tabs on how much time you spend on each song, or risk working for a lot less per hour than you'd like.
Also, make sure you understand the scope of the project — for instance, if it's a mixing job, how many tracks on average does each song have. If it's, say, 10-15 tracks, it will likely take a lot less time than if each song has 35-40 tracks. Or, in the case of a studio musician gig, if you’re asked to play more than one part per song, it will obviously take longer than if you're just doing one.
When you’re doing freelance work, time really is money, because there are only so many hours you can work in a given week, and every extra hour you spend on one project is one less than you can spend on another. On the other hand, you want to do the best job you can so your client refers you to others. It's a bit of a dilemma.
It’s very tempting to just accept a job when a seemingly large chunk of cash is being dangled in front of you, but it's important to realistically assess what it will mean in terms of hourly pay.
The revision thing
Whether you’re recording an instrument or vocal part, or mixing or mastering a song, it's key to work out in advance the number of revisions you’re willing to do per song. This is very important, because if you leave it open ended, a client can take advantage of you and ask for endless changes. You might want to state that your per-song rate includes one or two revisions, after which there’s an additional charge. That will keep the client from going overboard with revision requests.
Money up front?
If you’re doing a large job for somebody you don’t know, it wouldn’t be ususual to ask for a deposit of some sort up front. You want the client to have a financial stake in keeping you on the job. Otherwise, the client has nothing stopping them from deciding to cancel the job after you’ve already done a bunch of work. If it’s someone you really trust, it’s less important to get a deposit, but otherwise, it’s good to ask for a down payment between 20% and 50% (most likely closer to the former)
For most one-off musician or engineer gigs, the client will offer to pay you by check. I've never had a client's check bounce, but if you're concerned that might be possible, you could ask to be paid via an online payment service such as PayPal, or even get setup to take credit cards through a service like Square. Any third-party payment service will cost you a small percentage, though. So only go that route if you have some reasons to be concerned.
If you're working from your own studio, you can even structure the deal so that you only deliver the final 24-bit version of the project you're working on, after you've received the final payment.
It’s also good idea to invoice your clients, even if they don't specifically request it. It reminds them that they need to pay you, and also gives you, and your client a record that you can each use at tax time.
The "E word"
At some point you may get some job offers where there’s no pay involved, but the client offers you “exposure," instead. Without knowing the circumstances it’s hard to make a blanket recommendation about such offers, but when you hear the "E word," you should be wary. Offering exposure instead of money is a classic exploitation tactic that’s been used on musicians since the days cavemen were drumming on rocks with wholly mammoth bones. Be careful.
If you’re a truly talented musician or engineer, you're likely to get freelance work offers from time to time (or hopefully even more frequently). Therefore, it's important to know how to structure the terms of these jobs so that they’re fair for both you and the client, and that you’re getting what you’re worth. Good luck!