This post was originally published by A Sound Effect.  

Few people would truly describe themselves as a level-headed business person and innovative creative mind.  It’s difficult to wear both hats well.  As sound designers, we pride ourselves in approaching design challenges from new and exciting angles and using our creativity to elevate projects from ordinary to spectacular.  We don’t generally relish wearing the business hat.  Yet, most of us would still like to get paid.  

That’s the crux--how do you set a price for something you love to do?  The answer is: quite simply.  Follow these seven steps, and you’ll find out how.  

Step 1: Establish the services necessary for the project.

As a freelance sound designer, you will often be approached to give a “sound package.”  This can include any combination of the following services:

  • sound supervision (spotting, previewing, fixes, mix supervision, client correspondence)

  • dialogue editorial

  • sound effects design and editorial

  • foley

  • re-recording mix

  • deliverables

Inquire as to which services they would like.  Often the client will not know what they need.  In that case, it is your job to either watch an early cut of the project and advise, or decide based on a verbal description of the project.  A basic package for any film should include most or all of the above items.  Don’t let the clients talk you into cutting out dialogue editorial if no one else has been hired to tackle that.  Someone has to do all of the above jobs, the only question is: are you that person?

Being able to provide a list of all services you will provide rather that just giving a price for the “sound package” gives you to opportunity to express to your clients exactly how much they are getting for their money.  It educates them on what goes into the process.  It is also the only way that you can make an exact calculation of how much it will cost you to take the work.  

Step 2: Decide how many hours/days of each service will be necessary.  

As stated above, in order to produce a professional final product, you will need to provide most or all of the above services.  If a potential client comes to you with a very low price in mind, do not negotiate by cutting services entirely. As mentioned above, someone needs to provide all of those services, so you’ll likely end up providing them for free in that case.  

However, you should evaluate each project based on the length, scope, and overall budget, and then assign appropriate time for each service accordingly.  For example, a two-minute student animated comedy short will require vastly different amounts of time spent on each service than a 90-minute live action World War II major studio feature film.  Before bidding on a project, always ask these questions:

  • What is the total run time of the project?

  • What is your ideal turn around time for the project?

  • What genre is it?  

  • Is it action-heavy or dialogue-heavy?

  • What is your expected distribution?  Internet, theatrical, Netflix?

Use their answers to inform your idea of the overall budget and scope of the project.

Step 3: Set a rate for yourself.

Here is the toughest part of the equation for most creatives: how do you set your own rate?  You don’t want to come in too low and feel undervalued, but you also don’t want to come in too high and lose the bid.  However, setting your rate is actually surprisingly simple.  I suggest looking up the union rates for sound professionals in your country or area.  

For the United States, you can find that information here.

Then, assume that those rates are for the most qualified industry professionals working at a major motion picture studio on relatively high-budget projects.  Now, ask yourself truthfully: on a scale of talent and experience, where do I lie between complete novice and that person?  Hopefully, this will keep you from accepting jobs which pay nothing merely for the experience long after you know what you’re doing.  It should also keep you from charging an exorbitant rate and constantly disappointing your clientele.  

Step 4: Research rates for contractors and vendors.

There will likely be services that you need to outsource depending on the scope of each project.  If you hire another freelance professional to provide a service, that person is a contractor.  If you rent a facility for a service (such as a stage), that company is a vendor.  

Does your film need foley?  Then you need to hire a foley walker and mixer as contractors, and rent a foley stage from a vendor.  Do you need to rent a large re-recording stage to accomodate the number of clients attending the mix?  Do you hate editing dialogue and want to hand that part to someone else?  Is the timeline so short that the project requires you to split the sound effects editorial with another person?  All answers tell you which rates you will want to research.  

For each item you are outsourcing, get several quotes.  Inquire about stages and personnel both in your area and outside of it.  With the internet, you can send the work anywhere.  But, consider that hiring contractors or using vendors in areas without a large amount of sound work will be cheaper, but the people involved very well may be less experienced and need more direction from you.  

Consolidate all of these quotes into one document that you save for future bids.  You don’t want to have to search through your email each you are creating a new bid.  

Step 5: Create a bid spreadsheet.

This spreadsheet is for you to keep track of the number of services, time allotted for each, the subsequent cost to you, and percent profit for the project.  I've mocked up an example spreadsheet to the right.  

The key element of this part of the process is to establish your ideal percent profit, then mold the bid to reach it while still maintaining a total package price which seems reasonable to you.  Why do you need to make a profit on top of your rate?  You need it to cover electricity used, high-speed internet costs, gear, ProTools updates, that extra bedroom or office space you rent.  All of these costs of running a business (and, as a freelancer, you are a business!) should be factored into the cost of each project.   Once you’ve come to a package price in your spreadsheet, ask yourself: does this number make sense for the level/length of project?  If not, chip away at services.  

Step 6: Create a bid for the clients.

Once you have a package price which includes the necessary services and gives you a decent profit margin, you will want to create a professional-looking bid to send to your clients as a .pdf.  You can make this is Quickbooks, or there are plenty of templates for invoices in Pages.  Just be sure that it is clearly marked as a bid or estimate rather than a bill.  

You should include a line item for each service so that they know everything you are proposing to provide.  Obviously, you will not list your profit as a line item.  So, remember to increase the price of each line item by the percent profit on this document.  Think about shopping at a store--the price tag doesn’t tell you the factory direct price at which the store purchased the item.  It tells you the price that they need you to pay in order to turn a profit.

Round each number to the closest $50 to keep it looking professional.  Don’t worry about getting the total price exactly to the package price.  Go ahead and let it come out a little more expensive, then add in a discount.  People love discounts!

Save both the spreadsheet from step five and this .pdf bid for your records.  

Bonus Expert Advice: Create spreadsheets and .pdf estimates for common types of projects so you have them on hand. If you often receive bid requests for similar projects, it is a great idea to create a standard spreadsheet and .pdf bid for that type of project. That way, if someone cold calls you and asks for an estimate, you can simply ask a few key questions, make easy adjustments to fine tune the services, and send it along. Knowing the minimum you will need to charge in order to break even (or, hopefully, turn a profit) off the top of your head will also allow you to easily separate the projects that will be a frustrating time-suck from the interesting creative endeavors that are worth your time.

Step 7: Get ready to negotiate!

At this point, you are ready to send your bid to the clients with a professionally worded email.  They will either accept, decline, or begin to negotiate.  

If you receive an email response asking for a lower package price, it is best not to simply lower it by giving a discount.  In step five, you already established that in order to provide the services listed and make a profit, this is what the package price must be.  Instead, this is the time to engage in a negotiation.  You may negotiate based on several tactics.  

Negotiation Tactics

1.  You can alter one or more service.  

If they would like a lower price, then offer to mix it at your home studio rather than at a rented facility.  They may need to agree to bring fewer clients to the mix, but this may well be a sacrifice they’re willing to make to save money.  You can also offer to do less of a certain service, like less custom design work or recording.  

2.  You can add extra services for the same price.  

Maybe throw in that M&E stem for the same package amount.  If you know that they will need this added service in the end, they may appreciate the foresight, and sometimes it’s less expensive for you to do everything at once.  

3.  Think outside the box and negotiate with things other than money or services.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it is a great idea to lower your price, but ask for something else in return.  A good friend of mine often throws plug-ins and sound effects libraries into the negotiation.  If you’re asked to work on a WWII tank movie, and they want an extremely low budget, ask for them to buy you that WWII period vehicle and gun SFX library and tell them it will save them on the design and recording side of things.  You would likely buy it anyway, and this takes it out of your list of costs.  Is the documentary you’re bidding on riddled with bad dialogue recordings?  Ask for them to splurge on Izotope RX for you, and tell them that it will save you tons of editorial time.  Just be sure that all licenses are in your name.  Items like this may not exactly equal the amount of money in question, but you will get to keep them forever.  And, often productions are more willing to spend on software and other tools than wages.  

4.  You can bundle services.  

This is an advanced negotiation tactic, but it really works.  It makes it less clear who’s gaining or losing, which means both parties are more likely to walk away feeling it was a win/win scenario.  An great example of bundling that I recently used occurred when I was asked to work on a short film that was going to be used to garner investment toward a feature of the same name.  In a scenario like this, you can hold firm on your short film bid but say that if they bring the feature to you, you will deduct the price of the short from that.  This makes them more likely to bring you the feature, and also saves them a considerable amount of money on the feature.  

A Note on Working for the Experience

Finally, a note on working for free or, as it is often posed to us, “for the experience/for the credit.”  Think back to step three when you set a realistic rate for yourself based on talent, knowledge, and experience.  Knowledge, experience, and credits are an important form of payment when you first start working as a sound designer. Even with a sound engineering degree, I will openly say that I learned the entire profession of sound design on the job, and that took some time.  Building up your portfolio, your IMDB credit list, or your experience with tackling different technical, creative, and logistical challenges and seeing the process through from start to finish are very important steps toward getting that high rate in the future.  

However, after a few big projects, you should begin to be compensated for the knowledge and experience that you bring to each project.  

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.  

*Main image by martaposemuckel.


QUESTION: Do you have any negotiating advice for fellow freelancers? SHARE IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW!