How To Start A Career As A Freelance Engineer PT. II

A few weeks back on the blog, we talked about the basics of starting a career as a freelance studio engineer. Some of the things we covered were selecting your niche, setting your rates and finding your first clients. Congratulations if you took our advice and are on your way to your first freelance session!  

While it's not as exciting as recording or mixing, Part II of this blog series will talk more about ensuring that you are compensated for your work and time investment. Read on to learn about collecting deposits, invoices and work-for-hire contracts.

Time is money, so let’s get to it!

Project Agreement
After meeting with an artist and agreeing to work together, it’s a good idea to create an agreement outlining all of the details of your project. This shouldn’t be a sternly worded legal contract — it should be a clear and concise explanation of the details of your project. Typically, you'll include things like:

  • What services you’ll be providing
  • How much you will be paid and when
  • Foreseeable expenses and who will pay them
  • The revision and approval process
  • Deliverables

Be sure to clarify every detail of the project before you begin. It’s best to be as up-front as possible about the business side of things. Get it out of the way early so you can focus on the creative stuff.

There’s art. There’s business. Then, there’s the business of art.

Services
The first thing you should outline in your project agreement is exactly what services you plan to provide for this project.

Let’s assume you agree to record and mix an album for an artist. What about mastering? What if they just plan to release it without anyone mastering it? Who’s in charge of producing? What if they want to record drums that are out of tune? This album has your name on it too, you know! Who’s responsible for editing? Drum replacement? Vocal tuning? What if they want you to play all of the guitar parts?

You don’t want an artist to assume something is included in the price when it isn’t. It’s bad business to charge them for it after the fact, and it’s bad for your reputation to put out a bad album. By stipulating exactly what you’re responsible for (and what you’re not responsible for), there will be no questions when it comes time to do the job.

You should also include any deadlines or milestones for your services. When do the recordings need to be finished? When are the final mixes due? What’s the deadline for submissions to make the release date? Be sure to include an estimated end date for the project as well.

Payment
Now that you’ve detailed the services you’ll be providing, it’s time to cover how you’ll be paid for them.Your project agreement should outline exactly how much you’ll be getting paid, what methods of payment you accept and when your payment is due.

For instance, many engineers require a deposit up-front. It may seem intimidating at first, but you’re much less likely to have a session cancelled on you at the last minute if you collect a deposit. This means that you don’t confirm that artist until you receive payment for a portion of their project

Most professional engineers ask for 50% down at the time of booking. Others ask for 100% payment up-front. Some engineers accept as low as 20% or even 10%. What’s important is you get the artist to commit by putting some money down.

Deposits are typically non-refundable, meaning if an artist cancels their session you still get to keep the deposit, since you probably won’t be able to re-book that time on such short notice. Just remember, requiring a deposit actually results in fewer cancellations. The remainder of the deposit is collected at the end of the project, before the final deliverables are sent out.

You should also outline who’s responsible for project expenses, such as studio time, equipment rentals, or even beer and pizza during the session.

Approval + Deliverables
Finally, your project outline should detail your approval and delivery process.

When mixing and mastering it’s common to offer a set number of revisions or edits included in the price. Some engineers choose to offer unlimited revisions, but this can often lead to endless remixes for picky clients.

Either way, your submission, revision, and approval processes should be clearly explained in your project agreement.

To make things easier on yourself, try to explain as much of the submission process as possible. How should an artist send files to you? What format should they be in? How should they be organized?

Ditto for the revision and approval processes. How many revisions do artists get on a mix? What about masters? how do they communicate their notes to you? Can they sit in the studio with you and make the final tweaks?

After it’s all said and done, how does an artist sign-off on the project? When will they receive their final mixes or masters? And what formats will they be in? Are you responsible for archiving the project? If so, for how long?

Work for Hire Contracts
If, for some reason, the artist is uncomfortable working with you without a written contract, you can use websites like Shake to create fill-in-the-blank work for hire contracts.

Work for hire contracts are used when engineers are paid a one-time fee for their service. If an engineer also acted as a producer or writer for a song, they may be able to negotiate a percentage of the royalties generated by the song, or “points”.

In some rare cases mixing engineers will also get points on high-profile songs, but it’s not very common in today’s market.

Invoices
Finally, after the project is finished send the artist an invoice for the remaining balance of the project. An invoice provides an itemized breakdown of those expenses so there are no questions as to how much money they owe you, or when it’s due.

There are countless sites and apps available to help you create and keep track of your invoices. For instance, Wave is a completely free service that connects directly to your bank account to monitor when invoices have been paid.

Have the artist approve the final mixes/masters by sending MP3s. After approval, send them an invoice for the full amount, with a credit for the deposit applied. Be sure to include any additional expenses that the artist is responsible for.

Referrals
After the invoice has been paid in full, send off the final deliverables, and follow up a few days later to make sure the artist is happy. The follow-up isn’t just an opportunity to make sure you’re providing the best service possible to your customers, it’s also an opportunity to gain some word-of-mouth exposure. If you did your job correctly, the artist should be in love with your work, and eager to show it off to their friends.

Ask them if they know of any other artists who are working on projects you may be able to help with. Word-of-mouth marketing is huge in this business, and generally an engineers largest lead generator. So, if your clients ever refer you to any paid projects, be sure to get them a gift to show your thanks!

By putting these systems into place you should be able to turn your home studio into a well-oiled machine. Your clients will be happier, you’ll be less stressed and you’ll have time to work on more projects. Plus, you’ll finally be able to quit your day job and tell your boss to shove it! So, what are you waiting for?  

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