How much should new engineers charge?
Just graduating from University? How much should you charge for recording? Here’s a tip - don’t do it for free!
I had an interesting discussion with one of my Pro Tools students this week about how much he should be charging as a new engineer.
He's now making that jump from student to professional so it's right that he deserves to be paid for any mixing and recording work he's going to under take. To begin with, he's going to be paying a room fee to be able to use a commercial facility in Birmingham. It's not a huge fee - less than £10 an hour - but in order to work professionally, he'll have to pay this before he earns anything.
With many musicians asking for recording and mixing work to be done for free.... "We can't afford it", "It's not a real job...." "You only do it for fun...." I think it's really important for all engineers - new and old - to realise that their knowledge and skill has a value.
Any fool can go and buy a Mac, a DAW, and interface and a microphone. It takes a learned and skilled person to 'craft' a record.
So what should a new engineer consider when they're deciding how much to charge clients?
1. Research you local area and see what everyone else is charging, and what justification they have.
Commercial recording studios have overheads. Therefore their rates will be higher. They have to pay rents, rates, cleaners, breakages, etc before they even get to paying the engineer. Then look at their gear. Is it 'standard' stuff, or is there some magic in the equipment you use? What are their rooms like? Treated.... un-treated.... acoustically designed....do they have a magic 'sound'?
It's likely commercial facilities will be charging upwards of £30 an hour. You're unlikely to have all of this stuff when you're starting out so there's no point in trying to match £30 an hour... yet anyway.
What about the independent guys? Where are they working from? What is their education level? What is their experience? What are they using? Independents will charge from £15 - £25 an hour. You can decide for yourself if they're over or under charging.
Using this research, you can decide where you sit amongst the competition and you should price yourself accordingly.
2. Invest in the right equipment.
When you're starting a business, you'll have a certain amount of money to buy your assets with. Research the vast amount of equipment choices and speak to learned and experienced engineers about what you should be buying. There is equipment out there aimed at the home user, the prosumer and the professional so you have to be aware of what is regarded as 'consumer' equipment and what is a 'professional' tool.
When you're working out your pricing structure, take into account the gear that you're providing your service on. Cheap gear will provide cheap results so be smart. Again, analyse your competition and see where you can 'match' similar offerings. Equipment doesn't make a mix - the engineer makes a mix - but the right equipment will help you achieve more professional results.
3. Invest in the right mixing environment.
The 'every day' engineer will concern themselves with 'how much gear can I buy?'. A learned professional will understand that the number 1 factor in producing a tight and clean mix is the environment that you're mixing in. The right room, and the right treatment, will allow you to hear what is happening in your mix without the room messing with your sound. Not all rooms are perfect mixing environments, and we may not all be able to get access to great rooms, so we may have to work with what we have. Invest great time and money in making sure your mixing room is the tightest it can be.
Look at your competition - how are their rooms treated? You can typically spot a 'bodge' job from the cheap looking foam tiles scattered across the walls. Mmm.... foam doesn't work well for a pro room.
(Check out my buddy Will at www.eqacoustics.co.uk - his panels are terrific.)
If you discover that all of the studios in your locale are 'bodge jobs' - you may well have a case for upping your hourly rate a little to match up to your 'USP' - unique selling point.
4. How good are your mixes compared to the competition?
If you think you're producing better results than those around you, take this into account too. Mixing a 'hard'. Critical mixing is 'harder'. You have to be very honest with yourself here. Listen intently to their online profile and compare them to yours. A studio/engineer's salt is in their mixing and this is ultimately what the client pays for - the results. Better results deserve better money!
The Answer is that it's entirely subjective to your locale and your confidence level. Charge what you think your worth, but be realistic as well.
"But what happens if you're asked to record to a budget?"
Many times will you be asked to record something for 'what I can afford'.
It's entirely up to you what which projects you choose to take on when a tight budget is involved. You just have to figure out whether it's worth your time or not. So here are some more considerations:
a. How big is the project?
You're asked to record a 3 track EP for £100. It wouldn't be impossible to knock it out in a day, maybe two days if it's just a guitar, vocal and piano and it's already full composed. However, if the client wants a full on production with multilayered harmonies, layered guitars, MIDI composed drums.... and they're looking to you, The Producer, to compose it all... this EP would take a couple of weeks.
It's really important to extract as much from the client as absolutely possible about what they want in their record. How many instruments? How many parts? What instruments? What is going to be live and what is going to be MIDI? How advanced is the arrangement? How practiced is the musician? How well do they play in time? How well do they sing in tune?
The more work you have to do, the less appealing a £100 budget becomes so you have to work out if the budget is worth the amount of time it will take to complete.
b. Should you do it for a 'portfolio piece'?
It's absolutely worth considering that if you don't have a big portfolio, or if you aren't confident with your current portfolio, then consider whether this particular 'client' will provide you with the material that will help strengthen your portfolio.
If you can forsee the project earning you further work later, then investing your time in - what can be considered - solid marketing material would be a good investment.
A client paying £100 for 2 weeks of studio time in this context will benefit you both.
c. Do you see star potential in this client?
Every engineer and producer you've heard of will have a 'name' because of that one client that took their record onto massive things. Engineers can use opportunities like this to catapult them to the next stage in their career.
If there is someone in your local area that's doing pretty well - getting likes on the social media, selling out shows - offer to invest your time into them and record them for either what they can afford, for a small fee or - heaven forbid - for free!! As much as I hate advocating working for free - recognising when investing in 'your career' can be more important than money is important.
However - if you're working for little money, or for free, it's not wrong to state some terms. If the record makes it big, insist on working with the band on future projects. Maybe the band could make you their resident - paid - live engineer for their gigs? Make sure you get credits on the CD sleeves.
Get an agreement to use their music on your websites
d. Are there other revenue streams?
When you produce a record or album for little or no money, it wouldn't be wrong for the producer to retain ownership of the recording. This can be used to licence to game companies, to present for sync deals, ad music, etc. If someone asks you to work for free - discuss how you may be recompensed in the future for using the work for your own gains.
This is no president in the music industry with regards to ownership deals. Generally, if a project is fully paid for - the artist (or their label) is entitled to full ownership of the works. Where no money (or little money) changes hands, negotiations are held between parties to determine how future money is going to be earned.
In this case - understanding of where you can make money from music is important. It's interesting to know that it may not be the artist that you receive money from for your work!
There's lots to consider here. The bottom line is, you'll decide what you can charge and sometimes it may be on a case by case basis. But I urge you - unless you have a full understanding of your decision and you decide that a project will earn you well in the future - don't even think about doing anything for free.... engineers are worth more than that!