"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Sounds
September 22, 2011

Yours For Free

A few weeks back I had some correspondence regarding a cool new project. The client wanted original music and was unhappy about the licensing fees on the piece they had planned to use (are the warning bells ringing for you yet?). Creating “sound-alike” music can be ethically dodgy, but I felt that in this instance […]

A few weeks back I had some correspondence regarding a cool new project. The client wanted original music and was unhappy about the licensing fees on the piece they had planned to use (are the warning bells ringing for you yet?).

Creating “sound-alike” music can be ethically dodgy, but I felt that in this instance it was possible to create something better and more original than the music they had been negotiating to obtain.

Moreover, this project had the potential to generate some decent turnover, so they could afford to be professional. I sharpened my pencil and gave them the best quote possible and the quickest timeframe I could realistically deliver within. I offered to compose, programme, record, perform, mix and master an original piece of music (all on my high-end gear, of course) and also throw in a couple of derivative pieces as well.

Naturally, there are all sorts of ethical considerations when you offer a quote for original music. You want to be fair to yourself (for the time involved, equipment being used and the years it’s taken you to become a musician). Also, you want to be fair to your prospective clients (especially if their budget is tight). You also have to be fair to your other clients (who have paid already for similar work). And, perhaps most importantly of all, you have to be fair to your own industry (assuming there will be a music industry in the future).

Realistically the project was going to take me three days, but I only quoted for two. If my studio was well set up I could do it in two, but working in a new space is always slow. I also used the lowest studio rate I ever quote on, offered some extra pieces as mentioned and gave the best hint I could that I’d be willing to negotiate further (or maybe accept payment in kind).

You can probably guess where this story is going. I didn’t get the job.

They decided to go with some music they secured for free.

To add insult to, well maybe not injury, they didn’t even bother to reply to my quote, or follow up to see if I could make a better offer.

And, of course, fool that I am, I had already spent a few hours writing a riff for them once the original quote went out.

To be honest, I was bitter for a while. It was hard not to lump this together with other types of hypocrisy from “creatives” who expect to be well compensated for their work, yet at the same time expect to not pay for the music they use in their productions (not to mention the music in their iPods).

I’ve always been open to “marketplacing” my work; trading a creative service in exchange for something else. That’s where most of us started – trading guitar lessons for screen-printing and so on. In these times there’s a lot to be said for being willing to trade music for graphic design or photos, for example.

But, increasingly, it seems that “creatives” expect the musician to work for free.

Am I being harsh? Perhaps. In the past few years I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked to work for free. Sure, there is always “exposure,” “a good cause,” or some other payoff being suggested. But, the equation is the same – and heavily skewed against the musician.

The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.
Marcus Aurelius

There are lessons for me in this experience. I could do a better job of responding to emails in a timely fashion. I could also spend a little more time explaining to people why I didn’t go with their quote in bid situations. When we feel slighted in a situation it’s always good to examine if, maybe, we could treat others better when they are in a similar situation.

But, there’s another lesson here as well. As musicians, maybe we need to do a better job of explaining to people why it’s worth paying us. Maybe some folks have forgotten how much better a production can be with real background music, rather than just generic loops or remixes?

Or, maybe music is just finished?

I don’t really have any answers right now. This experience hit me for six and, given that I fell pretty ill soon afterward, I’m not in the cheeriest frame of mind right now.

Part of me is tempted to finish that track and offer it here as a free download to this blog’s readers. If I do that, it will be the first publicly offered recording from my studio here in Singapore. I’m not sure if that would be a good omen or not. Like so many things in the music world right now, it just seems so uncertain.

yamabuki Zhou 13 years ago

You could
Offer it for free
But with option
To send you $$$
Via Paypal

Jeff Shattuck 13 years ago

Man, I feel for you. And I feel guilty. Back before my brain injury, when I was a bigshot creative director, I routinely instructed our art buyer to negotiate very aggressively, saying things like, “Offer 50% less, tell ’em it’s for Nokia, they’ll do it.” And mostly, I got my price. But at what price? We (the agency) did not develop strong relationships with artists who could help us; and among artist reps, we weren’t exactly loved and would not be offered the best artists, as a result. Personally, I do think a lot of the rates quoted to agencies are very high, but still… I could have been more reasonable. Anyway, don’t beat yourself up. I believe there is nothing you could say have said to these people to change the outcome. As for making the music and giving it away, I would not. To me, it sounds like you are being motivated a little by trying to get revenge, and everything I’ve read about you tells me you’re not that kind of person.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Jeff – thanks. I was reflecting more on the requests for free music more than the hard negotiations. Looking back I think there’s a lot we all could have done to make a better music business. Right now I’m more interested in what we can do to salvage something good for the future.

And, you are right about the revenge thing. I have many faults but a revengeful nature is not one of them. I was surprised that this incident made me want to lash out (the early drafts of this post were harsher). I do believe that finishing the track will have some value – I’d like to to be redemptive in some way.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Yamabuki – thank you for your words. There are ways to set a “pay what you see as appropriate” price on tracks. I will probably do that with this one.

Mike Mahoney 13 years ago

I’ve sead before that the music industry is about to undergo a drastic paradigm shift; indeed, I would expect the whole idea of “intellectual property” is about to get set on its ear within a generation.

That said, that’s not what your talking about here. Commissing an artistic work is as old as the hills, and is really where the roots of the music business lies. The worker is certainly worthy of his wages, however he also has the right to give his labors away. I have a good friend who is an excellent graphic designer and website builder, and who earns his living that way. But he will often do pro bono work for ministries.

This person found someone who was willing to work for free, and that’s fine. I’m sure the quality suffered, but that was the trade-off he made. I do think, however, he treated you unprofessionally by not giving you a response. I don’t understand why people have such a hard time treating “artists” like professionals.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Mike – I agree with you. Music is going to become even more unsustainable if we can’t price our work in ways similar to what graphic designers, web builders, photographers and illustrators price their work. Part of my point in writing this post was to raise the irony that in some of those professions the arguments for defending fair pricing and bidding practice are not carried over into the use of music.

Certainly I agree that pricing will change depending on the kind of job and one’s own beliefs. For example, I took a photographic assignment earlier in the year for a well known company. Had it been an editorial or advertising shoot I would have charged at the high end. But, it was a corporate social responsibility project and the budget was small. Moreover, it was a cause I really believe in. I think we all reserve the right to adjust (or waive) our prices according to those kinds of situations.

Toni 13 years ago

I agree with Mike that there’s a paradigm shift going on. TBH I suspect that as computers and digital production equipment becomes better at eliminating ‘operator error’ then we’ll see more and more sound and pictures produced for use free of charge, with amateurs happy just to see their ‘work’ in print and used by big corps.

As for music, I’ve never charged for it and consider that something to be proud of. But I have never wished to take a living from it either, and can quite understand why that might be an affront to someone who depends on that for an income.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Toni – I admire the amateur ideal in art, music or whatever. I’m also well aware, painfully so, of the way that trying to be a professional can distort people’s craft. Just yesterday I was talking to a fellow photographer about the perils of “going pro” and doing shoots solely for the cash.

However, I’m curious why never having charged for music is something to be proud of.

Toni 13 years ago

For me, being able to give it away is a priviledge, and has always given me a sense of freedom. I guess for many, being paid is a priviledge and often a necessity instead. The peril of being professional as you describe is something I’ve been through with photography, and that would probably be enough to stop me playing altogether.

Interestingly a friend was telling me that he auditioned for a top Wishbone Ash tribute band a few years back, but actually declined the job because he really didn’t want to play the same songs note for note every time they performed. I’ve a feeling the gigs were well paid too.

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