How to plan TV documentary soundtrack budget?
March 23, 2012 5:19 PM   Subscribe

First TV work soundtrack commission. How to best spend £2K budget?

So it's a documentary film for a public broadcaster and a modest £2K budget. The spec is to write music, record it and digitally deliver it. Length is a "TV hour". They want a film theme, ending theme, several other little cues. I imagine piano, cello, also rock band and orchestral instruments. Bits of the film may have just soundscape (electroacoustic). Apologies for extended greenhorn and snowflake details to follow!

For the greenhorn part of the questions:
First, because this may change the whole playing field: This film may need a track by Adele and licensing that would obviously make a deep cut in the budget. ... How deep? Forget-it deep?

Are the following things in the ballpark:

- hiring professional orchestral players?
- hiring professional recording gear like a couple of Neuman's?
- professional mixing?
- professional mastering - notwithstanding the fact the TV guys are mastering their film too. It needs that, right?
- I don't actually want to know, but for bonus question: how much would you pay yourself out of the budget? (It'll maybe a springboard and I can self-fund to work on this a couple weeks.)

Last but not least: Is this a realistic time frame - 4 maybe 5 weeks full time work? Deadline is mid May but I can only do full focus for around that long.

For the snowflaky details:
I have only once made a film soundtrack, for a student film. The director of that film now works for TV and asked me to do another film. We worked before so my lack of other portfolio is cool, and I know I can pull off my segue into professional composing. Just never done it with a tiny yet actual amount of money and they never got into that one at Music school. I invited a long term composer friend to share the job. Always wanted to work with him. But, I'd better ask: Has anyone worked in a team of composers before, and is there anything you'd have done differently?

Hivemind hope me not to mess this one up! I am really grateful for any insight you could share.
posted by yoHighness to Media & Arts (11 answers total)
Best answer: I'm not in a great position to speak to all your questions, but frankly, for four-five weeks of such a major amount of work as a contractor, £2K sounds incredibly low for what I'd want to pay myself in compensation ignoring all the other expenses. Randomly assuming five weeks of 50-hour weeks, you'd barely be making more than US minimum wage (apparently the UK minimum wage too) before potentially huge expenses. You're a contractor on a short-term project, which normally implies a substantially higher rate of pay compared to a permanent employee. And to top it all off, you're sharing the job with another composer?

I fully realize you're getting experience and such here, but if you're capable of doing the work at a professional level, and it sounds like you are, you should be getting appropriate compensation for your labor. If they can't pay any more, then I would figure out how to scale down your commitment to a shorter amount of time. Otherwise, you wouldn't be self-financing an investment in your career, but would instead just be financing the documentary out of your own pocket. To put it in simple terms, see

At a minimum, I'd want an actual agreed rate for my labor and a separate budget for production expenses/music licensing (subject to producer approval). You're a creative professional, not a builder (or a quantity surveyor, as I understand you have such people in the UK), and your salary is unrelated to the production-specific expenses. I bet they didn't hand the cinematographer £10K and tell him he can keep whatever he doesn't spend.
posted by zachlipton at 6:15 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The market rate for an Adele track right now will be (at least) in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the track and the use.

It is possible that you can find a compelling reason your film should not have to pay market rate (cause close to her heart, the director's her beloved cousin), but I would not think of that as too likely. You'd want to talk to her publishing company about licensing for the film (if you don't know that bit already).

But I don't want to discourage you from trying at all--it will at least be a useful learning experience. Just set you expectations.

I also agree with zachlipton; that is a very low rate for the work and while one must pay one's dues, as they say, one also should not allow oneself to be exploited. Set clear boundaries and work product expectations upfront, once you've decided how much of your work 2k is worth. Good luck!
posted by tyrantkitty at 6:42 PM on March 23, 2012

YOUR expectations.
posted by tyrantkitty at 6:43 PM on March 23, 2012

Best answer: That's a lot of time to fill if you have to write/score/record/mix every last second. Do find out if there's a library available to grab bits. I think a few calls should give you an idea if it's anywhere in the ballpark to get a dozen pros in a studio for a day. Then if you have your own DAW, it's your time. Do you totally love the project/theme/issue? Will this really advance your possibilities?
posted by sammyo at 6:45 PM on March 23, 2012

Best answer: But, how many folks ever get to hear their compositions in public, go for it, careful to not get taken, but go for it!
posted by sammyo at 6:47 PM on March 23, 2012

Best answer: I only have secondhand knowledge of this type of work, but, as a longtime freelancer myself (and thus, sympathetic to not getting shafted) I feel like I have to contradict the money sentiment: people breaking into TV and film work eat a lot of shit money-for-time-wise at first; now is not the time for that fight. The good news, and this is also secondhand knowledge, is that TV composers stand to get a lot of money from their work once they're established because they get royalties/ residuals on their work. But not when you're breaking in. Hopefully what I've said is helpful.
posted by furiousthought at 6:48 PM on March 23, 2012

Best answer: I'm a professional concert music (not film music) composer; I'll address what I know.

- The instrumentalists you want to hire are not ones with orchestra jobs; they're good local conservatory students. After you get a sense of how demanding the parts will be, contact conservatories / schools of music near you and start getting quotes from them for the cost hiring students. If they ask about rights, tell them you'll be making a work-for-hire recording (you want to own all the rights with no future compensation to the performers).

- Inexperienced people routinely work for low pay in situations like this, because the point is not the pay but the path into more such work (as you seem to realize). I don't know the film world, but I do know it's INTENSELY competitive for film composers and this sounds like a smart way to both get in the door and build your reel.

- Adele's out of the question for this situation. But as you probably know, the project doesn't "need" Adele. It needs her sound, style, and intensity, which are ever-more-imitated by others as she blows up. Googling for "artists like adele" gives some promising places to start.

- We don't know enough from your post to tell you this is realistically doable for you. Two main themes and a few more short cues, composed and recorded in a month? Probably doable even for a beginner. What's most unclear is whether you are responsible for some underscoring for the entire project. What do you mean by "bits of the film may have just soundscape" -- do you mean they also expect you to do the soundscape bits? That could push it into unrealistic territory, especially if you're just beginning there too. But this appears to be a great opportunity and it's worth throwing yourself into!
posted by kalapierson at 9:43 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, I am assuming (and I definitely recommend) only a few instruments total. Your "and orchestral instruments" is alarmingly vague. :) I think a large ensemble would be unrealistic in both financial terms and (assuming you're not experienced with writing for one) creative/time terms.
posted by kalapierson at 9:56 PM on March 23, 2012

Best answer: To clarify my pay comments a little bit, it's reasonable enough to work for cheap for the experience. Personally, I think that means something like 20% below a reasonable market rate rather than barely making minimum wage, but ultimately you can make your own decisions given your knowledge of the market and your personal situation. My real concern was that the plan here seems to be to hand you a £2K music budget and rather vague requirements (you could spend a year creating and recording a rich symphony to accompany the film or do a crappy job in a day by pulling stock music without regard to its appropriateness), and for your compensation to be whatever is left after expenses. That's a pure recipe to be taken advantage of. Negotiate a salary (and residual rights as appropriate), and let the producers determine the budget for expenses based on what they want to get and how much they can afford. Be clear on your exact role and deliverables up front so no one is surprised when deadlines come around.

My experience is more with theatrical sound design than for film, but a lot of television documentaries and similar works do not have extensive custom composed scores. Some are done entirely with stock production music, some have their custom cues for main titles/credits, some build whole scores out of loops using tools like Sony ACID, and some will have custom music recorded to order. Ambient "soundscape" color can also be built in synthesizers. MIDI instruments are not exactly uncommon either, though the failure of doing it badly is obvious.

I'm not sure what kind of experience you have with production music libraries and loop-based music creation, but there are a lot of ways to create pretty high quality results without recording a note or even "composing" in the traditional sense. You can then use your time and money on more targeted moments where you can make the biggest impact.
posted by zachlipton at 10:37 PM on March 23, 2012

Best answer: has lots of working composers there, perhaps ask there as well? Some are from the UK too.
posted by TrinsicWS at 3:18 AM on March 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all the brilliant answers so far!

re: sammyyo. You nailed it! the subject of the film hits close to home and I really want to engage with it. Of course there is the pitfall of being flattered and deluded from offers (sideways cf.) but after the initial burst of madness, two weeks post-offer I still feel it'd be ehm, existentially meaningful to do. Apologies for not making a really strong point about this earlier. I don't want to seem like I'm totally over the moon but it's deeply personal.

Re: taking the opportunity to make a path into a competitive, tiny field (as said upthread). YES.

But Re:, I love it! It seems more geared to IT / design and I would like to see a version for the arts. But I am somewhat sobered by the advice and I am grateful for that. Also the comments about stock music make me feel much more realistic about the scope. Thanks also for advice that deliverables need to be totally clearly agreed upfront.

Re: kalapierson. You're right, the question was too vague to know if it's realistically doable. Am responsible for all of it - but I'm also being given almost carte blanche with a director who is a little experimental and who trusts me. I did electroacoustic in my degree so have a little library of Neumann-recorded samples and a DAW, this might be enough for that part of the job. My composer partner's degree is in composing and he'll be a major help with the scoring and orchestration, Sibelius-type and instrumental colours business. We're both in bands too. After years of relentless going out we seem in a position of being able to handpick from music students and unsigned local musicians of every ilk (as we know for every working musician there's a hundred equally talented unemployed ones). So it was actually hard to get the castles-in-the-sky symphony out of my head, but this really helped. A handful of poems seems more realistic. And the work-for-hire-recording contract advice is invaluable too. Last but not least, thanks for the mindblowingly great advice about finding Adele-like artists.

tl;dr version: All this really helps me engage with the nitty gritty thinking about it. Hivemind you rock so much!
posted by yoHighness at 7:01 AM on March 24, 2012

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