How to charge for music preparation [podcast transcript]

Opinion

When preparing music, you always make sure what goes on the page is pitch-perfect. How about what goes on the bill? Should you charge hourly? By the bar? Some other way?

We break down the all the elements of a successful music preparation gig, from the initial conversations with the client, how to formulate the best approach to pricing the job, and finally, making sure everybody is happy with the end result.

It’s not always easy having that money talk, but we’re here to make some sense of it all — and hopefully a few dollars, euros, and pounds, as well.

How to charge for music preparation

Listen to the podcast episode:

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How to charge for music preparation
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The transcript of this Scoring Notes podcast episode is lightly edited for clarity and begins at approximately 3:00 of the episode.

Philip: Today’s topic is what to charge — and maybe more accurately, how to charge — for music copying and engraving. It’s a topic that comes up very frequently on forums and offline conversations as well. We figured, why not, let’s have the conversation amongst us and see where it goes.

David: I think it’s a thing that a lot of people deal with, because there are a lot of different kinds of people — as we’ve discussed many times on the program before — who use music notation software. When somebody else who maybe is less comfortable with music notation software knows that you know how to do that, then it’s reasonable — when they’ve got need for someone — that they would ask you. And even if that’s not a thing that you’re used to doing, if you’re used to just doing arrangements for your own band, or if you’re doing your own projects, you may not have to think about how much to charge for the services that we’re talking about until the moment somebody asks you.

And that’s maybe not the best time to be making those decisions!

Getting into the business

Philip: Maybe a little forethought you want to give before you actually spout out a number or a term. It is interesting, David, because it is something that is a separate task from the music composition process. Many times, whoever is composing the music is also doing the music preparation as well, or there is another task.

Say if it’s an orchestrator. They are also providing music preparation. Not in all cases; obviously there are professional music preparers that do just that [music preparation], or do that as a separate task, along with other things. So it is kind of tricky sometimes to separate that out from some of the other music prep- and composition- related tasks.

I think maybe when you were a student — and certainly when I was a student — and you being a professor and in the academic environment, sometimes those lines get blurred. Or, really, there are no lines, because it’s really totally incumbent, as well it should be, upon the [student] composer. Part of learning about music composition is how to prepare a good score and a good set of parts. So it is incumbent upon them to take it all the way from start to finish.

David: Right. And I think it’s a question that my students have for me quite a bit. Like I was saying, as soon as they start to develop some facility with these tools, somebody — they know somebody at their church, somebody who is working on a film or something like that says, “Hey, I know you know how to use Sibelius. Could you help me out with this thing?” And then they [my students] come to me and then we have a conversation similar to the one I expect we’re about to have.

Philip: That’s exactly how I started. I was doing all my own work, and then somebody noticed and took note of how I was doing it and was taking pride in it, and said, “Hey, I don’t have the time to do this. Would you be interested in it?” And usually it’s a professor that is approaching a student and trying to get a little cheap labor, maybe.

But sometimes, everybody gets something out of it, because the student is still learning. It’s almost more of an apprentice nature, as opposed to a fully fledged professional job. But that is the start.

I can point to several instances when I was still a student and then was actually doing professional music preparation, and still very much learning about the process and learning about the tools — the music notation software and other tools and resources that go into preparing music effectively — and at a high level.

Focusing on “how” to charge, instead of “what” to charge

Philip: I should say that this [discussion] is really more about how to charge for the services as opposed to what to charge. I don’t think it would be in anyone’s best interest to start getting into very specific dollar amounts and rates, because those can really vary wildly. But I think our intent at the end of this conversation is for you, the listener, to have a better sense of how to come to those rates and to be satisfied with them and to satisfy your client as well.

So I suppose a jumping off point we could use — and there are many — but there was a post on a forum somewhere. I won’t say what it was or where it was, but somebody said something to the effect of, “Hey, I’m copying this piece of music.” They said, “I know I’m undercharging,” or “I know I’m being underpaid, but, what should I be charging or what should I have charged?” And immediately there were dozens and dozens of comments. It just got me thinking, that is kind of the first — I don’t want to call it a mistake — but maybe that is not the right way you want to be thinking about things.

If you’re going into an engagement and already thinking that you’re being underpaid, that’s probably the first order of business that you want to address right off the bat.

David: Yeah. The important thing — and I’m sure we’ll come back to this a lot in this discussion — the one resource that we have that is not replaceable is our time. The important thing that I think we can all keep returning to, as we’re trying to figure out how much we should charge in what circumstances is, how much of our time we’re going to be using doing this.

For someone who is relatively early in the process of doing [music preparation], some of the value of that time is learning these tools, and learning how to work with other people, or learning more about the music or building a relationship with someone in a particular group. That could be a way of thinking of the value. Now, obviously, you’re not going to be able to buy your groceries next week with the relationship that you have with an arranger in some band, but it might lead to more down the road.

That’s something that I think a lot of people who are early in the music preparation part of their careers might consider. I think that’s how somebody gets into the type of situation that you’re describing is that they are first thinking, “I need to agree to this, whatever it is, because there might be a next time.”

Agree to agree

Philip: Well, a lot to unpack there. I think the first thing that I would say is that if you think that whatever the price is, is the right price, and if your client thinks that it’s the right price, then it’s the right price, whatever it may be. That’s what I was trying to get at when I was saying, well, wait, I know I’m being undercharged or I know, I’m undercharging. Well, if you agree to that price, then you should deliver for that price.

That’s kind of the first rule of thumb. What follows from that is what you were just talking about. How to arrive at that price based on the various factors and the motivations for doing a job.

You said something interesting, and it’s something that I think can get a lot of people in trouble if it’s interpreted the wrong way. And I know you didn’t mean it this way, but a lot of times people will say, “Well, I can’t pay you on this job, or I can’t pay you a lot, but I’m going to have a lot of work for you later.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that and I’m like, okay, well, let’s talk about this job that’s in front of us right now, and then we can consider what may be coming down the pike later on.

So I would be very wary of someone that approaches you with that mindset. That being said, there are a lot of motivations for doing lots of different things. This podcast is proof positive of that. I think if I wanted to retire early, I’m not sure that doing a weekly podcast about music notation software and related technology is the straightest path to riches and an island beach somewhere…

David: Really! That’s news to me. I just assumed that, the mail had slowed down because of the weather or something. And the check was just kind of stuck in Kansas City or somewhere.

Philip: Well, there have been postal delays, David. So check with your local post office. I’m sure that’s the problem.

The motivating factors

Philip: But in all seriousness, there are lots of reasons for doing something. I have taken a number of jobs because there is something to be gained from it beyond just the financial aspect of it. Now, to be fair, there are certain jobs that the only motivation is financial, and that’s okay too.

I think your favorite movie stars, as high-minded and artistic as they might be, there’s always going to be some movie, some clunker there somewhere, that they did for a paycheck. And, you know, they did their best with the script and whatever it was, but it just was not meant to be.

It’s not like you’re not going to do a good job on those projects.  I don’t want to misrepresent what you would be doing on those types of things. You do the same quality work for everyone. Regardless of what you think of the artistic merit of the project, you give your all. But there are some projects that it’s a gig. And that’s perfectly okay. That is 100% acceptable, as long as everybody’s on the same page.

There are certain other projects where you might actually decide, you know what, I’m going to accept the lower fee for this, because maybe I’m not an expert in the tools and it is going to take me longer to do this. But the client understands that.

They don’t have a huge budget, and they’re willing to accept someone who is maybe a little less facile, a little less fast with the software, but ultimately can get a good result, but will have to take time looking things up in the manual — taking two steps forward, one step back in terms of how to format the music, going through several rounds of questions and all that, as opposed to someone who’s more experienced who might be able to do the job faster and more expensive.

Then there are all sorts of gradations in between, and there are some projects that are rewarding and educational and pay well, and those are gold. Those are wonderful. You learn from them and you can pay your bills. There are others that maybe fall on one or the other end of the spectrum, but that’s up to you to decide at the end, what is in it for you as a music preparation professional.

We all learn by doing. You mentioned on the last podcast with Nicole Jordan, that you just don’t sit down one day and say, “I’m going to learn ‘a Dorico’ today.” It’s the same way you wouldn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to learn the piano today.” It takes time. Every project, I learn something new and there’s a new problem to solve. But keep in mind that the more experienced generally that somebody is, the faster it will go and the more expensive it may be, but that’s often the equation.

Learning on the job

David: I think that’s the thing to keep in mind. When you’re giving your time estimate for someone to make sure that you’re including the time that you spend learning. That is an investment in your next project for you, the person doing it, is that the time that you spend learning a particular tool on this project can help you to do the next project more efficiently. The time that you spend Googling, how do I do “blah” in Sibelius Ultimate, that’s time that you’re not going to spend doing that, the next time you do a similar kind of job.

Philip: That’s a good point. And it does beg the question again, if you are charging by the hour — we can get to that in a little bit, whether or not that is advisable — but there is a little bit of a gray area. Whether the time that you spend researching these things, is it because you don’t know how to do something and you should have known how to do something before you accepted the job?

Or is this something that is so specific to the project and so specific to the client that it is inclusive, you can include that billable time. That’s a conversation that you want to have with your client up front, which, is very important.

Good, fast, and cheap: Pick two

Philip: Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s this adage. You probably have heard it, David, and maybe our listeners have as well. “Good, fast and cheap: you can have two of the three.” That’s, of course, a little oversimplifying it. Sometimes you can have all three. Sometimes you can’t have any of them, and it’s just the project that there’s no hope! But, the basic concept behind that is that, if you want something right away, and you want it to be really good, then be prepared to pay for it.

And so you can’t have the cheap. If you want it really good and you also want it inexpensively, you better not be putting a gun to someone’s head and saying, “Hey, I need this right away.” So you get the concept there. There are trade-offs with each one of those elements of the puzzle.

David: Good, fast and cheap.

When you say that you can only have two most of the time — and I know sometimes you can have all three — the thing that each of us needs do come to determination with the client is, what those priorities are,

Philip: What does “good” mean?

David: What is “good”? What is “fast” and what is “cheap” is going to depend on the client’s needs. Not just their needs broadly, but their needs for a particular project.

Philip: Yes, that’s exactly right, David. I’m so glad you pointed that out because it can be tempting, the more you learn and the more you understand about music engraving, to make every project the most beautiful, wonderful Paul Revere Award-winning project that has ever been done in the history of music engraving.

It’s just for those of us that obsess over these things, we always want our craft, our end result, to look its best. So it’s really important to understand what the client’s needs are and what the end result is really about.

What am I trying to say here? If the goal is, in fact, to make a beautiful published edition that is going to live on for all posterity, it is going to go through several rounds of editorial and you really need to factor in all of these things, then that is one standard. That is going to take a certain amount of time. Talking about the “good” and “fast,” you probably can’t have good and fast on that. You can probably have “good”, maybe not so fast unless you kind of divvy up the work somehow.

On the other hand, if the goal is kind of a one-and-done situation where this is going to be on the stands for a recording session, and it’s never going to be played again — oh, and by the way, the players just need a basic roadmap, they’re going to be improvising and doing some other things and they don’t really need dynamics — I’ve worked on a number of these projects. Seriously, where it’s being played to a click track it’s being played with pre-records, it’s being played with all this other stuff. They don’t need gradations of mezzo-piano and piano and pianissimo and all these things. Just write the notes and, in context, they will know how it’s supposed to go.

David: The dynamics are the engineer’s job. They’ve got faders for that.

Philip: Yeah, right. In many cases, you know, it’s true, they do! Look, I know it may be sacrilegious to say that, but that is the way it works.

Define the scope and the deliverable

You have to understand that. You may actually be able to do what seems like a really arduous task in a relatively short amount of time, and come in at a budget that is both good for the client, and also gets you a healthy fee, because you don’t have to deal with all that other stuff.

And then everybody’s happy. That’s what I was talking about earlier. If you’re happy with the fee, and the client’s happy with the fee, and you agree on the scope, then that’s a win, you know? Again, you’re going to do the basic amount of due diligence, of course, to make sure that what you’re putting on the stand is readable and making sure the basics are still there: making sure that you’re not going to put the wrong transposition in a part, checking your clefs and all the things that you would ordinarily do.

But you know what I’m talking about, David, and I’m sure a lot of our listeners do as well, that you just don’t need to deal with that stuff.  I have clients that are just like, “no, don’t worry. I don’t need accents. I don’t need this or that.”

Fine. I get it. It’s okay. I’m not looking down at this project; I understand it is what it is. We all agree on what the end result should be, and they’re happy, I’m happy, and it’s fine.

I think that’s actually something that it took me a while to learn. I may have mentioned on this podcast, the first orchestration job I had, which was something for the Museum of Natural History here in New York at the Planetarium. I really spent a whole lot of time on this film orchestration, with these types of details — not understanding that this music was then going to be mixed underneath a whole lot of synths with a whole lot of sound effects, with Mars crashing into Saturn, with the moon exploding, and voiceovers, and all that. And my fine tuning, it really wasn’t what they were looking for. That was a lesson learned.

Now, sometimes if the music is exposed and you really do need to take care that those elements are there, then that’s a different thing. I’m not saying do this categorically. But just be aware, and try to get as much context as you can. Have that conversation; understand that you’re a service provider and, you’re there ultimately to meet the needs of the project. That’s really the bottom line. And then the fee discussion can come out of that.

David: Part of this conversation with the client is to balance what you know, because this is your area of expertise, with what they need, because sometimes they think they need things that they don’t need, and vice versa. They don’t think they need things that they do need. It’s worth being able to convince them in either direction based on your experience.

Don’t just do it because it’s going to be easier for you, or cheaper for you — or, more expensive for them, is another way to think about it. But I think there are times when it’s our job to tell the client “no”. And other times where it’s our job to convince the client that they need something that they don’t realize that they need, and they are coming to you because you are the expert.

Don’t be afraid to be the expert in this particular conversation, above all. I think this is probably the most important place through the life cycle of a job to be the expert.

Be the expert and educate the client

Philip: That is such a great point. I couldn’t have said it any better. Really. It’s about client education. They are reliant on you to give them that education, because otherwise they would be doing it themselves, right?

David: Exactly.

Philip: Case in point, I have a job I’m working on as we speak, and it’s a small project. It’s a recording session. It’s a composer’s first time doing this sort of thing, and they’re not that familiar with writing out the score. But the score is fine, the music looks great, but it needs a good amount of work to get it on the stand and serviceable. I quoted the price based on what I thought the job would take. And [the composer] was certainly open to it, but he wanted to know like, “well, what does that mean?” I had used the shorthand that we often use in this world. When I initially quoted him the fee, I said, “Oh, you know, included in it is of course the usual editing and formatting and all that stuff.”

He didn’t know what that meant, because he had never done it before. He wasn’t an avid Scoring Notes podcast listener.

David: I’m sure he is now. Welcome, friend.

Philip: Yes, exactly. And that’s okay. We’re always looking to grow our audience.

So then I had to get a little bit more specific.

One example, for instance — you know that you have done this if you ever work in Sibelius — where the time signature does not match the number of beats in the bar. Most likely, what has happened, is that you deleted that time signature and the notes remained, or you copied and pasted, and did a system copy/paste and the time signature came along with it, and then it got turned around. Whatever, you know, you’ve been there.

And in this case, four or five bars in, it started in 4/4. And then, all of a sudden, there were a couple of bars that had only three beats in the bar, but there was no time signature indication there. Because I ran a plug-in that is Check Misfilled and Irregular Bars — you can find that plug-in, it’s not a shipping plug-in, but it’s something you can download. That’s our friend, Bob Zawalich. We’re going to build a statue to him, I think we determined in an earlier episode.

That is really crucial; that’s one of my proofreading steps. So then, I went back to the client and said, for example, when we talk about editing it and making sure that it’s okay to put on the stand, this is the type of thing we look for: there are only three beats in what looks like a 4/4 bar. That’s surely going to slow down the session. It will cause problems. It will cause questions. Those are the types of things that we do.

And he said, “Oh, okay. I understand.” Now he knew that was a concrete example of something that he wasn’t looking for. He wasn’t aware that had happened in this piece. By having my eyes on it, that will save him time and money in his recording session.

So yes, to your point, David, it is all about that educational process: being the expert, knowing the types of things that are ultimately going to make everyone’s lives easier at the end of the process.

How (much) should I charge? Hourly vs. by the item vs. flat fee

David: Absolutely. So now, how much should I charge, Philip?

Philip: You should charge… So let’s get into that a little bit. Shall we?

David: So the important thing to keep in mind if you’re coming to this for the first time, is that there are kind of two broad categories of rate scales or structures for doing this kind of work. They are both completely valid and they both have a place in your practice as a copyist or a music preparer.

One of them is what I usually do personally, which is an hourly rate. So I will try to estimate how much time that it’s going to take me to do a job. Then I think to myself, David, how much is your time worth? And then I do a little multiplication table. I usually know how much I’m going to underestimate the time by. So I do that calculation as well.

Philip: That’s not insignificant, by the way. You almost always think the job is going to take less hours than it ultimately does.

David: Yeah. I usually underestimate it by quite a bit. The other fee structure that especially people in certain styles of music over the last hundred years of music preparation have used is, by how much music they will be working with, whether it’s by the measure or by the system, or more likely by the page, and especially in music that is very highly structured.

So music that is in four-, eight-, 16-bar phrases; almost universally where you are setting up every single page so that the measures line up vertically, that is a very easy situation for page based fee.

So those two things are completely valid in their own ways. So I wouldn’t agree to do somebody’s wacky graphic score with weird metric things and weird symbols and things on a page basis, because every page of that is going to take me 12 times longer — if not more — than every page of Broadway tune where every four measures is a phrase. That’s the important thing to keep in mind.

So with those two broad categories of fee structures in mind, Philip, how much should I be charging?

A matter of (union) scale

Philip: Well, let’s unpack that a little bit. I’m glad you actually mentioned Broadway among other styles of music, because there is a long history and tradition of these rates being charged, and they have calculated down to the penny. Of course, we’re talking about the different “Locals” — union rates — and they have different rates for all sorts of different things.

But these kind of have their history in what is — I wouldn’t quite call it an anachronistic setting — there’s a more diverse set of ways of preparing music than there ever have been before — because those were kind of based on the composer delivering the fair copy, so to speak — the manuscript — to the copyist or copyists. Then [the copyist] would say, “Oh, okay. I am copying out a single line untransposed part and it has a certain page rate or a certain bar rate,” what have you.

David: Literally copying. Doing very little other than copying.

Philip: That’s right. Copying. Sometimes very well, and sometimes as fast as possible and not so great. Talking about “good, fast and cheap.” I mean I have, seen some parts and they vary in quality historically.

David: Anybody who’s ever rented a show book from __________ knows what you’re talking about.

Philip: I know. I may cut that out because I don’t want to malign… maybe I’ll just bleep it out.

David: Anyone who has ever rented any show book from anybody, frankly.

Philip: Yeah, that’s true.

So what are we getting at? So then you take that and say, okay, but then, if I have a transposed part — clarinet, horn, what have you — that is another rate. Often it’s 50% above what that single line rate is, or maybe it’s a hundred percent, I forget. You think, well, wait a second, my computer can just do that.

And it’s like, no, no, no. Back then, that required a lot more brain power. That was a very specific skill that a copyist could do, almost without thinking about it: copying out something and writing it in B-flat or writing it in E-flat, and just being able to do that very fast.

So then you have what is known as the dupe rate; the duplication rate. What does that mean? It’s your violins, your string parts, most often. That is a case where you take a part and you copy it out once, and then it’s going to be duplicated for however many players. The theory behind that is: that task, that result, that product is being used by more than one person. So you should be paid a premium for that.

Let’s say there are seven violin parts — unlikely into today’s Broadway environment — but there used to be a fair number of string parts. Let’s say there are seven violin parts, and that page of music is being duplicated seven times. You won’t get paid seven times, but you will probably get paid double the rate that a single line part would cost.

And so on down the line. There are other rates: chorded rates, chord symbols, keyboard, harp, choir. You have it, there’s a rate for almost everything. In the age of iPads, that is less relevant, because, think about the actual costs of duplicating something physically. There is a physical cost to that — making seven copies of that violin part. Well, are you going to charge the same because it’s propagating to seven iPads instead of one iPad?

So these formulas are a little out of date, and they often require thinking of them in a different way. On top of that, there are orchestration rates, which are by the page and a certain number of lines and all these things. That works well, like you said, David, for something that is very regular.

I would also say that the more volume there is, the more likely it is to work out in the long term. Because, you may have a thorny bar or a thorny cue or something you’re going to be like cursing the whole time and saying, I’m only making, you know, 50 bucks and I’m spending all day doing this thing. But then you’re going to have a bunch of what’s known as footballs. You’re going to have a whole bunch of whole notes to copy that you can charge the same rate for. The theory being is, if you do an entire show, in the long-term that will work out. You just kind of accept that.

Go to the source material

But if you’re thinking on a one-off project, well, wait a second, I’m going to try to apply these historical rates to this, whether or not it’s a union job — if it is a union job, you may have to, you may not have a choice. If it’s not, then you may have more flexibility to do whatever seems most reasonable. Then that is a more valid consideration.

That goes to the next point that I want to make, which is understanding the scope of the project, understanding what’s involved.

Something that I always try to ask for whenever possible — before taking on a job, and certainly before estimating a job — is to see the files; to see the source files. Those can be manuscript files, they can be MIDI files, they can be MusicXML, they can be native notation files. That, more than anything, is really critical for being able to accurately understand what is going to be involved.

Because somebody could send me a PDF of their music and maybe it looks great when they send it to me. And then I get into it, I open up the notation software and I find that they have — take Finale, for example. They’ve applied all their expression markings as text blocks, and it’s just like, I’m going to have to sort this out for the parts. You know the type of thing that I’m talking about. What may look okay from a visual standpoint, when you actually inspect the file from a data standpoint, it’s something very different entirely.

David: And if it’s handwritten stuff, there’s very high quality, very easy to read handwritten stuff. And there’s handwritten stuff where you’re going to have to spend a lot of time and make a lot of musical judgment calls about what they meant, or spend a lot of back and forth time on the phone asking them.

I think there are a lot of reasons why it’s important to not just see, but actually have and — as much as we touch Finale files, touch — the actual source material that you’re working from. Because, like you said, there are some things that will dramatically impact the amount of time that you have to spend in the job, based just on the way the source materials are put together and the way they’re transferred to you. If you think of the example that you just mentioned, they might only have them as a PDF file. They may not have them as a Finale file. And then you’re starting over from scratch.

Making use of the toolbox

Philip: That’s right. Or you may decide that you have different tools at your disposal. You know, we talked with John Hinchey a few weeks ago about scanning apps. Is there a way to bring that in if it’s a regular form, rather straightforward piano vocal chart, for instance, that you can zap into PhotoScore or SmartScore. Then that can cut down your time by half, and you can automate this process.

David, you always talk about the importance of automating. What can be automated here? What can be offloaded to somebody else, that if you want to bring on another person on the project, depending on how big your projects are. Sometimes that is a very valuable way of meeting a deadline and also meeting a budget.

If someone has a particular skill set that maybe you’re not so great with, it can be a win for everyone involved. That’s usually a very good way of dealing with something. There are options. Sometimes you have to think creatively.

And sometimes you just don’t take the job because you just know that you can’t do it, and the scope is either undefinable or the scope is impossible for you to meet for whatever reason: time, budget, deadline.

Flatten the rate

Philip: That’s why I think I would add to the two broad categories that you mentioned a little while ago, David — you mentioned charging by the hour and charging by some other observable metric: the page, the bar, that sort of thing. To those, I would actually add a third option, and it’s one that I try to use the majority of the time whenever I can, and that is a flat rate. A flat project rate.

That really works when you have done enough of these, that you know that maybe I will come out a little ahead or not depending on certain factors in the project. But if I can see enough of the source material and that scope can be defined to everybody’s satisfaction and say, this is the job, this is what it entails, and these are the deliverables, then I can say basically, okay. This is what the price is going to be, and it won’t change. And that way, as the music preparer, I’m not necessarily obsessing about tracking every last hour or fractional hour on my end. I can just make sure that I’m concentrating on doing the best job possible without worrying about that clock adding up hours for the client who may not be expecting that.

I’m also not necessarily obsessed about trying to fit something into a particular page format or something that would affect the bill that way, and also affect the bill in unexpected fashion. So that gives me confidence that I can do my job, and then it gives the client confidence that they know this is the price and there won’t be any surprises.

It tends to work out really well for both the client and the music preparer when that scope is defined. Like I said, it really works when you have had enough experience doing these jobs that you feel comfortable with knowing what that fee should be to cover whatever you would want your own hourly rate to be.

It is helpful, even if you are charging a flat rate, I should say, that you still can justify it based on some sort of page rate or perhaps some sort of other metric. But you don’t necessarily have to hold yourself exactly to that rate. What I’m getting at is that the bill won’t vary. There won’t be any surprises.

So, the most important thing that I always try to do is try to get that source material, or at least enough of it that then you can extrapolate out what the remainder of it is going to be like. Sometimes it’s not always possible. Sometimes somebody wants to engage you for a project and it’s an opera that they haven’t written yet, but they need to sign a contract. They need to have an understanding of what those copyist costs are going to be.

You have to, in good faith, try to give them your best shot at what that’s going to be. And the only thing that you can possibly do, perhaps in that context, is maybe see what that composer did for their last opera, or for their last big piece, and ask to look at that. Ask to look at those files.

Of course, you can sign NDAs if somebody’s little skittish or a little squeamish about sending their files. It doesn’t hurt to have an agreement that just says, these files are not to be disclosed further and to sign the contract that says this is not to be used and I will destroy them after evaluating them. That is very standard for people that are very protective of their files.

But it is unfair for a client, I think, to ask someone to estimate a cost without really giving them a whole lot of information upon which to base that cost. So there’s got to be trust and there’s got to be a mutual understanding of both sides.

Often, those early-going conversations are often the best indication of how the project is going to go. You know, we were talking about setting client expectations and client education. The best clients I have — and they’re all great, I have to say. Really, I have had very, very few, let’s say, less than desirable clients over the many years that I’ve been doing this.

Opportunity beckons, and opportunity cost

I think it stems from an understanding of the trust element and being upfront about it. If they trust you to just be honest about what it’s going to take and, tell them what it’s going to be, they can decide for themselves and be okay walking away and saying, “Hey, this doesn’t seem like the greatest project.”

Or recommend somebody else who you think could be a better fit for them. That will always come back exponentially to you. I have recommended many people for many projects over the years, either because I couldn’t do the job, or I didn’t think I was the right fit. That’s great; it’s good for everybody. Don’t be afraid of giving away your business — and it’s not giving away your business. It’s really making sure that you are putting out honest information. So that’s part of it. If you put that out there, then you’ll get that in return.

David: I think that’s actually another reason to really take the amount of time that a given job is going to take you very, very seriously, because there is an opportunity cost. If you take one job that is due in two weeks, that’s going to take most of your time over the next two weeks, then somebody else might come to you and ask you to do something else. If you gave a really good rate to the first person, and the second person is willing to pay you four times as much for approximately the same amount of work, you can’t just dump the first person because you got a better job.

Philip: Tell my, home contractor about that.

David: Yikes! So, really consider what your time is worth, not just to you, but to other people. The opportunity cost of every job that you take is an important consideration along way to finalizing a contract like this.

Quantify when possible

Philip: There are tools that can help you calculate these things, especially if you have the source files, depending program you’re working in. If we’re talking about Sibelius, there’s a really great plug-in. Of course, Bob Zawalich wrote it, called Calculate Statistics.

There are a lot of things that you can find out about your scores when you run that plug-in. And that’s also very helpful in showing a client. I had this happen once where someone had sent me an early draft of a piece, and I estimated a price. And then, a couple weeks later sent me what was ultimately to be the source file for the project, and it was significantly different.

But the client didn’t see it that way. They just made some changes, but I could see in all the different ways that that was going to take me a lot more time to work on. And I ran Calculate Statistics on both files — I actually exported them to an Excel file because you can do that — and then show the percentage difference in various items, whether it was the number of bars, the number of expressions, the number of lyrics, and so on and so forth.

I just said, look, this is actually a 25% larger job when you look at these various metrics. And then they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that. I was just kind of going with the muse and going where my inspiration took me.”

They ultimately didn’t realize, even though like the number of minutes in the piece — that’s what it was. It was really the number of minutes was more or less the same as it was before, but there was just a lot more to it. So from their end, they were like, “oh, it was a 10 minute piece before and it’s still a 10 minute piece. Why is it more expensive?”

I had to explain why that is. And there’s a whole lot of other things. I know Finale has a way of calculating what’s known as the active frames. Basically, the number of bars with stuff in them is another way of thinking about that. I’m not sure if the other programs have something to that effect. But there are probably ways of engineering that if you really need to.

So that’s really helpful. Anything that you can do, basically, to quantify, to help the client understand how you’re coming up with these rates. They may be different on different projects. Like you said, if something is aleatoric versus very straightforward, it’s okay to have different rates for different projects when you’re calculating by the bar, by the page, what have you.

Sometimes the client just wants to know, oh, when you break it down like that, like there are 35 instruments and each one is going to be 20 pages. So that’s 700 pages of music of the parts. And it’s like, wait a second. Actually, now something in the thousands of dollars doesn’t sound that unreasonable because of the amount of music that needs to be processed. But they were just thinking of it as, oh, it’s a short piece, and didn’t think of it, because they’re just seeing that one element instead of all the component parts. So that’s all part of it. Just setting up those expectations on both sides.

Measure the measures

David: If you’ve really never thought about how much time it takes you to prepare a page — or whatever the sort of work you’re doing — if you’ve never really thought about how much time that takes, it may be hard to start sitting down from nothing, and estimate how much time it takes you to do a thing, if you’ve never thought about it before.

So, if you’re listening to this podcast and thinking that this is a thing that maybe you’ve not done much of before — maybe you’ve only prepared your own works, and you’re thinking about what it would take to charge someone else money to do this kind of work. Start trying to track your time now and see how much time you spend on this stuff.

Now, if you’re doing the composing and the arranging alongside of the engraving, sometimes that’s kind of a fuzzy dividing line. But when you think you’ve got to the point where you’re focused just on the engraving steps, start a timer. Or it can be as simple as a spreadsheet where you indicate, here’s the time I sat down to start, here’s when I opened Finale, here’s when I closed Finale. Here’s when I opened Sibelius, here’s when I closed Sibelius. And that can be a great starting point.

If you end up thinking that you want a little bit more help with that, there are all kinds of time tracking apps that can help you with this. There’s a great one. I don’t currently use it, but I have used in the past Mac app called Timery, which you can set up to watch when you open certain applications. It will automatically start a timer and then automatically quit the timer when you’re done. You can even have it know when I opened this file in Sibelius, start a timer, and then you can associate that file with a certain client and then know for sure — at least the times that you’re in the notation application. Obviously you might spend some time planning or doing other things outside of Dorico. But you can tell it, when I open this Dorico project, start a timer, and when I close that Dorico project, stop that timer. And that will give you a rough idea of a starting point.

So when somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, I’d really like for you do the music prep for this wind quintet that I wrote,” you can go back to a similar piece that you’ve worked on before, that’s about the same number of staves or the same number of pages, or whatever you can find that’s similar, and estimate based on your past data.

It’s really hard to start from nothing and know how many hours it will take you. Which is why it’s very easy to underestimate.

Be clear and reasonable

Philip: That’s true. And sometimes there’s no choice — you have to bill hourly for something. Usually edits, usually changes. There’s just no great way of doing that otherwise. Again, it all comes down to defining the scope of work from the outset.

If it is definable, and then you say, here are the deliverables, and this is what we both agree what the deliverables are, whether they be the score, the parts. What format? Is it just the notation files? Is it PDFs? Are you printing? Printing is something that you can actually figure out pretty reliably once you know what your hard costs are in terms of acquiring the paper, and the materials, and all that stuff. You can pretty much come down to a formula and calculate that.

But other things, somebody says, okay, well, how many revisions are included in this? And what is the nature of the revisions? Are they just the copyist’s errors? Are they actual changes? And then you have to understand and really put that in writing and make sure that everybody’s on the same page.

Now, look, to be fair, you want to be reasonable. If somebody says, Oh, you know, can you add this marking? And it wasn’t your error. I just decided to change that. I mean, are you going to charge them 87 cents to do that? No, of course [not]. You’re going to just put it in there. It’s not worth your time to actually write up that bill. You want to be reasonable.

But again, it’s about that back and forth. Sometimes, don’t be afraid, if something starts encroaching on the scope and saying, “Hey, wait a second. You know, this really is more than what we are agreed upon” and say, “Hey, look, this is what the additional charges are going to be.”

If you want to get out of an hourly thing, you could understand what those changes are and then bill a new amendment or addendum to your contract and scope out those changes and spec out what that fee is going to be. Sometimes that’s a helpful way of thinking about it.

Fixing the boiler: knowing where to tap

Philip: Some people really understand and value the importance of expertise and experience in a project and are willing to pay an hourly rate commensurate with that. And sometimes people, they just don’t understand. I had one potential client that actually didn’t work out. And I think it was a lack of understanding and maybe I could have done better about educating what the process was, but the composer actually had a problem. It was a Finale file, not to disparage Finale, it just that’s what it was. I was able to go in there and realized that the composer did something akin to what I mentioned a few minutes ago, which was basically put in a text item as an expression or vice versa, that sort of thing.

Whatever it was, I was actually able to run some sort of a plug-in, some sort of a tool, and automate the process, and fix all those things. And it really didn’t take me very much time at all. So I went back and said, “Hey, this is the type of thing that I noticed and I can fix.” Then when it came time to talking about the fee, that was really much more than the composer had expected, and was, I have to say a little — I don’t know about insulting, but maybe a little disparaging towards the nature of music preparation and said, “Well, wait a second. It only took you 10 minutes to do this. So why shouldn’t the cost reflect that?”

I didn’t really have a good answer for that at the time, but then later I relayed that conversation to somebody else and they told me an anecdote, which I’ve since heard many other times. They talk about a plumber who repairs something. A boiler, let’s say. Somebody hires the plumber and [the customer] can’t figure out what’s going on. The whole thing is broken. The plumber comes in with a hammer and taps one time on a particular part of the boiler and fixes it. Then [the plumber] says the charge is $10,000.

And the customer is like, $10,000?! All you did was come in with a hammer and tap on it. And [the plumber] said, yeah, but it was knowing where to tap which fixed the problem. Obviously it’s an anecdote and it’s a little exaggerated, but that’s the concept. Sometimes that experience is valuable in and of itself.

The fact is, if I didn’t do that thing, then it would have literally taken that composer days, hours, or weeks to fix that, if at all. Maybe it wouldn’t have been fixed. So that is the type of negotiation and understanding that, when it works well, it really works well and everybody gets it. When it doesn’t, it’s sometimes tough to convey that.

Factor in the unpaid time and self-employment expenses

David: Well, I think a relatable analogy to our listener could be how much live music costs, right? When you pay a live musician to play for 30 minutes outside of some event, you’re not just paying them for the 30 minutes that they have their hands on a piano keyboard in your event.

You’re paying them not just for the time that they took to get there and get dressed and get home, but also for all of the time that they spent preparing to be able to do that, right? The time that you spend on your own practicing your scales and your arpeggios on your instrument is otherwise unpaid. But it’s the reason that you can sit down at the gig and play the chart down for the recording session and go home. Because you spent all that time preparing.

When you are being paid to prepare a score and prepare performance materials, you are charging someone not just for the minutes of your life that you spent doing that one job, but for all of the time that you have spent through your entire career learning about what music is supposed to look like, learning about how music flows, learning about how musical sounds are represented on a page. All of that knowledge and all of those skills came before that. But without them, you wouldn’t be able to do this job.

Philip: That’s exactly right. And not to get into the minutiae of tax preparation and all of that. It may be a little different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, or country to country. But what you have outlined, David, is basically the difference between what’s known as an independent contractor and an employee. When you’re an employee — when you’re in someone’s employ — it is generally their responsibility to train you. That is part of the job; you get on the job training. And by the way, you get expenses paid for. I’m talking about the computer that’s at your desk is owned by the company — you did not have to pay out of pocket for that.

You get benefits like insurance and all sorts of other things that are factored into the wage. The true compensation that you’re getting is actually much more than just what your salary is, because of the value of all those things.

When you’re an independent contractor, like most of us are doing this type of work, that is a very different thing. Because you have to factor in those tools — the software, the hardware, the materials — all those things are coming out of your pocket. They come out of my pocket when I have to do this, it’s just the nature of it.

I’m responsible for paying my own self-employment tax. It’s very strange, but because I’m both an employer and an employee, I’m paying not just the employee half of what’s known as FICA here in the United States. I’m also paying the employer side. Those are the types of things that, when somebody is just looking at an hourly wage, they often don’t take that into account. They’re saying, well, wait a second. You know, that’s so much more than I would pay so-and-so, you know, at my regular office job. It’s really apples and oranges.

That’s also again, why really I try as best I can to agree on a flat fee whenever possible. Not just to avoid the hourly thing for that reason, but also when you can agree on that, there’s just no surprises. Like no one’s really concerned. Like, are they really accurately tracking their time? Is that person fooling around on the job? Are they doing it fast? It doesn’t matter.

If you agree on what the deliverables are, what the deadline is, and what the scope is, and what the fee is, then it’s up to you ultimately decide how many hours you want to take to do the job. And as long as everybody’s happy at the end, that takes the element of the time tracking out of it. That can be a very valuable thing for both the client and the service provider, if you can make it work. So that’s another thing to consider.

No one-size-fits-all

David: Yeah. I think that’s a good place to wrap this up. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. And I think that’s why, at no point, neither any of us said you should be charging X dollars per page or Y dollars per hour. Because every situation is different.

I think what we’ve done today is outline some of the important principles that we would have in having this conversation with another person, and the things that we would want to keep track of as we are in the negotiations at the beginning of this relationship, and at the invoicing step as we get to the end of this process.

Philip: That sounds great to me. Well, David, the check’s in the mail. Check in with your post office.

David: I will do that. I’m sure nobody else is calling the post office wondering where their mail is today.

Philip: So I’m sure you’ll get right through.

After all of that: make it easy to get paid!

David: Well, the other side of that, that I think is worth saying there, is that if you are the person who is expecting payment, make it easy for people to pay you.

Use whatever service you want. I’ve used Harvest in the past for invoicing. I’ve just made stuff directly in PayPal before. But make it easy for people to pay you. Because if there’s any friction in that process, that’s just another excuse for a person not to do it.

Philip: That’s great advice. So if you want people to pay you promptly, give them the opportunity to do so, and everybody will be happy.

David: There are lots of good invoicing platforms. And you can always just make your own, and use PayPal or whatever. It’s very easy to send somebody an email that has a link that they can click and punch in their credit card number, and you’re good to go.

Philip: Good advice. On the client end, pay promptly. On the copyist end, make it easy for them to do it.

I will say to all of our listeners out there, good luck with your endeavors and good luck with your efforts. I do hope that this was illuminating a little bit in what can often be kind of a mysterious and confusing aspect of the job that we get into, because we really love it. That’s the conundrum that we sometimes find ourselves in.

This was fun, David. Thanks for indulging me today on this topic. I think a lot of our listeners will definitely appreciate it.

David: Thank you.

Philip: Yeah. Likewise, I always do. All right. I hope you did as well as listening at home. We will talk to you next time.

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