How much should a composer/lyricist get paid?
I thought I would write about this because when I was offered my first professional job as a composer/lyricist, I looked for information on the internet as to what sort of rate I should charge. Unfortunately, the search engines returned entries that were less than useful, only citing writing agreements in percentages of royalties in far flung New York. For a composer/lyricist just starting out, these percentages seemed so far removed from my reality that actually they were less than useless.
I’m sure you were hoping (as I was) that this blog would tell you exactly what to charge for your services, how much royalty to demand in percentage, but the truth of the theatrical industry is far more complicated than a set fee. I will give you some examples of some fees that I have received in my career later in this blog which I hope you will find useful.
If you do not have an agent then it is likely you will be negotiating your own contracts. It is an unfortunate truth that until your work starts coming to wider notice agents will not be interested in representing you. As soon as you can get one... do. The aim of this blog is to give you some tools to be able to negotiate a contract that is FAIR to both yourself and the party that you are working for.
I put it in bold and capitalised FAIR because it really is the most important word in this article. An ideal of fairness should be at the heart of all your negotiations, because if people don’t think they are being fairly treated then they will be less inclined to do their best work.
So... you’ve just received your first contract through the post and you’ve either thought:
1. Wow! How generous. They really are paying too much, maybe I should say I don’t need so much?
2. What a pile of bullshit! Do they think I can live on peanuts?
If the former, then never ask for less. The person paying you clearly thinks your work is to be highly valued. If you go back and say that you aren’t worth that much, you are effectively saying, ‘My work isn’t that great.’ Which :
a) Probably isn’t true. They wouldn’t have hired you otherwise.
b) Makes you’re prospective employer worry that they’ve picked the wrong person.
If the latter, take a deep breath, count to ten and then consider what is FAIR. To help you consider the fairness of the proposal you should definitely ask yourself (and potentially your employer) the following questions:
1. What is the workload and if I take this job on the amount offered, will I be able to pay my rent etc. and live to a reasonable standard throughout the working period?
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the fee from this particular job should cover all these expenses, but you should have other means by which you can subsidise it, which won’t be affected by this extra work. If the answer to this question is a resounding NO, then you should approach the producer and tell them. It may be that they can find some more money for you. If they are unable to be flexible then you should think seriously about whether you should take the job.
2. What is the current status of the company/producer you will be working for?
This is a really important question to consider. A young, exciting company just starting out will not be able to pay you as much as an established producing house. But there can be huge advantages to getting in on the ground floor of a talented company. Think of companies like Kneehigh, Complicite and Les Enfants Terribles now substantial theatrical powerhouses putting on big budget productions. All started from a small fringe troupe. And in most cases the composer that was with them in the early days is still with them now. I have followed this particular route myself with a few companies that are just now (after years of battling away, touring and making work) beginning to get regular funding. I am fortunate to receive a considerable amount of work through these companies and their connections. In the case of one, I worked for free as part of a collective ensemble, but we quickly moved on to being able to pay ourselves. In the case of others I worked for a fee that I considered to be less than I would have liked to charge but was able to live on the wage (see Question One) and considered the advantages of working with talented newcomers to outweigh the economic difficulties. In both cases this decision has repaid itself countless times over as these companies have grown and continue to hire me to work for them. So consider it carefully. In particular consider the quality of the work a young company is producing, if it excites you as a creative, go for it. If it does not, perhaps let it slide. A larger producing house will be able to offer more in terms of payment, but perhaps less in terms of future opportunity. It may be that they work with you again if you do a great job for them, but remember the pool of composers/lyricists they can offer to is much larger and there are some big name writers out there that they could potentially pull in. So consistency of future work is not something they may be able to offer. What they can offer (in addition to the economics) is the ability to get your work out in front of a huge audience. The larger regional theatres can pack in up to 1000 people per performances. That’s 1000 people hearing your work every night for (perhaps) a lengthy tour. If the work is good then this could be really big for you and could lead to other producing houses seeing/liking your work and offering you jobs as a result. So consider that, consider whether the trade off is fair. My advice with larger producing houses however is that if the amount you are being offered is just not workable for you, it will not do you any harm to come back to them and ask for what you believe is a reasonable amount for your time. Remember it’s not about being greedy, it’s about being FAIR.
3. What are the other creatives being paid?
You will need to find out this from the producer, some will be unwilling to tell you, but some will let you know. Once you know this, consider the amount of work you will be doing in comparison to them (essentially in hours put in) then see if you think that is FAIR. If you don’t think it is, go back to the producers with your reasons (often they won’t necessarily understand the amount of work that goes into your material, it’s up to you to explain to them how it works. You will be doing yourself and composers everywhere a great service!). In fact this is where it will pay to meet some other creatives and talk to them about what they actually do (lighting designers, sound designers, producers, choreographers, directors, musical directors etc). Because unless you have at least some idea about what amount of work the others are going to be doing you won't be able to figure out what is fair for you.
4. Should I work for a profit-share fringe production?
Whilst I have nothing against the profit-share model (it can be a useful way of getting your work seen) the realities of profit-share can be deceptive. The only companies who should be doing profit-share are at the beginning of their life and really, for them to survive, any money that they earn from their show should be poured back into the company so they can continue making better quality work. It is my view that if you work for a profit-share production you should be offered an ongoing and irrevocable stake in the work of the company. The first company I worked with (Paper Balloon Theatre) created our first show on the understanding that any money earned would go towards our next production and as soon as we did a production that allowed us to pay ourselves then we would. Paper Balloon is still working as a company today and I still write all the music and lyrics for our work. It’s also worth considering, if you are the instigator (as many writers are) of a profit-share production, am I being FAIR to those who are giving their time to present my work. Am I keeping them informed of the realities of how much they will be getting? Should I offer them a stake in the company? All important things to consider? It is important to note that of all of my actor friends who have taken part in profit share productions, some have gotten agents off the back of them, some have been seen by casting directors but not one of them has seen a penny of the profit. Usually there is none. But those actors weighed up the advantages and considered it FAIR and that is up to them.
5. Should I work for a flat fee or royalty?
Most of the work that I have done has been a mixture of flat fee alone or flat fee plus royalties. As you get on in your career, ideally you should work for both. I believe you should be paid a fee for your work. Sometimes this will be an advance against royalties (in commercial theatre) sometimes it will be yours to keep on top of royalties. I have been paid fees ranging from £200 through to £3000 and everywhere in between for a single job. More established composers get paid much more but I am still making a name for myself and the companies I am working with are taking a chance on an unknown composer and are helping my work get out there, therefore I consider it FAIR to me to be paid less. Some people will disagree with me on this and say that I if I’m doing the same quality work then I should be paid the same. They are allowed to disagree, after all it is not them who needs to consider whether it is fair. I’ll give some examples of splits I have done which I have considered fair:
a) Early career: £250 flat fee plus 3% perpetual royalty on net profit.
I considered this FAIR because the show was by a talented young fellow with a fringe following and two young producers were involved. It was a one man show, easily tourable with small set and one tech guy. It was topical and booked for an Edinburgh Fringe run and a tour afterwards. I considered this fair because it actually was likely to make a profit (and it did) it would have an ongoing life (it has since been seen Off Broadway, in Europe and all over the UK), my work would get alot of attention and press (it has) and it was a young talented group of people with whom I hope to work in the future. And most importantly I was creatively excited by the work. Please note the word PROFIT here, this is an important word, if you can always gor for NET BOX OFFICE. As PROFIT can end up being very little!
b) Later career: £3000 flat fee plus 1% royalty in net box office.
I considered this fair because it was a fairly big show going on a big tour, the royalty was on box office so I would get an earning regardless of profit. The flat fee was reasonable for the amount of work concerned. I would get the chance to work with brilliant creatives at the top of their game so it would be a brilliant learning curve. My work would get seen by a huge range of people and it would get national press coverage. For someone at this stage in my career I considered that to be a FAIR exchange.
6. Should I charge an hourly rate?
This is completely up to you. Usually a producing house will pay you what they can. Problems can occur if this doesn’t match up to your hourly rate. If you add to that fact the idea that as a composer/lyricist we are essentially always working (your subconscious will undoubtedly be working on a lyrical problem whenever you are on “holiday”). What has been useful to me is to consider what a minimum daily amount I think is fair. For everyone this will be different according to their expenses. For these purposes I will disclose what my current minimum daily rate is, remembering that this will alter with experience and what you consider to be FAIR. At the moment when I am considering a job I look at it in terms of the number of days it will take me to complete it (essentially to be at the studio actually writing and working). And if the job works out at less than £120 a day (10am - 6pm) with one hour lunch and two fifteen minute breaks. Then I would probably ask for more. Remember that I am fairly new to the game, having had a number of regional tours, won some competitions and written music/lyrics for approximately 30 shows (not full scale musicals). This rate allows me to cover my expenses and to live in a manner which is acceptable to me and is therefore FAIR. Any producers out there, beware that as my experience increases my fee will increase!
So... I hope that was at least a little bit useful for some of those just starting out. Of course I would always welcome a lot more discussion on this and also advice, be sure that I will post more as I continue along my merry way and inevitably learn that everything I've just written is wrong.