Music Production: How Much Should I Charge?
This is a question I see pretty frequently. As a producer, you have a lot of options for how you get paid, so it can be a difficult question to answer. First, let’s talk about what those options are:
The most common way I see it done, and the way I do it, is a flat fee. When you’re a small producer like me (not working with artists that are signed to major labels), it’s more profitable to charge a flat fee, since the artists you work with aren’t likely to get a large enough amount of streams/sync deals/exposure to make any royalty collection profitable.
The other common way is to take a percentage of the song. Typically producer percentages are anywhere from 8%-20%, depending on a variety of factors (how much work you do, which label you work with, how greedy the artist/manager is, etc). Needless to say, with those kinds of percentages, it’s pretty hard to make a profit unless you’re working with signed artists or an artist with a solid marketing and management team behind them. This is typically how it’s done in the big leagues, since it gives the producer an incentive to put a lot of time and effort into the song (the better it is, the more money they can potentially make).
The best place to start is to evaluate your experience, current social standing, and skills.
I’ll start with me, so you have a good example. I’m a small-time producer working with primarily local artists (for now, lol) and don’t have a lot of clout. I’ve been very timid about my presence online and in my community because I’m shy and overly opinionated, making social situations difficult for me. I’m working on it, but right now, my social standing isn’t great. I’m friends with a few of the bigger local artists in the area, but overall, I’m not that well known since I’ve never put any time into my social development. I stay relatively busy, but it’s all word-of-mouth clients (Friends of friends, people who hear the artists I produce and want similar quality, etc) and different quid-pro-quo deals I’ve made. So overall, my social standing is pretty low.
As far as skills go, this is basically what you can offer and at what level. Personally, I don’t charge separate prices for different services (like $20 an hour for tracking, $30 an hour for mixing, etc). The client is paying for you and what you can do. As such, I evaluate those prices based on an estimate of time it’s going to take me to complete that project. For example, I know it typically takes me 2 full days and sometimes a 3rd day to finish a production, so I charge based on two 10 hour days and/or add a third 10-hour day if I see potential complexity that may take a lot of time. An average mix takes me 5ish hours. I charge for 10 hours if it’s over a certain number of tracks.
Here’s some advice: offering too many services hurts credibility (if you’re not already reputable and really skilled at those services). People want specialists that are good at what they do. Offering a bunch of services in a package deal is a good way to bait in artists that are new to the scene and just want a good deal, but once they realize your mixes aren’t that great and the session took 2x as long as it would’ve at a different studio, they’re never coming back. Remember Pareto’s Law. You’ll make 80% of your profits from 20% of your customers. It’s in your best interest to keep your clients coming back.
So if you own a good space and gear, and you like tracking… track. And only offer tracking. Until you’ve gained a reputation for tracking. I’d still offer mixing as an under-the-table kind of thing so you can still improve your skills, but otherwise keep it simple. Just be the “tracking guy”, and you’ll pull a lot more business than “that guy who owns a studio”. Expand your skills and services over time by tackling each one individually… don’t try and offer them all from the start, especially if you’re not great at them.
I’m a producer. I’m known as a producer. I mix my own music, but I don’t tell anybody that. Everybody knows me as a producer and I only mix for friends and/or clients as under-the-table deals. My mixes have improved drastically over the past year, though, so that may not be the case this time next year. As such, I evaluate my time compared to a typical producer’s rate, even though my mixes are probably as good as any of the dedicated mix engineers in my area.
And… experience. This should be the most heavily weighed item when deciding your prices. This is your portfolio. This is the stuff you flex. If you get 100k+ streams on every song you work on, you obviously can charge a lot more. If your mixes are on par with the pros, you should probably be charging more. Pretty straightforward.
So now, for the actual calculations.
In my case, this is all relative to the other producers in my area. For example, there’s a hip hop producer at a local studio that charges $500 a track for production and vocal tracking. My productions are higher quality, so I should probably charge more than him. But he’s been in the industry longer and has more tracks with more streams than I do (and is more well-known), so I’ll have to pull down my prices to off-set. At the end of the day, I actually charge pretty much the same price as he does, but vocal tracking is extra.
Similarly, I know my mixes are as good as some of the top engineers in my area (even though I’m known for being a producer, lol), so I structure those prices accordingly. The local studio near me has an engineer that does most of the big mixes in the area, and I’d say my music mixes are pretty close to his, if not a little better in some cases. But he’s a local legend and has been doing it for 20+ years, so he’s got a lot more social standing than I do. But I’m significantly better than most of the engineers in my area, so my prices need to reflect that. His mixes start at $300 a track, so I start at $250.
And overall, as my social standing increases and my reputation develops, these will increase. I reevaluate my prices every 6 months or so.
Now, the big question… when/how can I charge premium prices? I’m sure you already know that people naturally associate high prices with high quality services, so the more you charge the better people will think your services are. That’s why an iPhone costs twice as much as its competitors (which have better hardware and performance). By making it ludicrously expensive, it makes people think that it’s better, even when it’s not. It’s a great strategy.
Should you do it? I’d say go for it. But there’s a big risk that you should be aware of.
Your reputation. If you’re not a good mix engineer but you’re charging ludicrous prices for your mixes, there’s a good chance you’ll develop a reputation as a cheat. Your skills don’t necessarily need to be consistent with how much you charge, but they should be in the ballpark. If you’re a pro sports agent and you convince an NFL team to pay 10+ million for one of your players, but then he shows up on game day with a basketball instead of a football, you can kiss your reputation goodbye. Same kind of deal.
And unfortunately, that’s not something you can usually recover from. You walk a very fine line. The reason it works for Apple is because Apple offers things no other phone does. Seamless integration with its other devices, brilliant UX, and a cult-like community. They ARE luxury, so they can charge whatever they want for it. Think about your services and make sure you’re offering something that justifies that cost your client’s are paying. It doesn’t necessarily need to be worth as much as your charging for it, but it needs to feel like it.
So keep all that in mind as you set your prices. As you get better, remember to reassess your price point every 6 months or so. Inflation is becoming a real thing, too, so remember to factor that in. Just because the other engineers in the area aren’t raising their prices doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Being an audio engineer is skilled work and you need to be paid as such.
Good luck, have fun!