There are a lot of creative projects that need music – and if you are working on one of those projects, you have a lot of options to consider.
- You can find free music online.
- You can purchase music from stock music sites.
- You can find an amateur composer who wants to build their portfolio, and will do work for free (or cheap).
- You can license pre-made music from a composer.
- And, you can hire a professional composer to create something for your project.
The goal of this guide is to give everyone who needs music for a creative project an idea of the options available, and to explain how, when, and why you should (or shouldn’t) hire a music composer.
Because the fact is, you don’t always need one. And when you do, there are a lot of things you need to consider. So, let’s start by answering a quick question: If you can get cheap, stock, or custom music at a discount, then…
Why should you even hire a professional composer?
Well, there are a couple of really great things a professional composer brings to the table.
- Skill and Experience. A professional composer can bring their skill and experience to bear on your project. Amateur composers are generally just starting out, and while they may be technically skilled, they won’t have much experience working with clients. They also won’t have as much practice in creating music tailored to a creative project. Even if they can create excellent music, that doesn’t mean they can create the music you need.
- Customization and Uniqueness. When skill and experience meet creativity, the ability to create powerful and unique pieces of music comes into play. Yes, at this point in time, you can take almost any piece of music and find others similar to it – but that doesn’t diminish the ability of an experienced composer to create songs that are customized to your project – songs that give it life and make it fresh. And I can’t emphasize enough the impact a fresh song can have on a project.
Obviously, the benefits of hiring someone who can build quality, custom music are significant. So with the aforementioned points in consideration, let’s answer another very relevant question:
“Why wouldn’t you hire a professional composer?”
After all, if the benefits of hiring one are so great, why wouldn’t you?
While the benefits are great, I’ll tell you (as a composer): You don’t need to always hire one, and personally, I think that sometimes it’s even better if you don’t. And here’s why:
- Cost. This is a great reason to not hire a professional composer. Hiring a composer can often take a chunk out of your budget – and if you don’t have much of a budget, this is probably not the option you’re looking for.
- Need. Not every project needs custom music. Would it be nice? Sure! But if stock music will do just fine, why pay hundreds of dollars when you could pay $50 at PremiumBeat?
- Time. If you need music in a very short time frame, hiring a composer will be much more difficult. To put out quality work, composers need time to be creative. If you need music on the fly, you’re better off picking something already made.
If based on the above points hiring a composer seems like the wrong option for you, then consider these options:
- If you don’t need a distinct sound, check out stock music. Websites like Pond5, Audiojungle, and PremiumBeat have excellent selections of stock music.
- Look for composers willing to collaborate. I have found Twitter to be great for finding collaborations and building professional connections. Reddit can actually be a great place to find collaborators (do a search and look for subreddits relevant to your project). And if you know someone who makes music, you can always see if they can help you out.
- License music from a composer. Oftentimes, composers will have music that is available for public listening that hasn’t been produced for commercial use (like a large chunk of my portfolio). If you have the time to wait on responses and negotiate the details, you can always send a message to the composer of a song you like and ask if you can use it for your project. You may have to pay for it, but prices are negotiable.
- Sort through and download free music. There are plenty of places to find free music (legally) that you can use for your project. The Balance has an excellent list of websites that you can find free music on.
Now, if you’ve read all of this and you still want to hire a composer, the rest of this article is dedicated to that process, which I’ve broken down into four main steps.
- Determine your needs.
This is foundational. If you don’t know what you want, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. When determining your music needs, start by asking some basic questions.
- What do you want the music to convey? Ex. Excitement, suspense, oppression, energy, etc.
- What is your project’s theme and feel? And what genre fits this best? Ex. Electronic, orchestral, rap, pop, chillstep, etc.
- Who is your target audience? What music resonates with them? If I’m marketing to Baby Boomers, you won’t find a top 40 rap song song in my ad.
- How much music do you need? Are you looking for a 15 second intro, or 30 minutes of moving background music?
- What are your deadlines? How soon do you need your first samples? How soon do you need the final products?
In addition to determining your needs, you need to determine your budget – and your budget will have the greatest impact on what you get out of hiring a composer. Consider these points when setting your music budget.
- While the cost of hiring a music composer varies, a good composer who charges $200-$250 per minute (yes, per minute) of music is charging a fair price – and if a composer has a lot of great experience, you can end up paying more. And you don’t just have to take my word for it.
- Although the amount of music needed does have a huge effect on the cost, size isn’t everything. If you need a short musical intro that helps communicate your brand or business, the price of that can go much higher than the per-minute price.
- Depending on the type of project, you may need to negotiate for payments based on the number of plays the song gets, or based on the revenue of the project.
- Deadlines and revisions will cost you. If you need music quickly, the composer will have to work overtime, which will increase costs. In addition, you don’t get endless revisions. After your initial samples from the composer, you will probably only get one or two revisions, and then from there you’ll will have to pay extra for each. And if a really good contract is written up, the composer will charge you extra for requesting new features in the middle of the contract period.
So once you’ve determined your needs, start setting your budget. One article I read mentions that many movie studios plan to use 10-15% of their budget on music – and that’s probably a good starting point. I’m going to be a bit vague here, because the amount you set is up to you. But truth be told…
The only “right” amount is the amount that brings about your desired outcome while not compromising value in the other areas you’re budgeting for.
As an example, let’s say you are running a 30 second ad that will cost you $5,000, but it will really showcase your brand and (if done well) net you thousands of dollars more in initial profit, and even more from repeat customers. How much is good music worth to you? A few hundred, even a thousand dollars, doesn’t seem a bad price to pay for the returns you’ll get.
In this scenario (or any other), a better question might be, how much is poor quality music worth to you?
The correct answer is nothing, because poor quality music won’t draw attention, won’t showcase your brand well, and may even contribute to negative feelings toward your brand or product.
It’s easy to relegate music to the backburner, but after years of watching and analyzing ads, movies, television shows, YouTube videos, etc., I can say without a doubt that music can have one of the strongest effects on the success or failure of a creative project.
“But why should music cost so much!?” you might ask. “Don’t composers enjoy what they do? Don’t they just breathe and crank out sounds that people like?”
Actually, I don’t ever hear people say that.
But when I look on a freelancing website and see someone wanting 600 minutes of custom music for $1,000 (yes, I have seen something very near to this), it’s clear that there is a value issue.
And this type of request is quite common.
So, I would be remiss if I told you the cost of hiring a composer without telling you where that money is going.
Let’s take a quick look at what you’re really paying for when you hire a composer. It’s not just the music.
- Hardware and instrument costs. This can be anything from PCs and Macs to keyboards and microphones. Everything you hear in the final form of a composition used some sort of hardware to record or perform it, and if the composer is doing it all personally, he or she is shouldering all of that cost.
- Software costs. Production software is needed for recording, mixing, and mastering – and most great software isn’t free. In addition to the base production software, plugins are a common cost of doing music production work. If the composer is using virtual instruments and is producing at a high level of quality, chances are, they have purchased those virtual instruments and any plugins needed to make them shine.
- Production costs. Mixing and mastering take extra time, hardware, software, and skill. Sometimes, a composer can do these things himself, but in many circumstances it’s better to send these tasks off to specialists. Either way, factors into cost.
- Performance costs. If you don’t want virtual instruments used in your music, performers will need to be hired. If the composer doesn’t have a studio of his own, a studio will need to be rented.
- Creativity and exclusivity. Exclusivity deserves expense. If you are the only person who will get to use and profit from a set of music, then that music has greater value. In addition, if a composer isn’t creating stock music for you, then you are getting something unique, made even more valuable for its expression, rarity, and project-specific tailoring.
- Experience. If you are hiring a professional, that composer has spent time getting good at what he does, and that raises his value.
- Time. On top of all of the aforementioned costs and values, time must be added to the stack. It doesn’t take a few minutes to come up with the song that works wonders for your project. It takes hours and weeks, often of intensive trial and error, to develop something great.
After all of the expenses, a composer must then make a profit in order to live, just like everyone else. And to live well would be a great achievement indeed.
Here’s a brief, “unprofessional” aside.
As a composer, and as a person, I hope that everyone reading this considers the weight of those last statements when hiring a composer, or anyone. I’m finishing up a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management. I know that the bottom line matters. I know we have to cut costs in business to stay competitive.
But at the end of the day, we all have to decide whether or not we are going to do our best to take care of everyone we can, or just ourselves – which is where the opportunity cost of hiring anyone for any position meets the trade-off in our consciences and souls.
“Unprofessional” aside over. Let’s take a deep breath and move on to step three (the hard part):
Finding the right composer can be difficult. You want experience and you want quality, and you want it within your budget. Fortunately, there are several great ways to start finding composers.
- Ask around. If you have friends who are running creative projects, ask them if they’ve heard of anyone, or if they have a friend who has hired a composer before.
- Look on social media. I really can’t tell you how useful social media is for finding potential partners (especially Twitter, in my experience). Do a search for “music composer” and you’ll find some initial options. If you are invested in following projects similar to yours, finding their social media accounts. Send them a message asking who composed the music for their projects.
- Use a search engine. If you do a Google search for “hire a music composer”, or something along those lines, you’ll find some freelancing websites. And if you keep scrolling you’ll find some personal composer websites. Check some of those out too.
- Set up a job on a freelancing site. This is basically crowdsourcing for labor, and it can be a great way to get a lot of different options. If you clearly define your expectations in your job posts, you can get some quality applicants.
When you get a list of potential candidates together, you need to vet them against your needs and standards.
- Check their portfolios. Do they produce quality music? Do they produce the styles you need?
- Check their experience. Have they worked on other projects in the past? Did those projects turn out well? Do they work on projects like yours normally, or would this be a new experience for them?
- Check their fees. If they have them publicly posted, then you can get your answer quickly. If not, you’ll need to send them a message with your needs, budget, and timeline to see if they can make that work.
A quick note on the previous bullet point.
If you are worried about being taken advantage of by sending your budget to a potential composing partner, consider this: If you have properly vetted the composers you are interested in, and if you have set aside a proper budget amount for music, then even if they agree to the full amount you’ve budgeted, you are getting what you want for what you were willing to pay. And that’s what you both need.
Now, when it comes to communicating with a composer (both before and after you’ve hired one), you’ll want to follow some guidelines.
In my experience, communication determines the success of an arrangement. Good communication can make a job wonderful; bad communication can make it a nightmare.
So, let’s look at this final section:
There are a lot of articles dedicated to this, and a quick Google search will bring them up, but I’ll overview some basic communication guidelines below. Take some time to research this topic in depth if you haven’t already – it really does make the difference in working relationships.
- Be as thorough and clear as possible. The “project needs” you outlined early in the process are your chosen composer’s best friend. When you have narrowed down your hiring list and start talking over requirements with a potential composer, give them everything they need to succeed, and be patient. Communication is a hard process, and it’s harder for some of us than for others.
- Be reasonable with your progress report expectations. Some clients want to get a progress report every day (or hour) – and with some industries, that really is needed. Because composing is a highly creative task, however, moment by moment progress reports shouldn’t be expected. If you have done your work and hired a good composer, trust them with the deadlines, and let them do their work.
- Request adjustments with consideration. When you get a first sample from a composer, there is a chance that you won’t care for what you hear – and that happens. We don’t always get it right the first time. And as long as you have agreed to revisions in your contract, asking for revisions shouldn’t be an issue. But when you request a revision, be sure to be clear about what you want changed. And if you don’t know how best to articulate the problem, take some time to talk it out with the composer – especially if you aren’t well versed in music language. You only get so many revisions before your price goes up, and no composer wants an unhappy client – so take the time to consider the revisions you request and make them count.
And that’s it!
If you’re looking to hire a composer, I hope that this helps you along in your process. And if you have any questions that I didn’t address here, you are welcome to send me a message about them.
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