How to Set Rates for Your Studio Business
Setting your rates can be one of the toughest decisions you make when starting a studio business. How much should you charge? Should you bill hourly or per project? Should you require a deposit upfront? In this series, we'll answer all of these questions and more.
The first step to setting your rates is researching other local studios in your area. It will be hard to draw in clients if they can get the same thing down the road for cheaper. Start by looking at other studios similar to yours. If you're still working out of a home studio, look for other home studios in the area that offer similar services and see what they're charging.
Find out how much the cheapest "pro" studio in town is charging. Make sure you charge slightly less than them and offer some other incentive for clients, like fast turnaround, flexible scheduling, or no limit on edits.
It's important to note that you should NOT be competing for clients with local studios when you're first starting out. You probably won't have space or equipment to work with top-tier artists just yet.
Instead, look for clients that are just starting out, too. It can be especially difficult to start out recording bands, as it requires more space, more equipment, and more recording experience. Instead, start by recording solo musicians. Look for college students who are singer/songwriters or rappers.
HOURLY VS DAY RATE
There are two basic approaches to billing clients, each with its own pros and cons:
- Charge an hourly rate (or day rate)
- Charge a flat rate per project
Generally speaking, it's best to charge an hourly rate early in your career, and a flat rate after you've established yourself. However, it can be difficult to persuade artists to pay you an hourly rate before you’ve mastered your craft.
In the beginning, you'll mostly be working with artists who are also starting out. Budgets are generally small, and no one wants to get burned by overpaying for anything. That's why it's easier to land a client with a flat project rate at the beginning of your career.
With a flat project rate, the artist knows exactly how much it will cost them to get what they want. The only thing that's variable is how long it will take you to accomplish it. That's why it's crucial that you put time limits on the project. Only agree to spend a certain amount of time on a project before the artist has to provide additional payment.
For instance, maybe you agree to record three songs for $200 each, assuming that each song will take one full day to record. If it takes longer than three days to record, the artist will have to pay an additional hourly or day rate that you agree on beforehand. This protects you from spending too much time on a project and driving down your average hourly rate.
This approach is a great way to insulate yourself from problems, like if a band is not prepared to record and takes way too long in the studio. However, you need to be on your game. If you run into a technical problem that holds up production, the artist is the one who has to eat the time. That's why it's important to make sure you’re confident with your process before stepping into the studio with an artist.
Working on a per-project basis also motivates you to get the job done as quickly as possible, as the less time you spend on a project, the more money you make per hour. When setting a project rate, it's important to consider any task that will take up your time—not just studio time. This includes revisions, communication with the client, and prep work in the studio.
WORKING FOR FREE
At some point in your career, you will inevitably be asked to work for free (or at the very least, provide someone with a massive discount). Should you do it? As with most things in the audio industry—it depends.
Generally speaking, it's not a good idea to work for free. It sets a bad precedent and suggests that you don't value your own work. However, sometimes it can be lucrative to work for free. In most situations, you'll be asked to work for free in exchange for something else—typically exposure. Obviously, exposure can't pay your rent, so you can't work for exposure all of the time. But every once in a while, you may come across an opportunity that makes sense for you.
For instance, did you know that artists don't get paid to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show? With millions of viewers all across the country, it's arguably the biggest performance of the year. Even though performers don't get a paycheck, they always see a massive spike in sales following the event. Plus, the NFL covers all of the production costs. Not bad for a 15-minute performance, huh?
If you're going to work for free, make sure it's worth it. Otherwise, you're just devaluing your craft, as well as your local market. There will always be someone willing to do it cheaper than you. That's why it's crucial to continue improving your skills.
Are you familiar with the fast, great, cheap paradox? When hiring someone to work on your project, you can only pick two:
Want to charge more than your competition? You need to deliver a better product, faster.
If you don't have the skills to beat your competition just yet, make sure you deliver a cheaper product, faster.
And if someone asks you to work for free (or cheap), just make sure they know that you'll get to it when you have the time.
SHOULD YOU POST YOUR RATES ONLINE?
It depends. If you have lower prices than anyone on the block, it can be a drawing point. But, if your rates are higher than most, it may deter people from contacting you. Plus, when you charge the same rate for every project, the clients who are the easiest to work with end up paying higher prices for your time, while the difficult clients take up all of your time.
A low-friction quote system can help you identify the specific needs of each artist and negotiate a rate that works for both of you. Instead of publicly posting your rates online, create a simple form that people can fill out, which gives you some basic info about their project and means of contacting them. If you post your rates online, someone may visit the website and never come back, leaving you with no way to communicate with them. But if clients have to reach out for a quote, it puts the ball in your court.
Finding your first few clients can be tough. Word of mouth is the single biggest driving force for new business in this industry. Most of your clients will be repeat business, or friends of friends. That's why it's essential to deliver a great product.
You can get your existing clients to spread the word about your studio by offering a referral discount. Anyone who refers a new client to your studio a small discount on their next session. This also incentivizes your existing clients to book new sessions to take advantage of the discounts.
The physical location of your studio has a lot to do with your clientele as well. For instance, studios in Nashville are far more likely to specialize in singer/songwriter recordings, while studios in Hollywood are more likely to offer ADR and post-production.
However, keep in mind that your reputation can make you more valuable to some communities than others. For instance, if your ultimate goal is to record grunge bands in Seattle, you may have a hard time if all of your credits are for rappers in Atlanta.
HOW TO RAISE YOUR RATES
After working on a few projects and earning some credits, you'll need to raise your rates to reflect your improved skill set and help attract new clients. Raising your rates can be a scary thing. You may be afraid that some clients won't be willing to pay more, and that you'll lose work.
Honestly, that will almost certainly happen at some point in your career. But don't worry—it's actually a good thing. If a client isn't willing to pay your new rate, they were probably a difficult client to begin with. You need to let go of clients who always ask you to go above and beyond to make room for those who respect your skills.
It's common for service providers to raise their rates by 10% or so every six months. It may feel productive to keep busy, but it can actually be a sign that you're undercharging your clients. If you feel like you have to say yes to every project that comes through the door—no matter how big of a headache it is—it's time to raise your rates.
BUT HOW MUCH SHOULD I CHARGE?
We haven't actually thrown out any hard numbers in this blog, and that's intentional. Every studio offers a unique combination of equipment, expertise, and convenience. And the value of those elements varies from person to person. It's almost impossible to put a price on that.
Pro studio rates can range from as little as $30/hr to $500/hr or more. Not to mention those who are just starting out. Hop on Craigslist and do a quick search in your area and you'll almost certainly find someone offering recording and mixing services for as little as $5 or $10 an hour.
Running a studio is a business, which is a skill set in and of itself. Setting your rates is just one of the many challenges you'll encounter along the way. When setting your rates, be sure to consider your equipment, your skillset, your location, and what other studios in your area are charging, and you should have no problems drawing in the right clients.