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Episode 18: The Negotiation

Here’s the next episode of Madsen’s Musings which talks about a negotiation technique I recently used that worked out quite nicely. In this situation, I was able to get a client to increase their price point significantly by describing how I can add in more solutions and options and save them time and effort. Check out the video and hit me up with any questions or ideas you may have. Also please consider liking, subscribing and commenting on my vlogs. I hope you enjoy the episode:

WANNA GET IN TOUCH?

I’m always looking for more freelance work outside of my SGI stuff. If you think I may be a fit for your next project, let’s chat! I can do all kinds of things: music composition and production, recording remotely (saxophone and piano), mixing and mastering, implementation and testing as well as pre and post production work. I hope you enjoy this theme from Neptune’s Dynasty and please get in touch using the link above.

WHO AM I?

Nate Madsen is a 13 year industry vet who’s worked in games, films, taught college courses and has performed and recorded in various settings on both piano and saxophone. He’s been with SGI for over two years and has been running Madsen Studios LLC since 2005. On the weekends he likes to be very still and watch the grass grow. And he’s considering taking up the bagpipes and really enjoys craft beer. He’s also never met BBQ that he didn’t consider a close friend. He’s currently living in Austin, TX and his is favorite color is green.

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Impressed?

So often freelancers worry about trying to get clients. Trying to impress them with demo reels, quick responses, shiny websites and their overall professional approach. There’s nothing wrong with that but many forget that clients also need to impress their freelancers. Or they risk losing them. This blog is both a reminder to freelancers as well as a helpful note to clients. Much of the attention seems focused on the relationship from freelancer TO the client but, aside from a few humourous websites, little attention is given to how clients should be treating their freelancers. Here’s a quick-n-dirty list of some of the biggest offenses I’ve either heard about or experienced directly when dealing with these kinds of clients:

1) Little to no information

Most freelancers work remotely so face-to-face interaction is very limited, if not completely absent. This makes having precise and up-to-date info that much more important. Vital even. Most of my clients have been amazing at providing clear and consistent communication which really helps me do my job well. I’ve had a few, however, that go dark for weeks (if not months) at a time. Radio silence, when a freelancer is already remote, is a very scary thing! Suddenly doubts begin to arise: “Did they replace me with someone else?” “Did they lose funding?” “Is this project even on still?” Part of a client’s job is to keep everyone on the crew, including freelancers, in the loop. In the know. Not doing so is, to put it bluntly, sloppy and ineffective leadership.

2) Not keeping promises

A not-so-secret-dirty-secret about production is that it almost never goes according to plan or schedule. Even the best teams experience a tiny bit of variance from plan to reality during production. Most freelancers are aware of this and completely understanding. But when things start to get too far off the plan, red flags begin to be raised. I once had a project where the client originally wanted all of the music and sound done within one week. I calmly talked him off the ledge and we set up a more realistic and reasonable work schedule. He expected that game to be done within a month’s time or so. Six months later, the game is still not done. So clients, please do your best to make realistic and reasonable production schedules then keep everyone updated on any changes. Most of the time, we’ll completely understand! And if you’re not sure how long something would take, ask an expert on the team! For example, I also offer pre-production services where I can help plan out an appropriate schedule that gives plenty of buffer for changes as well as enough time for review and revisions. But once a certain amount of promises are seen as unkept (i.e. “We’ll have a new build by next week!” “The game will launch on X date!” and so on), faith in that team’s leadership and ability to perform takes a big hit.

3) Promising future work to make up for poor performances today

I’ll gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today. This one doesn’t really need an explanation, does it? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard this line in my career. Each time I find myself thinking (often with one eyebrow raised) “Okay, so you want me to repeat this process with you, when the first time was so bad?!” Given, I know that each time a project is completed, a team gets better at the job. At least that’s the hope! But sometimes I’ve witness crews making the same mistakes over and over again. Sorry, I’m just not that interested in repeating a bad cycle. I’m interested in making great games with talented crews and always growing as an artist. So, clients, if you find yourself about to make that promise – stop yourself! Instead talk about what you’ve learned and how you’re going to make the next project better.

4) Offering exposure or credit as compensation

This also shouldn’t need much explanation, I hope! Making audio is how I pay the bills, feed my family and support my coke habit. Wait… ignore that last part. 😛 Exposure is only as good as the amount of eyes and ears that will be on the project. Something like Star Wars offers a lot of exposure and that’s worthwhile. A game that might be played by 30 people doesn’t offer that same amount of exposure. Also giving credit, in my opinion, should be standard! Withholding that, as I’ve seen some clients do, doesn’t make much sense and is hardly professional. I totally get that self funding a game is an expensive thing to do – I’m doing it myself right now! But offer some kind of tangible compensation. Offer an exchange of services. Make it a fair transaction instead of offering things that, really, don’t help support your crew.

5) Stick to the contract

Remember KISS? Keep It Simple, Stupid? It definitely applies here. Sure, a little bit of flexibility is fine, even warranted. But should the situation change too much, I’ve found it’s much easier, less stressful and more professional to simply finish out the current contract (with whatever milestones were completed) and then draft a new one so everything is always crystal clear to all parties involved.

6) Keep it professional

Game development can be (and is!) really hard. It can also be stressful. Sometimes egos clash or tempers flare. To an extent, this is just the hazards of working in such a creative and competetive field. But should things be taken to a personal level, which makes you uncomfortable, walk away. It’s not worth taking abuse from someone. I once had a client that I had worked with for five years. He would tell stories about how everyone he worked with was an idiot or a jerk. It took years but eventually he turned that abuse on to me. He was yelling, calling me names and taking it to a level that – honestly – I’ve never had another client take it to. So I walked away. I calmly told him that my time and craft were worth more than that. That I, as a person, was worth more than that. Don’t take abuse – it’s not worth it.

Summary:

I’ve been lucky enough to work in this field for ten years now (crazy how time flies!) and on over 150 projects. About 96% of my clients have been amazing, fun, super-duper talented and a pure joy to work with! I choose not to work with those VERY few who haven’t impressed me. So to you freelancers out there – keep fighting the good fight. Know that your time and craft are worth something – often more than you think! Be picky about who you work with! We’re freelancers, not servants. Clients, keep thinking about ways to make hiring and managing a freelancer more streamlined and effective. Look for ways to include that freelancer in the production so they don’t feel so in the dark. The better the communication, the better everything else tends to go. (Most of the time, anyway)

Bio:
Nate is an established composer/sound designer, based in Austin, TX. Aside from making various kinds of noises and music, he also teaches private lessons (saxophone and piano) and performs with live bands.

Once you land the gig…

 
Many of my articles have focused on how best to network, promote yourself, negotiate and interact with potential clients. In this article I’m going to share a few pointers to help after you’ve landed the job. As with anything, nothing is a fix-all solution so always take these suggestions with a grain of salt. Carefully evaluate each situation, each client and if one of these tips seems to be a good fit then by all means use it! So let’s get right to it:
 
 

Don’t begin work until you have something to work to.

 
Sounds like simple common sense, doesn’t it? But in my experience it’s been rather surprising how often less(er) experienced clients expect me to begin work right away without any art or visual references. Usually more experienced teams already understand that audio is one of the last elements to be placed into a video game. Less experienced teams, however, tend to get excited and also not be aware of the common and more effective pipeline. Even for more simplistic sounds (like a generic button click) if a game isn’t there yet, so much can change during the production cycle that any sounds created early on could end up not fitting or matching the game’s vibe and feel. So if a team doesn’t have anything ready for you to work to – they’re not ready for audio yet.
 

Balance your workload – especially when extra tasks pop up.

 
Several times I’ve had clients expect me to capture video of the game when it was never part of the assigned tasks set up in the contract. These clients didn’t offer any kind of payment for my time or use of my equipment. Instead of getting upset or simply saying “no” I told them I would be happy to assist but we’d need to first figure out an appropriate cost for this extra service and the time it would take. Every time I’ve used this approach the team, which previously was too busy to capture video or didn’t have the needed tools, suddenly had the time and resources to provide those videos. So remember – unless a task is specified in the contract, it is extra work and as such you could require additional payment.

In some situations you can choose to take on some extra tasks to help the team out – which can really help your reputation with the team! This is usually when your work load is very light and you don’t have other projects also demanding your time. But be careful. Always explain if you’re making a concession. Something as simple as “well I usually charge for X but I had some extra time and wanted to help the team out.” The key here is balance. Don’t allow a team to repeatedly throw extra tasks at you which were not set up in the contract without added pay for your time and efforts but don’t nickel and dime your clients to death either. It’s a fine line but remember: it’s YOUR choice.
 

“Just play the game and create sounds from watching the game.”

 
While more rare, I’ve had a few clients give me a build of their game and expect me to just play it and then make sounds or music to that game build. When I asked for animations to “score” directly to they tell me to just play the game. I’ve even had a few clients push back after I explained my workflow process (placing animations directly in my DAW and creating sounds directly to that file). What usually convinces the client is this simple question: Do you want the sounds of the game to be estimates and guesses are do you want your sounds to be precisely synced to all animations?
 

Not all feedback is useful feedback.

 
I once had a client give me one-word feedback for about 20-25 sounds I had delivered: “Rework.” I explained that with that kind of vague feedback, I didn’t have enough information to know what direction or changes needed to happen. I didn’t know what the team didn’t like, I didn’t know what the team did like. It didn’t even specify what sounds needed to be reworked. After asking for more detailed feedback I found out there was only one sound they wanted reworked and the changes requested were minimal. The initial feedback was so vague, it gave me nothing to work with. Don’t accept vague feedback like this or you’ll end up running in circles and wasting a good deal of time. Asking for specific feedback isn’t challenging or rude when done in the right way. It shows how invested you are in making sure the sounds are the perfect fit for the game.
 

Iteration for the sake of iteration is crap.

 
I once worked on a team where the culture was to iterate just to see what would happen – without any clear goal or direction. In my frank and honest opinion it was a crappy attempt to cover up a clear lack of vision on the project. So teams just started iterating and making content, remaking content, scrapping content, going back to previous content, creating new content all in the name of iteration. And it was crap.

I’m ALL for iterating and adding polish to make something better. To achieve that end goal. To push the limits. But if a team wants you to iterate just to see “what happens” or “what comes out” then inform them that it raises audio costs and slows down the production time table as you’re stuck iterating on level 4 over and over again. Side note: this is why I have a revision limit on my rates. If a client feels they can have unlimited revisions at no extra cost then, by God, they’re going to use them! So make sure your rates allot for those situations where you’re drafting 15 versions of a game theme and explain those costs and limitations upfront to the client.
 

Play the game when mixing/implementing audio but push for alternate testing methods as well.

 
Once I was trying to test a sound I had created in a client’s build of their video game. The certain sound was on a stage that was so buggy and the game event so rare that it literally took me an hour to just hear the sound. Once! Then I made the needed changes and still had to fight the game to make that sound event happen again. It ended up taking much more time than it should have and made me quite frustrated. For those harder, more rare game events push for an alternate testing method. Perhaps a virtual soundboard of some sort or slash commands (if it is similar to a MMO-type game). Anything that can help you speed up mixing/implementation time. Some clients will push back on this but if you charge for your mixing/implementation time (which you should) then this can help speed up these tasks and lower the cost to that client. This is usually enough rationale to help convince the client that it is worth their energy and time.
 

Setting the right expectations.

 
As with many things in business, this is all about setting the right expectations and then fulfilling them. Even exceeding them. Explain to your clients what you need and why. Show them how by providing these items it will help you do a better job for them, make their product’s audio that much better and help you keep audio costs down and on schedule. So the final tip is really all about communication. I strive to have fluid, frequent communication with all of my clients and I have yet to hear a single complaint about it. The better you communicate, the better everyone understands their tasks, their roles and the needs of the project.

Get out there and make some noise!

The Big Picture

 

This blog covers some very important concepts that are useful to young(er) freelancers. The inspiration for this entry comes from several discussions I’ve had with other freelancers as well as some interactions I’ve had with some clients in the past. When discussing money it’s helpful to remember one core idea:

A client wants to get the best content for the cheapest price while a freelancer wants to work on quality projects and be able to make a decent living.

Most of the time clients are very fair and even if some have misconceptions of what a standard rate in the gaming industry would be, they’re willing to pay more for higher quality. When the topic of money comes up, I always find it helpful to present my rates then compare and contrast them with what the standard rate is at that time for that kind of work. This helps give scope and scale to those numbers. After all if a client is expecting to pay $500 for exclusive rights to a 2 hour orchestral score and then gets quoted 10 or 20 times that amount, sticker shock isn’t uncommon. So treat this as an opportunity to educate your potential client.

Give you client options.

Instead of just stating one flat rate, supply several options for the client to choose from. Does Starbucks offer just one cup size? Of course not! They offer several options and this appeals to different types of customers. Me? I’m a venti guy almost all of the time. I want the largest beverage I can get. My wife likes the tall (or small for you non-Starbucks type) serving size. Different prices, different amounts, different tastes. So when constructing the rates consider what options might appeal to a wide(r) range of clients.

Offer perks.

If possible, offer some perks to help entice your clients. Sometimes this can mean extra work sometimes it can be small things but if you surprise your clients they’ll often remember that and come back. Often times a little bit of extra work on the front end can outweigh the reward on the back end if you really surprise and exceed expectations.

Be flexible.

Let’s say client X really wants to hire you as the composer of their next indie game but their budget falls short of your normal rates. This is a promising project that you feel could be a nice addition to your resume and credentials. Why not offer up some compromises that are not listed in your normal rates sheet? Just for example, you accept a lowered rate upon completion of work and in return for that discount get a percentage of all game sales. Look for ways to make it a fair trade off for you work/talents and energy but still giving the client what they need. Just because you have established rates doesn’t mean they’re set in stone or you cannot think creatively outside of the box. What counts is that you feel the exchange is fair to your work and time. Working for free (aka for credit only) is hardly EVER fair. If you’re even considering working for free – don’t. Instead make it an exchange of services. “I write music for your game and you design my new logo.” “I provide sound design for this project and you redesign my website.” Place value on your time and craft so the client will place value (at least to some degree) on it as well. Place zero value on your work/talents/time and your clients will place lesser value to it – if they place any value to it at all.

Don’t forget the big picture.

You know this point is important because it’s what I named this article! In many ways all of the previous points fall under this simple principle. Always keep the big picture in mind! Remember that your client has goals for your work – sometimes using the content in a series of projects. Other times releasing a soundtrack in additional to the game or project. Part of your job is to make sure you’re getting a fair rate. Which is better: getting paid $500 for non-exclusive rights to do a 30 second music track or getting paid $5,000 to do a three hour soundtrack at exclusive rights with no royalties or profit shares? The first option basically means you’re working for $1,000 per minute at non-exclusive rights. The second option means you’re working at a much lower “per minute” rate – roughly 28 bucks a minute. So when looking at only the rate vs. amount of content (and the type of rights required) the first offer seems better. But what if this is George Lucas and the film is Star Wars 18: Luke Stubs His Toe Part 4? Things change yet again. Hence the title of this blog – keep the big picture in mind at all times while negotiating and reviewing potential projects. And yes, sometimes this can be hard to do.

Let me provide a real life example – I was recently asked to produce sound effects for a royalty-free sound effects collection. They offered to pay me $1,400 for about 500 SFX. At first glance this looks somewhat enticing. But I dug deeper and learned that this team wanted exclusive rights to all content meaning I’d never be able to use these sounds again. Furthermore they said no royalties, bonuses or additional payments would be made after paying $1,400. This means they could sell my work over and over again – each time profiting from it while all I would earn was $1,400. Suddenly it doesn’t sound like that great of a deal. And keep in mind that since it was a royalty-free library that was going to be distributed, my source files would have to be 100% original. That means even more time recording, doing foley and then editing everything. All for $1,400. They weren’t going to put my name on it. In the end I thanked them for their interest but explained I couldn’t work for that low of a rate.

Easy, right?

So when a client approaches you about job X make sure you look at all the parameters of that job. Ask tons of questions. Make sure everything is setup and that you agree to it. Don’t make a rush decision just because the headline looks good – take your time. Keep the big picture in mind. What are the client’s goals? What are your goals? Be realistic about how much time and effort will go into the job. Be flexible with your rates but don’t undersell yourself – otherwise you could be working for just peanuts. Using some of these approaches can help you make smarter decisions and propel your business forward. Good luck and happy hunting.