…. if you never ask.
A good friend of mine says that ALL of the time and she’s right! We freelancers can sometimes forget that! Especially when we’re feeling the pressure to win a gig. While talking with a client about a contract today, I was reminded of this. One of the contract clauses stated that all work would be owned by the client for all time. In other words, exclusive rights or ownership. I get requests like this for music all of the time but sound effects are a bit unique. Exclusive ownership can be (and should be!) expensive because it’s the only time a freelancer is able to sell their work, depending on the terms. Clients will pay a premium rate for content they can own, and therefore use, forever. But clients should be smart about this – and freelancers can win points by looking out for client’s budgets and the well being of the project.
Purchasing exclusive rights for something like music or main character artwork, makes perfect sense for many brands and projects. It can (and does!) identify your product. Even unique sound effects (think of the blaster or the light saber from Star Wars) can become instant hooks for fans to recognize IP. But for simple sound effects like a footstep sound or a short button click sound, it doesn’t make sense to purchase exclusive rights at a premium rate. Unless this IS a Star Wars game or something with a similar sized budget and amount of resources. Then you can go out and buy almost all of the content you want at the highest rates. Most of my clients are indie so the pockets and resources are not nearly as deep. So I explain this to the client and offer them a few solutions along with some observations:
1) I CAN sell you all of these sounds at premium rates but I don’t feel it’s the best use of your funds. Not many people can hear a generic wind whoosh or footstep in grass foley and say “That’s from video game X!” But they CAN hear the main theme riff or see even just a fraction of the main character’s face and identify the game! I suggest we save some of the budget for those items that give us bigger returns on brand recognition.
2) We CAN work together and identify key sound effects that you want to identify your brand (again, think of Star War’s lightsaber). Pay a premium rate for just those key sounds and leave the less important sounds (which still help to fill the universe and make your game come alive) at a lower rate and non-exclusive rights. Many clients like this approach.
3) We CAN make all sounds nonexclusive if budget is tight and you simply want to make sure you can have all of the sounds you need/want in your game.
(Side note: notice the word can in all caps, repeatedly? I learned a while back that clients react much better to someone saying what they can do instead of what they cannot.)
I asked the client to look over my options/observations and see if there was any flexibility on this point. A few hours later I got an email that said, basically, “this sounds more than fair. I’ll strike that bit of the contract and we’ll keep it at nonexclusive.”
Now, you might be wondering why I opted for a situation where I charge the client less. Simple – it wasn’t the best solution for the game or the client. Sure my wallet would’ve been a bit thicker but I’d rather build long term relationships with repeat clients than have one higher paying job. BUT all of this was to lead up to this main point of the article: (dramatic pause) you’ll never know if you don’t ask. So the next time you run across a clause or point that makes you feel uncomfortable (either because it’s not good for you or not good for the client/project) REACH OUT! Ask! Talk about it with them. Most of the time, the client will be quite understanding and help resolve it with you. Then you can go about your happy way – making audio for them with a clear conscience.
Go forth and create decibels.
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.