Your Time, Your Money, or Both

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The one of the questions I’ve been asked for decades is, “How much should I charge for my time? … What should I say my rate is?”

Sounds like a simple question and my answer is usually just as simple, “What do you value your time at and how important is this gig to your career?”

Instead of an answer I usually just get a confused look. You know that look a dog gives you when they are trying to figure out what you’re saying? Or when they hear something that seems confusing to them. Their head tilts from side to side and their eyes stay lock into yours.

That’s the look I get when I say, “What is your time worth?”

Most people who have been working in the entertainment field for years have landed on a rate they can live with and one that doesn’t price them out of the market. Also, at the higher level of the industry there is a standard range of rates used for budgeting gigs. When you reach that level, those rates are always worth your time.

But honestly, there are as many varying rates being offered as there are gigs. There will also always be somebody desperate for work and willing to undercut the going rate.

This is where unions are a big help. If a client wants to produce their show or production in a “union” venue, then they will be forced to conform to union rates and rules. The clients can’t just hire some rando “gun for hire” at whatever rate that person will accept. (More on unions later or maybe not, let’s see how far I wanted to push the union convo hahaha)

The issue with sliding rates usually exists on independent gigs. Gigs like an event promotor trying to break into the live music world or produce a video gaming show. A TV producer who decides to leave his staff network job and become an independent production house then realizes it’s his money on the line. Or an Indi film maker trying to get a foot in the door via non-revenue generating film festivals. 

The list of why they will try and cut your rate goes on and on.

Social media has created an entirely new realm of production needs. Every company or entrepreneur starting out needs content for their social media outlets. Everyone “needs” content but has no has any idea what producing content costs. Most of the time they have extremely under budged their social media content production.

People trying to get content on the cheap is not a new. It has existed as long as people have been selling entertainment and needed creative people to develop that entertainment. I’m sure there was a promoter back in the in the realm of kings and castles who were cheating the court jesters out of their rate. (Imagen what those negotiations were like? Yikes!!)

Let’s say my production company and a young inexperienced producer were both offered the same gig.

My company has a contact list of dozens of “first call” skilled operators and craftspeople (see that I said craftspeople not craftsmen. I’m learning). My crew can lean into years of working together. We can call on the experience of dozens of similar gigs to quickly get us up to speed and execute near flawlessly. And if we do run into issues, we have the experience and talent to adjust and rethink immediately.

Now the younger producer has limited experience with all those items.

The Dance begins

I give the client an estimate of three weeks from concept to deliverable.

They estimate two months.

My projected budget for three weeks is $40K

Their projected budget for two months is $10K

The client, who has never really spent much time buying or selling production, offers the gig to the newbie for $10k but tells them they have to deliver in four weeks.

The client also counter offers to me $20K for the same four weeks.

Now everyone has to consider the counter offers:

My company: If we accept 50% less means I have to either offer my first call crew a lower rate or hire people with less experience who would be willing to accept a lower rate. Doing the later, less experienced crew, means more potential headaches and more issues to deal with.

The younger producer: With less experience may not be anticipating the scope of the project or the potential for things to go off the rails. (which happens 90% of the time). Not having years of collecting a qualified crew network and trying to save money on crew rate, they will be picking up young inexperience crew. This usually ends up frustrating the crew, missing deadlines, running over budget, delivering a poor-quality product or all of these.

These leave the client to decide how much risk are they willing to take.

  1. If they spend more money on a seasoned production company it lowers the risk of an inferior product but they will make less profit.
  2. If the opt for younger producer and spend less money, they run the risk of ending up with an unsellable product.

Recognize I’m using the word “risk”, because in either option there isn’t a guarantee that things will fall exactly perfect. It’s just in managing the degree of risk verse profit.  

The Individual’s Wager / Considerations

  • All freelance contractors have to wager how important is this gig to getting future work from this client verse the rate.
  • How challenging is the gig and will overcoming those challenges enhance their individual rep?
  • Will taking this gig for less cost even more if we have to turn down another gig at the same time for more money?
  • Will working for less set a precedent?
  • What are the intangible benefits for taking less pay on a particular gig. i.e. Making new and valuable connects, learning something new that will enhance your marketability.  

You still waiting for the answer to your original questions, “how much should I charge for my time? … What should I say my rate is?”?

Sorry in our world there is no simple answer. You need to find a rate that you can live with and start there. I have learned to manage my annual income in terms of adjustable rates and projected annual income.

It goes like this: I need to make “X” amount a year. I keep my eye on my running income balance throughout the year, which allows me take gigs accordingly.

  • If the balance is low I have to take none risk gigs that will pay my full rate.
  • If I having a good run I can drop my rate to take a gig as an “investment”. Something that I might make new connections, learn a new skill or gamble on it becoming a hit and watch the money coming rolling in.

In closing I want to assure you that you can make a good living in this biz and enjoy the ride. You just have to know it’s a hustle from start to finish. But even the hustle gets easier as time goes on.  With experience you will develop new skills making you more marketable, grow your professional network and learn to navigate the industry. These will all lead to an abundance of work at top rates.

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