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A Guide to Negotiating Your Synth Programming Contract

synth programming contracts

As an electronic music designer for Broadway productions, I’ve negotiated and papered many contracts both with and without the assistance of an attorney. Regardless of whether one uses legal representation and regardless of the size and budget of the production, the guiding principles of what should be involved in the agreement are generally the same. In this post, we’ll take a look at those elements so that you can implement them into your next negotiations.

First of all, this post is in no way meant to constitute legal advice. I’m only sharing information based on my experience.

Now on to the elements of the contract…

Who are the parties in the synth programming agreement?

This is where you’ll specify the name of the LLC the producers have created for the production (or the name of the theatre or university) and will list the agreement as being between that entity and you (or your corporate entity).

For example, this line might read as “BETWEEN Max Bialystok LLC and Murray Mainstageberg

You’ll also list the date of the agreement.

What are the services being offered?

Here you’ll mentioned something like “for the services of electronic music design for the Broadway revival of “Exorcist II the Musical”.

You’ll the mentioned more specific duties such as procuring the equipment, presenting quotes to the general manager, building the rigs, programming the sounds, arranging the delivery logistics, collaborating with the various departments, training the musicians in the proper use of the equipment, etc.

What are the dates of the services?

Usually this will include the dates of the orchestra rehearsals, tech, previews, and opening night and will likely specific any times for which attendance is mandatory such as sitzprobe, dress rehearsals, etc. Sometimes they’ll ask you to commit to giving exclusive priority to the production, which I strongly recommend NOT doing. If you have multiple productions running, YOU need to be the person to decide how to best allocate your resources. If you have an issue to address at another show, you may need to take care of it yourself and send an associate to the production being mounted.

Who owns the keyboard programming?

Often producers will ask you to agree that they own the MainStage or Ableton programming you’ve created. Don’t do this. Your keyboard programming is your intellectual property and you should always own it. If the producers want to use it later for licensed productions or tours, they can license it from you. This also gives you the option to license out the programming yourself after the show closes.

What services are required after opening night?

This is where you’ll get into offering tech support and troubleshooting after opening night. For example, that dreaded text or phone call saying that there’s no sound on K2. You should consider having the theatre install a dedicated internet connection just for the keyboard rigs and using a VNC to connect remotely. While you can troubleshoot everything this way, you can address most software issues and gain insight on what any hardware issues potentially could be.

Of course, you’ll need someone onsite to fix any hardware issues, whether that’s you, an associate, or one of the keyboardists.

As these support calls and onsite visits can happen at anytime and can just as easily be the result of user error as of an actual issue with the rig, you should consider how you need to be compensated for this. If an onsite call is required, you may need to pay someone out of your own pocket.

For a long running or open-ended production, I recommend a weekly retainer payment. In exchange for this, you’ll offer ongoing technical support and troubleshooting either by phone or in person, and if you’re not available you’ll provide a qualified associate to provide this service.

For a limited run, it’s often easier to work this service into your fee, though the choice is completely up to you.

You may need to explain this weekly payment to the general manager as it’s often misunderstood. It’s NOT a royalty. You’re providing a service for this fee, and without the weekly retainer, you very well may wind up losing money if you suddenly need to pay an associate out of pocket to handle an onsite emergency.

What this weekly fee does NOT cover:

This weekly (often called an AWC) doesn’t cover changes after opening. For example, if the production decides to add a song or change an orchestration four weeks after opening, you should charge a reprogramming fee. Of course if rewrites happen during previews, that’s just part of the gig.

Future productions of the show

You’ll need to specify if you have right of first refusal for future productions of the show (if that’s important to you). You won’t always get it, but it’s important to have, especially if you’re getting involved in a workshop in the early stages, or in a regional production with the possibility of moving further along. If the GM won’t give you this, you’ll need to decide how important it is to you. The experience, the contacts, and the artistic merit of the production may be enough to make the project worthwhile to you, or this could be a complete dealbreaker for you. It’ll vary from show to show.

Cast and promotional recordings

If you believe there’s likely to be a cast recording in the future, I recommend spelling out some bullet points here. If the recording happens, you’ll be notified at the last minute and you don’t want to be the person holding up the recording because you don’t have even a basic understanding in place with the producer.

It’s become fairly standard for the synth programmer to be paid as an additional musician on the recording, and you should expect this. However, an alternative is to be paid on an hourly or a day rate. You’ll be there for some very long hours and you should be paid accordingly.

You should also specify payment for setup and breakdown of equipment. The reason for this is that even after you’ve done your setup, you’ll be at the mercy of the studio as to when they can do a line check with your gear, so you could find yourself waiting around for a few hours. You’ll also spend several hours coordinating logistics such as equipment rental and cartage, so you need to be mindful of the time you’re investing.

You also need to specify how you’ll be paid for any reprogramming involved. Often there are cast album versions of the music from the show, or if you’re recording a promo piece, there will definitely be cuts and variations. You can just charge an hourly rate for this.

Program credits and billing

You’ll also need to specific how your name is to appear in the program. I always try for “Electronic Music Design by Jeff Marder”, though producers aren’t always willing to give that credit, and I’ve heard some very strange reasons. Also be sure you agree on where that credit will appear. I prefer immediately below the orchestra personnel in the Playbill.

Summary

The above are the main issues to consider when negotiating your electronic music design contract. I didn’t cover providing for an assistant, Ableton, travel, etc. However, feel feee to contact me directly if you have any questions about how I’ve seen those elements handled.

When negotiating, be sure you can quantity the reasons why you’re requesting certain provisions or fees. Also, assess the situation honestly and always know both your ideal agreement as well as the least favorable terms for which you’d be willing to settle. If the gig asks more of you than what you’re capable of providing (ex: programming 3 MainStage rigs, Ableton tracks, and electronic drums while playing cast rehearsals and prepping to play a K2 book), take an honest look at what you can feasibly do as one human being. Generally, producers don’t know what’s involved in our craft and for most shows, the synth programming is a full time job in and of itself. Sometimes it’s just better to walk than to take a gig only to find that you need your therapist and cardiologist on speed dial the entire time.

Quantify the work involved with an honest assessment and work from there. It’ll make your negotiations easier and clearer.

If you do this regularly, I also recommend keeping a contract template on hand that you can adjust per gig. It’ll save you hours of work every time. Good luck with your synth programming and remember to get your agreement in writing!

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