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How to Determine Your Synth Programming Fee

electronic music design contract negotiation

In a recent post, we looked at how to draft your contract as a synth programmer for music theatre. In this post, we’ll look at some of the elements that you should consider when determining your fee.

Disclaimer

Again, I must that that I’m not an attorney and nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice. I’m only sharing this information based on personal experience. Additionally, this advice won’t apply to every market. You’ll need to adapt this information to suit your specific situation.

The Electronic Music Design Fee Structure

As a synthesizer programmer for musical theatre, there are various tasks which will be very time intensive which you should factor into your assessment of how to determine what to charge. There are also several factors which you’ll need to consider in the equation.

Pre-production

This includes meetings with artistic staff, budgeting, procurement of equipment (whether rental or purchase), building and/or prep of the MainStage or Ableton rigs, and programming of the keyboards.

You’ll have no way of knowing how much time this will take, though generally it will run anywhere from as few as two hours to as many as ten hours. Think of your standard hourly rate and multiply by a number of hours somewhere in the middle.

Cast Rehearsals

You may need to be present for a solid chunk of cast rehearsals either if you’re programming Ableton or if the MainStage programming is heavily affected by what happens during the cast rehearsals. If this is the case, again, multiply your hourly rate by how many hours you expect to be in rehearsals. If this will continue for days or weeks, it’s appropriate to give the producer a break by calculating a day rate or a weekly rate for this portion.

MainStage and Ableton Programming

This would be the actual programming of the material in MainStage, Ableton, or whichever software is being used. This is the part which is most difficult for people to understand. Programming a show can take as little as 10 hours or as many as 80 hours depending upon the complexity. Also, while you’ll do a huge chunk of initial programing work prior to the first orchestra rehearsal, you’ll likely be doing synth programming (and synth re-programming) right up until opening night. Your colleagues don’t see this work taking place, so they often have a difficult time understanding just how much preparation is involved here.

This element is very tricky because it’s not seen and is widely misunderstood. This is further complicated by the fact that many producers have a preconceived idea of how much they expect to spend on keyboard programming before they even research budget costs, so often the budget is way out of whack with reality. You may just need to gauge this part of the equation with what you’d feel comfortable accepting and deciding what your bottom line will be after factoring in all of the other elements.

Onsite Services

This is the time spent onsite for setup, coverage for orchestra rehearsals, and your presence during tech rehearsals and in previews. This could also include extra production meetings, notes with the team, and production meetings. Again, consider calculating your time based on a daily or weekly rate.

Complexity of the Synthesizer Programming

You should definitely consider how complex and involved the programming will be when determining your fee…to a point. You deserve to be compensated when you know in advance that the orchestration for the keyboards will be incredibly detailed and intricate, though you shouldn’t compromise your fee too much (if at all) if you know that the programming will be very simply. The reason is that those controlling the money will only remember that you accepted a certain fee for the show, though they won’t remember that it was because the show only required 3 patches. I would advise sticking to your guns and accepting that some shows will be more difficult and others will be easier, but it all balances out in the end.

Again, this part is highly subjective, but once you’ve programmed enough you’ll know what seems appropriate.

Number of Keyboard or Drum Chairs

This is a big factor. Some people even have a “per-chair” rate and simply multiply that by the number of keyboard chairs. This also pertain to drum programming, which should be considered as if it were another keyboard chair. It’s tricky to get too caught up in this equation, but it should be a factor. However, if keyboard one is all piano and keyboard two has extensive guitar doubling, you might consider the number of chairs differently from how you would if you were programming a show with many patch changes and original sounds.

The Use of Backing Tracks of Ableton Programming

This opens up a whole can of worms, but has to be considered. Whether it’s Ableton or just triggering a click from MainStage, this can get fairly time intensive and can determine how hands on and involved you’ll need to be in rehearsals. I once programmed a very simple Off-Broadway show with some click being triggered from MainStage. It turned out we needed to tempo match the click to recordings of what had been played in cast rehearsals. The tempi changed regularly up until opening night. As a result, I needed to sitting in the house close to the stage all throughout tech, which meant that I couldn’t even leave the room to take care of the many tasks required of the electronic music designer such as labeling, organizing gear, procuring additional equipment (if needed), meetings with the sound department (unless the party I needed to speak with could come to where I was sitting). This meant that I needed to devote time after opening night to tasks which normally would have been addressed during tech and previews.

If you’re already programming MainStage, I strongly recommend that you require the producer to high a separate Ableton programmer. Ableton is a full time gig and there’s no way to do both MainStage AND Ableton well with one person unless the programming of both is INCREDIBLY simply.

Cast Recordings and Promo Recordings

It’s worth having at least preliminary conversations about these topics if you have a sense that such recordings could be involved later.

Generally, you’ll need to make allowances for setup and breakdown of equipment, cartage, and either an hourly onsite rate or an arrangement by which you’ll be added to the contract as a musician. The standard on Broadway is generally to be added to the contract. This ensures that you’ll be paid at an appropriate rate for your time and it will be commensurate with the visibility of the recording session.

Weekly Maintenance Fee

This is sometimes referred to as a royalty, but it’s not at all a royalty. This is a weekly payment to the synth programmer in exchange for being on call for any and all emergencies. If the keyboard programmer can’t be available, it’s their responsibility to hire an associate who can be available at the appropriate times regardless of whether any emergency occurs. For an open ended run, this fee is absolutely essential. Otherwise, you’ll wind up paying someone out of your own pocket when you can’t be available to address an emergency. Also, you’re giving your time and availability and that’s worth something. For a limited engagement, it’s possible to work this into your fee, but for an open ended run, it’s non-negotiable.

This will be partly determined by your location, whether it’s a Class A production, a regional production, or a tour, and how much it will cost you should you need to hire an associate to handle an onsite call.

Additional Synth Programming Work After Opening

Sometimes you’ll be asked to do additional work after opening. If it’s a small tweak a few weeks after opening night that a player forgot to mention earlier, I’ll usually just go ahead and gladly take care of it. But if there’s a major orchestration change, a key change, or even a replacement song (yes, I’ve seen it happen), you should have an hourly rate negotiated which you’ll charge to the producer for your work. Again, even if you’re happy to do this work, you need to remember that if you’re not available to take care of this task you’ll need to pay an associate to handle it for you. In addition to the actual work, you’ll still be coordinating and supervising this work and will ultimately be responsible for the final outcome, so you need to negotiate a rate which will leave some funds available for you for your time.

I suggest going with a rate that’s on par with hourly music director pay for a cast rehearsal in your market. My reason is this: synth programming work is at least as specialized and hard to come by as music directing skills. Therefore, we should be compensated accordingly.

Summary

The next step is to add all of these elements to come up with a total. It’s very likely that the total package pricing you present won’t be accepted by the producers, and it’s also quite likely that the producers will offer a fee that’s way off from what you’ve calculated. That’s okay. I’ve seen negotiations start quite far apart and wind up somewhere in the middle.

As you negotiate, remember that generally most producers and general managers know nothing about keyboard programming, so they don’t know how to budget for it. This is why your breakdown of the job responsibilities and projected time investment is so important. You’ll be able to quantify the work you expect to contribute to the production. Also emphasize the money you’ve invested in sample libraries and special equipment which allows you to take on this responsibility in the first place.

Find ways to explain your role in layman’s terms and perfect your elevator pitch. If you use too much technical jargon or if you come across as condescending, your negotiating partner will likely zone out.

Break everything down clearly, be prepared to compromise, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Our field is one which is constantly evolving and is one of the most misunderstood crafts within the Broadway industry. To complicate matters further, it’s currently in a massive state of transition.

Again, this post should not be taken as legal advice. Rather, it’s a guideline to help you be aware of some of the elements you need to consider when contracting your fee for electronic music design. I hope you’ve found it to be a helpful read.

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