I work with lots of startup and student filmmakers and the thing I hear the most that concerns them about a bespoke score is the cost. But is free music really worth it?

Many filmmakers don’t believe they have the budget for the composer’s time, others fear they may have to pay further costs at a later stage should they screen their film at festivals or other screenings.

Because of this, so many films go without a score or use royalty free music instead. Nine out of ten to the detriment of the film. Whilst both these have their place, there is a reason it’s not common in well produced films. Note, “well produced films” are not always the ones with the biggest budgets…

The many benefits of a tailored score can be found at great length throughout almost any media composer forum you can find. Put simply, bespoke music can become another sound effect, convey a subliminal narration and heighten the emotional state of a scene all at the same time; I would argue nothing else within a film has this ability to morph continuously to aid the directors artistic intentions. A pre-existing composition, no matter how good, will always be trying to shoehorn itself into a scene. Worse, you have to cut the scene around the music!

Then there is the matter of rights on pre-existing music, a minefield of potential pitfalls and hidden costs. Often this comes as a shock to filmmakers who have chosen the music in an attempt to avoid these very problems. Whilst tracks can initially be cheap to use, should the film be entered into a festival or be lucky enough to appear on TV, then those licenses need updating and get a whole lot more expensive which is less than ideal for a student filmmaker hoping to use their work for promotion after graduation. I’ll admit, that composers aren’t always perfect, but this doesn’t tend to happen as they make the extra money on royalties which are payed by the venue/network screening the film and any sales of the soundtrack; I would stress that you read the contract thoroughly though to make sure this is the agreement as some composers may work differently.  Primarily though, remember that they’re also invested in the success of the film as your success can directly correlate to their success.

If you decide to invest in a bespoke score, there is still the issue of budget. The concept of no budget is an interesting one. If one person is paid any amount then technically there is a budget, even if that’s buying food for the cast and crew on set or hiring equipment.

So how to compensate the composer? Again this depends on the individual. Some charge by the hour, others (including Stopwatch Studios) charge a percentage of the overall film budget which in my opinion is a much fairer model for the filmmaker who is starting out. Realistically, the thing to ask yourself is, would you be willing to work for free repeatedly? If you’re serious about making a living from being a filmmaker, the answer is probably no and the same is true of composers. If there really is no monetary budget then offer your time and services towards a promotional video or similar instead as compensation.

Ultimately, they will be working on your film because they want to be, they are doing it for the same reason you are, they love it! It’s important to compensate the composer so that both parties are happy but it shouldn’t be the main focus of the relationship between said parties.

Finally, what about those composers willing to work for free? It’s a tough one, but in life, you do get what you pay for, or rather, do not…