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It’s fair to assume that most musicians, writers and composers didn’t choose their career based on a love of negotiation. But unless you have a full-time manager negotiating fees, royalties, contracts and terms and conditions, it’s a fundamental part of being a freelance musician.

“It’s probably the worst bit of my job,” confesses orchestral composer, arranger and violinist Fiona Brice, who has worked with major artists including Placebo and John Grant, as well as the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Northern Sinfonia. From booking your first gig, to refining contracts with a record label, to agreeing the terms of usage for a composition, the world of negotiation embraces a broad spectrum, and it affects everyone who works in the industry.

Negotiation skills are essential for musicians

Kelly Wood, MU National Organiser Live, Theatre & Music Writers, says that it’s important that musicians get to grips with the skill of negotiation. In support of the MU Fair Score campaign, Kelly ran a workshop for composers. “We advise members to expect to have those conversations,” she says. “Do they know how to negotiate? Part of the process is to get musicians to recognise that it’s another role they need to learn.”

Nick Harris runs NERD Label Services, a label management company whose client list includes Tricky’s False Idols, R&S Records and Maceo Plex’s Ellum/Lone Romantic labels. He agrees that becoming an astute negotiator is an unavoidable truth for artists. “Nowadays we all wear many caps, but the one not everybody wants to wear and the one that is probably the most boring is also the most important, and that is understanding your rights as an artist and negotiating.

"It’s important that artists have a good grasp – not just on how to negotiate deals – but on the mechanics of how the business of the music industry works, and how a record label functions. How money is generated and how expenses are recouped.”

Facing and overcoming the challenges of a negotiation process

Often the initial – and biggest – battle artists face when first entering a negotiation process is overcoming psychological hurdles, such as self-doubt, loss of confidence, or the fear of conflict. “It challenges my confidence,” affirms Fiona Brice, “a lot of creative artists find there is a massive discomfort around putting a price on what you do. You feel like you’re negotiating your self-worth, rather than the price of a job. When I was younger, I found it quite upsetting, but you learn how to divorce yourself from what is fundamentally admin.”

While it’s important to be confident, it’s also crucial to keep a cool head. “I’ve seen artists that will get so excited that someone is showing an interest in their music they’ll run into it,” says Nick Harris. “I’ve had people sign a contract within a minute of me sending it to them and I cannot believe they’ve sent it back. It’s clear to me that they haven’t read it.”

Timo Baker working in his home studio
Film/TV composer Timo Baker believes it’s important to do your homework before entering negotiations, from understanding legal jargon to being prepared to deal with difficult personalities. Photo: Musicians' Union

Timo Baker is an experienced film and TV composer who has worked on shows including River Monsters and Primal Survivor, and film trailers for LA blockbusters such as Man On A Ledge. He says that negotiation is a skill he’s “had to acquire and become comfortable with” over the course of his career. “I’ve got a valuable secret weapon in my arsenal in my brother, who is a lawyer,” he explains.

“Although he has now moved into an unrelated area of law, during his training at a large London firm, he studied various modules including several in media contract law. He instilled in me the importance of negotiating the key terms to give me the best chance at longevity in a notoriously brutal and unscrupulous world. It lifted the lid on the complex and often confusing world of legal parlance and phraseology.”

Alongside low confidence, naive over-enthusiasm or the pure bewilderment of legal jargon, the person sitting on the other side of the table can also present a challenge. Negotiation should be a two-way process with both sides entering the experience prepared to reach a compromise, but Kelly says that members have reported coercive behaviour.

This is backed by Timo. “I’ve had some quite unpleasant experiences over the years where I have been bullied and coerced into accepting terms after a contract hasn’t had all the I's dotted and T's crossed,” he says. “The worst offenders have been some of the stalwarts of broadcast media. Navigating the labyrinth of legal lingo combined with bullish personality and ego while trying to secure a decent deal for yourself is increasingly challenging.”

“You have to weigh up the personality and tactics of the other side,” advises Kelly. “If someone is very firm and aggressive then you might have to become more assertive.” Timo supports this saying that while “it can get quite intense psychologically, you’ve got to stick to your guns as much as possible without compromising your creative position.”

Doing the homework

Alongside knowing who you are negotiating with, it’s important, says Nick Harris, to understand the mechanics of the industry. He reports that many artists come to the table without any knowledge of how the industry works, which considerably weakens their position.

Harris adds, “most artists have understandably been busy creating their sound, image, style and niche. A lot of artists come to the negotiating table not very well prepared. Many don’t understand what publishing is, or the difference between recording rights and authorship rights; a lot don’t understand about the length and terms of contract, or royalty splits.”

Violinist at work
Photo: Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

Education means empowerment and it applies across all negotiation points. Fiona also advises writers and composers to come to negotiation situations armed with knowledge and ready to ask questions. “For example, when negotiating for a writing job you need to know what the usage is,” she says, “What’s the song for? Is it for an album, film, advert? How long is it going to be used for? Which territories?”

Undeniably, the more you negotiate, the wiser you become. However, there are ways to fast-track your skills as a negotiator while you gain vital experience.

Mastering the skill of negotiation

Knowing your worth and having a ‘bottom line’ is a foundation stone to successful negotiation. It’s also essential, says Timo, in maintaining the standard of future contracts for yourself and for other artists.

Whatever price you put on a project, Fiona argues, you need to be able to justify it and break the costs down. “If I’m doing an album and I’m using a string quartet and writing the arrangement, and I’m also playing in the quartet, it’s not helpful to give them a lump sum,” she says. “You need to have the musicians’ fees separate, the writing separate, the copying separate. The more you can justify the detail the easier it is to have a conversation about the fee.”

“It’s very effective to be able to demonstrate the value of your price,” agrees Kelly Wood. Kelly also suggests that while allowing for a certain amount of wiggle room is important, she advises members to be realistic about the fee to begin with. “Some people think the higher you go in the higher you’ll end up with. I don’t think that’s the case. The risk is if you go in too high the other side might harden because they think you’re being unrealistic or hard to deal with.”

“I’m not a greedy person, I don’t charge inflated rates,” says Fiona. “If someone thinks it’s expensive you’ve got to ask them, ‘Why do you think that’s expensive?’” By adopting this ‘head on’ approach to negotiation, Fiona says she’s learnt to become a savvy negotiator despite the discomfort it can create. “The skill is knowing your rights and not feeling awkward about the conversation and broaching it as soon as you can.”

“The positive experiences have been where I’ve jumped into a project because there was great creative synergy between myself and the production company,” says Timo.

Nick Harris also asserts that establishing a good understanding between the two parties is the cornerstone of successful negotiation. “Beyond the realm of negotiating, develop a good relationship with the record label you’re signing your music to. Even before you get to the point of talking about a contract, have a discussion. Talk about your expectations as an artist and ask the label what their expectations are. Transparently discuss how much money is going to be spent.”

The experience of the MU community can provide a wealth of support. The MU has resources, including guides for fees for writers, players and composers, as well as advice that can help members navigate the rocky path of negotiation. “It’s a skill,” says Kelly Wood, “but you can get good at it by understanding what a negotiation looks like. There are thousands of musicians out there who are very skilled negotiators.”

Get training for your business skills as a musician

The MU has several resources to help musicians navigate the tricky path of negotiation. The Fair Play Scheme and Fair Score campaign both offer guidance on how to price work. Look out for workshops on negotiation skills for composers.

The MU can advise members on the minimum rates for players, composers and writers, and offer support if you feel you are being coerced into a deal that isn’t fair.

Watch a webinar recording on Effective Negotiations Skills and Techniques.

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Katie Nicholls

Katie is a freelance journalist and editor whose features and reviews have appeared in titles such as Mojo, The Guardian and Kerrang!

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