7. Contract with a Film Composer

Posted on Sep 30, 2011 in The Directors/Producers Guide to Working with a Film Composer


Even when you are best friends and the project seems too small to bother, you should always set up a contract with your film composer.

This does not only protect the composer but also yourself as director/producer and just saves so much potential headache and argument.

The form of the contract is of course very dependant on the country of the production company and as soon as it gets to a slightly bigger project you should have a lawyer setting them up. Googling around for composer contracts will give you a few results of “standard” contracts. As I don’t have a law degree, I don’t want to speak about specific formulations in the contract but just clear up some common misconceptions and point out important things that should be in the contract.

1. Usually, you don’t buy-out the music.

This means that in most contracts it is common to get the music that is being written for the film licensed, often exclusively. This means, the composer remains creator of the music and therefore gets the royalties that performing rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI, GEMA etc. collect. In Europe, it is by law not possible to transfer the creatorship, in the US however it is so a buy-out is possible. The licensing rights you usually have is to use the music freely in any connection with the project that it was written for, e.g. trailers, promotional stuff, background music on DVD interviews etc. but not out of this context. This is the common way of setting it up but the exact details need to be cleared with the composer/his/her agent and a lawyer.

2. There are generally two ways of setting up the contract regarding budget

The first one would be agreeing on a composition fee and leaving all remaining costs of the music production (like recording orchestra) at the production company. The second one would be to set up a contract that gives the whole music budget to the composer and let him/her handle all the costs for orchestra, mixing etc. Usually this means also setting up a clause that defines something like “Score needs to be recorded with orchestra consisting of at least 40 musicians” in order to avoid that a greedy composer takes all the budget that was originally considered to also pay an orchestra and produces the score at home on his computer. Of course, from the composer side of view, the first option is way more comfortable, however the second version is very common in recent times. However you need to be aware that this puts a lot of additional pressure on your composer (needing to calculate, call, get offers, comparing them etc.) which is time your composer doesn’t spend to work creatively on your score.

3. Set a time frame

For both sides, a time frame is to be set. A worst case scenarion for a composer would for example be agreeing on a amount of money x for a project which seems to be a 2-month-gig, which suddenly expands to a year in which the composer can not work on other projects however has to live with the money that he planned in for two months. Formulations like “The final movie cut for the composer is to be delivered to him no later than….” etc. help to fix the time frame and make things better to be planned for both sides.

4. Payment

Usually, installments are agreed on, meaning that for example 50% of the composition fee gets paid at the beginning of the project and 50% at the end. However, when the recording budget is included in this, the second payment should of course be no later than the first recording to make sure that the composer can pay the musicians/engineers/studio etc.

5. Crediting

It can save a lot of hassle to agree on the crediting of the composer in the contract. It needs to be agreed on the form “music by…”, “original score composed by…” etc. and where it is to appear (main titles, end titles, single card credit, rolling titles but als posters, advertising, trailers etc.).

6. Expenses

Usually the production company should pay any travel expenses for the composer that are created from travelling to meetings with the director etc., however travel expenses that are created from travelling to orchestra session/mixing engineers etc. are sometimes already covered in the “flat fee” music budget that is being given to the composer when the contract is set up in this way

7. PR

It needs to be agreed in which way the composer is to be involved into PR things. Is he/she supposed to have an appearance on DVD, commentary track, interview etc.?

8.  How and what to deliver

You expect to hear demos in full orchestra quality made on the computer before you sign off any track? Add this to the contract and also when you expect them in the time frame of post production.

9. Exclusivity

You can request your composer to exclusively work on your project during the time of your post production phase which has the advantage that your composer will focus more on your project as he/she’s not working on anything else parallel and will have the disadvantage that your composer might request more money for that (in order to compensate for any projects he might loose during that time).

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