Music Budget

Before you budget for the music, you should be aware that a music budget always consists of two to three factors. The first is the composition fee, the second the costs that are necessary to produce the score music and the third are the licensing fees. I’ll split up these figures here to create an understandable transparency.

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1. Composition fee

First of all: there are thousands of composers out there who work for free and just for the reference which you could hire. However you need to be aware that only few of them have experience and when they actually DO have experience and still charge nothing, something is seriously wrong with them. You might be lucky and accidentally find someone who is incredibly talented and can pull it off, but chances for that are very low. If you have a budget next to nothing, you practically have no alternative than hiring someone who charges next to nothing of course but in this case many of the points discussed here will not apply for your project anyway.

If you DO have a budget for the music and want a professional standard for your project, you should have a look at the following numbers. Of course, everybody tries to minimize costs and especially in the film industry, there’s always the pressure to squeeze the last penny out of everything, trying to cut money everywhere. But as the saying goes (and this applies for everybody who’s working on your film): “If you only pay peanuts, you only get monkeys.” Quality costs. Period. You want your movie to have good music, then pay well. Apart from good payment being a good motivation for everybody, it’s not only an “imagined” value that you get for your money. You get the work of a professional composer (which means that he/she does this for a living and therefore spends way more time doing that than someone who doesn’t and therefore has way more experience in doing it than someone who doesn’t). You get the work of someone who obviously has proven to create results that are good (or he/she wouldn’t be doing this full time). Of course starting at a certain level, you also pay for the name but most of the time, you pay for more quality.

Before we get to actual numbers here, you have to think about certain factors. Composers do not work every day. It’s a project based work and what they earn in one project sometimes needs to pay them also the time between projects. The standard of music that you can write each day lies at about two to three minutes.

Now where does decent composer payment start and how does one figure out what decent payment is. In the music-for-hire world, people often work with per-minute rates which means they pay a certain amount of money per minute of music. On larger projects often a flat fee is negotiated to avoid the hassle of dealing with “seconds” which however basically orients at the minute-fee.

Halfway decent minute fees start at about $200-250 for the composer which on a standard 50 minute of music score results in approx. $10,000-15,000 but also $1,000 and more per minute are not uncommon.

2. Production costs

There are several factors that influence this side of the music budget. Some composers minimize these fees by being a one-man-show with a big computer set up in their own studio and deliver finished music cues ready to be put into the movie, however this might not be the optimal choice. In a tight post production schedule, demanding to put out polished, well mixed and produced tracks while also composing good music might be a bit too much and compromise the quality.

Certain cost factors are not avoidable as soon as you go down the path of wanting live musicians (I will talk about this specifically a bit later). Depending on whether you only want a solo flute or a whole hollywoodesque symphony orchestra these numbers vary greatly.

As the demand for “big” orchestral music has grown recently, many companies have been created who offer the service of booking and recording orchestras, often in eastern European countries for a fairly low price. Usually, recording with orchestras is done “per session”. A session is a 3 or 4 hour term (with included breaks) of recording time. Depending on the complexity of the music, you can record approx. 10-20 minutes of music per session. Usually, you can only book full or sometimes half sessions, so if you want to record 50 minutes of music, you should at least book 3 sessions.

A session with full symphonic orchestra costs from about $5,000 (in the Ukraine, Romania, Russia…) and can go up to approx. $40,000 (London, LA) and is depending on the size of orchestra (big film orchestras consist of 90+ musicians, smaller ones of about 50). These numbers already include fees for studio rent, engineer, recording equipment etc. So if you want to record that earlier mentioned 50 minute score with full orchestra, you would need to budget from about $15,000 to $120,000 for that. This is huge span but you shouldn’t just go ahead and say “Well, let’s record in the cheapest country then.” Of course, there’s a catch with these cheap orchestras reflecting in the quality of recording you get from them. One problem is the equipment issue meaning that for instance the available choice of microphones at these studios might not be up to the standards you’d expect. The choice of microphones and especially the quality of the main microphones heavily influences the sound of the recording. Also, generally you might get a less good performance from the musicians based on several issues: 1. orchestras that are not really used to it don’t really know how “film music” needs to sound like as there is a different playing attitude than playing classic music. You might even get that problem with “classical” orchestras in more western countries. 2. Often playing sessions and being a musician in such countries doesn’t financially support a family or even your own life so many of the orchestra members might need to do several jobs which affects the way they can dedicate their life to music and their instrument resulting in a performance that is technically often not up to standards you might expect. 3. The use of cheaper instruments that you will most likely get in such orchestras will actually be audible, not necessarily that much in a string section with many players but more obvious on solo lines like woodwinds/brass. In general, you will often need more takes with cheaper orchestras than with more expensive orchestras to get a good enough performance which might simply eat up the financial difference. Another considerable fact usually is the language difference which makes a translator necessary most of the time which can slow down the recording process further. However, there are good “middle ways”. For example, orchestras in the Czech Republic can be booked for a very reasonable price and might still be able to pull off a decent recording. Just be warned to not fall into “super cheap” offers traps. On the other hand, when booking a London or LA orchestra, you will definitely get THAT epic Hollywood sound combined with some of the finest recording venues, engineers and equipment. Most of these musicians you can book there are world class and are definitely worth their money. The choice of orchestra is usually up to the composer according to the budget and these numbers are just to give you a slight idea about what budget might be needed and what you get for what kind of money.

Usually, the mixing of film music is done in 5.1, which needs a special mixing venue and a special mixing engineer which also needs budget. You can mix approx. 15-30 minutes of music on a mixing day and the daily rate for a studio+mixing engineer varies from about $1000 to $3500. Also in this field, the same rule applies: quality costs. Usually your composer might come up with names of engineers/studios he/she prefers so the organization of this usually doesn’t need to be done by someone else.

3. Licensing Fees

This does only apply to movies which want to use musical material that is not written by the composer, e.g. songs. These need to be licensed, which means that you buy the right to use them in your movie. Depending on the popularity of the song as well as the size of your movie, costs for that can be quite high. Number one songs can easily cost $50,000 or more. A good alternative might be to track down lesser known bands/artists who would be willing to license their music for much less and would be happy to have their music in a movie.


  1. Jon Foster

    Great read! Thanks for sharing these insights.

  2. indika

    I got two things to ask,

    1. How about not paying for their creativity upfront and agree with them for share of the income that generate the film after received?
    2. If all the elements are mixed in the final stage, why we need to have a mixing engineer to mix the film it repetitive of work?


    • Robin

      1. Unfortunately happens quite often but not a very attractive model. It is very tricky and/or time consuming for the composer to check whether they have been receiving the actual share they agreed to and it is very simple “to fiddle the figures” for the client to “reduce” the income of the project. So it is a very trust based agreement, which when it comes to money is not necessarily the best premise in many cases. Additionally, it can take a long time until you see any money which of course is another problem.

      2. Several reasons: The composer is not always present the entire time on the final mix to keep a control whether the music sounds the way they intended. If you have the music unmixed, you get additionally around 50 more tracks which at a final mixing is just too much to additionally deal with. Mixing music is a different skill set than mixing film sound. The greatest film sound mixer might be a bad music mixer (or not fit the composer’s taste) and vice versa so mixing the music on its own definitely has its benefit to push it closer to the composer’s vision and then deliver it in a format to the final mix where the sound mixers will have an easier way to adjust levels than going through all mic signals of the score recording. If you record the score live, you will have many different takes of the same music which need to be edited together based on the composer’s preference which on its own already is a time consuming work step.

      • Tim Cox

        It’s also not guaranteed that a film will even release. There are loads of films stuck in post-production so as a composer I would basically have worked for free.

        • Robin

          Absolutely true!



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