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Contract Negotiation 101

At some point in your freelance career, you will find yourself on the receiving end of a contract that needs revision before you can sign it. 

Understanding how to read and negotiate contracts is an essential skill for anyone navigating the professional audio landscape, but the process can be confusing and anxiety-inducing—especially when you're new to negotiation. Since joining AIR as Managing Director, I've met with and spoken to many of you in our community and this is one topic that comes up again and again. So here are some solid tips to return to when you have a contract in your inbox and you’re not sure what to do next.

No one should sign a contract they don’t understand. 

If you’ve agreed to produce a story and the outlet sends you a contract filled with what, at first glance, reads like a legalese jumble (or the fine print on a sleep aid), pause; take a deep breath; start from the beginning and reread. Contract syntax is challenging to skim if you aren’t used to reading it but if you take your time, and read through each paragraph a couple times over, the words and phrases will begin to gel into something comprehensible, and you’ll start to recognize that a passage like:

1. Services. Producer is engaged to provide the following services in connection with the Project: “Produce an audio feature of approximately forty-five (45) minutes, according to specifications provided by Client” (collectively, the “Services”). The Services will be rendered to Client on a non-exclusive basis. A more detailed description of the Project, Services, Schedule, Budget, and Deliverables are included in Exhibit A (“Scope of Work”), attached hereto.

is just a more precise way of saying that you, the client, will  pay me, the producer, to make a 45-minute audio feature, as described in the attached scope of work. As you get more comfortable reading contracts, they do start to make sense. I promise. 

Once you understand the contract, what details should you look out for? AIR’s Guide to Fair Practice is a great starting point for understanding what is and isn’t reasonable in a freelance audio contract, and FIRE has a fantastic explainer on indemnity clauses

If you think you need a lawyer to read and advise on the contract, our legal advice roundup includes a ton of pro-bono resources and a short list of attorneys recommended by your fellow AIRsters.  

It is okay to negotiate.

Sometimes the first step is the hardest step. I know someone out there may read this  and roll  their eyes, thinking “Who needs to be told that?”  To that person, I say, I hear you, and you are welcome to skip this tip! But if you feel any uncertainty or anxiety around whether this applies to you, no matter how complex the situation, I want you to internalize this one truth: It is definitely okay to ask questions, raise concerns and negotiate for a contract you feel good about. If someone presents you with a contract that includes a wild exclusivity clause in it, for example, or you think the rights they’re asking you to sign away are overly broad, it is entirely fine to ask them for an edit. While they might refuse to make the requested change, and you’ll have to decide whether you’re willing to accept the offer, it is crucial to know your worth and exercise your personal agency in this situation—no matter the final outcome.

Every once in a while, an outlet will opt to pull an assignment completely if you dare to negotiate, even if you’re professional, polite and completely reasonable in your requests. That’s not okay but unfortunately, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in certain cases. If this ever does happen to you (or already has) on an audio project, the AIR team really wants to hear about it, so we can understand how widespread this problem is and support you in future negotiations to the best of our ability. We invite you to reach out and share your experience at [email protected], and of course, we will not reshare it in any public forum unless you give AIR explicit permission to do so. 

You can be authentic. Just be polite. 

I could tell you how I would approach a negotiation conversation, but ultimately you should communicate with your own voice and point of view. It will be fine, so long as you practice respect and professionalism in the back-and-forth.  

Here’s a start: “Thank you for sending the contract! I’m looking forward to getting moving on the project. I read through the contract and there are a couple of specific points  I wanted to discuss further....”

Start by getting organized.

Imagine you respond to a contract by saying “Ok, I just need one point changed,” and then an hour later you find a second, third and fourth point you’d like to revisit. The person you’re negotiating with will be justifiably annoyed by the extra emails. Make a list of the specific items that need to change or require further discussion, and share them all at once in a single follow-up email. The person on the other end will be appreciative, and more likely to hear you out, if you respect their time and inbox. 

Make two lists, and a game plan.   

If you do wind up negotiating a contract in person, rather than over an asynchronous email exchange, prepare for your conversation by making two lists:

  • List one should spell out your goals. What are you hoping to get out of this negotiation?
  • List two should spell out your non-negotiables.  What are you’re willing to settle for? Where are you flexible, and where will you stand firm?  

Proactively thinking through these two questions will help you start from a place of strength and clarity in this conversation. It will also help you avoid making emotional or rash decisions that you may regret later (such as agreeing to unacceptable conditions because you really, really want to produce the story). List out as many arguments as you can think of for each question, so you’re prepared to make your case. (Bonus: this strategy will serve you well in almost any negotiation, it's not just for contracts.)

If you need some further prompts to get started, Elise Bergerson’s webinar on getting a good deal is a great resource for how to think through what is and is not important to you in negotiating a fair contract.  

Don’t make it personal.

Sometimes even an otherwise fantastic editor and collaborator believes that their job is to get the most great work made within the budget they’ve been handed: This might translate to short-selling you with a rate they can afford, even if they know you and the experience you’ll bring to the table is worth more. While it’s understandable that you may take this as a personal slight, it doesn’t always mean they don’t value you or your work—they may just really want the work to get made on their limited budget, which means offering you the floor rate, and nothing higher. In the end, you will have to decide whether you’re willing to produce the piece with the budget they’re offering (so long as it is reasonably fair), or not. Sometimes the opportunity is worth it (depending on where you are in your career, consider what other value you will holistically gain from the experience: an opportunity for mentorship, a valued outlet on your resume, etc.), and sometimes it’s not worth it. What you decide will vary from situation to situation, and that’s ok: Always check in with yourself, and know you can reach out to a trusted colleague, peer or the AIR team for a second opinion if needed. AIR’s rate guides are a good starting point for understanding the current landscape of the industry, but there’s no magic formula to apply to your final decision about what makes a project worth it and reasonable for you. Becoming a confident, effective and skilled negotiator is a muscle you will inevitably work throughout your career, in all types of situations and dynamics: It’s in your best interest to start thinking through and putting these tips into practice now, so you’re ready for whatever exciting opportunities come your way.

If you haven’t even made it to the contract stage yet there are even more valuable resources available on AIR’s Pitch Page to help you pitch stories more effectively.

Recommended Reading

There’s no shortage of negotiation advice on the internet, but here are a few of our favorite resources if you want to go deeper. If you've read an article or post that really helped you develop your negotiation skills, we'd love to know about it.

AIR Resources


We’re indebted to AIRster Sheeba Joseph for her insights and edits on this guide, and to countless other members who’ve shared their experiences with us.