Freelance audio designer Harry Mack (Spiral Knights, Braid) takes a look at what goes into effectively building a lasting career as a contractor -- work/life balance, working with clients, and taking criticism -- and here offers a succinct guide that could apply to someone in any discipline.
Freelance is a tough thing. Ask most people and they'll tell you that they put more time in finding work than actually doing work. That's especially true when you're just getting into the business and growing your client list. It becomes less true the longer you've been doing it, and the more new and old clients approach you for potential work.
So how do you make and keep happy clients? It's not just the final soundtrack and soundscape that matters, but the whole process leading to the release of the game that affects the freelancer-client relationship. I've been in the freelance audio business for over a decade and have learned a lot from my successes and fumblings.
From project bid to post-release support, here's what I've learned to ensure your work is stellar and that your clients are happy enough to think of you for their next project... and to sing your praises to their colleagues.
Always Be Professional
I've heard from a lot of clients that audio designers are flakey. They don't respond promptly to emails, they submit shoddy work, they don't return calls, and sometimes just disappear with no further word. This always surprised me, and I've always assumed it was a fluke, but over the years it's become a recurring theme.
I don't think people appreciate that stereotypical artist who puts creativity above professionalism. It's really very simple, but oh, so important. Use correct grammar and spelling in emails, with no shorthand. Speak clearly, confidently and to the point. Be friendly and courteous. Respond promptly to emails. Be available. This is straightforward stuff, but being consistently professional will set you head and shoulders above the rest of the competition.
The Bidding Process
Usually the first email I get from a new client will be, "So, how much do you charge?" Anyone who's in my field hates that question, because we always have to respond with, "Depends!" Depends on the project, the size, amount of assets, how fast you need them, what platform it's for, etc., etc., etc., etc. But after you wrestle out as much detail as possible, in the end they'll want a bid to compare with other freelancers.
I've found the most successful tactic is to present a bid with a best-case and worst-case scenario. They'll likely have a number in their head before contacting you, so if you overbid you'll lose before even starting, and if you underbid, and underbid consistently, well, that's a hard life to lead.
Bids should be on a professional form document with your logo on it, along with assets clearly defined in terms of per sound effect and per minute of music. Put in a range so they know you're quoting a ballpark figure. This will give them some room to go down if they have a lower budget in mind than you're requesting.
In the end, everyone wants a game to ship with great sounds and music, but if they're looking for the cheapest possible, nowadays there's plenty of students who will do it for free just for the credit. Don't get discouraged if you don't hear back -- sometimes the process takes some time. Check back in one or two weeks and politely ask if they received your bid.