6 Mistakes You Want to Avoid When Selling Sound Effects – Part 1


I have been field recording sound effects for Airborne Sound since just a bit before the dot com boom. There was no manual for how to survive as a field recordist. There definitely wasn’t an explanation for selling sound effects on line.

Field recording can be an incredible, immersive art. Collaborating recording sound effects is a great experience. When field recording and selling sound effects is brought into the world of online publishing and e-commerce you have to be more thoughtful though, as with any business. When creating and money mix, situations can easily become tricky.

Here are a couple of lessons I’ve learned or witnessed along the way. I’m sharing them to help beginners avoid mistakes when starting building a library or sharing sound effects downloads online. Keep them in mind to stay positive and keep things smooth.

In this post I’ll start with three mistakes. In my next post I’ll talk about three more. I’ll also discuss some general principles to keep in mind when looking out for and resolving mistakes.

Mistake #1: Not getting paid in full

Every freelancer has a story of delivering the goods and not getting paid in return. I’ve experienced this with major sound effects publishers. Sometimes this results from honest misunderstandings. In more than once case it has resulted from big publishers throwing their weight around.

How to avoid it: Put it in writing.

Anyone who is serious about business will be glad to sign an agreement with you. An agreement will protect both of you and clarify your aims and responsibilities. Include details. Lack of precision in agreements can allow payments to slip through loopholes.

It’s easy to view an agreement as either taking The Man for all he’s worth or protecting yourself from corporate vampires. The best agreements however are fair to both parties and set the foundation for good, long relationships.

If the agreement is complex, hire a lawyer. Lawyers are expensive but will save you money over the long run. If you can’t afford one at least find a basic agreement from the ILRG Legal Forms Archive as a starting point.

Having an agreement doesn’t guarantee that you will be paid everything when there’s a dispute (only a court would enforce that) but it will help in most cases.

Bonus: ask questions before you get excited about missing payments. Give the other person a chance to explain. Mistakes, bad scheduling and miscommunication happen to everyone.

Mistake #2: Sharing sounds ambiguously

You want to sell your sound library. You’ve just recorded some incredible sound effects. Planning to share them? Perhaps trade with a friend? Want to post the sound clip on a website or forum? Make sure you explain how you expect the sound effects to be used.

When I first started working, a colleague of mine had a client that needed special animal sound effects. I had some sounds that fit the bill. In what I believed was an act of good will I shared my sounds to help them. Later I discovered my colleague assumed I was giving the sounds to him forever, and had begun selling them. No explanation could convince him otherwise. In fact he wouldn’t even return my requests to talk about it.

How to avoid it: be clear.

Explain how you want your shared sounds used. This can include:

  • how the sound effects can be used (are the shared sounds for just one project? Part of their library for good?)
  • whether people may pass them along to others
  • whether people can modify or remix the sounds
  • do you require credit every time the sound or song is used?

The explanation can range from a formal End User License Agreement (EULA) on a sound effects website, an email note or a few lines on a blog. Creative Commons provides ‘simple, standardized’ licenses for free. Post a tag in your blog to specify how your work can be used (you can see an example at the bottom of this post).

As for my situation, a couple lines in an email clarifying my position before I sent the animal sounds would have made my situation simpler. A contract would have been better. In the end I cut my losses, let him keep the effects and moved on.

Miscommunication happens even when intentions are good. One person may honestly assume a completely different view. Someone downloading a sound effect from your blog may innocently assume they can resell that sound or post it for free. This is why it is important to be absolutely clear.

Mistake #3: Using someone else’s equipment

Junior recordists often can’t afford their own pro gear so many borrow from other field recordists. Sometimes they borrow a mic and recorder over the weekend from the sound house where they are working.

In the best of situations this is not a problem at all. However, I’ve seen more than a few circumstances where the facility claims ownership and a copy of all the sound effects recorded from their equipment. Sometimes this can come up even years down the road, especially after your library has become successful.

How to avoid it: use your own equipment or rent.

If you plan on owning your own sound effects or starting your own sound library use your own gear. Renting from a shop is also fine. Their business is renting, not selling sound effects, so there will not be a conflict and you will be safe.

It’s likely that most people won’t be this particular about how you use their gear. I’ve found however it’s best to head off any complications.

I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know if this is backed by law, but I’ve seen this happen too many times to advise taking the risk.

In my next post I’ll wrap up with three more mistakes you want to avoid. I’ll also have a summary of general guidelines.

Any interesting lessons learned while recording your sound effects? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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6 responses to 6 Mistakes You Want to Avoid When Selling Sound Effects – Part 1

  1. Lawrence M. Barker 2011/06/22 at 12:32

    Thanks Paul, some very useful information, often overlooked until it’s too late!

    • Hi Lawrence, thank you. I’ve found that most of the time everything runs smoothly, but it doesn’t hurt to keep one’s eyes open while staying positive!

  2. Excellent post, Paul. A written agreement takes a little work to prepare, but it saves you a lot of trouble in the end.

    Looking forward to part 2

    • Thanks Thomas. I completely agree with you about agreements. At times people seem to be hesitant to get paperwork involved because they’re afraid they’ll scare away the other party, but I find it helps out everyone right from the start.

      The templates from the ILRG site work well with a bit of tweaking.

  3. Thanks for the tips. I didn’t think of those things, but I am just starting in the SFX selling bussiness.
    Thanks again