How to Succeed as a Freelance Audio Engineer
Hi folks. This article is going to be a bit different.
It’s not about compression, vocals, reverb or anything of a musical nature. It’s about creating a career in music. While it may not be the most popular article I’ve ever written, I think it will be pretty valuable.
There are two types of people in the world: people who want to work in music, and people who work in music.
People often confuse the idea of getting paid to work in music with working in music. Music is a tough field, because in your first five to ten years in the business you don’t really make enough money to support yourself. Or in my case, you actually end up going into a bit of debt. Possibly a lot. Depends how good you are at kitchen work.
The point is, working in music (really in the arts in general) requires more motivation than your average job, because your first pay check doesn’t exist and there’s no promise that it ever will. However, I promise you it will come.
There are two basic principals to getting a career in a music going: The first is to get really f-ing good. The second is to get known. And the two go hand in hand.
Back In The Day
At the very beginning of my career there was a lit path. You worked as an intern at a studio, and worked your way up to assistant engineer or assistant producer, and eventually became a b-lister, and then eventually an a-lister with your own clients and assistants. Here, the process allowed you to become good and become known in the same movement. I’m lucky in the sense that I caught the tail end of this. Unfortunately those lights have faded.
As these lights went out, and that path became enshrouded, I realized I needed a new way. I left my job at the studio and began to create my own world. I stopped expecting clients to come to me — rather, I had to figure a way to reach out to potential clients. I also had to start relying on myself alone for support and experience.
First, the success must be an inner success. If you aren’t succeeding in your own sense of self, you can’t show people how truly great you are. This isn’t something that can be faked. So you set your own bar high.
In terms of skill level, I consider the people who charge five times what I charge to be my competition. ‘Good for what I charge’ is never the goal — really, ‘great period’ is the goal. And on every record.
The second issue in this is being in competition with oneself. Making excuses is the equivalent of giving up. So what if the vocal is a cheaply tracked mp3 and the music is printed as a 2-track. The end listener wants to listen and enjoy it — so make it work.
It’s important to walk in with this mindset, because your first clients will be your toughest.
Generally speaking, the guys with the smallest budgets are also the guys with the least experience — and those are going to be the first clients you start picking up. This is your boot camp. You spend the extra time it takes, even with very little (or no) pay to get great results from inexperienced artists. Not only does this get you prepared for whatever the more demanding artists will throw at you when you start charging a lot more, but it also accelerates your career. That initial set of artists are the ones who will spread your name around. And in the absolute best case scenario, the music you worked on gets spread around as well.
Eventually, more experienced and demanding artists start seeking you out and they force you to elevate your game — which in turn gets you even more experienced artists. All the while, the artists you’ve been working with are elevating themselves.
What’s important here is that at no point do you stop going the extra mile to put forth the absolute best results — even if it means working two days on a mix when you only get paid for one.
Second, the success must be an outer success. When you’re really good — let people know it. Put together a demo reel, a website, business cards. Go out to shows. Genuine confidence is very powerful. But be wary, because false confidence is equally as powerful and works against you. Everyone is on tight budgets, tight schedules, and very nervous about who handles their art. It’s extremely personal. People literally invest their lives into their music.
Artists live in a world full of insecurities, so real confidence is extremely important for them. The important thing is to deliver the goods when all is said and done! Then let it be known. Make sure you get your credits and remind the artists you work with to pass your name along.
Lastly, success relies on humility.
Reading up on what others are doing, listening carefully to artists’ needs and criticisms, listening analytically to songs you like and songs you hate, nodding to other people in the field who have their success are all very important.
The Artist Is Right
Mostly you have to keep in mind that the artist is right. If you ask an artist “do you want your music to sound bad” the answer will assuredly be “no.” But that doesn’t mean that artists won’t ask you to do crazy stuff: squash, distort, make something sound strangely disproportionate, dub in a chicken squawk, whatever.
The trick is to embrace that, and find a way to make it work in a sonically pleasing way. There’s a thin line between a bad idea and foreword thinking. So be humble.
Two common scenarios I face all the time are: trying to make an artist’s/band’s record sound like it was tracked in a million dollar studio even though they tracked at home in the bedroom; and, doing something with an effect or making an arrangement change that I really like that the artist hates.
The answer here is: get over it. That’s why it’s a job. If someone isn’t asking you to do the impossible then you’re not going to break new ground. If someone doesn’t hate a choice you’ve made then you’re not taking enough chances.
It’s a slow climb, but with experience, exposure, and humility you can turn a pursuit into a career.
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