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Working with Inexperienced Clients: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Whether you’re working with a novice artist or a seasoned veteran, there are challenges unique to each — and as with most situations in life — the only thing we have complete control over is our attitude and reactions. I’ve found this especially important when working with beginners.

Recently I was hired to mix and master an entire album. It was a full-length, and I had previously collaborated with the producer on one of my favorite projects I had ever been a part of, so I was sincerely looking forward to being a part of this one.

I won’t divulge the name of the artist, or any specifics out of respect to the individuals, but know that now that the project has been completed, I am satisfied with the work I did, and the project as a whole.

Due to the “friendly” nature of the project, I didn’t provide and require a contract before the project started. That was a big mistake on my part and would’ve set some clear guidelines and boundaries for all involved. I can’t stress enough the importance of contracts.

This band had never had a project professionally recorded, mixed and mastered.

After spending a good weeks’ worth of time prepping and delivering the first pass of mixes for about 2/3 of the songs, I received an alarming call from the producer. It seemed the band was unhappy with the deliveries, and was planning on using a different engineer for the project, but was willing to pay me for my services.

At that point I’d probably logged about 18 hours worth of work. Keep in mind we agreed on a flat rate for the entire project from the start.

With the ball in my court, there were three different ways this could’ve gone.

The Ugly

Angrily, and with a bruised ego, I could’ve lashed out at the producer and the band.

My time is valuable, and although they were willing to pay me for my time, it’s insulting that they’d choose someone else. Via email or phone, I could’ve insulted them on their poor life choices and insisted on payment immediately.


I would never have done this, and here’s why: Before I was a producer/engineer, I enjoyed songwriting and performing. I completely remember what that feeling is like when you allow something to pour out of you in the form of a song, and feel disappointed that it sonically doesn’t stack up to artists you seek inspiration from. That’s an incredibly scary feeling. This is in fact part of the reason why I got into engineering.

Artists are generally very sensitive people — especially when they have made a significant emotional and financial investment in a project. Not only would I have burned at least one bridge with this method, but I also would’ve left the band and producer with a sour taste and negative memory of the project.

I personally believe as an engineer, my only goal is to properly document a moment in time from the perspective of the artist. If I negatively affect the way the artist feels about that particular moment in time, I haven’t done my job.

The Bad

I also could’ve acted indifferently, and casually accepted the bands’ desire at the time to make a clean break and pay me for my work up to that date.

This is probably the safest approach, and at the time would’ve involved no work.

If you have a steady stream of clients, in some cases this actually might be the best option. However, I really enjoyed the music, and my ego told me to fight for the project and not give up so easily.

Although accepting payment technically wouldn’t be considered a loss altogether, I still consider this to be “the bad” because ultimately I wouldn’t have the project in my portfolio, and I more than likely wouldn’t get this particular client back in the future. I also enjoy teaching inexperienced clients about the production process, and complacency in this moment wouldn’t have allowed me to do so.

The Good

What ultimately happened is upon finding out that the client was having doubts, and planning on using services other than mine, I wanted to understand the perspective of the client. So I called them just to understand what their specific worries were, and to let them know that I absolutely didn’t take their concerns personally.

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Because I was informed that the band had never been professionally recorded, mixed, and mastered before, I was prepared to engage in the coaching process that is usually more the role of a producer, but certainly a skill that a mix engineer should have.

I found out that the band had concerns with the “big picture” of the mixes. They seemed emotionally attached to their rough mixes, and were unhappy with the overall sound of the bass and noisiness of the acoustic guitars in most of the mixes I delivered.

Upon receiving more information, it seemed to me that the members of the band expected everything to be exactly as they wanted on first delivery, and would’ve rather (at that point) cut their losses and looked for someone who could do it right on the first try. I was working remotely as well, and they had doubts about not being able to be present for the mixing process.

Later that evening, I took a good hour to create a sincere and helpful email with the hope that I could clear up some misconceptions and relieve some fears that the band was having. I informed them of past experiences, worries that previous clients have had that mirrored their own, and made sure to stress the importance of the revision process.

It’s not uncommon for a piece of popular music to be the result of over a dozen mix revisions, so I informed them of this and let them know I’d be patient until they came to a decision one way or another. I also mentioned that if they had specific concerns such as the sound of a particular instrument, or the balance between parts, to communicate to me to the best of their ability.

The Result

I received a call from the leader of the band the next day.

The band took the time to read my detailed email, listened to my advice, and were appreciative and thankful for my willingness to display patience and help them through the process. They decided to stick with me, and apologized for their initial worries.

Many, many in depth emails and revisions later, everyone was happy.

When the project was nearly wrapped, I received a text from the leader stating that he just listened to the project all the way through, and it turned out better than he ever could have imagined. I have a great album for my reel, and I received payment for the entirety of the project.

Best of all, and most important to me, I can confidently say that the artist will remember the production of their first album as a positive experience.

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch and learn more on his website.