When viewed organically, the entire music industry can be seen for what it really is: an ugly parasite living on the lifeblood of musicians. Like any successful parasite, the goal of the music industry is to extract as much sustenance as possible from its host, without killing it - a careful balancing act. So if you intend to work as a sound engineer in the music industry, there are two things you must do from the start. First, you must acknowledge your status as a parasite; otherwise you’re not going to make a living. Second, you must acknowledge that your clients will be among the poorest people in Western society – musicians – therefore, every cent you extract from them is not likely to come easily.
Novice engineers, in particular, feel a strong affinity with musicians and tend to do much more work than their clients can afford, simply because it is fun and/or they enjoy the music and/or the client is currently considered 'cool' (whatever that means). This usually results in a lot more giving than taking. In effect, the engineer becomes a patron of the arts. But eventually they realise that if they’re going to make a living, they’ve got to start earning decent money. They have to switch from being a patron of the arts to a parasite of the arts. But is it possible to do it in a mutually beneficial manner?
Parasites & Patrons Of The Arts
In ‘91 I spent some time with a small but intrepid group of people trekking through the Amazon rainforest in Peru. Our adventure began in the village of Cuzco, high in the Andes, where the air is thin, cold and dry. After a headlong 4WD descent down a trail clinging desperately to the side of a mountain, we emerged beneath the cloud forest and entered the stifling humidity of the Amazon basin. Exhausted, we transferred our backpacks into powered longboats and spent two days motoring down river, sleeping under the stars on a tiny island formed where two waterways collided. Our destination turned out to be a small beach on the shores of the Amazon, deep within the Manu National Park. This was our home for the next two weeks, so we pitched our tents and made peace with the crocodiles, piranhas and anacondas that were our new neighbours.
It was the early days of eco-tourism. Our guide, a biologist named Barry, took us on numerous forays into the rainforest, revealing something new and interesting with every step: trees that ‘walk’, leaf-cutting ants that farm aphids for food, communal spiders that weave collective webs and share the bounty, and so on. But it was the symbiotic relationships between different species that really stuck in my mind. Barry stopped by a small tree and warned us to never lean against one. He tapped the trunk and it was instantly covered in agitated red ants, heads raised and mandibles open, ready to attack. Judging by the volume of ants that had been hiding inside the tree’s slender trunk, I doubt there was much actual wood left in there! But that’s how this particular relationship worked - the tree sacrificed some of its bulk to provide a home for the ants, and in return the ants protected the tree. That’s symbiosis for you.
After returning from the Amazon, I started a small business doing audio editing and basic mastering. I had $20,000 worth of pro equipment, very low overheads, and a rather organic view of life. My strategy was to charge a low rate to attract plenty of work, and I figured I’d be happy to earn $25 per hour. I spent $50 per week on small ads in the local street press, and my phone was soon running hot. Within a few months I was booked 12 hours per day, seven days per week. My plan was working.
Or was it? Despite all the bookings, I was not making any money. I was working every minute of every day, yet my business was like treading water – if I stopped for a rest, I’d drown. According to my initial figures, I should’ve been comfortable at $25 per hour. What went wrong?
The reality is that when you charge a rate that appeals to the rock bottom of the market, that’s precisely what you get - the rock bottom of the market! The majority of my clients were struggling musicians with no money, whose cheap and dire recordings needed the most amount of fixing to make them sound acceptable. Because I took pride in my work and couldn’t bear to see something leave my studio that wasn’t as good as I could possibly make it, I would often put many unpaid hours into these jobs. No wonder I wasn’t making any money – I had become a patron of the arts, not a businessman!
Then one night I was telling Rick O’Neil my tale of woe. “Double your rate”, he said authoritatively. This seemed like a terrible idea. “But I’ll lose all my regular clients and my competitive advantage”, I replied. “It can’t be much of a ‘competitive advantage’ if you’re not making any money!” mocked Rick, “And the clients you’re attracting can’t pay for the level of work you’re giving them, so they’re not worth your effort”. “I dunno”, I said, shaking my head and feeling rather uncertain about the idea. “Well, you asked for my advice…” said Rick, and promptly changed the subject to the latest piece of gear he’d bought.
At a trade show a week later, I spoke with an engineer who had a similar system to mine, but was charging $80 per hour. I asked how he justified it. “I don’t work much, but when I do, I get well paid for it,” he said, then laughed, “and I send you all the cheapo time-wasting jobs I can’t be bothered with!” By charging more, he created the impression that he was offering a higher quality service than I was. He made more in a day than I made in a week – and he had time to have a life! The whole engineer/musician relationship was working nicely for him.
I started thinking about the ants and their trees. The symbiotic relationship between them is not dissimilar to the relationship between engineers and musicians. In order for the ants to do their job and protect the trees properly, the trees have to make a significant sacrifice (i.e. having their insides hollowed out to provide a home for the ants!).
Suddenly, it became very clear to me. I resolved to double my rate for all new clients, and keep my existing regular clients at the old rate for another 12 months. Bookings dropped off, but business and life picked up. I was working less time for the same money, and I was attracting a better class of client with bigger budgets and higher quality recordings to work with. I finally felt like a small businessman, not a patron of the arts.
Engineers and musicians are not unlike those ants and their trees. As a professional engineer, if you charge too much you may not survive – like the ants killing the tree by hollowing out too much. But if you charge too little you also may not survive – like the tree accommodating insufficient ants to protect it. Musicians need engineers to make their music heard, and engineers need musicians to make their livelihood. Is the symbiosis working for you?
Since writing that First Word back in late 1999 or early 2000, I have extended my parasitic logic even further. I advise all of my audio students to tool up with basic recording equipment (laptop, interface, a handful of microphones), but warn them against building any serious kind of recording facility. Why? Because in every city there are a handful of small, well-built studios hungry for work. Built before the advent of the project studio, when sound quality actually mattered and there was work aplenty, these places are often owned and operated by experienced engineers with good selections of microphones and other recording equipment. Rather than spending vast amounts of money to become yet another hungry studio owner, it is smarter to hire one of these existing facilities for those few occasions when such a space is required. You can walk in with a ProTools session file, add whatever you can’t record at home or elsewhere, and then walk out again. The cost of the studio hire is charged to your clients, of course. It’s a win/win situation, and you’re not left with the huge financial burden that many professional recording studios have become. As a contemporary sound engineer, you become a parasite with two hosts: musicians and studio owners. More hosts means greater chances of survival, right?