Karl Maciag is in the system design line of work these days but used to push faders out in venues. Now you reap the benefit of his years of experience. Karl also writes his own blog over at Karl's Empty Space. Click on the Contributors link above to see his other posts on this blog.
I think a few of the contributors for the blog are going to spend their next entry or so describing their professional journey in the audio biz. It’s fun to reminisce about the journey that you are on, I think it’s healthy to do. I think a few of us doing that will most importantly illustrate that there is certainly not one way to get a job, and stay working in this industry. I think that’s what makes our industry unique.
I decided my senior year of high school that I was not going to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, as I thought I wanted to do most of my high school career. I decided instead that doing sound at my church was something I really was intrigued by, had a natural talent for, and wanted to delve deeper into. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I decided against a 4 year school, and attended a trade school instead, that taught nothing but studio recording. 3-4 months later, and a few certificates (not degrees) later, I was back home, looking for work.
The first year was extremely slow. I was working at my church for free, doing sound, maintaining the system (the best I knew at that point), and doing some freelance stuff for a guy from my church that ran a home studio, and small live event company. It was good experience. Dealing with all sorts of different bands, different cultures, languages etc. primed me for being able to adapt quickly later down the road.
During this time, I was also an active guitar player, playing in the local clubs in Buffalo. I would call this my “networking” time. It was here that I became friends with the house sound guys, helping them mic up drum kits when my band was changing over sets, and just chatting them up asking them about the gear they had etc. It was also a networking time meeting the promoters that booked the band that I was playing in. After being in this environment for 6 months or so, I started asking the promoters if they’d hire me to do sound at their venues if they ever needed a guy. Soon after, I got a call to shadow a house guy that knew he was going to be taking time off, and I could cover for him when he was gone. They were local shows, and I did fine. The bands got a long with me, nothing broke, and it sounded pretty good. I started getting more calls from the promoter to cover for more guys.
After a couple months, the promoter told me he was opening a new venue, and wanted me to be the house guy at that venue. I said “yes” immediately. It was a super shady bar, with mirrors all over the place, and the night before my first show, they had a Jello wrestling night, which left this nasty sticky residue all over the floor, that they didn’t mop up until after I started setting up the system. For months, just handling the mic cables left my hands completely covered it sticky dirty muck. I started brining a bar of soap and towel just to wash my hands after setting up the stage and tearing it down at the end of the night! I learned early there is not much glamor in this business.
I’d still get calls to cover the other venues, which hosted a lot of national and touring acts. That was the big test for me, the promoter wanted to see how I dealt with the touring engineers, and bands with big egos. Being flexible, and having an attitude that my job was to make the visiting engineer succeed was key to me continuing to get work. Time went on and I got “promoted” to be a regular house guy at the bigger venue.
After a year of this, I got a call from a production company owner that I met in high school (who originally got me interested in sound in the first place), asking if I was looking for work, that he needed another guy to cover larger events. It was working for this company I learned about real production. Loading in and out logistics, packing cases, packing trucks, dealing with sub par power situations, how to tap power, how to do 3 events in one day that had you work 20 hours, only to get up the next day and do 3 more, remembering to wear sunblock, etc. Work ethic, and attention to detail was key. Pack the cable trunks so the next guy to use it doesn’t have to deal with spaghetti. Working as a team, to not screw the next guy down the line. Important stuff.
At this point, I was at Circuit City full time, and doing sound for shows on the weekends, or nights I didn’t have to work. During the summer, I was doing shows 5-7 nights a week, the money was pretty good, and having a full time job on top of it was great. During the winter, that slowed down to a hopeful 2 shows a week, as the production company didn’t have the outdoor schedule it did in the summer.
I continued making contacts, one of them very important, a 20+ year veteran of the industry that I got along with very well, that was willing to spend time with me, and show me more of the ropes. I had moved on to another house gig that was in the same building as his gig. I’d do my early show that got done around 11, and then I’d go over to his show that went until 3am. Those late hours took my developing skills, and made me think deeper about what I was doing. All of the bands loved him at the venue. He knew them all, knew their gear, their sound, their habits, and made them feel like they were in his living room, just hanging out. His reputation of being a superior “service provider” had served him well. Eventually I started covering this venue too, when he had to travel etc.
So after 3 years, I had grown as a freelance engineer that was a regular house tech at 3 venues, on the regular crew of a production company, and assisting another guy with his house rig when he couldn’t cover it. I decided to take the plunge, quit my day job, and do sound full time. I also had started contracting from time to time assisting on AV installs as well.
Eventually, I started becoming the engineer of choice for several local bands. It got to the point, where these bands would pay me to mix their local shows, instead of the house guy at the venue. The bands would pay me just for their set, and a lot of time, I would make more money than the house guy being paid by the promoter! Several of the bands would play the same shows together, which would leave me sometimes with $100-$200 for mixing two or three sets. The house guy was setting up gear, cleaning up, mixing bands he didn’t like and only making a flat $50, which the house gig paid. Being creative, and consistent was paying off.
I finally got the call I’d been waiting for in May of 2004. A national touring band, called a promoter friend of mine and asked if he knew any good tour worthy sound guys. He recommended me, and I was on my way. Baptism by fire. 3 months, across America and back. I talked before about my first time on a digital desk, it was this tour. It proved to be extremely educational, fun, and testing. I continued my relationship working with that band for about a year, until I decided that I was going to concentrate on AV integration full time, and stay home with my family.
I miss the camaraderie of touring. I miss having a new place and experience each day. I love to travel, even if I don’t travel well sometimes, and what better way to travel, than to get paid to travel. In the short time I was in that realm, I made life long friends, and have experience and memories that cannot be replaced by anything. The pay was good, and on longer tours, it was nice to come home and have good money waiting in the bank. But that money might has to tide you over until the next tour comes along….That uncertainty was a killer for my touring career.
Since 2005, I’ve concentrated on AV integration, and picking and choosing what shows I do. The late hours are for the birds if you have to wake up and do the 9-5 grind the next day, so I’ve cut the shows out to avoid an early grave.
That’s my story. I hope you picked out that it revolves around relationships more than you would think. The trust of your clients, and potential clients is the most important thing. As soon as you screw someone over, you’re done with them, and their network of friends. If you’re starting out, good luck, try hard, and make more friends than enemies, but know who your enemies are. After all…."The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves
and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."