Thursday, March 29, 2012

Working - Part 1

This post starts a series on getting into the industry, here's where you can find the other parts:
I've been reading and thinking a lot lately about the actual paycheck part of working in this industry.  The first thing I want to say is that it's very important to take a good hard look at where you think you want to be and then figure out if it's actually possible to get there.  If you want to work on feature films but you're not willing to leave your home in the Midwest or you want to tour but have a hard time leaving your wife and kids behind then you've got some serious thinking to do.
You may not need to sacrifice your priorities though. For me raising a family was higher on my list than working full time in audio and to do that in the town I wanted to live in meant working a day job and doing smaller gigs.  My friends who stayed in New York City to work, made a lot more money than me, but their parking spaces cost more than my mortgage.  Looking at a lot of indie bands I've known, lots have gotten signed, some even to big labels, but none are national stars.  They got to make records and tour, but they mostly broke even on it and still had to work day jobs and eventually got out of the game.  But if you ask them they wouldn't trade the ride they got out of it for anything.  That's what it's about folks, what kind of a ride can you get out of that sled before you run out of hill.

No matter where you wind up starting from though you're going to have to get yourself established as a business and that generally means doing business type things like getting a bank account and learning how to declare your income so that Uncle Sam doesn't come after you.  More importantly though you need to start thinking of yourself as a business in terms of "branding" which is the buzz word lately. (Is buzz word still a buzz word or am I dating myself?) That means you should probably at the very least make your Facebook private and start a page just for your biz.  A good logo is a worthwhile investment too.  There needs to be something to differentiate you from the rest of the guys out there with road boxes and cables and bad breath.  And keep in mind that everything you do on a project or gig could eventually come back to haunt you.  It's way better to be known as they guy who goes the extra mile than the guy who nickle and dimes his clients to death for each little add-on.

Which brings me around to getting the actual clients.  When you're young and hungry you've generally got nothing but time to invest, so it's OK to do a lot of work for cheap or even free just to get your name out there.  But you have to be extremely careful not to become known as "that guy who'll do your stuff for nothing".  If you're doing favors for someone on small projects who insists that you're going along with them when they make it big, don't count on that because it may be out of their hands. (In all my years of helping out young bands only one has ever given me a serious invitation to tour with them.)

A lot of blogs I've been reading are actually floating out the idea that it's actually better to work for free than for just cheap because it makes it easier for you to put your foot down about what the client is getting out of you.  Also keep in mind that clients looking for the low buck solution are often the least prepared and most demanding.  At any rate, make it clear from the outset what your price is, how it will be paid (preferably some up front) and when and how you will start charging them for extras.  
Myself, I'm perfectly willing to pull out some extra gear if I show up at a gig and an inexperienced promoter underestimated the size of the room.  I may not even charge for it because that small act of good will has turned into repeat business, not only in the form of doing the same event the next year and the next, but getting referred by that happy client.  But there have to be limits.  If it's something that I already have sitting on the truck, no problem.  If a gig suddenly turns out to need a dozen channels of wireless mics at the last second, I can secure them, but that's an extra that's coming out of the client's checkbook, not mine.  
You really have to take a good look at it though and what it will mean for your self promotion.  I know of a small studio that has purposefully sought out promising young acts to basically "sponsor" and help them get a record made. (The owner of said studio will hopefully be a future contributor to this blog. Hi Brian!)  Here you have a guy who's been burnt many a time sweating it out on demos that were never going to go anywhere by putting in many more hours than he got paid for.  But by making the choice to hook up with some good talent, even if he winds up basically giving away his time, that all comes back because now he's got a catalog of great material on his website, of many different genres and all are happy clients who are now getting some attention out in the world, and passing on the info about what a great studio they worked in.
In a business as tightly woven as ours it's possible for us to turn the tables as well.  It's not possible for a promoter to screw a sound guy without every other sound guy in the area hearing about it.  While other companies are "my competition" what helps them helps me and if I know there's someone shady out there I'll pass the word along, at least to be careful.  In the live sound area, it's not possible to hold on to a master recording until you get paid, so you have to take it on trust most of the time that a promoter will get you your balance at the end of the night.  There have been a couple absolute flops that I worked on and there just wasn't enough money coming in the door to pay me.  In those cases I was making good money during the day and could afford to take a hit.  A couple other times though I got royally and vindictively screwed and then it was time to go to the grapevine.  I know for a fact that there's one theatre producer who even five years after our run in is still having a hard time getting techs and gear for his shows.

Speaking of taking a hit, I'd like to go back to the whole working for cheap idea for a second.  Even after I was well established, I would cut first time deals with promoters.  When I say promoters what I actually mean is PTA moms who were putting together battles of the bands for fundraisers.  In those cases I could say, "Look, I know you know next to nothing about this and you have no way to look at my website and tell if I'm any good or not.  So I'll cut you a break on the price this time around and I'll stage manage your show and even help out with promoting it a little.  If you're happy we can talk about what next year's show will cost."  Now high school battles are about the most miserable thing you can mix, but they can be a real life line because then tend to happen when nothing else is going on, so I may as well go out and do them because it's more money than I would make sitting at home on a Saturday.  I did a few for very little money, but after a year or two the word spread about me and they were netting me thousands of dollars and I was pretty much guaranteed to get the call year after year.

I feel like I'm getting a little long winded, so stay tuned my Brethren of the Knob and Fader for Part two in a couple days, when we'll get into diversifying your resume and whether or not you even need a resume.

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