Careers in Music Part Three: Going Freelance
This post talks about the daunting step of leaving your employed studio job and into the world of freelancing.
So, you’ve got a job at a studio and all is going well, but you are starting to feel it’s time to move on, make a break for it and build a name for yourself. Personally, I found this step difficult and you may even say that I fell at the first hurdle; plucking up the courage to leave your reliable, fought for and loved position as an in-house engineer. After all, people would do anything to be in your position, isn’t throwing it away a bit ungrateful?! It was hard to admit, but towards the end of my time as an employed engineer, I was getting a bit bored, the studio was getting quieter and a lot of sessions were bringing in engineers, and the majority of work was vocal sessions over a backing track, which is all good and well, but I got in to this to record bands and get cool drum sounds! Fortunately, (in a way!), I was made redundant because the studio was closing down, therefore the decision was somewhat taken out of my hands, and I knew I’d have a redundancy package to fall back on, 3 months left to make sure that I nailed every job that came in, and the opportunity to pass on my details to anybody who’d listen.
This worked for a while, I had a good thing going with a group of American writer/producers that were in England for a month or so, I stayed on good terms with Sarm who offered me odd jobs here and there, and of course I was now free to work for other studios. This had it’s ups and downs; yes it was great to work in new studios with new people, but it’s very rare that a studio will take you on as an engineer without trying you out first, (you might get lucky with a very last minute session), so you have to go in as an assistant, and what’s your job as an assistant? To know the studio inside out to make the clients’ life easier… not always easy if you’ve never stepped foot in there before! Again, this only goes to highlight the importance of night reception.
There is no sure fire way to get work as a freelance engineer, nor is there any guarantee you’ll have a long running career. What is certain is you need stamina and determination to keep pushing yourself, advertise, find new avenues of work, be it a new band you believe in or working for different producers. There will be knock backs, there may even be times where you have to work a second job in a pub and times when you have no work and feel you’ve had enough, and it’s not easy, but assuming you’ve already put years in to this career path, do you have the desire and stamina to keep at it? There’s no shame in deciding you’ve given it a good go and it’s time to move on, but it’s the quiet times when you’ll really discover if this is what you want to pursue.
What is life like as a freelancer? The first thing you think of when being self-employed is how great the lack of an immediate boss will be! You want a day off? You have one! Don’t fancy getting dressed?! Don’t! That all sounds great, (and it is!), but you need to remember that you are now in complete control of your destiny. This doesn’t just mean finding work and having a Twitter account, it dictates how you conduct yourself on a day to day basis; how you speak on the phone, how you talk to clients, how personable you are, and even what you are like when you’re drunk! Believe me, I’ve been out with other engineers, producers and artists and got so drunk and made a complete tool out of myself that I’m convinced their opinions of me have been marred and I quite possibly could have lost out on work because of this. It’s great to be able to go out and get drunk on a school night as you might not have to drag your arse in to the studio the next day*, but remember how important last impressions are!
You need to be adaptable. Working in a studio may be all you want to do, but the vast majority of freelance engineers I know have some sort of fallback or part-time job within the music industry that gives them a more stable income. Here are a few other examples of music based income:
- Live sound – while sometimes daunting to studio engineers, is a great way to get work and meet new artists.
- Location recording – if you can afford the initial expense, get a decent set-up and offer bands the opportunity to record in their rehearsal space.
- Teaching – it doesn’t have to be a full time job, you can do guest lectures at universities that actually pay quite well for a days work.
- You might even want to take the internet by storm with your blog writing… or be even cleverer and be the guy who hosts the website!
Show your support to acts that you’ve worked with. Re-Tweet their video’s, go to gigs, it all helps build and maintain a working relationship… that’s very cynical, I’m very good friends with a lot of acts I’ve worked with, but it all goes hand-in-hand.
Whatever you do, don’t forget why you got in to music. First and foremost, I imagine you enjoyed the creative side, as opposed to simply pressing record when needed, so go out and find new acts, contact bands you like, keep the dream alive! Otherwise not only are you preventing yourself from finding new avenues of work, you will also get bored, or even worse, resentful of the industry; this will usually meant that you either end up in a slump not wanting to do it, or leave all together and possibly regret it. I know a lot of people who have had periods of doubt in their careers, and even suffer from depression, so you need to keep interested and excited by it.
Set yourself apart from others. Maybe this means being good at a particular aspect of music production (recording engineer, mix engineer, producer etc), being the guy that has that one piece of equipment or technique that others don’t, it could be your personality and ability to get on with people and make the sessions run smoothly, maybe you are the guy that is always available, even at 3am*. Whatever it is, you can’t just be another engineer because the way things are, many producers, and even artists, are doing their own engineering now, so you need to make them want to spend the extra cash for your skills.
So there you have it, my little insight in to becoming an engineer in the music industry. I hope all this helps in some way, and at the very least was interesting and entertaining to read!
*You should always be prepared for last minute sessions. I am constantly phoned up and asked to go in immediately, either early in the morning or at 9pm on a Saturday. So either live life with this in mind, or learn to work with a hangover!