For all the younger dudes out there who think they want to get into music recording, I have a few things to say.
Why aren’t you already recording music?
Why haven’t you gotten a job, bought a $200 audio interface, a $100 mic, and maybe EZ Drummer?
How will you know if you even like recording music if you aren’t already doing it?
Starving Actors and Starving Engineers / Producers
If you haven’t recorded music in your own time, you should consider if this is really a “career” you want to go for. Music recording is not like being an accountant or something. I’m sure there are plenty of guys who decide they want to be accountant one day, go to school, and then become a CPA down the road. Music recording requires a HUGE dedication. It’s a lot more like being an actor. Ever heard of the phrase “starving actor”?
Starving actor is a well known phrase because there are so many people who are just dying to hop into the lead role on the next Jerry Bruckheimer production that they are willing to starve for the chance of snagging that big role. (I can think of higher movie aspirations, by the way).
Imagine if the world was just crawling with people who dreamed of being garbage men or lawyers and would starve at the chance just to get one of those gigs. (By the way, there is nothing wrong with being a garbage man. If you are a lawyer, I’ll probably see you in hell! Ha ha). So, audio recording falls under the “dream job” label.
The High Road
This path is the path to recording major label stars. You MUST make huge contacts somewhere along the line. If you don’t have an “in” with someone, you will never succeed in this genre. It requires that you know people. No one cares about the music degree you have or audio engineering phd you may have hanging on the wall of your extremely small apartment! You need to know people AND you need to know what you are doing. I’d argue that the first is more important.
The music industry is all about networking. It’s about getting jobs the same way that any other non-yell pages type of business makes their money. Before I switched to producing only, my studio was always overbooked and I never put my # in the phone book. I never saw a point in it. It was all word of mouth. The same is true in big boy land. You get to record Keith Urban when you party with his bass player or whatever. (Of course, you record the bass player’s little sister first and if that goes well you move on to bigger and better things).
The high road is what Puffy Daddy and every other big guy did. I said Puff Daddy because someone was watching his life story on TV in the background recently. He was the usual kid from a poor neighborhood, but he took or a bus or something 1 hour into the city so he could volunteer to work for some big producer. He was like 15 or something stupid. (Okay, I didn’t pay too much attention to the show!) Anyway, the producer dude told Puff Daddy to wash his car. Puff Daddy did and did a hell of a job. This sort of thing continued for a long time. Somewhere in there one guy called in sick and Puff Daddy was wrapping cables and things of that sort. He worked his way up and before you know it he’s good buddies with Mr. Huge Producer and making Notorious BIG and Mary J Blige records. The rest is annoying history.
Is recording school a part of the high road? It depends. Recording school gets you an audition. In other words, you go to recording school and spend $20k on the school and another $5-10k on living expenses while you learn stuff about audio that any big producer would teach you if you could be in the same room. (This is why I highly recommend the Micheal Wagener Workshop for anyone who is really serious about learning the craft of recording.)
I don’t mean to undermine how great of an experience recording school can be. In fact, I’d probably put it close to the top of “Funnest ways to waste $25,000”. I’d rather blow $25k on recording school than blow $25k on strippers or on blackjack.
The Flaws of the High Road
The industry is not what it used to be. I recently heard that Capital Records (known for being the “rock” label) cut its roster from 250 bands to 50 bands. (This was like 2 years ago when I heard this). Ouch! As you know, the labels are focusing more and more attention on 2 bands / artists per year. They are promoting 3 songs per year. This means that there is dramatically smaller amounts of major label work to choose from.
There are thousands of recording school graduates from each year (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and now 2007) who are competing to be involved with the recording of these 50 bands from Capital. You must be willing to go through prison and back to be picked as the guy who gets the coffee
What would you do if a producer wanted you to pick up an 8 ball of cocaine for him @ 1am on a Tuesday night? If you say no, you probably won’t be asked to be the coffee maker on the next session. If you say yes, maybe you’ll be fine. Maybe you’ll get a felony possession. Maybe you’ll go down the path to destruction. (There are a lot of burned out engineers out there. It’s sickening and sad!)
How long can you go on practically zero dollars, insane hours, and no appreciation with about a 0% chance of making it to superstar land? This is why just about every recording school graduate ends up back in Missouri or Indiana or whatever.
Would you miss your mother’s funeral? There’s a popular story of a studio owner who needed a coffee maker to work. The coffee maker / recording school graduate had just heard that his mother had died. The studio owner said “I don’t give a shit. Get your ass down to the studio, now! I need you to work today”. Of course, the coffee maker / recording school grad didn’t go to work. (No one worth a damn would ever ditch their mom’s funeral unless she was an abusive piece of garbage or something). Anyway, the coffee maker was immediately fired and a new coffee maker stepped up in his place. It’s nothing personal. Of course, this sounds maybe a little more harsh than it really is. I mean, the studio owner probably respected the coffee maker / recording school grad more because he picked his mother over his job. However, the studio owner has a business to run and the recording The Wall or Thriller isn’t going to stop just because the coffee maker couldn’t show up. Of course, the recording industry needs sickeningly dedicated individuals to cater to the stars. This is just a small part of it.
The Low Road
The low road is the path I’ve taken. I wonder how my life would have taken at the high road. I’m convinced I would have done well. Would I be happy? How should I know? I’m confident I would have succeeded.
The low road consists of doing everything yourself. I mean EVERYTHING…even making the coffee! I started out by maxing out a loan and 2 credit cards. I bought about $15k worth of recording gear (didn’t go as far in 2001 as it does now). I did this all in my bedroom of my mom’s house. After I got the hang of it, I went to a few live shows and offered to record a band for free. They jumped on it. I had a little room I could use that was 8′ x 12′ x 8′. (Look up “boxy” in the audio engineering dictionary and you’ll see a picture of this room. Ha ha).
Anyway, Mom got a new house, I bought the old one and used it almost entirely for recording. My old dining room became my control room. My old living room became my live room for drums and stuff. I started recording more and more bands. I got quite active in the local scene. Before I knew it, I was booked solid.
In between recording bands, I’m reading about acoustic principals, the effects of gear, etc. I’m pumping almost all the cash I made right back into my studio and getting experience FAST. It was normal to put in 30 hours in a Saturday or Sunday. We had to get finished because I wouldn’t be able to get the band in again for another month.
It continued like this for a long time, but my recording quality was so random. Some albums sounded pretty damn good. Others were terrible! I thought it was me. It turned out it was the bands. So, I started to pickier about the bands that I worked with. I started charging more money. Of course, more bands began to stand me up. Immediately after returning from the Michael Wagener Workshop where I’m meeting my music recording heroes, I come back to Missouri. I’m low on cash and NEED the work. The band doesn’t show up.
Something in me clicked. I said I was wasting my time with 90% of all local bands. I wasn’t ever going to make enough money for a real career and recording local bands was always done on nights and weekends so I was never going to be much of a dad or whatever. I saw a dead end.
I decided to get into producing. Meaning, I’d take on one or two projects at a time and I’d produce the hell out of them. I’d try to make the best recording I could with the best songs. Of course, my quality shot WAY up and my income shot WAY down.
The idea is to record better and better bands, songs, etc and work my way up the ladder.
The Flaws On The Low Road
You have to do everything. This includes everything from pulling out the Algebra 2 books to design the Helmholtz Resonators to pulling in the clients to squeezing out a great vocal take from a singer.
Typically, the quality of musicians is not nearly as high as you’d get in the High Road. Therefor, you’ll be making recordings of bands that simply don’t sound good sometimes. Of course, your name is on that project whether you like it or not. You’ll lose some business by recording the crappy bands.
As proof by this forum, there are A LOT of people recording at home. Can they compete with a dedicated studio guy? In most cases, the answer is no. Of course, it depends no what “compete” means. If they are only going to print 100 cds for friends and family, what difference does it make? They don’t need ultra mega quality. In fact, a lot of home recording people who have no idea what a Helmholtz Resonator is (and barely know what a compressor is) can crank out decent sounding stuff if they are good enough songwriters and musicians.
In a smaller market (like what I live in), the amount of people that aren’t willing to pay for decent recording is small. Doctors and rich guys will just pay $60 per hour at a studio that has recorded some bigger regional stuff. Poor people will record as cheaply as possible. You never really know and it’s really tough to figure out where you stand. I saw a backlash when I increased my rates.
The pay is usually not that good. This is a given. If you want to make any real money, you need to work your way up the ladder of bands.
The hours suck if you want to be anywhere near “normal”. I didn’t see a lot of my friends for like 2 years. Why? Because I was recording every weekend very late. You may be able to setup different hours depending on your clients.
I’d focus on what is going to make you happy. Some people plan on living in New York City, driving a Ferrari, paying $5k a month in rent, never getting married, and will be happy with that life. Some people want a wife, a couple of kids, a $200k house (Missouri land values are WAY lower than California or any other “desirable” place to live), and a 3 year old Honda Civic. Other people would be happy with a $50k house and a 15 year old Ford Escort in LA while they dedicate their life to their art.
All are fine choices. Most of the big boy producers and engineers have been taken to the cleaners multiple times with divorce and aren’t always the most happy people. Be aware that the higher you ambitions, the more you are going to have to sacrifice to get there.
There is nothing wrong with just recording for fun. This could mean a HUGE $50k investment that you can never recoup or it may mean getting a $200 audio interface and a $100 microphone. In the end it’s the music that matters. So do whatever is going to make you happy.
These days, I’ve been focusing much more time than ever before on my internet businesses. The idea is to get cash coming in so I can get back to recording full time again without having to worry about money while I record. Of course, I’m still in my control room quite a bit.
There is no easy path here. You can invest $20k in education or you can put $10k in gear. You still have to work really hard to actually get some dollars coming in. The local scene is usually less competitive, but it may be just as difficult to make a name for itself. There is no way easy way out….to quote the incredible Rocky 4 song.
In the end, there is nothing wrong with being a garbage man who records a lot in your free time. Just don’t be a lawyer!!!!