Is landing a studio job a numbers game?
With literally hundreds of music technology courses on offer, from a wide range of establishments that are often equipped with contemporary and expensive equipment, there are evidently a great many people wanting to work in the music industry. However, take a look at any recent copy of Sound On Sound and compare the number of ads offering courses to the number of situations vacant. There is a serious mismatch. Current estimates vary between hundreds and literally thousands of applicants for every situation that is vacant.
Even my small project studio receives 10-20 emails or calls each week from people wanting either work experience or paid work. My web site states that I don't have positions, yet still the emails and calls come.
About The AuthorJoe Deller is a self-confessed '70s glam-rock veteran and software escapee who manages a small project studio in Oxford (www.rockrooms.co.uk).
If I were to advertise a position, I would expect to get hundreds of applications, from a range of candidates, not just music tech graduates. If I advertised an experience-only position, there would still be plenty of applicants, and having a music tech qualification would be no guarantee you would be any nearer the top of my pile.
Historically, the recording industry has been one where you very much start at the bottom, as a tape-op or even a tea-maker, and put in a lot of hard work, often with poor or no pay. Things are getting harder, as technology is removing some of those traditional routes into the industry — no more tape-ops — yet many of the people contacting me think that a qualification is going to be a shortcut, and that they are going to land a producer-style role at the outset. They might just get lucky, but the probabilities are against them.
Many studios are changing the nature of the work they do, or are closing. The digital revolution means that many artists no longer need the facilities offered by a traditional studio. However, the property situation today means that rents are higher than ever, and studios often do not give the best 'yield' per square foot. A local, well-established studio recently closed, as the land it sat on was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to the landlord compared to the yearly rental; more than ever, budget is everything, both for the clients and the studio.
For a company to employ you, you need roughly to be worth at least twice your salary. In the UK, a company has to cover National Insurance contributions, holiday pay and sick days, provide you with appropriate tools and space, and foot the bill for other costs. If you want a salary of £20K, your value needs to be double that. Can you bring £40K worth of client bookings to the business? Perhaps not, but if you can show that employing you will save thousands in services currently sourced externally, that will certainly help.
It's not just your technical know-how that will get you a job. When working with groups of musicians, you need a basic level of competence, but even if you are the world's finest Pro Tools expert, if you don't work well with people — especially tired and tense artists — you are likely to find getting work, and staying employed, quite a challenge. On the other hand, if you can make people feel comfortable around you and can tease out the final take that makes the track work, you're much more likely to be asked back. You have to know when to be the benevolent dictator and when to be the quiet, efficient engineer. Studio work often means long and unsociable hours, dealing with difficult situations with diplomacy, often for not much financial reward or recognition.
Despite the challenges, there are jobs to be found and, as ever, perseverance and research are the keys to landing one. You may have to do a fair amount of low-paid or unpaid work, and finding the balance between under- and over-valuing yourself is something that takes time. You might get a lucky break, but chances are that you're going to be in for a long slog before you get left alone to produce or mix. Flip through books such as Howard Massey's Behind The Glass, and you'll notice that many of the top producers and engineers worked their way up the ranks, and all share a passion for music made by others, not just their own creative efforts.
So study hard, but get out and see a range of gigs, especially gigs by bands you can't stand. Figure out why their audience is enthusiastic, and be enthusiastic about that enthusiasm. One day your foot in the door is going to be relying on it.