It’s not who you know, it’s what you’re like.
I’m regularly asked for career tips by student engineers, and I usually state my opinion that success in this industry is more about attitude than anything else. Unfortunately, that kind of advice strikes most teenagers as not only insufferably glib, but also unusably nebulous. Fortunately I received an email this morning which illustrates what I mean in a much more down-to-earth manner, so let me tell you about it.
One of the occupational hazards of writing regularly for Sound On Sound is that I get a ton of unsolicited emails asking, in effect, for free stuff: how-to guides, mix critiques, technical support, internships, gear recommendations, and so on... Now, I like to think I’m fairly public-spirited, and I certainly feel a deep-seated compulsion to pay forward the help I’ve had from many generous (and long-suffering!) mentors over the years, but the volume of ‘give me something for free’ requests I receive has long since exceeded my capacity to fulfil them all. So, whenever I’m wading through my overflowing inbox, the implicit question in my mind is: who deserves a free favour today?
Will it be the guy whose 12-word mail doesn’t include either of the words ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, or else abbreviates them to ‘pls’ and ‘thx’? Or perhaps the girl who leaves the purity of her expression unsullied by any trace of punctuation? Or the person, inexplicably choosing to remain anonymous, who clearly hasn’t read the FAQs on my web site before hitting ‘Send’ on the contact form?
No, on this particular morning the prize went to an email that immediately cleared all the beginner’s hurdles. It spelt my name (and everything else) correctly. It had real, honest-to-goodness paragraph breaks, but without being long enough to trouble my scroll-wheel. And it left me in no doubt who had written it, as well as how to get in contact with them in a hurry. In short, it had been written with care. But what particularly caught my eye in this respect was that the writer had italicised the name of the magazine. While this is a common typographic convention in printed publications, I think it’s the first time I’ve ever had someone do it for an email! And on top of that, the content of the mail had that winning combination of politeness, brevity, cheeriness and gentle flattery to which very few of us humans are immune.
Now I’m not trying to imply that getting ahead in the audio industry is just about writing good emails. The point about this particular missive is that it demonstrates a whole raft of personal attributes that almost all successful audio professionals share, in my experience: taking pride in the quality of your work; paying extraordinary attention to detail; seeing professional interactions from the other person’s perspective to avoid wasting their time; and being polite, to the point, cheerful and complimentary. Give me a choice between working with someone who has all of those characteristics and someone with only patchy coverage, and I’d choose the former every time, pretty much regardless of their respective technical chops. Fundamentally, it’s a hell of a lot easier to teach someone to engineer than it is to teach them a positive professional attitude.
So, returning to my very first sentence, this is what I mean by the attitude you should be developing if you’re trying to establish yourself in the audio business. Once upon a time in the big music studios (remember those?) that meant flawlessly handling complicated curry orders and keeping all the pencils sharpened. These days it might translate into rigorously maintaining a composer’s file-structure and backup regimen so valuable work doesn’t get lost. Or planning a recording rig for the artist’s benefit (rather than your own convenience) and line-checking all the mics and cans in advance to minimise technical delays. Or, indeed, writing emails to potential mentors, employers, and clients.
Incidentally, my aforementioned correspondent turned out to be a recipient of one of the most prestigious student bursaries available: the Bruce Swedien Scholarship. Quelle surprise...
Mike Senior writes regularly for the magazine’s ‘Mix Rescue’, ‘Session Notes’ and ‘Mix Review’ columns. He never uses gratuitous italics.