What Does it Take to Succeed as an Audio Professional?

As audio professionals, we’ve all thought about it before. In fact, we’ve probably discussed it with our peers, wondering what it takes to truly succeed in this industry. It seems that there are so many opportunities, and none at the same time. Meaning, there is an infinite amount of directions we can go, but finding opportunities in those directions can be extremely difficult if we do not have the right connections, or don’t know where to look. 

Now, obviously the skills we need would vary greatly from each area of expertise. Producers must know how to have consistent creative output, engineers must learn to train their ears and develop creative problem solving, and managers need to learn what it takes to work with people. If we do some thinking, it becomes clear that there is no “Get Rich Quick” or “One Trick” to “Succeed in the Music Industry.”

But…

There does seem to be some consistent principles that can take us a long way. 

The professionals I interviewed to get to these answers was full-time composer and chamber musician Jason Doell, and the esteemed mixing engineer Mike Butler. After doing research and interviews with these audio professionals, I have learned directly from the veterans about what it takes to succeed in the industry. Although the experiences these professionals had in music were vastly different, the conclusions they came to were surprisingly similar.

It should also be noted that I interviewed these professionals based on the careers I’m looking to succeed in (professional composition & mixing engineering). While a large portion of this blog will be going in-depth to these fields, the core idea will be about success, and how an aspiring audio professional can successfully achieve all it is that they wish to achieve. 

One of the fields we will be discussing is that of composition. What does one need to do to succeed in this field? Where can we find opportunities to make money through the music we compose? More importantly, how can we develop a steady income while doing so? Is it even possible?

According to “The Art of Composing” blog, the world of composition has 4 facets you can go down. You can become a film composer, compose for games, create music libraries, or become a concert composer. While there are obviously other opportunities, these are the traditional 4 routes that most composers will pursue (Brantingham, 2012). From this, there are three ways a composer can generate revenue from their compositions: commissions, score sales and rentals, and royalties (The Portfolio Composer, n.d).

After interviewing Jason Doell, he provided me with many answers and insights to these fields, and made my perspective much clearer on the world of composition.

The composing landscape has never been more competitive than it is now. With many musicians already going to schools to study music, theory, and orchestral composition, there are even more making professional compositions at home with orchestral libraries and common DAWS. With everybody yearning to get their fair share of work, how can a composer stand out in such a crowded landscape?

Whats worse, is that composers are being paid less and less for the music they create (Eastburn, 2014). A survey conducted by Sound and Music came to discover that about 66% of composers surveyed stated that commissions are not a significant source of their income. Meaning, these composers must find another means of making a steady income. This is a major issue, as composers are not being paid as much for work as they would like to. The survey showed that even composers that get more commissions, are often payed less on average (Eastburn, 2014). 

After speaking with Doell, he made it clear to me that making money solely off composition alone is not always possible. He has had to find other ways of maintaining a steady income, such as his work in arts administration. In his words: 

“Most composers directly out of school have a handful of part-time jobs […] I’m the operations manager for a contemporary chamber music ensemble. That’s a part-time job. 16 hours a week, and it’s enough stable income so that I don’t have to worry about writing grants all the time. I can choose not to work with certain ensembles that I don’t want to. That way I can make artistic choices more in line with who I am as a person. “

Doell’s main form of earning money from his chamber orchestration work is the world of grants.  He said that understanding how to write effective grants, and learning how to flesh out your musical ideas so that they are presentable, organic, unique and fresh, is something he had to learn in order to derive a steady income from his compositions. Organizations are eager to provide grants to artists with great ideas and fleshed out proposals. Interviews from the Words & Music Blog state how starting with small grants to understand the grant writing process, is a great way to start working on larger grants to then support yourself. Doell’s ability to write great grants has supplemented much of his income, and he really learned how to market himself to organizations and the people around him. 

This is where I learned the first principle that all aspiring audio professionals must know. 

You must see yourself as a business.

In The Portfolio composer, they found a way to explain the business of composing in a concise statement:

“Being a composer means you are in the business of producing and monetizing assets” (The Portfolio Composer, n.d).

There are entire industries predicated solely on the monetization of assets, and seeing your music as an asset to be monetized allows you to see yourself as a business. Thus, when creating a composition, you as the composer, are creating an asset. This opens up new lines of thinking, where you can consider your music as an asset that generates revenue over time (royalties), or consider yourself as trading your time and expertise for money (service). Being able to see yourself in this way can be extremely helpful when looking to run your composing business.

Another article in The Portfolio Composer even suggests to think in terms of ROI (Return on Investment). When considering investing in yourself as a business, consider what investments will return more than the money you put in (The Portfolio Composer, n.d). For example, investing in a 2000$ compressor may give flavour to your compositions, but investing 1500$ in an orchestral library may provide the right level of nuance for your score to stand out above the rest. Knowing which investments will truly benefit you is a useful discipline to have.

When Doell learned how to seek commissions and write grants, he had complete creative reign over his projects. While this may sound ideal, the amount of work he took on, and all the aspects he had to oversee was a massive learning curve. He had to manage the orchestra, he had to compose for the orchestra, and also learn how to manage his interactions with the venues and everyone else involved. In other words, he ran a business. Doell explained how it taught him to think like an entrepreneur, but to also think in terms of project management, and working to meet different long-term deadlines. When I spoke to him, he had projects as far as 3 years out. He helped me realize how success in the world of composition was about seeing yourself as a business, at times more so than that of a composer.

In addition to grant writing, Doell must also gather audiences for the performances he puts on. This is where one of the largest components of Doell’s success comes into play. For him, learning how to network ever since leaving university allowed him to flourish later on in his career, and it put him on the radar of many composers doing exactly what he wanted to do. Especially within the field of composition, the only way to flourish is to get your music heard by the right people. With the problem of thousands of musicians trying to reach the same position as you, there is only one clear solution: meet the people they aren’t meeting. Doell explained how attending every possible concert he could in his niche, and meeting the people involved, got him into the position to start doing favours, and eventually move on to working with the orchestra itself. Strong and honest connections is everything, and he wouldn’t be where he is today without them.

What’s more, is that the world of composition has never been more invested in politics than it is now. According to Doell:

“There are now younger people who are thinking about these things [politics], and who are definitely involved in the politics around representation, equity, and liberation.”

Doell explains how his work is “inherently political” and that in the field of composing, there is a lot of written work that goes behind the music. The way his compositions are presented sets a context for the audience to engage in, and this context can often be political. Whether he is scoring for a commercial, or performing some of his chamber works for an intimate audience, there will always be a political aspect, and now more so than ever. In order to stay relevant and to keep up with the times, he makes sure to include gender parity, trans artists, and indigenous artists when performing. These are not only things he deeply cares about, but also things he understands matter deeply to aspiring composers. He strongly believes this is not only in the current landscape of composition, but will remain in the future of composition as well. 

In conclusion, what is the composition landscape like?

As I said earlier, it has never been more crowded. With thousands of composers competing for the same positions, and everybody having the capability of creating professional compositions from their computers, standing out is incredibly difficult. We also know that making a steady income from composition alone can be tough, and hearing it from an established composer like Jason Doell really solidified that point. Instead of looking to land consistent clients though composition, Doell helped explain how learning how to write grants allowed him to earn an income doing what he loves, and taking on other work on the side allows him to make ends meet. 

But, how does this compare to the world of mixing engineering?

My interviews with Mike Butler were also extremely insightful. As a mixing engineer who has worked with artists such as Phoebe Bridges and Norah Jones, he is truly an established mixing engineer, and has seen it all.

So let’s first explain what the world of mixing engineering is like. 

Like composing, the mixing landscape is full of professional and aspiring mixing engineers. Due to the onset of amazing in-the-box plugin capabilities, arriving to a good mix is becoming more feasible for the average artist to achieve on their own, let alone a mixing engineer. Thus, the opportunities for mixing engineers has gone up with the onset of amazing in-the-box capabilities, yet have consequently plummeted as more and more producers are able to create professional sounding music without the need of an engineer. Thus the new landscape has lopsided completely, one where engineers are searching for artists to mix, as opposed to artists searching for engineers. And with the death of radio, previous limitations that were set on music were set free as streaming took over. And this provides plenty of opportunities for great mixing engineers, as they are the ones who best know how to push the limits of the audio spectrum. 

With the coming of this digital sonic revolution, came the new-found capacity for never-before-heard analog modelling in-the-box capabilities. But all professional mixing engineers are using plenty of analog gear right?

Interestingly, all of Butler’s new work is completely in the box.

This shocked me, because you would typically envision a high tier mixing engineer to mix things down on analog, but this was not the case for Butler.

“For me personally, I never want to go back to mixing analog. I can do so much more digitally than I could in the analog world […]. It’s more about the process than it is about the sound at this point.”

While I will not get into the specifics of analog vs. digital sound, many of the blogs I read often praised digital for its precision and recallability, while praising analog for it’s vintage warmth and distortion. While there are still plenty of mixing engineers that are mixing analog, this is indeed fading out with the introduction of amazing analog emulated plugins.

Unfortunately, the introduction of new digital capabilities has actually made mixing more difficult for some engineers. In Sound on Sound’s interview with Tony Maserati, Maserati explains how he is getting increasingly large track sets of unfinished production ideas (Daley, 2004). According to Maserati, the digital world is making it so that artists do not need to finalize their ideas, giving the mixing engineer a partial role as a producer. Making these types of creative decisions disrupts the process, and can end up with a mix recall if the artist or label is not content with the finished product. 

This digital revolution is not only affecting mixing engineers and music they receive, the onset of streaming has disrupted revenues that artists would typically receive when releasing a record. As Butler explained:

“People aren’t making money from music anymore. You don’t make money selling music, so the expense of hiring somebody else to mix your record is money that you’re never going to see back. You make music as one part of a whole nowadays. It’s just not a direct money maker.“

To combat this, many of the higher-up engineers are asked to mix certain songs based on market research. In Sound on Sound’s interviews with notorious mixing engineers, they discuss the complications of having A&R executives come into studios to ensure that the mix is radio friendly. These label managers and executives want to ensure that this music will rise in the charts to generate revenue. Regarding this treatment of music, Tony Maserati explained that:

“It’s getting scary that people treat music in such a way. I know a record has to be commercial, but it also has to be emotional […] That really characterises the times we live and work in” (Daley, 2004).

This idea of a radio sound has spread to small-time mixing engineers as well, with many artists trying to achieve a “Spotify” sound amongst a sea of other aspiring artists on the platform. Instead, Butler advises that all mixing engineers should focus on providing a free services for artists, insofar as it serves for good portfolio work. With more aspiring artists than ever before, there are massive quantities of artists looking to get their songs mixed for free or on a budget. Many of these artists can’t or just aren’t willing to spend the money for a professional studio mixdown. This however, provides plenty of opportunities for upcoming mixing engineers to take on work, and learn how to get on the radar and nail clients down. 

And this is where Butler thinks reputation is key. 

“One of the things that we did was start a compilation series. We offered to record and mix a song for free for bands and we put it on a compilation […] It was a way to seek out the kind of work that I wanted, with the kind of music that I wanted to do.”

This was Butlers method of nailing clients. Whereas he would record these potential clients in his own studio, he explained how any mixing engineer can do this nowadays with the capability of facebook and social media. Message everybody and see who could use a free mixdown.  This establishes a reputation, which Butler says is the core of any good mixing business. 

Another critical trait that will help you nail down clients in the long run is trust. One of the hardest aspects of running a mixing business is creating consistent clients, and your ability to establish trust quickly in a way where you can make your clients comfortable is key. 

“This business has a lot to do with trust, and you have to establish that very quickly. That’s a skill that takes a very long time.”

 For Butler, and understanding clients and where they are coming from is what allows him to not only maintain clients in the long run, but to also create a great mixdowns in the first place. In the world of mixing, the relationships you have with your clients is just as important as the music you work on. If those connections aren’t rock solid, your business will fall apart. A good mixing engineer always understands that the client comes first.

Fortunately, there is a growing amount of online platforms for mixing engineers to market themselves on. I found Mike Butler on an emerging platform called SoundBetter, that was acquired by Spotify back in 2019 (Spotify Investors, 2019). SoundBetter is an online audio production and collaboration marketplace, housing thousands of musicians and engineers, all competing for the top positions in each of their categories. A platform like this allows mixing engineers to build up a visible reputation online, with ratings, reviews, comments and connections all-in-one. It is the LinkedIn of all things audio. Through this platform I was able to find Butler, and he explained to me how it has helped him land 50% of his current clients. Whats better is that there are a plethora of job postings on SoundBetter, showing that there are emerging platforms working in favour of audio professionals. Platforms like this have changed Butlers entire mixing business, and will continue to do so leading into the future. 

So, how does the mixing engineering landscape compare to that of the composition landscape? What ties them together? What makes them different?

For starters, you have to learn to see yourself as a business. 

Seeing yourself as the provider of services will allow you to embody all that it means to run a proper business. Learning how to manage time, meet and gather clients (sales), and understanding how to market yourself efficiently (marketing), allows you to see yourself as an entrepreneur with a business in competition with hundreds (or thousands) of other businesses. This is the only way to succeed.

Another critical trait that both Doell and Butler had to develop, was the ability to adapt efficiently to their environments. The music industry is constantly evolving, now faster than ever before, and your ability to adapt as a composer or mixing engineer will make or break you in the long run. For example, Doell had to adapt to the changes in the political landscape of the chamber music world. With more and more composers thinking, acting, and composing with politics in mind, it was critical for Doell to begin considering these things, in order to move forward and avoid falling behind. In Butler’s case, he’s seen new musical tonalities emerge in the past 5 years or so. His ability to perceive these sonic changes and instil them into the music of his clients to create contemporary sounding mixes is critical to his success. Very few artists want to receive an outdated sounding mix. Without the ability to perceive these large-scale changes, and follow through with what is required to adjust, professionals like Doell and Butler would not have been able to succeed for as long as they have.

And of course, the last downside is that both fields are extremely competitive. There are hundreds of mixing engineers trying to establish a reputation and build their own ideal studios, and there are even more composers trying to score the next Hollywood film. Learning to do what it takes to stand out and to meet the right people is the only way that an aspiring audio professional can really make it. Learning to stand out is something one must learn on their own, and simply cannot be covered in one blog post. The fact of the matter is that you are in competition with thousands of others, and you must learn to do all the things that they aren’t doing and more. There is no alternative. 

How do these two fields differentiate?

To me, they are almost identical with the exception that the hands-on work is different for each. Where as one is coming up with a composition that suits the purpose of the project, the other is adjusting the composition so that it meets a technical standard and suits the composer. Even the interactions with clients are fundamentally the same. You are trying to establish trust, so that you can understand and deliver exactly what the client needs. It is your job to provide that service and deliver the best product you possibly can.

Hopefully the idea of freelancing in the music industry has become a little clearer. Despite the abundance of competition and the lack of money to be made with music, the music industry is still an incredibly rewarding industry if it is something you are passionate about. If you are serious about success in this industry, there will always be space for you. 

Good luck and keep grinding!

Ponder Mars.

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