Personal Investment Strategies for the Audio Professional, or (Who Stole My Gig?)

Seems like every time I watch TV or open a magazine, I’m confronted with another ad about on-line stock market trading or some kind of Mutual Fund Company. (Maybe they stand out because of the lack of sex in the commercials. Could somebody out there do something about that?) Even the daily reporting of the stock market prices (I like to think of it as “Lotto for the money folks”) keeps me all too aware of my own measly “portfolio” (ha) and motivates me to try to improve my savings and retirement plans. But since most of the people I know in the music industry never took good enough care of themselves in the first half of their lives, I figure old age is something they won’t have to worry about anyway! All of this emphasis on investing for your future retirement got me thinking about something entirely different though. What about your investment strategy in your present career?

I know what you’re thinking; I’ve busted my butt up through the ranks of the “white slave trade” internships, though backing up deaf bozos who barely could plug in a microphone, through demos from hell, and “spec” (“spec” = spec not to get paid!) custom records, not to mention a wife or two! I’ve paid my damn dues, what do you mean invest in my career? (Wow, another rant! It’s really weird to rant on a keyboard!) What I mean is; what do you do to keep up with a changing society, changing technology, changing musical tastes and styles, and a constantly changing business environment. How much time, and yes money, do you invest in your career?
Engineers, keeping informed of new equipment and techniques through trade magazines like Pro Sound News and EQ, (a little plug to keep Frank happy) is a vital part of your job. Do you take the time to learn the new equipment that is impacting the business? I was amazed at the amount of engineers I knew who didn’t want to mess with computers in the studio when the hard-disk systems and Pro-Tools started to appear, most have lost many thousands of dollars to young guys who spent the time to master them. Investing time to master and improve the tools that you already have is equally important. Spending time (yours not the clients) improving on the presets on your FX units, trying different mics or mic placement techniques, the sonic differences of different signal paths or cables, the effect timing delays in digital audio have on singers pitch and performance, the list is endless. That’s just the technical side! What about the psychology of dealing with creative people and also the business people, after all, most engineers are self-employed entrepreneurs? Do you spend much time on your “people skills”? How are you promoting yourself to potential clients? And possibly one of the biggest questions; how much money do I invest in new equipment to remain or become competitive with my peers?

Producers don’t have it any easier either. Professional athletes watch films of their performances to learn mistakes they made and try to improve themselves. Do you go back though past projects with the same type analysis to find where your “game” can be improved? Do you stay current by knowing what is happening on the live scene or “indie” and internet scene? How much music do you listen to, both current and classic, from which to remain competitive and draw inspiration from? What about your self-promotion and “people skills”? Do you know the capabilities of the newest technologies, and how they can impact your projects? Would investing in certain equipment, or a personal studio, or a “partnership” with a commercial facility increase your ability to remain or become competitive? Studio owners know all about investing right? After all it’s a huge investment to create and maintain a recording studio, the competition is tough, and the profits of studio ownership are not all that lucrative, usually. Let me give a suggestion where most studios should invest. Your staff! Service is the place that most studios need to invest in. Try an ongoing training program with studio staff, frequent “classes” including techs, receptionists, assistants and interns! Both technical education about the equipment you have and motivational education about serving clients. Everyone in a studio should continually be learning and improving their skills, and knowledge about all aspects of the studio does just that. Giving your staff an opportunity to present ideas to improve the studio is another resource that is often wasted. Always have a staff member in the studio or close at hand for every session big or small. A great Tech department is really a necessity not a luxury, having at least one in the building during sessions is a must. And lastly, invest in your clients! Treat every client equally in terms of service and resources. Today’s bum is tomorrow’s genius in the music business!

In closing I want to point out one last thing, the music business is a race that never has a finish. No matter what we’ve done in the past, the only thing it does for you is give you the opportunity to be in the race. Staying at the front of the pack requires a bit of luck, and a whole lot of hard work! So good luck, and remember buy low and sell high. (Or is it buy high and sell low? No, that’s how I run my studio usually! Hehehe)

Michael D Clute – Producer / Engineer / “Legend-in-his-own-mind” Driving two old cars, too much studio gear, having too much fun in Nashville, TN.