Getting Paid In Audio Engineering – The Harsh Realities and Surprising Truths

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  • April 22, 2016
glyn johns

“Oh sweet! Exposure?! Can I cash that in at the bank?”

Have you ever been told that while having a passion for audio engineering is great, it’s very hard to pay the rent if it’s your only gig? Fear not, worried parents, partners and concerned onlookers: there are ways for sleep deprived engineers to scrape by.

In April last year, the US congress put forward a bill called the Fair Play, Fair Pay act, much to the applause of the audio engineering community. If passed, it essentially means that producers and engineers alike are allowed to taste that sweet proverbial royalty pie. Currently, artists in America receive 45% in digital royalties, and the passing of this act would required them to fork over 2% to the ‘studio warriors’.

audio engineering

Making of living off the arts is an uphill battle, but a rewarding journey all the same. If you’re thinking of diving into the world of audio engineering, we say do it, it rules. Just ingest some of our sage wisdom first.

This is great news for engineers and producers based in America, or working with music written under American legislation. There is, a small problem – the artist actually has to be making a decent amount of cash for this to change anything at all. 2% of 45% of $0 is still $0. Global digital sales of music in 2014 was 6.9 billion US dollars. While Asian pop music (such as J-pop and K-pop) in reality dominates a huge portion of this global revenue, lets pretend this statistic is related to the US market only. With a fun bit of maths we can work out that:

45% of US $7 billion is US$3.15 billion.
2% of US$3.15 billion is US$63 million.

While this does sound like a huge chunk of pie for the engineer side of the music industry, one has to take into account the number of engineers working, and the way this sizeable number is divided up. In a perfect world, it would be split up between the estimated 13,840 engineers and producers working in America (according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics), resulting in roughly $4552 each per engineer.

Unfortunately, this is not realistic even if it were, it still isn’t even enough to cover rent for a year. It’s more of a tasty bonus. While this is a progressive step forward, it may not make a huge difference to anyone but recording studio veterans working with the big time names.

This is an interesting step, for all watching at home, however. While Asian pop music markets are sizeable, it seems like the pop music world turns to America. If this bill is passed, it would not only mean that a few people get a bit more coin in their pocket, but it means that there is a growing recognition for the work that audio engineers and producers actually do. Which is nice. Cheers for that.

So – passing this bill would be a significant step forward for the engineering side of music. Perhaps more of a tip of the hat but non-the-less notable. I digress. There are several ways to make a bit of bank in the audio world. In order to do so however, it’s pretty important to build yourself a portfolio.

First off – do a few jobs for free! While this sounds like a backwards step, it’s a great way to get your name out. No audio engineer wants to be known as the person who works for free, but this ‘charity’ work can aid in fleshing out a portfolio, which in turn makes it easier to find reputable work.

There are a few different types of ways to get paid as an audio engineer. Below we’ve outlined some of the more prevalent ones.

audio engineering

Full Time Employment

This is considered by some to be the dream, and some to be a crushing nightmare. Salary, sick leave, paid holidays, sounds great, right? According to some it can break your spirit and drain all creativity from that once boundless imagination. It’s like the job you love to love to hate.

Freelance Work

Freelancing can be fantastic for a working audio engineer. You can pick and choose jobs but to do so, there have to be jobs to pick and choose from. An extended network of clients and contacts is essential for this kind of work. You can’t record your mum’s [terrible] Disco Inferno impersonations forever, you know (sorry mum if you’re reading this).

Consultant Work

Working as a consultant means continuously being on top of the latest trends and fads in the audio world. You could be called into a session and be presented with a bizarre situation and have to play it cool. It is also hard to find consultant work if you’re not deemed an expert. Maybe write a book? I hear that helps.

Work a Day Job

This is, unfortunately, a reality that many talented engineers have to face. It’d be lovely to get paid a decent wage doing what you love the most, but jobs can be few and far between – and there is a lot of competition. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Take the perspective that working all day every day can tire, frustrated and bore you of audio work – and who wants to hate what you love? Looking forward to coming home to a loving partner, a beer and a mix to finish out can get you through the aching pain of a day job.

Go Back To School

This is an option for some but not all. It’s a well kept secret that the Australian Government gives grants and scholarships for higher education – get into one of these courses, work your butt off and hey, presto you’ve got yourself a doctorate. If only it were this simple. While a doctorate wouldn’t automatically give you more work, it opens up an exciting new world of research and, hey, you can put Dr. in front of your name. That is definitely something.

Getting paid to do what you love and are passionate about really is the pinnacle of the working world. It’s entirely naive to think that a great work ethic will land you a job and a salary and everything will be happy ever after. Having a great worth ethic never hurt anyone though, and it’s important to remember that there are many ways to make a living. Hopefully, if you put the effort in the right place, the effort will come out. And hopefully that effort will come into your wallet, because that’s the right place for your landlord.

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Oli Young is a self professed audio nerd with a love of cooking and staying indoors in summer because who needs that kinda heat in their life

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