Getting into the Industry

I receive e-mails and phone calls regularly from people looking to get into the live audio industry. Some of them are nearing the end of an education program while some have just decided it’s what they want to do but don’t have the first idea of where to start. There’s certainly no definitive path in this industry to becoming a superstar mix engineer, and luck will play a substantial part without doubt, but I will attempt to lay down some of the possible paths of getting where you want to be.

The Bad News
The first thing to say about embarking on a career in the audio industry is that it is not in the slightest bit easy. You will work 18 hour days, 7 days a week, the conditions will be rough, you will eat and sleep badly, it will put a tremendous strain on your personal life and unless you really want to do it, you won’t last 5 minutes. I have seen many new people come out on their first tour and after 2 days on the road are ready to go home, never to be seen again. This is not a career people embark on to make their fortune, they do it because they love doing it, and if they don’t, it soon becomes evident.

The Rock Show

It may appear glamorous from the outside; hanging out with your favourite band, travelling all over the world and going to gigs every night. I often think how unglamorous my job is when picking ear wax out of the bands in-ear monitors or sleeping on the floor of an airport departure lounge.

My Career
I will start with the route I took to where I am today. I started gaining an interest in audio when I was at school, learning how to use the minimal recording studio we had and setting up the PA for school shows. It was enough for me to decide that I wanted to take it further, so at age 18 I started on a 4 year Music & Sound Recording (Tonmeister) Bachelor of Music degree course at the University of Surrey. The course directors were fairly clear that pursuing an interest in live sound was contradictory to sound recording, but I joined the voluntary Student’s Union Stage Crew after a week anyway. This lead to a fair amount of work as local crew and later as sound engineer in the local venue, the Guildford Civic, before it was closed down. It turned out to be a good combination of practical live audio experience with an academic background; so much so that when I graduated from university, I was able to almost immediately go freelance, working mainly for PA companies.

Once my foot was in the door, that was it. I had the opportunity to setup sound reinforcement systems, mix bands and get paid enough to make a living while massively refining my knowledge, working practices and learning the ways of the industry. The more people I meet, the more I learn and the more opportunities come my way.

Should I go to Audio School?
This is the most frequent question from a young person looking for a career in the audio industry. I went to university to study Sound Recording for 4 years and I came out with a job, but I would not necessarily recommend that to everyone.

The university I attended and the course that I took is by far the best in the country for Sound Recording and is very well respected in the UK industry. Without glorifying it too much, it is a hugely academic course with strict entry requirements and strong ties to industry, producing well-rounded students who already have some work experience and a handful of industry contacts. My extra-curricular experience also gave me 4 years of experience in live audio production and it was this that gave me a head start, not my degree. However, it was invaluable for the scientific, theoretical background it gave me.

Audio Literature

For people who want to pursue an academic route, this is the only course that I would suggest in the UK. There are a large number of schools and courses worldwide, such as the SAE and Full Sail, that offer little more than very basic theory and practical experience in the sheltered world of academia. The typical student comes out at the other end significantly poorer and no better off than when they started. The certificate counts for nothing more than getting your first job.

People often go to university for a more general education, and it’s fairly well known that a university educated person is more likely to get a job than their non-university educated contemporary, even if their degree is in a subject completely irrelevant to the job at hand. A university education shows a commitment to study. I haven’t seen that this applies so much to the competitive world of live sound, where time spent away may well be time wasted while someone straight out of school has taken your opportunities.

Learning The Ropes
The only way to learn the craft is to get out into the real world and do it, but you need an opportunity. Make a list of all the local PA companies and venues you can find on Google, go out and buy some steel toe-cap boots, black trousers and business cards and start knocking on doors. Use any contacts you already have to get your foot in the door. You will be looking for nothing more than an opportunity to help unload the truck, pull the feeder cable or sweep the warehouse floor. You will be lucky if you get paid for your time initially, but immersion in the industry will result in learning by osmosis which is considerably more valuable. By being humble, likeable, knowing your place, not getting in the way and listening to the people that are already making a living from the industry, you will get far.

This counts for academic graduates (from every college) as well as complete novices. There seems to be an attitude amongst graduates that they can go and claim their job mixing FOH for U2 upon graduation, which breeds an air of arrogance. Employers are wary of this and graduates will have to prove themselves, maybe more so than otherwise. By educating yourself you will certainly progress faster, but everyone starts at the same place in the real world.

Make sure you can drive and keep your licence clean to ensure that you are not disadvantaged compared to other techs. I have a Class C driving licence which enables me to drive rigid lorries. I put myself through the training because unlike older people who passed their test before 1997, I did not automatically get entitlement to drive 7.5 tonne trucks, which are the staple of the small sound company. This opened up more work to me than you would believe! If you see an opportunity where you could benefit from a similar thing, such as doing a rigging or telehandler course, do it. It’s an investment in your career.

Another route into the industry involves getting to know bands in your local area and helping them out with all the things that they don’t want to do, such as driving the van and setting up/loading the gear. This way you could persuade them to let you mix their sound, gaining experience and getting in with them from the beginning. I personally don’t like this route as it requires you to educate yourself however you can, usually from the internet, books/magazines or pure trial and error! By working for PA companies, you will be learning directly from people much more experienced than you who have done the biggest gigs the correct way to do things. It also doesn’t mean you will be relying on the band to hit the big time before your career takes off. Of course, working with bands in your spare time doesn’t do any harm and will help you perfect your craft.

Keeping up to date
Improving your skill set and making sure people know what you can do is the way to progress in any industry. Sitting still will not get you anywhere. Contact equipment manufacturers to get on their training courses (of which there are many) and read books, internet forums and trade magazines. Identify your weaknesses and improve them.

It is essential to maintain your contacts. You never know who may present what opportunities. The best opportunities often come from the most surprising of places! The internet and social networking is a great tool for this. Some would say that the most important skill you can have in the audio industry is networking.

The live audio industry is very small, smaller than you would ever imagine. Everybody knows everybody else, and a bad reputation will spread quickly. By being friendly, knowledgable and good at your job you will go far.

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4 Responses to "Getting into the Industry"

  • Ben Ziarati says:
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