If you haven’t experienced this insult first-hand you’re either very lucky or new to the audio industry.
The other day I went to a party for a very low-key CD release, at the home of a singer I recently worked with. I don’t often go to these shindigs because I usually feel like I’m doing a four-hour interview from the moment I set foot in the door… fielding endless questions from people who have no real interest in my answers. But I’d promised I would attend, so there I was.
This one went by the book. I got there late after most people had already done some serious drinking, and from the moment I opened my mouth about who I was the questions came thick and fast: ‘How do you produce an album?’; ‘Do you think the singer is a genius?’; ‘Why don’t you look like a record producer – we thought they were all short, fat, bald guys!’
It was pretty tedious stuff and I was fairly quickly looking for an escape route. It was one of those nights where you’re only halfway through an answer before another random question is asked or they’ve stopped listening altogether…
Then I met him: a big-drinking country baker who thought he knew a thing or two… about everything basically, and about music certainly. He was fairly harmless (provided you didn’t shake his hand) but before too long he came out with a request I will never forget.
“You should record another four songs with Geoff I reckon, and I reckon you should do them for free!”
I was shocked. Here was a guy I’d only met five minutes earlier not only telling me what to do, but also that I should be doing it for free! Presumably this guy lived in the real world where things like bread – his working contribution to society – cost money. What the hell was he thinking? Who did he think he was telling me to work for nothing? Would I ask him to bake bread for two weeks without pay? I don’t think so.
Then his drunk wife chimed in, backing up his dumb-arsed demand, and pretty soon I was making a polite exit, driving through the night listening to Wilco – a small consolation – wishing I had never left the house.
By the time I got home I was p***ed off that some drunken idiot had so easily spoiled my night. It set my mind racing about what it was that I had found so insulting about this guy’s idiotic attitude.
It was a combination of things, I think. Firstly, I’d really only recorded Geoff’s songs as a paid favour to another friend of mine in the first place – a long story I won’t go into here. So in many respects I had already stretched my boundaries to accommodate Geoff’s music. That’s not something I would ever have admitted to at the launch party, of course.
But by rights I shouldn’t have been anywhere near Geoff’s CD. It was pretty ordinary to be frank, and not something I would have ever chosen voluntarily. But I’d agreed to do it so I had made the best of things once we’d shaken hands.
But more significantly, there was the small matter of my professional integrity. I regard myself as a seasoned professional these days (I think 30+ years in the studio has earned me that moniker by now) and working for free isn’t something I do… unless there’s a damned good reason for
it. The studio is where I work, so when I’m in there I’m on the clock. I’m no different to an electrician, or a plumber, or a dentist. I do the work to a professional standard and expect to get paid for my expertise.
But there’s one significant exception to this comparison: plumbers, electricians and dentists are all ‘qualified professionals’ protected by laws and sanctions, so much so that it’s in fact illegal to do that sort of work yourself. You can’t, for instance – by law – x power points, replace the tin roof on your house or treat people for tooth decay in your kitchen.
Imagine that for a moment: a world where laws actually prevented people from mixing songs in their home studio, where people could be fined, or in some cases imprisoned, for mastering an album without the proper trade qualifications! It seems completely insane to think of it this way, but this is precisely how nearly every other industry works.
People earn qualifications and laws are established around each industry to protect these individuals against others who would otherwise undercut their prices, professional integrity and quality standards.
I think this is where the sore spot the baker had touched upon lies for me. When Joe Punter thinks about music he sees it as a form of recreation, not a job. It’s seen as a ‘fun pastime’ perhaps but not a profession – certainly not one that should cost money to engage. If, on the other hand, Joe Punter called a plumber – someone that, to me at least, seems to know little more than how to glue PVC pipes together – he would expect to pay a small fortune for the privilege.
COWBOYS & IDIOTS
There’s a manifest mismatch between how we, the professionals in the audio industry, view our skills and qualifications, and how the wider community views them. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who understand what a professional audio engineer or producer does, but outside this relatively small and closeted community there’s a vastly greater number who wouldn’t have a clue what went on.
These are the very same people who nearly always call an electrician when there’s a power problem, because they implicitly know there’s a potential risk of electrocution otherwise, or a plumber because they don’t want the house flooding.
In the end, there has to be some level of acceptance by professionals in our industry (myself included) that audio qualifications – though there are formal ones out there – aren’t viewed with anything like the respect of those of an electrician or plumber, let alone a judge or dentist. They’re ‘take-it- or-leave-it’ qualifications, protected by no laws I can think of. D-I-Y-ers certainly won’t risk fines or imprisonment if they cut a vocal track in their lounge room, nor should they.
In the end we live for music and hope that the people we work with understand and respect our participation. In most cases we establish a clear working relationship with our clients with respect to money before any work commences, but beyond that there’s really no protection.
Audio is a bit like the Wild West: you ride on out there and take your chances.
First Published in CX Magazine (November, 2015)