When I was a kid, my dad would take me to loud bars and R-rated movies. This was before YouTube and MySpace, so we would just pick a show and go without knowing what we were in for. The shows were hit and miss, but a seed was planted that led to my passion for music, recording, and live events.
In high school I had two rock bands, and they provided my first experiences of euphoria and timelessness. I imagine most other teens discovered those feelings through sports or sex; I decided to study music.
My first job at university in Denton, Texas was recording student concerts. I was attracted by the entire process; the microphones, the speakers, the cables. I’m sure you can relate. I was honestly more excited to listen to the concert recording than the concert itself. I wanted to take it to the next level, so I transferred to a school in NYC where I could study recording.
From the beginning I realized that I was a little bit different. While most students just wanted to produce their own music, from the very beginning I wanted to work on other people’s projects as well as my own. I wanted to become a Pro Tools power user and understand exactly how everything fit together in the studio. Being the best sound engineer in the world would be my ticket to success, so I needed to be able to solve any technical or musical problem during a recording session.
The recording studio is where I had my second experience with timelessness. Working behind the board recording, I felt as though I had control over an entire world. It was magical and I wanted more. Things went well and I got a few clients. Rappers, rock bands, and some experimental theatre. I started to realize that working in audio was not all technical skill and musical ability. It had an awful lot to do with patience and charisma.
When I got out of school I continued doing sound design for theatre with some concert sound and recording thrown in there, but I didn’t really care because I had fallen in love and decided to move to Portugal. Where’s that? Isn’t that in Spain somewhere?
I visited all of the recording studios I could find in and around Lisbon and still went broke. That’s when a big scary realization hit me: this job is not a meritocracy. You move forward with personal referral and social proof. My plan to be the best sound engineer in the world was falling apart. I didn’t know anyone in Lisbon and they didn’t care that I had gone to school in NYC, or about anything else on my resume.
I went home and made a list of all of the music venues in Lisbon and started to visit them in alphabetical order. I had pretty much lost hope by the time I got to the last one, Galeria Zé Dos Bois. I went to a show and afterwards approached the guy behind the board. Our conversation went something like this:
NATHAN: Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m a sound engineer, too.
NATXO: Hi…I’m not. I’m the gallery director. Hey, do you want to come and work tomorrow night? We could use your help.
Little did I know I had done the best thing I could do for my career. Not only is Galeria Zé Dos Bois a well-known venue in Lisbon with local and internationally touring acts, but they needed someone to design and install a new sound system. I could feel my value growing. The contacts that I made at that job that led to every other job I got in Portugal, including working at the National Theatre and touring to Macau. If I had sat down and decided what I wanted out of job in Lisbon before visiting music venues randomly, I would have cut my search time in half.
There were euphoric moments and great shows, but once again I found myself wanting to take it to the next level. I wasn’t making enough money, and the shows I was working on weren’t challenging me anymore. Feeling stuck led me to the third big move of my life, to Slovakia. This might sound really scary: leave everything and everyone you know and move to a foreign land! Or, if you’re like me, this is where you learn that you love starting over. Personally, I love researching a new location and developing a strategy for finding work, learning the city, and making it my own.
Working in Slovakia was pretty different from New York and Lisbon. No immigrants, and few English speakers. But you know what was the same? Finding work and building a network from scratch. Only this time it took about half as long. By networking and knocking on a lot of doors I got in with some good production companies and learned a lot about working with bigger systems and live orchestras.
After a year in Slovakia I became infatuated with sound system design and optimization. I was studying Bob McCarthy’s seminars and books and decided that that was my calling in life — I was ready for a new next level. I told everyone, quit the production companies, and moved back to Texas.
Over the next few years I had many more lessons and realizations about working in pro audio, and they all added up to this: I never truly defined where I wanted to go with my career so I had no strategy to get there. That’s what all of the moving around was about. I would make weak proposals, blast into action, and then crash and burn when I ran out of enthusiasm. I’d been throwing my hat over the fence for a long time and it had taken me all over the world, but that non-strategy was getting old.
I still loved working in audio, so I persevered. I moved to San Francisco and worked in theatre and concert sound while I applied for jobs at Meyer Sound. I started a podcast, published an eBook, and wrote articles. I started a local Meetup group for freelance engineers and helped other people make connections that got them work. It felt great! Through my podcast I found someone a job in the UK. Worldwide success! 😉 Meanwhile, I was learning about online marketing and website design. I thought, “Wow, I love working on this stuff, and I bet I could do it for other people.” I had a couple of clients doing content management and web design, but nothing took off.
Then one day it hit me. What if I could combine everything I’ve learned about audio, traveling, working, self promotion, job hunting, online marketing, productivity, health, and happiness into a business? What if I could help other sound engineers overcome the challenges that I had faced throughout my career?
What if I had had someone to guide me at the beginning of each new project? To keep me true to myself and provide a system for organization and strategy? I had so much energy at the beginning of each project I took on that I thought nothing could stop me, but energy and enthusiasm by themselves weren’t enough. Direction, psychological preparation, and accountability all would have helped.
All of this hit me while making plans for a big project. I wanted to build hardware and software. Instead of moving halfway around the world to reach a new level, I was going to build a feedback suppressor and a wireless speaker. But was my enthusiasm and energy really enough for a multi-year commitment? When I sat down to think about why I wanted to chase that project, I realized that it wasn’t about hardware or software. What I really wanted was to help other sound engineers navigate difficult situations.
So instead of learning how to write software, I sat down and wrote a business plan. For the first time in my career I had a clear goal: To help every audio engineer reach their full career potential.
But it’s not really about me. This is something that the world needs and I’m happy to help out how I can. Since I began my podcast in 2011, people have brought me their challenges with money, overwhelm, technical training, and client attraction, and I’ve really enjoyed bringing clarity to every one of those situations. The best way for me to help out is to train audio engineers to market themselves well and deliver great service so that they are booked solid and paid well.
I know: everyone would rather talk about the intricate details of sound system tuning, and I have a course on that, but right now we need to talk about the elephant in the room. If you want to get anywhere with your career, you’ve got to work on more than your technical skills. This is where the story gets serious.
Are You Ready To Take It To The Next Level?
I don’t like being serious. Girls just wanna have fun. Jokes, beer, games, yay!
But, we have to have a serious talk about two things that are going to change your life.
#1 – You need to make more money
Being a sound engineer is tough, and you are not taking it seriously enough. I don’t mean mixing shows and designing sound systems and recording symphonies; that’s the easy part! I mean the business part. That’s the part that you’re still treating as a hobby, and that is why you are barely able to pay your bills working for the same crappy clients who don’t pay, don’t respect your work, and bring you unfulfilling projects. There’s an attitude in this industry that says “you should be happy to even be here“, and while that may have served you while you were getting started, it’s time to move beyond that.
You need to start taking this seriously so that you can do the work you love AND be rewarded for it. I don’t mean you need to be a hard ass and make enemies, I mean you need to get clear about what you want your business to do for you and develop a strategy to get you there. It might be an awesome job, but it is not a magic lamp. You may want to just do your art and make the girls shake their booties, but if you don’t have a plan, you’ll starve.
Surviving is not enough. Think bigger. How will the work you’re doing now play out in a year? Two years? Five years? And don’t say that you’ll be the greatest record producer ever, because George Martin was 36 before he met The Beatles, but was running a successful record label before that. You will find satisfaction in your work as long as you seek out your true potential and find your best fit in the industry.
#2 -You need to have more fun
The audio industry is famous for producing unhappy, unhealthy social deviants and thrill seekers. Consider how your current work conditions are affecting your health, happiness, and goals for the future. Maybe you’ve heard people say, “It all part of the job” or “It comes with the territory.”
Is that really true, or is that just what you’ve experienced so far? Have you even considered the possibility that you can define your ideal work conditions, and then seek them out? What about a job where you have fun, fulfill your potential, and meet your financial goals? That all sounds perfectly reasonable to me. You just need to find your best fit.
So what does best fit mean?
- You are directing your own life.
- You are steadily mastering your craft.
- You are serving something larger than yourself.
- The money is right.
- You wake up in the morning excited to meet new challenges.
- Every year you add more fun to your business
These are the most important factors I’ve found in judging a good fit. If you haven’t found yours, yet, and you wake up in the morning regretting the work you have ahead of you, please decide today, right now, to make a change.
Miquel Garcia says
I´m Miki from Barcelona, Spain. Just wanted to tell you that I feel very identified reading this article. After 12 years in the industry I feel exactly like that
Nathan Lively says
Thanks for writing. I knew I wasn’t the only one! 😉
So what have been some of your big changes?