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Education Through Teamwork

Although the major stars don’t often admit it in public (except, perhaps, on the awards podium), success in the music business is the result of teamwork.

Although the major stars don’t often admit it in public (except, perhaps, on the awards podium), success in the music business is the result of teamwork. Yet, many self-help books work hard to convince independent artists that they should become a jack-of-all-trades. And the list of things they have to know in the Internet Age has greatly increased over the past two decades.

That means today’s artist must be able to book shows and tours, do promotion, have a basic understanding of music law, know the ins and outs of publishing, and have experience in every aspect of audio production and distribution, in addition to the most important skills of all—musical craft and talent. (Of course, based on the powerful production tools now available, one shouldn’t assume that proficiency in writing, arranging and instrumental abilities is a given.)

Having firsthand experience with each of these business aspects is important, particularly with the changes in the traditional income model that has made money tighter than ever for pros and part-timers alike. Consequently, artists now have to be improvisers in the broadest sense of the term because it seems like anything can—and will—happen.

For example, social media outlets and web-based promotion schemes come and go with increasing regularity, all promising to provide the keys to success (if they themselves actually survive). And just when streaming looked like it would be the delivery format of the future, fans have become interested in hearing music played back on vinyl (and even cassette), leaving CDs in the dust at the merch table. Yet you can’t entirely write off the compact disc because there are still promoters and media outlets that will not take an indie artist seriously unless they deliver their music on a CD (and certainly not CD-R).

Just to be able to navigate the sudden changes in marketing, distribution and performance rights, the modern artist needs to know at least something about every aspect of the business if only to protect themselves from bad contracts and wasting money on pay-to-play schemes. It also helps when it comes time to pick the team of professionals needed to reach their career aspirations.

As audio professionals, we are part of that team, even if it’s only on a project-by-project basis. If the artist comes from a DIY point of view, our first encounter with their recordings will likely include some cleanup work. However, it provides us with an opportunity to educate the client about specific aspects of the production process so that he or she not only understands the technology better (even if it is at the most basic level) but also learns how to listen to the overall production (not just how they themselves sound within it). It’s at that point they’ll begin to appreciate the importance of having the right person during each stage of production, rather than trying to save money by doing it themselves.

Take mastering, for example. It’s common for artists to get their project back from the mastering engineer with no insight into what was done. Meanwhile, I’ve heard mastering engineers complain about the poor quality of work they receive from both DIYers and pros. I’m not advocating that mastering engineers give a play-by-play account of what they did to each client’s project. However, I am surprised at how little feedback is given to those who repeatedly bring in problematic material.

Of course, any feedback you give must be handled tactfully. But if we want to gain an artist’s trust by helping them realize their goals with the best-sounding product possible, it behooves us to give them an insight into changes they can make that will help them get better results on the next project.

At the AES show this year, I attended a panel discussion that included A-list mixing and mastering engineers, as well as a major-label exec, all of whom made it clear that they expect to receive projects at a resolution of 24-bit, 96kHz. Yet, they still get files reaching down to CD-quality. As more and more records are produced in project and personal studios, the question is not only how do we educate these artists, but also who is going to do it. That job belongs to all of us.

That means the mix engineer who gets a session at 16-bit, 44.1kHz could explain to the client the benefits of using higher resolution during the production phase. Or it may be the mastering engineer’s turn to enlighten an artist that brings in overly compressed mixes about the importance of retaining dynamic range and headroom.

That’s not to suggest we tell them how we do our job so that they can do it themselves, nor am I criticizing the DIY aesthetic. Rather, we need to bring our clients up to speed on current technologies so that they understand that we’re not just shortening their long To Do list when they pay for our specialized services, but that they are, in fact, recruiting a team member. And if we want to remain on that team, as well as bring about a greater awareness of industry standards, we can start by getting the word out one project at a time.