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Zen and the Art of the First Gig: A Little Advice for Those Caught Between School and a Workplace

A recording school graduate journeyed to a multiroom facility in a major market. He sought out the studio manager and said earnestly, "I have mastered

A recording school graduate journeyed to a multiroom facility in a major market. He sought out the studio manager and said earnestly, “I have mastered the automation system on the SSL. How long will it take for me to get a paying gig here?”

The studio manager’s reply was casual. “Six months.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I have knowledge of Pro Tools|24 and all of its plug-ins. I never received any grade lower than an A-minus. I am prepared to make records and do microphone endorsements. Now, how long will it take me to get a paying gig here?” The studio manager thought for a moment. “20 years.”

Transitions are scary. Being born is no picnic, puberty has kids hitting the wall like bugs on a windshield. A new phenomenon of the last couple of decades is the transition of college-educated young adults leaving the hallowed studios of audio academia and catapulting themselves into the professional world. Resumes and demo CDs in hand, these larval Clearmountains face uncertain odds as they try to convince would-be employers that giving them a chance is worth the risk.

These graduates face skepticism, some of it well-founded. There are enough stories of greener-than-asparagus college- or trade school-educated weenies copping an attitude on the first (and often the last) day of their new studio gig. We educators give the “you may think you know it all, but you’re still just starting out” speech as often as we check our e-mail.

Things have improved. By and large, the alumni of the better programs are proving themselves through hard work, skill and professionalism, sans the attitude.

Still, the job search for the right first gig can be a challenging experience.

For many, this is the first time in their lives that school has not been the focal point. One thing that school does well is impose structure: The semester starts now, take these classes, produce these projects, learn these skills, etc.

By comparison, the structure of the real world, especially the job search, is much more cryptic. The requirements are not written in a syllabus; there is no step-by-step guide.

This article may be the closest thing you’ll find, so get out those yellow highlighters.

THE JOURNEYBy the time commencement rolls around many graduating students already have enviable entry-level gigs lined up at major studios, post houses and labels. Some have promising internships, both paid and unpaid, that will lead to paying gigs if prodigious amounts of hard work are applied.

Others have lots of leads, recommendation letters, a plan of action, a budding network, and they can’t wait to hit the ground running in L.A., New York, Nashville, London, Tokyo or Seoul. Some are less clear about their plans. Their goals are not as developed, and their time is spent focusing on caution and contingency plans more than imagination and aspiration.

Are there identifiable attributes that students who have significant early success in the job market have in common? The answer is yes, and here’s a partial list.

DESIREKnowing what you want and then letting yourself really want it is vital when it comes time to look for a job. And here’s a rather Zen paradox: Entry-level people who are willing to work for free are the first to land the paying gigs. You may not like this rule, but it’s true. Those of you who know that you’ve just gotta get into the studio no matter what, because it’s in your blood and it’s what you were put on this Earth to do-you are well ahead of the pack!

Follow your bliss. Work hard. Become invaluable. Find what you do best, go for it with every fiber of your being, and the money will follow.

In general, the higher you are shooting-the more significant the facility or company-the lower down on the totem pole you’re likely to start out. And at first, the number of hours you put in won’t be reflected in the pay you take home.

This is paying your dues, and if you think you got that over with at school, you’d better go ahead and take the software job because your attitude is probably going to be pretty grim. How long you spend paying dues depends on many factors, and attitude tops the list.

This doesn’t mean to be naive, or to let yourself be taken advantage of for years. During your search, you may encounter situations that don’t feel right. If the studio is a mess, if maintenance is shoddy (especially if no one seems to care), if there is no one to look up to and learn from, or if it just doesn’t feel like the right fit, it may not be the place for you.

If this is the case, don’t burn bridges, but learn when and how to move on gracefully.

A PLANOne thing I enjoy about my gig is helping students with their job search.

Some students come to me with a plan. They’ll be moving to Nashville (or New York, or L.A.) on June 1. They’ve already faxed resumes to a dozen places. They have two interviews set up over spring break.

They’d like me to be a part of this plan by looking over their resume, adding a letter of recommendation and advising them as to anyone who might be looking for someone with their specific skills and career goals. Perhaps I could put them in touch with some recent alumni who are already working in that market?

There are also students with little idea of where they want to go from academia, and it’s difficult to give concrete assistance to people who don’t yet know what their desires are. “I just want to get some kind of job in music,” students sometimes tell me.

“I guarantee you will get what you want,” I reply.


“Well, it may be working the counter at Tower Records, but if your goal is just to get ‘some kind of job in music,’ you’d almost have to walk out in front of a bus to not reach your goal.” Kind of a crummy goal, though.

But if this is you, don’t panic. Put some time into brainstorming what you really want. Think about what you enjoy doing most, and try it on for size. The next time you meet someone, instead of introducing yourself as a student, replace that label with your future profession.

“I’m a producer,” or “I’m an engineer.” Notice how that feels. As you fill in your plan, try to refine it: “I eventually want to produce R&B, but for the next couple of years I’m going to throw myself into a label or studio gig in New York so I can prove myself and meet as many people as possible.”

Once you do this, you’ll be amazed by how many people will come forward to help: They know someone at a studio in New York, or they recommend a professor because she’s recording an R&B project for a New York client, or they say, “Really? I’m headed for New York, too! Maybe we can share an apartment.”

For every classmate like this that you befriend, your network potentially doubles. Your chance for success increases.

APPROPRIATE CONFIDENCESelf-confidence is an essential ingredient to making it outside the academic world. Students who have had the courage to challenge themselves will have developed more of the self-assurance they need to tackle the job market. With confidence at a peak, you want to convince a prospective employer that passing on you when you’re starting out and such a bargain, would be a loss.

But can’t too much wind in your sails lead to the kind of attitudes that spell poison for entry-level people? How do you find the appropriate level of confidence that doesn’t reek of overconfidence? Try keeping in mind that you may have been a big fish in a small pond at school, but as you swim out into deeper waters you’re more like a guppy. Maintain confidence, but spare the attitude.

A healthy dose of fear will help keep overconfidence in check. Fear doesn’t mean that something’s wrong. If you’re putting yourself into challenging situations, you’d be foolish not to feel terrified now and then. Acknowledge your fear, treat everyone with respect, and let your enthusiasm help you keep moving forward.

PERCEPTIVENESSConfidence without perceptiveness can be calamitous. You need to be able to read the engineer, the studio owner, the client or the second engineer-whomever you’re assisting. You’ll find that you’ll develop an appropriate, and probably different, way of working with each that suits their personal style. Who can you joke with, for example, and when? And who requires you to take a more quiet, reverent attitude toward your work? Coming on like gangbusters, and inserting your outrageous side into every exchange, may not be the best way to start out. Take some time to observe. Take the time to learn the way things work at the new place you’ll be calling home.

People skills are essential, an intangible prerequisite to studio work. You’ll need to be able to get along well with everyone on a project, from a button-down advertising executive to a 19-year-old rapper who’s never been in a real studio before.

EXPERIENCEThere is little doubt that prior experience will put you ahead in the job search. This experience can range from a full-time internship at a major facility during the summer before your senior year, to a part-time job or internship while you were in school, to running your own demo production studio out of your apartment or dorm room.

Geoff Zanelli, a dual major in Music Production and Engineering and Film Scoring was able to land an internship at Media Ventures in Santa Monica the summer before his final year. He proved himself to the point that when he graduated, Media Ventures hired him on full time.

While in school, Brett Blandon ran “Dorm Room Studios,” supplying recording services to Songwriting and Performance majors. Brett still owns a small demo studio, and he has parlayed the confidence and people skills gained from this experience into his current position as studio manager at Ocean Way Nashville.

Don’t discount any job experience you’ve had when it comes time to writing your resume or telling a potential employer about yourself. It may seem unrelated that you were assistant manager at the local video store during high school, but if you gained experience in customer service, handling money and supervising employees, those are important, transferable skills.

ONLY THE BEGINNINGI hope this advice helps. I could offer plenty more (I didn’t even get into the specifics of developing relationships or spotting opportunities, or concepts such as follow-through and maturity), but hopefully by the time Mix’s next education issue hits the stands, you’ll already be throwing yourself into your new career full throttle, and experiencing eternal bliss.