The other night I finished a session which got me thinking. The project I was working on wasn't all that interesting to me, in fact I doubt anyone besides the artist involved will ever find much exciting about the final CD. The work wasn't hard, and the mixes came easy and sounded great for what they are — but let's face it, none of us were gonna get rich or famous from this recording.
I've had a lot of jobs in my life, the ones preceding (and coinciding) with being a studio owner/ engineer ran the gamut from food service, record distribution, electronics assembly to post hole digging. I've never shied away from work or been lucky enough to not have to work (except in college — ask me about that crazy scholarship and my parents sometime). When I started my home studio it was for me and my friends to record in. Gradually word of mouth brought me more work — sometimes really cool bands, but also some misogynistic death metal. When I opened Jackpot! (in 1997) I was initially booked up with all my friend's bands that needed to record albums and demos. But one can only have so many friends. As word of mouth, advertising and the Yellow Pages took effect, I started to get more jobs with artists that I didn't know — and sometimes didn't enjoy. The funny thing is that some of the early work I didn't enjoy was actually a lot better than what came along later! Ah, the good old days.
Maybe I've become more tolerant of my job — getting kind of Zen with the responsibilities of helping these people actualize their dreams. Even on the worse days it's better than post hole digging.
I called John Baccigaluppi and we were discussing the idea for this column. He said there are three variables that engineers experience, but I changed it to four:
1. Really great music is being made and you get to be a part of it.
2. Really great people are making the music and they're fun to work with.
3. Really bad music is being made.
4. Really bad people are making music. (Mine. How did you guess?)
What happens is that these can be combined in different ways. Great music made by great people? This is exciting. Bad music by great people? A bit trying but can be okay. Bad people making great music? It happens. Tune them out. Bad people making bad music? You might hate your job.
What was initially purely a labor of love — making music, making records, helping friends make records — has become a job. Only when 1 and 2 are combined can you hope to have a day where time flies and you feel lucky to work with such cool folks on an amazing record. Other people may hear this record and think you're great because you are associated with it. But this doesn't happen all the time. In fact, for most small studio owners out there it doesn't happen nearly enough. All of the other combinations produce difficulties, whether it's your sensibilities being assaulted by poorly written songs, personality clashes between the band and you (or each other), sheer fucking tedium as you punch in the same word for the 200th time, or the sensation of nearly drifting off to sleep as that boring tune plays again (really, this happened to me once).
What can you do? As a small studio owner I've got too many bills to pay, taxes to deal with, gear I'd like to get (Mac G4, please?), and it'd be nice to take home some money for those house payments and groceries sometime. I've taken all kinds of crazy work, especially when it gets slow. That doesn't even count some of the "unknown quantity" sessions I've passed on to other engineers and taken my cut from. We are in a service industry, we should be proud of our craft and ready to do the best job possible for the clients who hire us. That doesn't mean we have to be inspired and become Phil Spector to their Shaggs, but saying something beyond, "It's on tape" can really help a session along and make you look like a nice person. Hell, you never know — maybe the crappy band this week will be so impressed that they'll tell a good band to come visit you!
Should you ever say, "No" to a job? I've only done it a few times. I try to keep people from coming in that would not be happy with the gear or environment that we favor here. If a potential client is pushy and obnoxious over the phone, there's a possibility that they might be a bit too much in person! When I've (unfortunately) recorded bands with sexist, insulting and ugly music I've hurried through the sessions and decided that if they called me again I'd refuse to work with them based on their lyrics. Luckily these kind of bands break up real fast. When people have fought in the studio to the point of nothing getting accomplished and me getting exhausted (see this column, issue #21), I've attempted to send them home. Sometimes I've even been busy enough to turn a few unsavory projects down. But only a few times...
If I ever got so "in demand" that I could pick and choose who to record with I guess I could escape this world. But I don't know — will I ever be in that boat for good? Wouldn't we still need to fill some of the days of the month when I needed a day off? (Go Ezra.) Wouldn't there still be those occasions where no "cool clients" had called and I needed to make rent? And in those cases I would still hope that the clients received the best possible treatment and left happy. I am a professional. I swear.