Here's a recent email I received:
"I am interested in what you do and how you do it. I guess I am not the average person looking to get into audio engineering. I am 44 and I am an anesthesiologist looking for a second career. I am an audiophile, tone-freak, and gear-hound, and have more guitars, amps, pedals, etc. than most studios have on their gear list. What is the best way to get into the business and really learn? Do you enjoy your job? Is 44 too late to get into this? What is the job market and pay like for a newbie, on up to an experienced pro? Thanks for your input!"
Let's break this down:
"What is the best way to get into the business?"
Simply put, buy a recording studio and don't expect to make your money back. I'm not joking. There you go, now you're in the business. The other way in is to produce and/or engineer a top- selling record. Of course that involves the classic Catch-22 of, "How do I get to work on a top-selling record if I haven't done so already?" Welcome, again, to the music business.
"What is the best way to really learn?"
Study, practice, watch others at work, assist; and then throw yourself into every recording scenario possible. I don't think I was really rudimentarily competent at recording until I'd spent three or four years working full-time in a commercial studio. And by "full- time" I mean 12-hour sessions, 30 days a month, for years on end. I'm still constantly learning and striving to get better at what I do. The real challenges are way beyond learning recording techniques; they involve getting the most out of performers and really producing a session on a number of different levels. Note that this is also a hard skill to "sell" to your clients until they see you in action.
"Do you enjoy your job?"
Yes. Even the worst day of recording beats every other job I've ever had. But if you think professional recording involves sitting back while watching amazingly talented performers knock out great takes, one after another, then please think again. Most of my time in the studio is spent setting up gear, tearing it all back down, discussing takes and ideas, and solving problems. Sometimes it takes me four hours to set up a band to record a song; a song that might take them five minutes to perform. In other words, four percent of your time is spent watching a great take go down and the rest is hard work. I won't even mention that a 10-hour workday often becomes 12 hours. I always arrive early for cleanup and leave late after computer backups, more cleanup and packing all the gear away. Ah, the glamour!
"Is 44 too late to get into this?"
It's never too late, but just note that someone in your field went to college for at least eight years and did four more years of postgraduate training in residency. I didn't start earning a living (barely) as a recordist until I was 33 — I guess that was four years of college, an eight year residency in a band, and three years running a home studio. I'm not saying you need to take 15 years to start making a living, but this is certainly not a career you can jump into overnight.
"What is the job market like for a newbie?"
The recording "job market" is really like no other business I am familiar with. Recording schools certainly send more students out into the world than there are jobs in the field. I rarely hear of studios looking to hire anyone; and when I do get word of a job available, the qualifications are usually pretty high. The best resumé is always based on past work and experience, and having your name on albums that other folks recognize is key. Networking is a must, which means spending your "off time" checking out music and attending events.
"What is the pay like for a newbie, on up to an experienced pro?"
From what I've researched, an anesthesiologist makes $427,956 per year, on average. I'm a bit reticent to declare my personal income, but let's just say it's not six digits. I once found myself working for less than minimum wage when I quoted a set rate on an album — but it was a record I really wanted to be involved with and see my name on. I know people in this business that work for free and I know people that are financially set for life. It just depends.
I imagine you might be living fairly comfortably on you salary, even if it's far less than my research shows. Are you ready for a career where you are dependent on musicians booking time with you in order to make a living? Can you face a month of no booked sessions on your calendar and no money coming in? Are you ready to spend years building up a new career? Do you want to pay for your own health care completely out of pocket? Are you ready to record music that you don't enjoy listening to?
You really have to understand that this is a career with no guarantees. You can invest millions of dollars in a recording studio and watch it sit empty. Maybe you'll work on successful records, only to find that now everyone thinks you're too busy or might charge too much (don't worry, no one ever checks with you to verify these assumptions). Maybe you'll spend six months working on a dream project only to watch it get shelved. And maybe you'll have to pass on the "next-big-thing" while you're committed to working on the dream project that had you tied up for months. There are no guarantees.
I don't want to sound bitter or grumpy, because I'm not at all. I really do love the challenges and rewards of this job. I'm glad I get to work in this field. I just want to show you that this really is a job, as people frequently have a skewed understanding of what this work actually entails. If this still sounds appealing to you, go for it. The most important thing is being passionate about your profession. But are you ready for this one?