How do I get my big break into this business?

I got an email from a reader asking how to get started. I had to think about it for a while, hope this helps someone.

I was drafted…. Several times. I wasn’t even trying to get into the business. I just found a world I wanted to be a part of. Someone told me once, put your body where your calling is. Basically, if everything within you craves working in a studio or with live sound, you should do it.

If, however, you are determined to be there AND get paid for it… There might be a problem. Have you ever heard this old phrase? It’s not what you know, it’s who you know? That’s pretty much it. If I am working a show and you walk up wanting to mix for me, not gonna happen. I don’t know you. Your word about your skills and your experience mean nothing. I am not taking your word. Your word means nothing. If someone I know and trust walks up with you, it might be a different story.

You have to know people, people have to know you. Nobody touches my gear unless I know them. You aren’t even rolling cable for me if I don’t know you. You are definitely not touching my board during my show. Just asking tells me you are a knucklehead and I should call security. So, your fantasy world that lets you imagine walking out of tech school and getting handed a new console, big check and adoring fans is a joke. 99.9% of engineers didn’t start that way.

How did most of us get in? As volunteers. We found somewhere we had to be. We found people we wanted to be with. We wanted in so bad that we worked for free. Just to be there. Just to be with them. Not for cash or glory, because we just wanted it.
If you want to work in a studio, here’s your fantasy. Walk in, get the job, show everyone the RIGHT way to do everything, mix a perfect album, get rich, etc. Close? Here’s reality. Walk in, clean the bathroom, make coffee, clean the kitchen, make coffee, sweep the halls, make coffee, roll a hundred cables, make coffee, change a light bulb, make coffee, clean the bathroom again. If anything in you panics at the sound of that, go ahead and get over it.

When I first met Larry Howard, I just wanted to hang out with him. I helped him move. I helped clean his house. I eventually moved up to cleaning the studio. Then I was promoted to coffee maker. Demoted after the first pot. Retrained. Re-promoted. After a while I got to roll cables and setup mics. I met a lot of great artists doing that. People who now know who I am. I ended up as second engineer to some legends. I worked with him in three different studios, including one we built together, over fifteen years. I NEVER MIXED A SINGLE TRACK IN ANY OF THEM. Did you hear me?

Never.

I wasn’t there to show him what I could do. I was there to help him. I was there because I wanted to be there and learn. I already knew everything I knew. I needed to learn what he knew. Was it frustrating? Where there times I got mad about it? Did I ever want to just quit? Yes to all. In fact, if you check out my other blog, you can figure out how mad I got sometimes. I got mad when I lost focus and forgot why I was there.

I had a great engineer as a teacher in school. He took us to some amazing studios he worked with and exposed is to things we never would have imagined. He told all of us, clearly, he never used students during sessions. Don’t even ask. So, I never asked. Not verbally.

He took us to visit a legendary studio outside Phoenix. We had a class, toured the studio, looked over the gear and hung out for a demo of what they did. I was in awe. Spectacular. The control room sent chills down my spine. I needed to work that room. So, guess what I did the whole time? While everyone sat around between tours and demos, I made coffee. I cleaned up the kitchen. I rolled cables. Never asked for anything. Just did it. Not my first rodeo.

Near the end of the day, when everyone was getting ready to leave, he came looking for me. I was in the kitchen again, cleaning up coffee cups. He looked me straight in the eye and said thanks for helping out today. He also told me that he didn’t have any sessions scheduled that month, but wanted to use me in the studio when he did. Why?

He never heard me mix. He never read my impressive resume. He never saw my name in a magazine. But, he knew me. He knew what kind of person I would be around his clients. He knew that I didn’t mind doing the dirty work and making him look good. He saw everything he needed in an assistant. Attitude is the key that will open most doors. He liked my attitude.

As for the live sound, I got in like most techs…. Church.

I was working as a volunteer for a youth ministry in 1992. We did live shows, small concerts, dramas and stuff like that. Standard youth ministry stuff. I knew just enough about sound equipment to be dangerous. When the room needed a sound upgrade, I did it. We hung speakers, wired the stage area, set up a brand new, antique mixer and cranked it up. It was loud. Not crisp or properly tuned, just loud. I loved it. That got me over to the tech side of the ministry.

When we moved to Macon, I ended up working there, too. I was asked to help out with some events and ended up taking over after a few years. Again, all of this was unpaid time, purely volunteer.
I met hundreds of performers and engineers during my time with all these guys. They opened doors for me. They introduced me to the paying gigs. They helped me get on the crews that paid the good money. They got me out on the road. The people who I gave my time and life to made stuff happen for me.

So. What do you really want? Do you want to work in pro audio or do you just want a check? You can get the check anywhere. Flip burgers or flip houses for the check. Work wherever you have to when you start out. The business will probably not pay the bills for a while. If you expect it to, you need to find the closest soup kitchen. You are going to need it.

If you just have to work in this world, prove it. Work it for the work. Get to know people in the business. Be humble. They know more than you. You need to learn from them. Once you get that opportunity, don’t blow it. Don’t lose focus. Guard your attitude. The guys with basic tech knowledge and crappy attitudes will more likely end up as roadies. Not techs. The attitude is what moves you up or down in the business. Good luck.

This article was featured on ProSoundWeb.com

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