I get asked fairly often from people visiting my site about how to get into the Production Sound game, but few people ask me the kinds of questions that I myself did not ask when I was starting out as well. To be honest, I didn’t know what questions to ask, but I also had no resources to go by. Every Mixer that I tried contacting did not respond, so there was no guide for me, and I had to learn on my own by doing it the wrong way, or what I thought was the right way for a long time. But these are the things that you should consider before getting into Production Sound, or in some regards, even Production in general.
The average day on set is 12 hours. If you live in Los Angeles, you can probably tack another three hours onto your day for your commute to and from set. Many productions go over 12 hours, so with a little math, you can determine that your 12 hours for working, plus a half hour for lunch, and the time you need to load in and set up/pack up and load out, you may be looking at about 14 hour days plus your commute. Now ask yourself, how does one find time for sleep, showering, and so on? Well, most people get very little sleep and the truth is that it is very common for people to get into car accidents due to sleep deprivation. This also makes having any sort of normal life, or a family or relationship very difficult.
Being in Sound means that you have to own a lot of equipment. All that gear tends to have a very high price point. A single channel of professional wireless can be between $3K and $5K by its self, so imagine when you need 12! Not only will you be spending all your hard earned money on equipment (and hopefully not going into debt over it), but you also have to live with it, or pay for a storage space. An average kit can cost anywhere between $20K and $100K, so remember, this stuff is not free for you, and you should not bring it along to the job for free just because you already own it. Your labor and your equipment rental fee are two different things, and you need to be sure to negotiate those things fairly.
There are different kinds of competition to deal with. You have the established bunch that really don’t want more people entering their field, and you have the young guys that don’t know how to run a business, and charge less than the going rate (undercutting) because they either don’t know any better, or they think that somehow THEY are worth LESS than other Mixers. But a product or service costs the same regardless, it is up to the person that hires you to determine if you are right for the job, and it is up to you to decide if you are in fact right for the job too (and there are so many people entering the field that the jobs vs. Mixers ratio is becoming a bit of an issue!). Which brings me to this next point to consider:
The best thing that you can do for yourself if you want to get into any competitive business, is to charge the same that everyone else charges. Why? Well, if you charge less, then you’re the cheap guy, and people will know you as that. You will have a hard time keeping up with inflation, and since you are devaluing the business for everyone else, they aren’t going to like you too much, which means that you can count out getting referrals from your peers, which is by far the best support system you could hope for. Or you could charge more. This is not a bad idea because real good clients will be more confident in you, and you will help your community of peers be able to charge more as well and keep up with the rising cost of living. Plus, the more you charge, the less you technically have to work, which means that you have a sporting chance at having a somewhat normal life.
If you work in entertainment, it may be a serious risk to your health. We already went over the hours, but remember that production companies can be just as evil as any other greedy corporation, which means that they don’t care if you get enough sleep, they don’t care how nutritious set meals are, they don’t care about your level of stress, or anything of the sort. They want you for as cheap as they can get you, and only abide by health and safety codes at the barest minimum, and only because they have to by law. Granted not every production is this grim, but you can bet that anything on the lower budget scale, which is the majority of the productions out there, will be in some way or another.
Labor Unions are there to look after you, because like I mentioned in the previous section, no one else is! So you should not be afraid of unions. Every worker in the labor force should join a union, it is the only way at attempting to get reasonable work hours, or at least faire compensation for your labor and time, not to mention all the health and safety stuff. I think that if you decide to make this a career, you should spend your time gathering experience, learning as much as you can, and talking with the union so that you know what to expect when you decide it is time to join.
This is a personal opinion, but working in sound to me means working in a high tech environment. There is a lot to know on many levels, and with all the equipment that is always coming out, there is always something new to learn. You do not have to spend a fortune and get in debt to go to an audio/film school. In fact I highly recommend not doing that. Anything you need to know can be learned by research. There are so many resources available for free that you literally have no excuse for not seeking it out for yourself. But if you do have money to spend on an education, I recommend taking it and using it to support yourself while you apprentice under someone that is established in your field of interest. You should not expect to get paid for a good while, but learning how things really work and how to behave on set, and the business and politics and such are paramount, and that’s all stuff you don’t learn in school. The only thing trade schools give you is knowledge that you can find out on your own, access to equipment that you can go out and borrow or rent on your own, and debt. The certificate that you may earn is worthless, so don’t bother framing it. But you do need to do your own research regardless. If you ask a professional “what is the best mic?” or “Does this piece of equipment do this function?” then you are telling that person that you are not capable of doing your own research, and that you are therefore not qualified for the job. Every piece of equipment comes with a manual that you should read cover to cover, and there are lots of forums around that have real professionals discussing their real world experiences and opinions with these things free for the reading. So please, don’t be one of those guys that only learned how to push the buttons and turn the knobs, you should really develop an understanding of the how and the why, otherwise you’ll just look like a fool in front of others. This is not just about understanding the equipment, there is a lot more to know, so seek it out.
Longevity of the Craft
How long do you think this profession has until automation renders it obsolete? I don’t have a realistic idea about that myself. But what I can say is this: I’ve seen a lot of things come into existence that I never thought possible, and it is happening at an alarming rate, and having knowledge and a skill is no longer what will guarantee you a paycheck. Not when knowledge is free for all, and not when technology advances to a point where it can do your job for you. I foresee a time when film making is all done by algorithms. Actors likenesses and voices are in databases, music is generated by robots, and it all gets churned out so quick that mankind will just be too inefficient to create it at a rate that can keep up with how fast we consume it. Binge watching shows is pushing it in that direction, that’s for sure! But the same can be said about just about any job, so take it or leave it. It just depends upon how greedy do you think any particular employer actually is.
In the End
In the end, I enjoy my work. I won’t say every day is a good day. Most days are ok, but the commute to/from work really takes it out of me. People are certainly becoming more unreasonable, and have lesser of an understanding about the craft, and the teamwork that it takes to get the job done. People have a tendency to think of themselves or their contribution to be bigger than the project its self. So fighting to just get the chance to do the bare minimum for your job is a constant reality. And the truth of it all is that you don’t just get to hang up your hat, punch your time card, go home and turn it all off until tomorrow. It is more than a job, it is a lifestyle, and a thankless one at that. As long as you are doing your job well, no one will say anything. But if you don’t do it well, or if people just don’t like you, or if they are incompetent and need to point their finger somewhere else to keep people from looking too closely at them, you will certainly hear about it. And let’s not forget that being a freelancer comes with its own set of challenges to deal with.
Long hours, fighting to be fairly compensated, high overhead, lots of physical labor, etc. etc. These are the realities of the job. It is not about meeting celebrities, or being in fashionable Hollywood, and Red Carpets, and winning awards. Though those things do sometimes happen, it is really mostly just a lot of hard work. This is not me griping, this is the reality of it all. I still love my job and playing with all my toys, but I couldn’t be sure I would have gone this route if I had known all the pro’s and con’s of it ahead of time.