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An audio professional’s guide to freelancing

Katie Tavini puts questions to some of the industry’s finest engineers and producers on the pressures of freelancing and dealing with the challenges of self-employment

Photo by Dom Sigalas

Those who follow me in Insta land may remember that I asked what struggles you face in your work as freelancers in the audio world. There were so many recurring topics and questions, that I thought it’d be useful to ask my fabulous colleagues and get some answers to some quite tricky questions.

How do you deal with the lack of job security and having to find your own work?

Isabel Gracefield, engineer: My experience is that as an engineer you are either self-employed, or you are more than full-time employed – essentially you are owned by a producer or studio. There are pros and cons to both situations and it’s a personal preference.

I spent a year in employment, contracted, five to six days a week, 12-14 hours a day, at low pay, and I burnt out. It taught me that I am better off freelance, even with the stress that goes with it. Full disclosure, my partner earns a regular steady wage that can cover both of us if need be, and that is an essential element to keeping going as well. That said, it’s still frequently stressful. I try to have a constant interest in my own creative projects to pull me through fallow periods. It’s occasionally been very tough mentally, particularly when you have to say no to work you’d like to do for personal reasons – the absolutely classic thing is to book a holiday last minute in a quiet patch, and then get offered work straight after. Happens every year.

From a practical point of view, you must keep a running spreadsheet of income and outgoings, and save every penny that you can, when you can. Also, buy as little gear as you can get away with.

A lot of freelancers are expected to go ‘above and beyond’ to get jobs done, which often involves working long and anti-social hours. Do you factor this in and allow regular days off after an intense project?

Julian Kindred, producer: It’s really important to give the artists you work with that extra bit of effort others might not. It will set you apart and will also allow the time necessary to deal with any unexpected creative surprises that may come up while working together. However, it’s extremely important to preserve time to restore yourself after giving so much to others. There’s always deadline pushes where working around the clock is required and necessary. Otherwise, Sundays (and weekends if you can help it) off. Routinely sustaining your humanity will serve you well when you need to give yourself entirely to the creative demands of the studio.

Quite a few people asked how to deal with bands who are rude in a live sound setting. Do you have any advice for diffusing difficult situations?

Hannah Brodrick, live sound engineer: Generally, I find killing them with kindness works best, and using a touch of empathy. Being on the road can bring out the worst in people – everyone’s tired and emotional. However, I’ve also heard that some artists only behave and start treating you with respect when you put them in their place. It’s a tough one. I reckon the key is to just rise above it and do your job the best you can.

Another topic that got asked about a lot on Instagram was harassment and bullying – I was super shocked to see how many of my friends and followers have been subject to this. I’m going to respond to this straight away and just say, YOU NEED TO TELL SOMEONE. Straight away. No one should ever make you feel uncomfortable in any working environment. Talk it through with a colleague, friend or mentor. If you have no one to talk to, my emails are always open. From previous conversations and experience, I know there can be a lot of feelings around ‘if I speak up I might lose my job’, but I really believe that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and there can usually be a tactful way to deal with these problems without risking your job. But please, please don’t bottle it up, this is a serious issue and you deserve to work in a positive space.

Sexual harassment – another big topic, with a lot of people mentioning that they’d experienced inappropriate comments. How do you shut this down?

Hannah Brodrick: I believe in giving as good as you get. I honestly feel like a lot of men don’t realise when ‘banter’ goes too far. A quiet word with a colleague or someone in a higher position can also be pretty effective. I think there are very few people who would carry on with inappropriate language if they were made aware it was making someone uncomfortable.

Many people got in touch to say they’d received phone calls to discuss projects in the middle of the night, and had requests for revisions split between email, Facebook and WhatsApp messages. How do you set boundaries with clients without offending?

Elliot Vaughan, producer: The first point about mix tweaks across multiple media is pretty simple. I say something along the lines of “can you guys collate all this and throw it in an email for me? I don’t want to miss any points and it will make everything a lot smoother”.

I think it shows that I want to do a good job and it puts the blame on me being more disorganised than the client. It doesn’t offend and it usually helps them clarify their thoughts, too.

The midnight phone calls/texts/emails/WhatsApps/ doorbells (it’s happened!) thing is a bit harder for me. Up until recently I would reply at all hours and really didn’t have proper boundaries. I wasn’t respecting my time and I wasn’t asking clients to either. I now try to be really mindful and set really clear parameters. As the producer of a project, this is much easier to police than if you’re assisting or engineering. I try to manage expectations at the start by saying something like: “You will have my full attention in the studio, but when we’re away from that room we’re incommunicado unless there’s something major. We need our rest time to really capitalise on our creativity and be as productive as possible when we’re together”. Something like that is usually fine and most folks get it. Obviously, the social aspect of a project is important – I may go out for dinner with bands so this rule is kind of a fluid one. I can’t say I always stick to my own rules but that’s something for me to work on.

‘Do Not Disturb’ is my friend. I’m not being bombarded with notifications but I can check at leisure so I’m still reasonably contactable. However, there is almost never a real emergency. We’re making music. The worst possible problems can either wait til the morning (we can’t find those missing files at 4am anyway) or should be attended to by the emergency services.

One of the downsides of being a freelancer is the lack of holiday and sick pay. Do you factor them into your rates as a freelancer? Do you feel pressured into working when you’re sick?

Catherine Marks, producer: We don’t actually factor in holiday and sick pay into my fees. I do, however, always put a little bit aside for a rainy day, approx 22 per cent when I can. I don’t feel pressure to work when I’m sick but as an industry we all tend to. It’s in the culture. When in the studio with bands there are often tight schedules to meet and expensive studios being used, so if I’m not there nothing gets done and that is a cost to the project. However, if I was really sick I would have a team that I trust take over if necessary. I have postponed projects due to being burnt out but all involved were understanding and the project ultimately benefitted when I was back on form. There is a level of responsibility that we have to deliver our best. If you feel for whatever reason that isn’t possible at a particular time then it’s important to be honest about it. Clients tend to be understanding. I think as freelancers we need to be slightly more vigilant though when preparing for the unforeseen.

Credits are a really important part of life as an audio engineer or producer, yet so many people ask how to make sure they get credited properly. I know that I’ve mastered a full album, yet the label credited a different engineer for one of the tracks (and it didn’t get re- mastered). How do you negotiate this?

Catherine Marks: It needs to be put in writing when negotiating fees that if your work is used, this is how you want to be credited. It is also important to request a copy of the label copy prior to release as that is the final opportunity to rectify any mistakes.

This happened to me in the early days when assisting. I would have worked on an album for six months and I was not credited at all. It’s frustrating but often an oversight and not intentional. As an assistant, it’s hard to insist on a credit but the producer you are working for should always push to ensure it happens. As an engineer, producer, mixer or mastering engineer, you should be in a better position to negotiate that. If they fail to include the correct credit then insist that it is rectified on the next run of hard copies.

Spotify includes producer and writer credits, which is great, but I believe they should provide a list of all personnel. Like the traditional vinyl cover. Or the priorities should at the very least be the writer, producer, mixer and mastering engineer. Ultimately, you know what you contributed to a record and the people who matter know. Include it in your CV and make sure next time it’s part of your deal.

And finally, an absolutely astonishing amount of people got in touch with me about not getting paid! You finish a job, send your invoice, and then you never get paid. Sometimes you give them a nudge and they pay and apologise, and other times you chase them up and they ignore you. My current longest outstanding invoice is at a whopping 14 months. Do you have any advice for getting paid on time without having to spend hours chasing clients?

Julian Kindred: It’s essential to be clear in communication with those you’re working with, whether you’re managed or not. An open conversation before every gig is vital. Most times I’ll require at least 50 per cent of my fee upfront before work starts, and I’ll make sure there’s been a good discussion to be aware of what the artist is hoping for creatively.

Once everything’s been signed off, I’ll then make sure the remaining payment is received before deliverables are sent to the client. If there’s any need for an extension to the creative schedule it’s important that such changes are mutually agreed. Beyond that, it’s necessary to have a good accountant.

If an accountant isn’t doable, at least hire someone to administrate your accounts who can prepare them for tax each year. My wife, who’s worked in the music industry for a long time, runs a service preparing accounts and managing details for myself, a number of colleagues and even some of my clients.