Early in my career, I watched a couple studios crumble first hand. One was a music studio that went bankrupt because the owner made some poor choices. The other was a post studio that laid off most of the staff in one day; “Black Wednesday,” we called it. I had mixed feelings knowing I’d own a business someday. Learning business skills didn’t seem like a choice – in our field, the odds are that you will be freelance (or take contract work) at some point. What I’ve since learned (through business classes and being in business) is that business isn’t just a skill set; it’s also a philosophy or way of thinking.
You’re never too small to act like a business
If you have ever taken a freelance or contract gig, you have a business. Yet, some people don’t treat their business like a business until they’re out of work. It’s common advice to keep a resume current, but your business should be kept current, too. If you have a website, LinkedIn account, or Facebook business page, is your information up to date? Are your iMDB credits and CV current? Do you have an invoicing system in place? If you maintain those little details, the next time you need work you can focus on more important tasks like meetings or networking.
Defining your brand
The way you present yourself in business should match who you are and what you want to do. Are you trying to work alone, or do you want to work for other companies? Who do you want to work with (individuals, audio houses, production companies, corporations)? Are you looking to build your own name, or your company’s name? The answers to these questions will help define your “brand,” or how clients will see you. If you’re looking to work for other facilities but your website looks like you’re a full-service studio, it sends a conflicting message (that’s a mistake I made; my website was later revised to look like an online resume). Branding is also helpful because it’ll help focus your efforts on where to look for work and make connections (vs just applying to generic ads on Craigslist or Mandy).
Be realistic about your skill level and experience
Have you ever been to a restaurant where the menu had way too many options? When there’s too much information, it’s hard to tell the “signature dish,” or what you’re best at. I’ve seen this mistake on websites, profiles and resumes (especially recent graduates or people with less work experience). If your resume sums up as, “I can edit, record ADR, sound design and mix,” it might get you an interview. It’s really hard to land the gig when your credits don’t show strong experience, though. Instead, focus on a few things you do best (even if it’s entry level or semi-related like IT or tech), and use that to just get in the door. A website or resume can always be updated as your skills get better, but you may not get a second chance if you can’t 100% deliver what you say you can do (especially as a freelancer).
How not to do business
While it may seem like our work is product-based (films, tv shows, games), we are actually service providers in a service-based industry. It doesn’t matter if you do great quality audio work – if you don’t give great service, your business will suffer. These are true stories of people who lost good gigs because of poor business choices:
- When a mixer stepped out of a session, the studio assistant gave his business card to the client. The assistant said he had a side business and offered his mixing services at a discount. The client later told the mixer, and the assistant was fired.
- A freelance sound editor was hired for day work, but refused to hand over his sessions at the end of the day. The editor claimed the work belonged to him, but he’d let the studio have it if they agreed to hire him for the rest of the project.
- A freelance mixer was reviewing a mix with a producer. When the producer asked for mix adjustments, the mixer refused to do any changes. The mixer said he didn’t want to make changes to his mix.
A mentor told me, “Treat every project you work on like it’s the most important thing you’ve ever worked on.” This is especially true for freelance work where one mistake can mean you won’t be hired back. There’s times to do sales, talk about upcoming work, or do a mix for your demo, but never lose focus on the job you’ve actually been hired to do.
Finding out rates
One mistake I made early on was not being competitive enough with my rates; I just didn’t know enough about what other people were charging for the same work. It can be uncomfortable to talk about, but having that information can be the difference between scraping by and having extra money to improve your business (like buying better plugins or equipment). Ideally, you want to find out contractor pay rates because staff wages tend to be lower (because of taxes and benefits). Instead of asking freelancers directly what they charge, ask what they think would be reasonable for you to charge. (If you have any suggestions how to have discussions about rates with colleagues, please add to the comments!)
There’s no budget
Offering a client a deal or a low rate doesn’t ensure loyalty or repeat business. Always ask yourself, “what am I getting in exchange for working on this project?” Sometimes there are no-budget projects that are worth your time for the experience, credit, relationship, creative outlet, or because you believe in the cause.
When you want the gig, there’s a better way to approach than just offering to work for low/free. For example, you could start with: “It’s a great project and I’d love to be involved. Can you tell me more about your budget?” Most projects are financially tight at the end, but what did they have at the beginning? Talking about money can help you gauge the integrity of your potential client – will they genuinely appreciate you offering a low rate (or working for free), or are they just taking advantage of a possible deal?
Know your boundaries between friendship and business
In our field, there can be a blurry line between friendship and business. Clients can become friends, and friends can become clients. Early on, my boss and co-workers were more like friends than business colleagues. I took it personally when I was passed up for an opportunity or didn’t get to work on a project I was interested in. Now, I see that decisions sometimes have to be made in the best interest of the business, and it’s not personal. The true sign of a friend is how they handle it, though.
Two traits I value in clients and friends are transparency and honesty. I’d rather hear from the source that I didn’t get a gig, even if it’s a tough conversation. It’s difficult to retain trust (in friendship and in business) when you’re questioning if someone is being open and honest. At the end of the day, if you are honest and loyal, you will attract people who are also loyal and honest with you.
It may seem like building a business or advancing a career is entirely a proactive process, but it’s also just a matter of time and experience. As your colleagues and friends get better gigs, you may get opportunities for better gigs because of it. If you can stay focused on what you are doing now (and doing it well), your business may grow faster than you expect.