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Getting a Start in the Field While You’re Still in School

I recently met up with fellow SoundGirl Member Ameeta ,who’s in her last semester of college and looking to move to Los Angeles after to pursue sound design. She asked a lot of great questions about how to get a jumpstart on her career while in school, so I wanted to share some of what we talked about.

If I’m planning to relocate, what can I do while still in school?

Stay focused on your current location. Find relevant activities like taking an internship, or projects where you can you gain credits and experience. Take advantage of the time you have left to experiment and learn without pressure. I wouldn’t spend too much time looking for jobs and instead focus more on practicing your skills. It’s a lot easier to build connections once you’ve moved, and most places won’t interview for work until you’re local.

Save up at least three months of living expenses. Your first job will be to network, and you’ll be the one paying yourself to do it. It takes time to meet people, make connections, and take interviews. Your chances of getting a foot in the door are much better if you’re willing to intern (which is typically unpaid), which means you could be supporting yourself financially even longer.

Make a list of people you’d like to connect with (and find contact info, if you can). Look beyond award winners or major studios, since you may have a better response from people working for smaller or independent studios (who are just as qualified). When you’re close to your move (within a few weeks), send out emails to all of these people. There’s no guarantee you’ll get a response, but there’s no harm in writing, “I enjoyed the work you did on xx. I’d like to meet and ask you for advice. Is it possible to get together when I’m in town in a couple weeks?” This is exactly how I met Ameeta (she contacted me through my website), and I was happy to meet up with her.

How do you find connections when you live in a totally different state?

I knew three people when I moved to Los Angeles. In some ways, it was better not to know a lot of people because I had to get over my fears and start meeting people quickly. I placed an ad on Craigslist looking to meet people working in audio, and there I found engineers, mixers, musicians, and composers. They helped me make other connections and look for work, and many are still my friends now. Some other ideas:

Professional organizations/sites: If you’re on an industry forum, website, or magazine, look for people to contact there. Look for places like Gearslutz.com or here on Soundgirls.Org, not just job sites.

Alumni: this is a great place to look for connections, and it often goes untapped. Don’t limit yourself to recent grads – be open to contacting anyone who lives where you’re going.

Family/friends: Ask around who knows anyone in the city you’re moving to. Ameeta made two great industry connections in Los Angeles through family members who knew people who lived here. L.A. really works like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – chances are, if you can find someone living in LA, they likely know someone who works in entertainment.  That person may be able to track down someone who works in some area of sound.

Is it good to visit before moving?

I would absolutely try to visit the place you want to move to (even if you’re not close to graduating). A lot can change once you’re actually there. I was planning to move to New York after graduation, but I visited Los Angeles for spring break and found the lifestyle was a much better fit. In both cities, I stayed with friends where I got to see how they were living (what areas they could afford to live in, what they did for fun, etc.). I preferred a car vs. riding a busy subway, and having a spacious apartment where I could setup a Protools rig.

One thing Ameeta did (which I thought was very smart) was visit Los Angeles for an industry event. Not only did she get to learn more about sound, but she got to meet a lot of sound editors and mixers – all in one day and one place! Now, she has even more people to connect with when she’s back.

Is it necessary to have a demo/website?

For sound jobs, a demo or website is not necessary. If you’re looking for studio work, it’s more important to have a polished resume. If you’re pursuing tv or film, list any eligible credits you have on IMDb.com (it’s ok if you don’t have any yet).

The reason a demo/website isn’t crucial is because your prior work is a small part of what an employer is looking at. It’s also about your personality and attitude, your experience level, and who’s recommending you. I would suggest not putting samples of your work online, but if you must, only include samples of work where you were involved with the released product. For example, it’s a common assignment in school to remix a commercially-released song from the multitrack, or to strip out the sound from a movie scene and redo it all yourself. These are great exercises, but on a demo it sends the message that you may be inexperienced/have no credits. It’s also presenting something as yours that you probably don’t have the copyright to share.

Instead of spending time on a demo or website, find a project to work on. If you’re pursuing live sound, volunteer at a local venue. If you’re looking to do music production, find an artist to do a single with. If you’re pursuing post, find a short film to work on. It doesn’t matter if you work out of your bedroom or do it all on headphones – the point is that you’re doing something that will grow your chops and get you a credit.

Am I behind for not going to school in the city I want to move to?

A significant number of people who are successful in the field came from out-of-state schools, schools without a reputation, or they didn’t go to school at all. It’s not a race, and all you can do is what’s right for you. In most cases, the name of your school won’t help you land a job unless you’re talking to an alumni of your own school. You may find someone wants to help you out just because you are a fellow alumni. Someone might help you out just because you grew up in the same city or state. There’s a lot of different angles you can find to connect with people personally, and that’s what’s really important.

What can I do to stand out?

Surviving in the industry isn’t about standing out; it’s about finding somewhere that’s a good fit for you and the lifestyle you want to have. There really is no “standing out” – There’s thousands of sound people and studios, and you’ll probably encounter a fraction of them in your career. Once you get into a smaller niche of the industry, though, you might get to know most everyone locally. So, start by picking a small niche you’re interested in – maybe front of house engineers for local punk rock bands, or sound editors for cartoons, or music engineers who specialize in remote recording. It still takes some effort to break into those tribes, but it all starts by meeting one person, and then another. You may get an opportunity just by enough people in that circle getting to meet you. Or, you may find that the tribe isn’t a good fit for you (maybe it’s the people, something about the job, or there’s not enough paid work to be sustainable). That’s when you start exploring in another circle.

What should I look out for being a woman?

There can be unspoken gender roles in some entry-level jobs, and that’s something you have to feel out when you’re interviewing or meeting the crew. For example, if a studio needs someone to answer phones and someone else to run to the electronics store, would you have an equal chance of either duty? Are you ok being pigeonholed into certain roles at times (like answering phones or client services)? Sometimes it’s completely worth it for the opportunity, but sometimes it’s a path to nowhere.

When interviewing, ask a lot of questions about opportunities. Can you sit in on sessions when you’re off the clock? Do they allow employees to use the studio for their projects? I’d also ask what they see as the path to move into the work you’re interested in. I turned down a client services job offer because they flat out said there would be no path to engineering. On the flip side, I’ve seen studios with a Pro Tools rig setup at reception. It doesn’t matter if it’s a guy or gal – whoever is answering phones also gets trained to do sound editing.

How do you prove yourself on the job?

I used to think I needed to prove myself in every situation, and in retrospect, it was just my own insecurity. If you feel the need to prove yourself to other people, it means you still have to prove it to yourself, too. I often questioned if a comment or criticism was legit, or if I was being treated differently for my gender or age. Occasionally there are people who clearly have a bias against you, and it is what it is – you have no control over their views. Guys may tease or give you a hard time, and you just have to hold your ground that you’re there to learn and excel the same as everyone else. All you can do is believe that you’re working to the best of your abilities, handle situations as best as you can, and tomorrow you’ll have the chance to do it again. Over time, you’ll grow your skill set, meet new people, and get new opportunities, and that speaks for itself.