How To Find Your Niche As An Audio Engineer
One of the hardest parts of starting a career as a recording engineer is standing out from the crowd.
Everybody with a laptop can produce a decent song these days, which can make it extremely difficult to persuade artists to hire you, especially when you offer every audio service under the sun.
A jack of all trades is a master of none. But by focusing on a niche, you can establish yourself as an expert. A niche is a service that appeals to a small, specialized group of people. While servicing a smaller market does limit your potential client base, it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than to have to take a day job at the fish market.
In part one of our three-part series on how to make money as a freelance audio engineer, we’ll help you figure out which niche is right for you.
At the beginning of their careers, most engineers will take any work they can get. Record a podcast? Pitch correct vocals? Produce a jazz trio? No problem, daddy-o.
But to create a sustainable career in an overcrowded market, many engineers choose to focus on a specific niche. Over time, some engineers discover their niche naturally. But by focusing on a niche early in your career, you can fast-track your progress and start landing bigger clients sooner.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. That’s roughly five years, assuming you work 40 hours per week.
Five years isn’t that long to become one of the best engineers in your market. But if you offer production, recording, editing, mixing and mastering services, it will take you 25 years to be able to rival your competition.
Having a niche doesn’t mean you have to pass up paying work just because it doesn’t fit your style. But, when actively looking for work you should focus on artists in your area of expertise. Speaking of area…
Location, Location, Location
The first thing you should consider when trying to determine your niche is your location.
If you plan to offer services that require you to meet with your clients face to face, you need to do some market research. Here are some questions you should ask yourself before selecting a niche:
- What are your top three audio skills?
- If you had to pick a genre to specialize in, what would it be?
- What’s the local music scene like?
- Are there enough artists in your genre to provide consistent work?
- How many other studios in the area offer similar services?
- How much do they charge?
- How often are they booked?
If there are no other studios in your area, it’s a good indicator that there aren’t enough artists to sustain a profitable business. If there are a lot of studios in your area, the market may be overcrowded. It will be challenging to persuade artists to work with you over the more established studios in town.
If that’s the case, focus on a service you can offer remotely. By transferring files over the internet, you can work with artists all over the world. It also saves you a ton of money, since you don’t have to own a commercial facility.
Now that you’ve done some market research, it’s time to decide which services you want to specialize in.
Music Production Services
Sure, being a record producer is great, but it’s not an easy job to come by. Before an artist will value your opinion as a producer, they have to value your work.
Most producers start as songwriters or musicians. Both of these options make great niche services. And the best part is, you can create a killer demo reel all by yourself.
As a songwriter, your goal is to record high-quality demos and shop them to music publishers, record labels, and independent artists. You can also license your songs for use in TV shows, commercials and more.
As a remote session musician, your goal is to make a name for yourself as the best instrumentalist in your genre. This can be very difficult, depending on the instrument and the genre. There’s a lot of competition for the best classic rock guitarist, but there’s a lot more room in the market for someone who can lay down a groovy Motown baseline.
You don’t have to focus on writing music for artists, either. Brands and corporations use music in their content all the time. Writing jingles for TV commercials pays really well, but it may take some time to make the right connections.
Many artists and producers create and sell sample packs featuring drum samples, loops, virtual instrument presets, and more. While this requires a little bit of clout within your genre, it makes an excellent form of passive income.
Since you’re reading an article on how to start your career as an audio engineer, I’ll assume you don’t already own fully treated live room and a control room with a large-format console.
That’s OK—you don’t need one.
Depending on the genre, you can record a Grammy® award-winning album with as little as a 2-channel interface and a microphone. If you specialize in genres like Rock that typically require a large tracking room, try offering bands a space to record pre-production demos or overdubs at a lower rate. Just be sure to approach the situation with tact—you don’t want to seem like you’re undercutting the other studio.
And remember, you don’t have to focus exclusively on music. You could record audiobooks, podcasts, or voice-overs for video productions. If you have enough space, you could even set up a foley pit and record sound effects for feature films.
You don’t have to own your own facility to offer recording services, either. Many musicians are more comfortable recording in their own homes. There’s a lot of opportunity for engineers who are willing to make house calls. You can also offer remote recording services for concerts, which is a great way to meet new artists.
Editing services are perhaps the most interesting niche. While many engineers may feel that editing is tedious, it’s one of the most highly demanded skills. Not by artists, mind you, but by other engineers.
Most artists only hit the studio once or twice a year at most. But professional engineers have a constant stream of work. And they hate editing.
Editing takes a lot of time, and the more time engineers spend editing, the less money they make. Which means a professional engineer getting paid a handsome rate to produce a record will gladly outsource things like drum editing and vocal tuning to make more time for high-dollar activities.
These are just a few of the niches available in the wide world of audio.
Stay tuned for part two of our series on how to make money as a freelance audio engineer to learn how to create a killer website that can help you land new clients!
Brad Pack is an award-winning audio engineer and writer based in Chicago, IL. He currently owns and operates Punchy Kick, a professional mixing and mastering studio that specializes in pop-punk, emo, punk, grunge, and alternative music.
He has been helping artists connect with fans through emotionally resonant mixes, cohesive masters, and insightful guidance for over ten years. Check out his website PunchyKick.com or say hi on Instagram @PunchyKick