The Pros and Cons of Working for Free as an Audio Engineer
You’ve finally decided.
You want to start recording other bands. You’ve been honing your audio engineering skills on your music for a while now, and you feel like you’ve got the hang of how everything works.
Your friends, family and the fans at your shows tell you they like the sound of your music so you must be good enough to at least record bands that are on your level right?
But it seems like everyone is an audio engineer these days? How do you differentiate yourself from everyone else? How do you prove yourself to the local bands so that they choose you over the fancy studio in town? Sure, they have better gear, but they’re way more expensive than you so there must be some bands that can’t afford that anyway.
Should you work for free as an audio engineer to get your name out there? Or should you be firm that what you’re providing is a valuable service?
Tricky question, isn’t it?
In an industry so saturated with skilled people that all seem to be able to record everything under the sun, how do you position yourself in the industry, and how do you navigate the risk of offering your services for free?
The Struggle of Starting Out
Even if you’ve been recording your music in your home studio, you might still have to incur some startup costs when you decide to take on actual clients. They might need something more than just a two-channel interface, a condenser microphone, and some headphones. Even if you record them in your home studio, you still want to give them a feeling of being in a studio instead of feeling like they’re intruding into your bedroom. That’s no way to make musicians relaxed so that they can give you a good performance.
Even if you invest in a decent enough setup to record bands, you’re already in the hole.
Then you have to invest your time in getting your name out there. Sure, if you’ve already recorded yourself you might have enough music to create a portfolio, but what if you don’t have anything of that nature?
Working for free once you’re already in debt is a sure-fire way to keep you there unless you’re strategic about it.
How do you tackle the catch-22 of not having any clients because you don’t have any work to show while not having any work to show because you don’t have any clients?
Like I said…tricky.
To fully understand the pros and cons of working for free, we need to examine each scenario in detail.
The Pros and Cons of Working for Free
There are three main benefits of working for free.
- It’s easier to get a portfolio started because you’ll have an easier time finding clients to work with since they won’t have to pay you.
- You’ll gain experience faster. However, there’s a flipside to this because I would argue that you gain experience in marketing much quicker when you charge for your services, but that’s a story for another day.
- You eliminate some of the barriers to entry into the music community because you’re not bringing up money all the time. You’ll get to know the musicians in your area much faster because you won’t be actively soliciting them. If you tell them upfront that you’ll do your work for free or for….shudder…exposure, it makes the conversation easier.
People hate talking about money, so by eliminating it in the equation, it makes the relationship building much more comfortable.
However, if you don’t assign a monetary value on things, people tend to value them less. Of course, musicians don’t think a recording of their song is worthless. Otherwise, they wouldn’t spend their own time recording them with you. But because you’ve eliminated their need to pay for the service, you might leave yourself at risk of them thinking that the service is open-ended.
If you don’t accurately manage expectations and set boundaries around what your free service entails, you might end up doing much more work than you thought you would at the start.
You want to provide a high-end service, even if the first few times are free of charge, so it’s hard to say no when bands ask for endless revisions. So be prepared to manage expectations of what you’re offering from the start.
What does your free session entail?
- How much time are you willing to give away for free.
- How many songs will you do?
- How many mix revisions is reasonable.
- How much extra work outside the scope of the free session are you willing to endure before you say stop.
Knowing the answers to these questions and accurately conveying them to the bands you’re recording is a crucial step in managing the expectations of what your free session will entail.
Another downside of working for free is the whole lack of “food on the table” thing. You can’t exactly take the goodwill you earn from the local bands in your community and cash it at the bank to buy groceries.
The third downside of working for free is that you’ll usually get lower caliber artists. The musicians that can’t afford even the cheapest of sessions, or refuse to pay for them in any way, won’t be your best clients. Musicians who’ve been around the block a couple of times know that money is a great way to communicate the exchange of value. They know that by paying for a session, they’re also setting specific expectations for the engineer to do their job well.
And it doesn’t hurt that they will usually be rehearsed and ready to efficiently use the studio’s time, especially if they’re paying by the hour.
Offering to work for free and only finding shitty artists to record is a catch-22 because it’s tough to build up a portfolio of work if all the songs you’ve worked on suck. -Click to Tweet!
Finding a Win-Win Situation
So when you’re starting out and trying to create a portfolio, free seems like a natural solution, however annoying it might be.
However, I would recommend a hybrid solution. Instead of working for free, you work for something.
Can you work for trade? Instead of working for cold, hard cash, maybe there’s something else the musicians can offer. Even if they just provide you pizza and beer every session, you’re creating a certain expectation of getting something in return.
If you negotiate any deal, it creates a different expectation than just being taken advantage of as the free engineer. It means that the musicians have to hold up their end of the bargain.
Finding a win-win situation and laying out the expectations beforehand is crucial to keeping things professional, even in a free session.
Show Them the Value
Ultimately, if you end up doing free sessions to build your portfolio they should serve one purpose:
To showcase your value and skills to both the musicians you recorded and the rest of the community that might need your services in the future.
A single-song session you end up doing for free might end with a band coming back and paying for an album if you’re strategic about your expectations. But if you keep offering free services because you’re too scared to charge, all you’re doing is disrespecting the value you’re bringing to the table.
Become a Profitable Producer
Ultimately, you’ll have to find what’s most important at this exact point in your career. Demanding top-dollar prices when you can’t even show prospective bands what you can do isn’t convincing. And conversely, continuing to work for free once you have a robust portfolio isn’t doing you any favors either.
So make sure you have a plan moving forward to avoid getting stuck in a rut. If you’re still figuring out your plan, check out the articles on this page to help you on your journey.