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My career and experience as a live audio engineer has advanced a significant degree over the latter half of 2022 – from small events now to festivals and theatres. But I still have the feeling that there is more to be had, and I’ve been left to question how I should take my career further.

22/11/2022 – Articles

Building A Career In Live Audio

Josh Hamill
Sound Engineer for JSD

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Key Points

  • Focus on doing rather than planning.
  • Don’t let fear get in the way of networking.
  • When given an opportunity, always say “yes”.

My career and experience as a live audio engineer has advanced a significant degree over the latter half of 2022 – from small events now to festivals and theatres. But I still have the feeling that there is more to be had, and I’ve been left to question how I should take my career further. I felt like this could be a useful topic to discuss for anyone else in my position – relatively new to the industry and looking to advance – and my perspective may also interest those who have gone that extra mile in their career.

A bit about my experience…

For some background, my experience as an audio engineer thus far has been split between studio mixing and live sound operating. From day one I have been acting as a live sound operator and gaining experience working on small to medium sized events. Recently I had the opportunity to advance my career and skills drastically through an industry specific scholarship program (which I wrote about here), and this has opened the pathways I needed to make progress towards my career goals.

Working on live events as an audio engineer captured my attention from the beginning. The work is interested and intense, and you become a very crucial part of a team that aims to entertain. There is excitement, hardship, difficulty, and lots of caffeine. Above all the work is fulfilling, and that is why I keep coming back to it, and love being a part of the process. But with any career, there are ups, downs, and plateaus – and the path up can seem lost at times. I’ve thrust myself into this line of work, and now I’m tasked with making everything come together.

I feel like this is an interesting journey to document, because I’ve thought of questions that I can’t answer, and my usual feeling on this topic is uncertainty. For the sake of searching for answers, and finding the right path forward, I’ll write on my experiences in hopes that I can potentially help another budding engineer find their way to success. My experiences are my own, and my perspective is just one of many; but I am set on finding success one way or another, and I hope my experiences can help others do the same.

I will keep documenting my journey frequently, so stick around and see where I go and what I learn as I’ll be sharing every detail of how I did it.

The art of doing.

In life you make progress via one means and one means only – action. If you want to be an audio engineer, listen to this advice as I did; just call yourself whatever title you want to be, don’t wait, and start. This advice came to be during my audio engineering studies towards the beginning of the course. Somewhere along the lines of being involved in a rant about how every audio engineer calls themselves a mixing or recording engineer and how they don’t deserve the title, and career advice contradicting the former, this idea came to light. Don’t wait for some event in the future to occur before you start doing what you want to do. There is nothing stopping you from waking up and calling yourself a sound engineer. Whatever limiting belief you have about this, it isn’t true. I decided to do just what I mentioned above. I learnt a bit about live audio, setting up small PA systems and learning how to operate a simple mixing console. This was enough for me to put into practice what I’d been taught.

Remember that action is how progress is made. If you must do anything, it is act. This is often the most difficult thing to do, it isn’t easy or comfortable, but it is simple. If you can teach yourself to act – as I am slowly teaching myself and attempting to reverse years of being a serial planner – then you will skyrocket your progress towards your goals, whatever they may be.

If that goal is to become an audio engineer, you must start small. The best ways to begin are through searching for local audio production companies, approaching local venues, or even approaching local artists. If you have friends who are in bands, ask them to engineer for them. I know of plenty of audio engineers who started by working with their friends band. With a bit of luck and persistence, something will come of pursuing those three avenues. Be honest with your skills and experience, but don’t hide your enthusiasm and dedication. You don’t need to build your enthusiasm, but you do need to build your experience, and the only way to do so is through experience. Bring all the contagious character traits, be kind, be happy, smile, show your passion – people love passion.

In a way this will never stop, but it will get easier over time as your experience grows as an engineer; more doors will open up for you. As my good friend and mentor told me:

“Freelancing is 20% doing the job, 40% chasing the invoice, and 40% looking for more work.”

I’m learning to savour the times that I am working…. Looking for work is the task that requires the most action, and nothing will come of you simply planning. I’ve found this to be the most difficult part of the job, especially living away from the commotion of my local CBD (Melbourne). The reason looking for work is difficult is due to the industry that we reside in, networking and inbound leads are the norm for finding work, but at the beginning of our journey our networks don’t exist.

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The art of networking.

This is a tricky one. One thing you aren’t taught in school is the importance of networking, and the fact that it is arguably the most important skill that you could learn in your life. You could be the most fantastic audio engineer, capable of mixing any show, but if you don’t have the network to back you up you’ll find it nearly impossible to find work. It is about who you know, so you have to try and know as many people as possible.

As mentioned above, this can be a slow burn. This fact recently has bothered me quite a bit as I always need to be making progress to feel accomplished and fulfilled. Your network will build over time, just as mine has done. It is an organic process that simply happens if you are open to making connections and helping others. Don’t be afraid to approach and network with people. If you are an audio engineer with any level of skill, you have some sort of value to others in the industry (even though there seems to be a fair amount of us). I’ve heard from others, and experienced myself, that the live events industry is like a very large and occasionally functional family where everyone is out to help each other where possible. This was very much seem during that particular pandemic, ask anyone in the industry during that time and they’ll tell you that their friends gave them the majority of their work – their network kept them away from unemployment.

The art of networking is one I barely understand. All I know is that you have to make the opportunities. Find the people you want to connect with, and reach out. You’ll only find success – either through direct success, or through a failure bringing you one step closer to success. Freelancing in any form is the combination of a multitude of skills, none of them relating to your skill of focus. When I chose to become a sound engineer, I didn’t think I’d be needing to become a salesman, or a network manager.

As a place to start, look inbound within your already established network. Ask friends and family, tell them about your aspirations and see if they can help connect you with someone. From here you can search online, look for people whose position you’d like to be in. Reach out directly, always choose a phone call when possible. Otherwise, email or social media like LinkedIn are other secondary methods, but always opt for the phone call as it is basically human-to-human contact and more likely to lead to success. How have I gone about this? A little bit of luck mixed with a little bit of fearlessness. When I decided I wanted to practice live sound engineering, I immediately searched online for all local venues and events and reached out to them all.

I had success and was thrown a few bones, and then a few more bones and so on. The more people I met, the more opportunities I had to branch out through their connections. I just picked up the phone and dialled. Persistence and hard work eventually pay off, it isn’t all thanks to getting lucky.

There is no trick to networking. Put yourself out into the industry, always seek new connections, and never let fear prevent you from taking advantage of an opportunity. It won’t seem simple, but we humans try and complicate things. Take the plunge a few times and the fear will eventually disappear. Whether for speaking to prospecting clients, or discussing work opportunities with a potential employer, the worst thing that can happen to you as a freelancer is that they say “no”. Time will provide you with opportunities and it is your job to always be ready for them.

The art of “yes”.

If you are new to the industry, “no” is always the worst response that you can receive, and the worst response that you can give. As you go about your business and contact various people within the industry for work, you will eventually find an opportunity, a “yes” followed by a favour (the job). This favour is your rite of passage, your test, and it is very important to nail it. Luckily, it is also very easy to do so.

Favours are funny things psychologically. The person asking the favour sees the person they asked in a positive light if they agree to the favour. They are a great means to gain someone’s trust. As such, it is not a very good idea to deny a favour someone has asked of you in the situation where you want their trust. The steps are simple when you are confronted with a favour – say “yes”. Now that you have agreed to the favour, you need to go about completing it the right way.

First impressions mean a lot. You need to be presentable, and on time. On time is not actually ‘on time’, it is 10-15 minutes before the time you were asked to arrive. Being presentable in this industry is an easy task. Follow this list and you’ll be golden:

  • No dirty clothes.
  • Wear sturdy enclosed shoes (of a dark tone). This may potentially mean steel caps in some cases.
  • Wear dark tones, black if possible.
  • Carry a sharpie & electrical tape.
  • Bring a multi-tool and a head torch along with Hi-Viz just in case.

No one can fault you if you follow this list to a ‘T’, you will be well prepared and presentable and you are sure to look favourable in the eyes of a potential employer or client. If you’ve said yes to a favour, and shown up early and presentable, you will more than likely be asked to come back for more work. Just make sure to maintain those positive character traits – be a people pleaser, be happy, and smile.

Following my steps.

From my perspective there seems to be two distinctive career avenues in the live audio industry, both equally difficult. There is the avenue of the production company, resulting mostly in working as an audio technician – setting up audio systems, occasionally operating. Then there is the avenue of the operator. The operator is mainly a freelancer who works with artists, artist management, promoters, etc. They get the glory of mixing during shows, but it is well deserved glory as it is no easy feat to be chosen for this position. Many in the industry seem to fall somewhere between these two avenues, taking all available opportunity – such as myself.

Thanks to a scholarship I have been participating in since June this year, I have had the opportunity to advance my career through networking with various audio production companies. This has lead me to develop an adept understanding of increasingly complex audio systems as I have had the pleasure of assisting in putting together world class systems. This particular phase of my career has pushed me towards the more technical side of the realm of audio rather than the operating side.

I can also attest to the tips I have discussed above. Always act, network, and say “yes”. Because of these tips I have had the opportunity to work in roles I wouldn’t have thought I’d find myself in – production management and stage management. No matter what role you reside in within the live events industry, understanding how to deal with people will pay its dividends. Production and stage management is precisely people management. The experiences were rather enjoyable as well, it always helps to further your understanding of the big picture of live events. There are many, many different people in different roles coming together to put on a show. Knowing the different roles and how to make their lives easier will make you a very valuable member to the team – this will also dramatically help you in your networking efforts as people will remember you positivity.

In action, the steps I’ve discussed led me to working on the Euroa Music Festival – where I assisted the audio department along with stage managing. It was a fantastic experience and a great small scale festival. The festival was staged in the heart of Euroa, a typically quiet rural town, so it was enjoyable to watch the town come to life with the help of a line array and a few artists. It was great to be a pivotal part of the festival team, and I look forward to help do it all again in 2023.

As my career advances and I learn new information and skills, I will share all I learn and all I know – whether here or on the new JSD Email Newsletter which you can sign up for here. The newsletter is my way of more frequently sharing my knowledge and thoughts relating to sound engineering, along with exclusive updates and content releases; so sign up, I’d love to have you along for the ride.

Let us know your thoughts through contacting us on any of our social media pages, or contact us directly. Your input is appreciated.