Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Backward Look at the Music Industry

Lots of people are selling their insights into “the music industry” these days and, mostly, that’s because making an actual living in what’s left of that so-called industry is next-to-impossible. It always has been, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the territory.

A Facebook discussion with a friend today reminded me of one of my many missed “opportunities” to dive into the music business face (and life) first. When I moved to California to work for QSC Audio Products as a Design/Test Engineer, leaving Nebraska required selling off almost all of my recording studio equipment, most of my musical instrument backline, and the disposal of probably 90% of my family’s personal possessions. We were moving from a 2,200 square foot house with a full basement and double car garage to a 650 square foot apartment in Huntington Beach, California. It was a sacrifice-filled “adventure” that required all of us, including my two adolescent daughters, to give up a lot of stuff.

1983 was a seriously economically depressed time in the Rust Belt and finding technical or manufacturing work of any sort in Lincoln, Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City, Denver, or any of the smaller Midwestern cities was unlikely. Make that doubly-unlikely in my case, since I was 35 and still going to school nights working on my Electrical Engineering degree. Thanks to an old connection, I got a few job offers from the coasts and QSC seemed like the best of the lot. In fact, for almost a decade, my jobs with QSC were close to a dream come true. I got to work closely with Patrick Quilter, one of the best, most creative engineers I’ve ever known. I was instrumental in turning a small, still mostly start-up after a decade of struggle, manufacturer into one of the first American-made quality-driven manufacturers. California still provided incredibly cheap education and actually catered to non-traditional students, so I was able to continue my pursuit of a degree and hold down a 60-80 hour/wee management job. Most of all, we built the absolute best professional power amplifiers in the world and could prove it with customer testimonials.

It’s hard to imagine now, but I was a driven, workaholic for most of my life. While I was engineering and testing products for QSC and going to school nights, I also ran a repair business that serviced much of Roland and Yamaha’s customer returns and provided equipment and studio repair services to Orange and LA counties. Through an AES contact, Wes Dooley, I was introduced to several studio owners and maintenance engineers at our local AES meetings. One of the techs was a guy who was the maintenance engineer for Record Plant on Third Street in LA and for a few years in Hollywood. When he was overloaded with clean-up (often vacuuming the coke out of the faders) and repair work, I occasionally filled in to help: for a price, of course.

When he decided it was time for him to crawl out of his repair shack and get a life, he let me know the Record Plant job would be open. I drove up to Hollywood to hear more about the job and, eventually, he told me it paid about $20k/year. Without overtime, that works out to about $9/hour and there would be plenty of unpaid overtime, as a salary job. I thought he was joking, but he reminded me that he “lived” in the repair shack about 5 days out of a week and his “home” was a rented room. My kids were teenagers, my wife didn’t work, and my family depended on my income. Honestly, I couldn’t find any way to consider what my friend had been doing for a decade anything resembling a “career.” Today, I suspect we’d call that sort of wage-slave an “intern.” Back then, in LA, I lost about 90% of the respect I had for my friend’s job and the Record Plant iin that one conversation. I have never been able to do much with the “do what you love and the money will follow” philosophy because the cost of my reality always trumped the income my dreams would produce. Getting married at 19 and becoming a father at 23 will do that for you.

As we were winding down the job conversation, my friend offered to show me the other applicants. I expected a bunch of right-out-of-tech-school kids with no experience in audio equipment repair or use. What I saw were guys (and a couple of women) with EE degrees from schools like UCLA, Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, and other decent electrical engineering schools along with what I expected. There were also guys I knew from the LA AES chapter who had good jobs with manufacturing companies. Some of those guys were decent engineers, too.

It never occurred to me that working for a recording studio would pay that poorly. While a friend back in Omaha did the maintenance engineering job for the city’s one-and-only real studio, Sound Recorders, and I knew he still lived with his parents, I hadn’t considered the possibility that he lived like a college kid because that’s the kind of money he was making.

Way back in the 1960’s, I had a 1959 MGA. The MGA was a dream car, until it was my responsibility to maintain it. In less than six months, that awful vehicle wiped out my fairly substantial savings and left me broke and transportation-less. I have never envied a sports car owner since. In fact, I usually pity any sports car goofball, unless he is obviously a trustfund brat: then I’m happy for his misery and transportation disabilities. Likewise, since my moment-of-zen at the Record Plant, it’s tough for me to consider recording studio work seriously and I can’t generate any level of jealousy when it comes to working for peanuts, regardless of the work. I’ve done a lot of studio work since then, but I have never considered anything other than my own studio maintenance business anything but a fun hobby. Not only do I not have a trust fund to fall back on, you could burn up my entire inheritance on a decent New York dinner.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.