Around January, you can’t help but take stock of things. Even if you aren’t a “new year, new you” kind of person, over the holidays your family and friends quiz you on what you’ve been up to all year, and what you’ve got coming up. You might not want to say that you’ve had a tough time, or feel undervalued or ignored at work. Maybe your boss seems like the biggest a-hole ever, not giving you any support, or even somehow purposely sabotaging your career. Even if you’ve had a great twelve months, the unpredictable nature of the entertainment industry can make you feel like you just got lucky, or you’re floating from one job to the next without any direction or purpose.
I am not here to tell you that all you need is to believe in yourself and everything will work out. I’ve seen musician friends get nowhere because they thought believing in yourself and waiting to be discovered was how you got famous. The music business is a business. You have to put yourself out there, be your own promoter, find out who the decision makers at record labels and festivals are, and hassle them until they give you a meeting. Throwing your demo at the stage when you watch your favourite artist will not magically give you your break (seriously. The artist never listens to them. We just have to throw them away afterward).
It’s the same on the audio side. Even if you’re in a full-time position, these days our (literal and metaphorical) gig economy means very few people have a job for life. Your boss is only your boss at the moment. If you’re a freelancer, they’re not even your boss. A friend of mine helped me to change my perspective on this: these people who give you work, or give other people work instead of you, are not your bosses, definitely not your friends, they’re your clients. They don’t owe you fairness, or help, or career progression. You wouldn’t hire a builder who didn’t know how to construct a wall, but was “eager to learn.” You wouldn’t take kindly to them complaining that you chose a better-qualified tradesman instead, or that you’re not sharing the workaround. At the same time, you don’t owe your clients loyalty or unpaid hours unless they deserve it. When you stop thinking of yourself as an employee and start framing yourself as an independent contractor, you realise that you are free to do what you want. There’s no point in complaining about your boss keeping you in a bad work situation because your boss is you. There are always other options, even if they seem scary at first. If you do work for good people who are willing to help you grow and flourish, I hope you see how lucky you are, and appreciate them for the superheroes that they are.
So, once you take ownership of your career, what are you going to do with it? You don’t need to come up with a detailed ten-year plan of how you’re going to take over the world just yet (although companies love that kind of drive and independence). Take a while to think about what you truly want from life, independent of the job role. Instead of thinking “I want to be a touring front of house engineer,” think “I want to travel,” “I want to help people,” or even “I want to be happy.” Once you have a shortlist of what you want out of life, think about the jobs that will help you get there. If you’re going to settle down, with a family, pets and a reliable income, or if quiet and personal space is integral to your functioning, touring is not for you, but you might do brilliantly in education. If all you want is to go to Coachella, it’s much easier and more profitable to get a steady job and buy tickets to it than to throw yourself into freelancing and hope someday you’ll get to work on it. If doing the same thing in the same place day in, day out would drive you mad, working in-house on a long-running theatre show will not suit you but the chaos of festivals might. If you love being artistic and creative, being a corporate AV tech will leave you frustrated, but you could be an exceptional sound designer. The audio world is much more varied than we first realise, and there are all sorts of niches that don’t often get discussed (that I will explore in a future post).
Of course, you’re very unlikely to work in one role for your entire career. Perhaps swapping between positions day to day, or spending a few years at each, will work for you. Your priorities will change at different ages as well, so be prepared to adjust your goals as you go along. Both life and this industry are so unpredictable, remaining flexible will help you make the most of what you’re presented with and will stop you feeling like a failure if you get thrown off track. Realising your lifelong dreams can feel like an impossible task, but the key is to break your goals down into achievable steps, as small as possible. If you celebrate the first time you troubleshoot a crunchy mic input as a step towards someday system teching for a festival, you will feel much more satisfied in your work. That sense of purpose will also increase your resilience: not every job will be awesome, but if you can put it into the context of how it’s helping you get to where you want to be (and paying the rent is a valid part of that!), you can take lessons away from it. At the very least, you can smile and invoice, and learn that it is not a job worth repeating. When you find the gigs that make you feel great and help you progress, you can recognise them for what they are, and it will motivate you to pursue more of them. I know it sounds unbelievably cheesy, but although it might not be where you planned at first, hopefully, you will end up in the right place, and enjoy the journey along the way.
Beth O’Leary is a freelance live sound engineer and tech based in Sheffield, England. While studying for her degree in zoology, she got distracted working for her university’s volunteer entertainments society, and ended up in the music industry instead of wildlife conservation. Over the last ten years she has done everything from pushing boxes in tiny clubs to touring arenas, and spends a lot of her life in muddy fields working on most of the major festivals in the UK. She has a particular passion for flying PA, the black magic that is RF, travel, and good coffee.