Ari Herstand recently wrote a “matched pair” of articles about audio humans. You know – sound guys. Noise boys. Audio craftspersons. FOH engineers. I guess there was a bit of a kerfuffle over it all, some of it being fueled by musicians who have had terrible experiences with “aerial vibration management technicians.” (Sound guys.)

Now, a lot of my articles put the onus on musicians. I don’t think I’ve been unfair when I’ve done that. At the same time, though, audio humans bear their fair share of responsibilities – and when they fail to uphold their part of the bargain, extremely frustrating situations can develop, and morph, and snowball into a cluster[censored] of epic proportions.

But…beyond the fact that craptastic and infuriating sound dudes/ dudettes do exist, a question remains. What causes certain audio humans to be so painful to work with? I believe that, in many cases, you can trace the issue back to a fundamental, “negative” force, which is:

Lack Of Knowledge

Now, sure, there are some highly knowledgeable audio techs who are jerks. There are highly-experienced and entirely competent people who are the very picture of “a control freak.” However, I’ve found that many bad behaviors are initiated and intensified by having insufficient understanding of a situation that you’re a major player in. There is also, of course, flat-out incompetence…which can actually happen alongside a great attitude.

To talk about this more in-depth, let’s take a look at some of the points made in Ari Herstand’s piece that addresses audio humans directly.

The first heading, “Not All Of Us [Musicians] Suck,” addresses the issue of the sound guy who – from the first moment – is clearly uninterested in working with you. My feeling is that these situations are driven by techs who only want to work with their favorite kind of music, or their favorite kind of people. On the surface, this is about preferences – but I would suggest that the root is “lack of knowledge.”

There are plenty of audio craftspeople out there who are “button pushers.” That is, they’ve learned an explicit procedure for getting workable results, but don’t truly understand why that procedure exists. I would venture to say that most techs spend some non-trivial amount of time in that phase – I know that I certainly did. The problem with being a button pusher is that, when confronted with something that’s unfamiliar, you aren’t well suited to adapt to it. The narrower an audio human’s experience is, the less they will be able to work competently on your show – and this can make the tech feel threatened. Threatened people are often unpleasant, and so if your genre is unfamiliar to the sound guy, or even if it’s just you as a person that’s unfamiliar, you may get the cold-shoulder as a result.

This also carries over into Ari’s second point, which gets neatly wrapped up in one sentence: “You may know how to run a 5 piece rock band, but I have more experience with my gear and my show. Why not put your ego aside for a second and work WITH me?”

Again, the issue is lack of knowledge. The engineer has the procedure for “making a full band work” down to a science, even to the troubleshooting of any problems. Even so, there isn’t enough understanding of the general, fundamental underpinnings of the craft to be able to adapt to an unfamiliar situation.

Lack of knowledge is also why some techs absolutely lose their minds when you move a mic, or your instrument, or want to substitute your own mic, or use your own DI, or sing at the “wrong” distance from the mic.

(Please do sing closely enough that your monitor-mix desires and hopes for the sound out front are in accord with the laws of physics, but beyond that…)

Anyhow.

These folks go bonkers when you change things because they only know how to make things work when the setup is PRECISELY in accord with their experience. Their comfort zone is tiny, because their understanding of their craft is restricted. Mess with their comfort zone – especially when their self-worth rides on their results – and BOOM! You end up with a very pissed-off technician.

Why Is There So Much Lack Of Knowledge?

I could go on, and on, and on, and on with the examples in the previous section, but I think that what’s more helpful is to talk about why you are so likely to encounter audio humans that suffer from “lack of knowledge.”

1) All audio techs have to learn their craft.

There’s not a single audio human who knows everything about live-sound from the moment they’re born. Learning the discipline takes years, and that’s often just for the functional part. The fundamental principles behind everything – the math, the science, and getting a feel for how those fundamentals express themselves in practical reality – can take even longer. In my own case, I’ve been doing something with audio for just short of 20 years…and I can’t say that I was really comfortable with the craft until I was about 15 years in. I didn’t actually become internally confident (consistently, anyway) until I had 17 or 18 years under my belt. I still have a “breakthrough” every now and again.

I wish I was smarter.

Anyway, getting to be competent at real-time audio takes a while.

2) Not all audio techs really want to learn the craft.

Coupled with the first point is that not everybody is fascinated by live-audio to the same degree. Some folks are happy to learn just enough to be able to work in a few specific situations. At that point, they’re done, they’re fine with it, and they may even be highly confident – especially if their experience has been limited enough to fuel that confidence. If that confidence becomes challenged, however, they may suddenly turn into a very unpleasant sort of creature (as described earlier).

3) Misinformation is everywhere.

The world of audio is rife with mythology, and even outright falsehood that becomes accepted as fact. This is driven by how incredibly deep the craft is. There is a massive amount of science that underlies the working of any given piece of live-sound, and it’s entirely possible to reach a conclusion about “x causes y” that seems consistent and correct…and is UTTERLY FALSE. This misinformation can be believed and propagated by even very competent and respected audio humans.

For instance, I was taught by a live-audio instructor who was clearly a knowledgeable guy. He knew how and why things were done, as far as I could tell. He was also convinced that “clipping destroys speakers because the signal contains DC, and the DC stops the speaker from cooling itself via movement.” When he said that, I believed him.

He was COMPLETELY incorrect – but he was still a good sound guy, and an instructor that I learned a lot of correct things from. (For the record, clipping does NOT destroy speakers, and most power amplifiers probably won’t pass DC at their outputs anyway. That’s not the point of this article, though.)

4) Techs are often hired by people who know less than they do.

When an audio human goes to work for a sound company, especially when the founder is still in charge, they’re probably going to be mentored. They’re probably going to grow in their knowledge. They’re probably going to become a better, more flexible craftsperson, and it’s because their boss is better at live-sound than they are.

However, there are plenty of other situations where audio humans are employed by definitely-not-audio-people. The tech gets hired because they can consistently make sound come out of the PA, and nobody else in the building may even know where to start. There are some techs who aren’t even people that are dedicated to live-sound. It’s just that they know enough about hooking up A/V gear to make things work, and that’s it.

5) Really good techs are expensive.

The real, honest-to-goodness top talents in live-sound are very spendy to hire. Some audio-humans charge a “per day” rate that’s a multiple of what a small venue can expect to gross in a night…perhaps even by an order of magnitude. As a result, there are a lot of venues that have to settle for what they can get on a small budget. People with the experience and maturity of, say, Dave Rat, are unlikely to be found at “some bar.” It’s just economics.

Heck, even average techs are expensive. The club I work for pays me more than they can really afford, because they believe in doing the best they possibly can for musicians. People seem to enjoy working with me, but I’m not exactly a guy who could mix FOH for a stadium act, or do realtime, rock-and-roll monitors in Vegas.

6) You wouldn’t believe what floats to the top.

Up there, I said “the real, honest-to-goodness top talents.” This was to distinguish from the folks who are working above their level of actual experience. There are plenty of stories out there of people mixing big acts in big rooms, but who aren’t really “Varsity Level” craftspersons. Politics and “right place at the right time” play a huge role in this business, and it’s not just for the musicians. If getting promoted past your level of competence can happen at the high levels, just imagine what can happen in bar-and-club land.

Anyway – this article could go on for days, but I think I’ve hit the major points. Obviously, the problem of the “sucky sound dude” can’t be fixed by simply talking about the causes. Still, I think it’s helpful to have an understanding of why things are the way they are. If you’re a musician, you can be more prepared to recognize the signs of an impending problem. If you’re an audio human, you can take a good look at yourself…and try not to suck.

No, this isn’t going to be some cheesy-as-all-get-out “hold onto your dreams” article. We’ve all heard that a squillion times, and it’s not particularly helpful. (It IS actually relevant, but as practical advice it has limited value.) What we’re going to talk about instead are the “not quite as obvious” lessons that can be learned from Ms. Swift’s career – and, indeed, from the careers of other stadium-filling acts.

There are a lot of folks who don’t want to learn these lessons, and it’s understandable as to why. It’s much easier to believe in comfortable, but false mythology about the music business than to have the anvil of truth dropped on your head. Ultimately, though, putting one’s hope in a false myth is not a good career move.

I’ll also mention that my experience has told me that, yes, there are true myths…but that’s for an article about philosophy and not the music industry.

Anyway.

Luck IS A Factor

What I’ve read suggests that, contrary to the opinions of folks suffering from “sour grapes” or “it’s all just a bunch of A&R-spun crap,” Taylor Swift worked LIKE MAD to get where she is. She’d sing at Karaoke contests to get opening spots for bigger acts, and when she would lose, she would just keep going back until she won.

She wrote songs, appeared wherever she could, and worked with artist-dev folks.

And she kept grinding at it all, relentlessly.

Here’s the thing, though: She was lucky.

She was lucky that she was being “eaten alive” by the ambition to perform. She was lucky that her parents were willing to support that ambition. She was lucky that her parents had the resources to help her along. She was lucky that she met the right people. She was lucky that her luck changed at EXACTLY the right time for her to be a key player in the “country-pop-rock” crossover that burst into full-bloom. She was lucky that teenage girls actually listen to the country genre, and she was lucky that her songs ended up resonating with them.

Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky…

Taylor Swift’s hard work doesn’t invalidate her luck. Her luck doesn’t invalidate her hard work. They’re inextricably intertwined for her, and luck-and-work are inextricably intertwined for you, me, and all the rest of us.

Hard work and tenaciousness are the tools necessary to help you be “in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, playing the right material, to the right crowd,” but with anything that involves the tastes and opinions of humans, luck will always be a significant factor.

And, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, that’s enough to raise the head of the kid who just bought a guitar, and humble the gaze of a performer as massively successful as Taylor Swift.

Virtuosity Isn’t The Point

I once read a forum post by a fellow audio-human (a much more successful and well known audio-human than myself) that was in reference to Ms. Swift. It went like this: “The guitar is just for show. So is she.”

My internal reaction to that line was, “HAHAHHAHAHAHA that’s was a pretty good burn, yeah…holy CRAP you’re a JERK.”

What brought me around to disliking the zinger was my complete exhaustion with people who label successful acts that they don’t like as “talentless, manufactured crap.” They may actually be manufactured. They may be carefully presented. They may have a media team that tries to sanitize everything. Their shows may be “everything on rails so that it’s all perfect at all times” affairs. You may not like any of that.

But if it didn’t require a certain kind of talent to be a functional part of all that, then everybody would do it.

Taylor Swift isn’t Steve Vai. Or George Lynch. Or Joe Satriani. Or Slash. Or Yngwie Malmsteen. Or Eric Johnson. Or Herman and Sam from Dragonforce.

And it doesn’t matter one tiny little bit, because being a mind-numbingly brilliant instrumentalist isn’t what she’s all about. Heck, being a socks-explodingly masterful vocalist isn’t even what it’s all about.

What she’s all about is writing material (and putting on a show) that resonates with tens of thousands of screaming fans. She plays guitar well enough to write her songs, do the occasional “one woman and one guitar” section at shows, and get her ideas across to an arranger. She has good enough vocal power and intonation to make records and keep live audiences hooked. That’s plenty – and she is REALLY good at fitting into her place with it.

So, yeah, you may be a much better instrumentalist than Ms. Swift. You might even be a better singer in terms of range and tonality. That’s great, but if it doesn’t bring people out to your shows and help you sell merch…who cares? Nobody gives a rat’s dirty buttocks how brilliant you are at weird chord voicings if the songs aren’t fun for them. There isn’t some invisible group of “music adjudicators” who award success points based on how much time you’ve spent practicing. If you think that knowing everything there is to know about instrumental execution and music theory automatically grants you an audience, then you are probably going to be unhappy.

Don’t get me wrong, though!

If you love your instrument to death, and want to become a master at it, YOU ABSOLUTELY SHOULD. Practice 18 hours a day if you want to. That’s fantastic, and I applaud it – but please realize that becoming a virtuoso is primarily a thing that you are doing for yourself. Being technically skilled at music is really good for you, because it means that you have more flexibility to take part in a wider range of projects. (Being involved in a wider range of projects helps you have more luck, by the way.) Skillful execution, by itself, rarely brings show attendees out in force, though. If you have to pick and choose the skills to cultivate, then put entertainment and engagement above technical ability. If you want to play to niche audiences that are interested in technical mastery of your instrument, and you can find those audiences, then great. If you want to play to huge crowds that just want to have fun and don’t care if the playing is transcendent, then your focus should be somewhere else.

Taylor Swift is proof that a professional performer has to play well enough to put on a show in the context that works for their audience…and that’s it. Anything beyond that is a nice extra, but not strictly required.

Marketing Is For The Audience You Already Have

When Ms. Swift (or her media team) Tweet, or Facebook, or put something on her website, or buy a traditional-media ad, or write a press release, it gets a big response. People talk about it. People share it. Ticket sales are driven up.

And it’s not really because these folks know marketing strategies that you don’t. Sure, they know how to be tactful, effective, and exciting when breaking a bit of news, but that probably only accounts for about 5% of their success. The other 95% is that a whole bunch of people are actually listening to them, ravenous to hear what they have to say.

That’s who marketing is for: The people that you either know are listening to you, or who you are VERY sure will want to listen to you. Marketing is NOT for people who aren’t interested. It doesn’t conjure fans out of thin air.

“Now, hold on!” You might be saying. “Taylor Swift got millions of fans from marketing and radio play. You’ve got it all wrong, Danny.” Fair point – but let’s dig a little deeper. Maybe those droves of screaming, teenage girls weren’t specifically fans of Taylor Swift before the marketing and radio play…

…but they were ready to be. As such, they fall under the “who you are VERY sure will want to listen to you” bit from up there. I’m not an insider, so I don’t know the precise story, but here’s how it looked from the outside: Ms. Swift, and the folks who believed in her, got her songs on country radio. Their pitch was probably something like: “Taylor sings these songs about country themes in a country style, and she’s young, so she’ll speak to those teenage listeners that you want to keep listening to your station.” Yes, this is marketing, and yes, these folks were speaking to people that they figured were ready to listen – the radio programming directors.

Not the general public! The actual audience that mattered at that exact moment.

Some number of those programming directors gave Taylor a shot, and everybody discovered something: There were indeed a lot of young girls that listened to country radio, and they were indeed just aching for someone their age to sing songs that they could relate to. (Remember that “luck” thing I talked about? This is an example.) Someone also realized that there was a lot of “pop” crossover potential in Ms. Swift’s tunes, and so they remixed some of the songs for that market. Taylor Swift was the right thing, at the right time, for those audiences.

Blammo! A huge star was born. People wanted to hear more, and they wanted to know more, and be in the loop, and not miss anything. If there was some mention of Taylor Swift in their local paper, they were ready to devour it. If there was something new on her website, they would look for it. They followed Taylor on Twitter. They “liked” her Facebook page. When Taylor Swift’s marketing team talks about a new release, or a huge concert event, they talk to these people. That’s who the message is for, and that’s what the message is for: To get the word out to the people who are listening. The people who are listening then spread the word, which creates more listeners.

And of course the marketing team uses traditional media. Taylor Swift has mass appeal, so traditional media campaigns make sense. That’s what traditional media is for – to send a message that appeals to a very large audience. “Old-media” campaigns help to cover all the bases, and they’re worthwhile…because Ms. Swift’s marketing team can be very sure that a good number of those consumers are listening to them.

The takeaway from all this is that your marketing efforts are best spent on the people you’re already connected to. I run into so many folks that erroneously believe in the idea that just “making more noise” is the key to marketing themselves. They think that marketing is about magically turning people who don’t and won’t care into people who do. It isn’t. It’s about drawing in the people who you already know, and helping them experience so much enjoyment that they can’t help but to spread the word. It’s about identifying who’s listening, and who’s ready to listen, and playing to them – literally and metaphorically.

So, you might not listen to Taylor Swift. You might not even like Taylor Swift. But you can learn a lot about how this business works by thinking critically about what fuels her career.

We’ve all heard it: “The band is currently in the studio, working on their next full-length album. It’s slated to be released…”

For those of us who grew up in the era of dominant physical media (CDs, vinyl, cassettes, and all that), this phraseology was common and expected. Your favorite band would go to work on a project, withdrawing into the mysterious confines known as “the studio.” All you’d have to remember them by were the recordings already available to you.

Months, or even years later, the band would emerge again, their new record held aloft like a trophy. “Here it is!” they would proclaim, and then they would start touring to support the release. It was one of the defining “rockstar moves” of that time, and it remains imprinted on musician psychology to this day.

The problem is that I have this nagging feeling about it not being the best idea these days. In my opinion, it wasn’t the best idea back in those days – it’s just that it was necessitated by circumstance.

How I See The History

As far as my experience goes, I feel that recording and releasing music was a much bigger “to do” in the days when physical media was king. That doesn’t mean it was more significant than it is now, just that it was more logistically challenging. Even when recording equipment underwent a precipitous price-drop, and we had “The Triumph Of The Amateurs,” actually releasing a recording involved a lot of logistics.

Even if you were going to self-release, you still had to get a gaggle of copies manufactured, packaged, and shipped somewhere. If you were a major artist, and wanted to reach a huge audience, you had to get a TON of copies made, assembled, and shipped to a lot of different destinations.

Getting a bunch of duplicates made was decidedly non-trivial, and recording time was both expensive and demanding of a lot of coordination. When this is the case, there is a very strong incentive to go through all that hassle as few times as possible. Thus, the tendency is to go and do all the recording at once, record as much material as is practical, and release it all in one package.

Now – this isn’t to say that “concept albums” aren’t an entity in themselves – an entity that can require a certain workflow for certain approaches. It’s also not to say that people didn’t release one-offs and hit singles. Obviously, they did.

Even so, I’m convinced that the phenomenon of disappearing into the studio was heavily driven by essentially non-musical concerns. The problem is that many of us came to believe that this peculiar sort of hibernation was THE way to handle recording. We erroneously correlated the form of the process with the success of the outcome – we got the notion that doing things that way was the right way, because that’s how the big artists did it.

…and just like the mistaken belief that utilizing stadium volume makes you stadium worthy, I think that adhering to this practice isn’t necessarily helpful.

Off The Radar And Repackaged

I don’t want to give the impression that disappearing into the studio to work on a big project is universally harmful. I DO want to say that I think it can be detrimental to bands trying to connect with a modern audience, often unnecessary, and excessively stressful. Again, sometimes its appropriate to carve out a big block of time to work on a single effort “all in one go.” However, I want to challenge the idea that the classic approach is THE way to get a release built.

The way I see it, the world is becoming more and more “real time.” That is to say, the consumption of information and media is very much a process of experiencing smallish “packets” of content in a near-continuous stream, rather than digging into large, monolithic releases.

Obviously, there are exceptions. The whole Netflix-binge thing, where multiple seasons of a show are devoured over a few days, is a counterexample. Still, these exceptions tend to be rare. Listening to an entire, packaged release of songs (an album) is much less common than it used to be. People tend to build their own packages (playlists, that is) out of individual songs from a number of artists. Technology has made this basically trivial.

This phenomenon of “consumer repackaging” means that putting enormous effort into a monolithic release can be a bit of a waste. If you’re not working on a concept album, and you can do most of the recording work yourself, there’s simply no logistical need to structure a project for release as a big batch. People will probably just break up that batch anyway.

Also, the “real time” experience that people have embraced means that disappearing into the studio can cause you to drop out of people’s consciousness – even if only partially. If a lot of your attention comes from live shows, for instance, then taking a hiatus from the stage in order to craft a bunch of studio material is actually counterproductive for you.

A Suggestion

With media consumption going the way it has, I simply don’t see any particular advantage in musicians locking themselves away for an album project, unless the project’s artistic aims specifically demand it. I do, however, see a number of advantages in recording and releasing songs incrementally:

  • The experience is far more “real time.” As you finish a song, you can release it immediately and have it start generating interest immediately. On your end, there’s less of a wait for the “payoffs” associated with having a release “out in the water,” and for your fans, there’s less of a wait for new material.
  • Because the experience is more “real time,” you don’t drop off of people’s radars. Instead, you stay firmly in their consciousness – even more so if you keep to a regular release schedule.
  • The experience as a whole is far less “do or die” for you. Incremental releases mean that, as a band or artist, you don’t have all your eggs in the basket of a single project. The whole thing doesn’t have to be perfected as a complete package, with all the stress that entails. You just have to get each bit to an acceptable place, and then you can see what’s received well and what isn’t.
  • You can progressively build up to an EP release, and then a full-length release. Releasing each song individually doesn’t prevent you from packaging them later. In fact, doing so later on means you may have an opportunity to capitalize on the attention you’ve been getting from the individual releases. Because you’ve stayed visible, you’ve preserved your momentum with your fans, and this momentum can help propel the packaged version of your songs. (Just remember to make the album memorable in itself. For example, you could hold one or two songs back until the album release, which then provides an incentive to buy the whole product.

No, the concept album isn’t dead – but technology is at a point where the necessity of approaching every recording project as being similar to a concept album is pretty much gone. You may as well find a way to leverage the advantages of this.