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Owning Your Own Sound Business

by Baker Lee • in
  • April 2018
  • Current Issue
  • FOH at Large
• Created: April 12, 2018

Illustration by Andy Au

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: “Some are born business owners, some achieve business ownership and some have business ownership thrust upon them.”

Back in the last century when I first decided to become a part of the music business, the only available programs for learning the skills and craft of audio engineering were dedicated to recording and electrical engineering. Not surprisingly, many of the first live engineers were the very same people that possessed recording and electrical engineering skills. These men pioneered the development of live sound and, to name just a few, there were innovators such as John Meyer who provided sound for the Monterey Pop Festival and later went on to form Meyer Sound. Abe Jacob, who also worked on the sound at Monterey, went on to become a legendary designer of theater sound. Also included in this short list is Bill Hanley, who in 1957 convinced George Wein to use his sound system design for the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and then, after more than a 10-year run in Newport, he designed and operated the audio system for the three-day Woodstock Festival.

Due to their knowledge and entrepreneurial skills, these pioneers created their own jobs where none existed before and — given their expertise — they were able to form businesses that still thrive today. Not only did they supply sound for the festivals, but they also provided their audio systems and engineering skills for top bands of the day such as The Steve Miller Band, The Mamas and Papas, The Grateful Dead and The Beatles. Of course, that was a long time ago before “live audio engineer” was a job that one could aspire to achieve without necessarily designing or owning one’s own sound system.

‡‡         Growth and Expansion

As the concert, club and touring sound industry grew, so did the demand for knowledgeable audio technicians to work and manage these systems. Schools that once offered communication programs that included programs for recording, television and radio have expanded into presenting classes and degrees in live sound. These programs in live audio are not only being offered in technical schools, but in music schools and liberal arts colleges as well and — while there is no guarantee of a great job upon getting a degree from one of these programs — it is at least a step in the right direction, as the process of getting oneself hired by a good company is more competitive than ever.

While high paying jobs in the audio field are not easy to land, the good news is that more houses of worship, clubs and concert halls are purchasing their own systems, which means there are many more opportunities for the aspiring live mix engineer. As with most professional jobs — regardless of education or degree — there is a bit of interning that is required before the boss is comfortable enough to send the new hire out to mix shows. This requires a lot of pushing of cases as well as the setting up and striking of the sound system. It might also require putting in time maintaining the system or doing inventory. While these are not necessarily sexy or high paying jobs, it is hopefully a means to an end. Over the years, I have hired many audio techs that started in the shop and went on to become touring engineers/production managers and house mixers for major television networks, but it does take time.

‡‡         Go Your Own Way

If one is the impatient type or uncomfortable with working for someone else, they can always start their own business. I have friends who started out by owning a small sound system and renting it to local bands using themselves as the engineer. With a modest investment, they were able make a decent income, as their overhead was low and there was no one else to pay other than themselves, but growth is desired. An entrepreneurial person is usually an ambitious person looking to conquer the world — or at least providing bigger and better sound for said world. This is the point at which having one’s own business turns from being an avocation to a vocation.

‡‡         The Infrastructure Investment

More work, or bigger and better work, is a good thing, but when this expansion does take place, then the business owner is required to up the ante and purchase more equipment and/or a bigger truck. Perhaps an office space is required with a landline and a computer, along with the all-important website to let prospective clients know that the business exists. The smaller operation is outgrown and extra labor is now required to either run the shop, go on gigs, or both. Either way, a payroll is now a requisite, which means that taxes must be paid and books need to be kept. More space is required for warehousing the gear and more money is needed for upkeep of the equipment. Now that the business is more than a one-man show and there is a larger investment in equipment, insurance (which the owner may or may not have had before) becomes mandatory.

At some point, if it hasn’t been done, this might also be time to register the business as a corporation or an LLC. Both are separate entities from the owner, which protect the owner from liability for business obligations, but do have specific differences to be explored so as to understand which one is best for the new business.

As a business owner, moving to this new level is definitely growth, but not necessarily reflected in terms of the salary the business owner takes home each week. While it may be that the business is capable of doing bigger and better shows with more cash flowing, that may not be shown in the profits, because of expanded overhead. So now, the new business owner is working twice as hard to make the same as when it was a solo operation and will probably not see this situation improve until the next level is met. The upside is that there is a great pride and accomplishment one feels in owning their own business, but this sense of fulfillment is also countered by all the uncertainties of getting the jobs and keeping everything afloat. The irony is that more time is required doing business rather than going out and doing that which is most enjoyable — mixing the shows.

‡‡         Is This Right for Me?

Throughout the years, my audio friends and I have mused about starting sound and production companies, but for me it never seemed to be the right time to accept the challenge due to other obligations in my life. Having witnessed some of the trials and tribulations endured by my entrepreneurial friends, I can say it takes a lot of courage and confidence to open a sound and production company. I have seen first-hand how certain friends of mine have been born into it and naturally seem to be cruising at a high altitude. For others though, it has been a tremendous struggle on their part to achieve greatness. Although in comparison, their Herculean efforts certainly beat the downside for the ones who are still wondering just what the heck has been thrust upon them.

Some of them made it over the hump and are going strong and others are struggling to make ends meet. Either way, they have all expressed to me that while ownership can be very rewarding, they are working harder than when they were just doing gigs as an engineer, and this leads me to believe that the best way to make money with a sound company is to start with it.

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