Here are my thoughts on a question that I was asked in a private message by a member of the Six Figure Home Studio community.
Which areas of audio pay REALLY well?
Four years ago I sat down for a casual lunch meetup with Dr. Dave Draper at a restaurant called BJ’s Brewhouse in Webster TX. Dave is a member of the Indie Recording Depot forum (under the name Chordwainer) , who at the time was a director in the petrology field at NASA and was recently promoted to deputy chief scientist at NASA.
We chatted about a lot of fascinating topics. However during a conversation about the infrastructure of NASA, he mentioned something that began to change the way I understood entrepreneurship. Intellectual leadership. I had subconsciously understood this concept for many years, but never had anyone concisely as intentionally communicated it to me as he did. I don’t remember his phrasing (which is always more elegant than mine) but it came down to this: “NASA has a ton of lab rats. What they’re willing to pay a lot of money for is the guy who tells them what to do”.
In all areas of audio, the highest paid positions will be those tasked with managing a team of people to achieve a result that’s inherently larger than what anyone would accomplish on their own. For this reason, conductors are better paid than orchestra members, film directors are paid more than actors, tech production managers for touring artists are paid more than musicians, and film music supervisors are paid more than composers (respective to the amount of work). In the voiceover and music recording world, producers outrank the support talent (such as session players) and are higher in chain of command than the studio engineers.
In sportscasting or events like the world olympics, audio companies are often subcontracted to drive a gigantic semi truck full of broadcast gear up to a stadium then patch into the stadiums DANTE or MADI feeds. They’ll mix and format audio for the entire broadcast so that it conforms to the delivery standard of the broadcasting station which is airing the event. The ‘highest paid’ person in that semi-truck full of broadcast gear usually depends on how the company is structured, who owns what percentage of the company, and who inside the company did the bidding on the contract. In this case, the management of the mixing (as in EQ of the mics, and metering of the 6-bus master output) is a small concern vs the logistics, process, and keeping the enormous system working flawlessly through the duration of a ballgame.
In music, touring musicians such as drummers, keyboardists, guitarists rarely pass $150,000 pr year. Music directors seem to top out at $4500-$6000 per week for top A-list artists which comes out to about $250,000-$400,000/yr. But more realistically, a particular b-lister has-been may keep his musicians onboard for $80K pr year, and pay his music director $130k. With the exception of artists that overpay their players simply because they want to and they can, the salaries for these types of players cap off at a relatively low income compared to audio production department directors in the film, gaming, and media industries.
Dave Pensado will be the first to tell you that the mix engineers are pretty low on the food chain. They are far more expendable and less necessary than the producer. The financial commitment to retain even a top name mix engineer is far lower than what it will cost an investor to hire a producer. Tom Lord Alge quoted me in the $2300 ballpark per song. I recently sent 3 mixes to Billy Decker who finished them with unlimited revisions for under $150 per song. The downside to this profession is that they are merely trading time for money. Since they have chosen to establish themselves as small businesses, what they earn will always be inherently linked to how fast and how much they work. Tom asked for royalties for mixing the track. Does he ever get them? I don’t know.
A-list re-recording mixers can easily bill up to $6000 per day (including the facility), but these positions are extremely limited due to the extreme shortage of dub rooms in the US and around the world. Their actual take home salaries are a different story. A busy dialogue editor will easily earn more than a low-level freelance RRM because the demand and workload are so much more abundant. An RRM is not inherently more talented than a music mixer. They’re getting paid more because they’re bearing the burden of $1,000,000,000+ (billion dollar) projects that teams of over 1000 audio engineers across the world have collaborated on over the course of several years.
So the question of who makes the most? Where is the big money? How do I go where the money is.
In music production the clear winner is the producers and you make your money off the back-end of the artists work. On the business side, if you want to go where the money is, you need to be a publisher. You need to become the agent that runs the company which retains the ownership of the artists intellectual property catalogue. As of now I’m pretty thoroughly convinced this is the best shot anyone has at attaining extraordinary wealth in this industry.
In a nutshell, going where the money is in audio means running, organizing, and optimizing teams of people that provide services to very very very large clients. My best advice to someone looking to achieve high aspirations in the freelance audio world is to begin your careers by getting hired and working for the biggest, meanest, nastiest, audio and media corporations you can find. That in my opinion is the ideal way to begin your career. Make all of your noob mistakes on their dollar. Learn how to think, organize, act, and strategize, then leave and make it your own.
Hope this helps a little.