Which areas of audio pay the big dollars in 2019?

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.


Very ineteresting mate :slight_smile: Thanks for sharing !

Interesting indeed.

Leadership is certainly an essential and critical skill. I think it goes much deeper than that though, and asks “what kind of leader do you want to be?” I don’t know that much about how Dave does what he does, but I would assume that he is aware of or subscribes to something I would probably call “Visionary Leadership”. I can see that with the scientific work he is involved in, Intellectual Leadership could be valuable also, not that those were his words necessarily. What you have described could easily - in the past - be characterized as management or supervision.

The old paradigm of leadership is giving people direction and telling them what to do. It’s an autocratic style typically, and assumes that people/workers are perhaps competent with skills but clueless and directionless in how to accomplish goals.

Visionary Leadership, and numerous other monikers, describes a more enlightened and empathic approach. This has been in development for some years, in fact one of my inspirations is Stephen Covey who wrote and taught “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” He was very big on leadership, servant-leaders, listening, empathy, win-win, etc.

I would guess that many of the really good producers and other movers/shakers in the music and audio industries have actually known these things for a long time. Working with artists and talent is different than most corporate approaches to solving problems. That said, the scale of corporate type things you are talking about probably still have a level of autocratic management systems, since they may be publicly traded or industry moguls focused largely on quarterly profits. And wide scale broadcast (especially “live”) has to be a high pressure situation in most cases. We saw this with the political debates last night. Nobody thinks about what goes into audio (and video) production until there’s a “hiccup”. Then the technical people get blamed. Otherwise it’s a largely thankless job.

Which artists? I believe that Indie artists are being encouraged to retain ownership of their music as much as possible. There may be circumstances where they’d make a deal to increase distribution, but things seem to be moving away from big business running things and managing your career. I appreciate what you’re saying, but I think it would be more tangible to break it down into steps that make it achievable in the long run. The leap from being a small audio business to a publishing agent (?) could be pretty steep. “What are the steps to get there?” is my question.

That’s some pretty good old fashioned advice. Things have been done that way for a long time. Being your own Visionary Leader starts with figuring out where you’re going and what you want to do. Then, if you can mentor with or work for someone where you can learn what you need to know to implement your Vision, that could be a good plan. But it all starts with a Vision, IMO.

Perhaps I oversimplified the essence of what he was saying. The person who brings a bunch of talented people together and gets them working together as a team, then comes up with a plan on how to get them from point A to point B. Its really just basic leadership (apart from being able to steer a specific group of specialists vs something like a general group of volunteers) regardless of whatever word you put infront of it.

Not in my experience. The HR departments at Disney addresses problems with artists the same way they address problems in hospitality, marketing, or any other division. If monitoring equipment in the production facility breaks, it gets handled the same way as if something in the kitchen breaks.

It seems to me that the ‘culture’ of the corporation has much more to do with how problems are fixed than whether its publicly traded or not.

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Well, I think that’s basically agreeing with what I called management and supervision. Especially when you call it “basic leadership”. They teach the basics in boot camp. Excellent leadership is a much more arduous and grueling journey, a career, one that’s never finished. Not for the excellent leader anyway.

I would guess that Dave is a Visionary Leader, or maybe the term Inspired Leader will be a little more tangible. Hopefully he (@Chordwainer) sees this thread and can weigh in on that. I know he’s really busy right now. The difference IMO, is that any good manager or supervisor can get people from point A to point B. It’s already well defined. Connect the dots. Paint by numbers. :slightly_smiling_face: If you want a challenge, try being a leader in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). You don’t know what point B is. You may never know what it is. You’ll have to constantly navigate you and your team toward your Vision (not goal).

The irony is that this VUCA world is the world we all live in right now. Whether it’s business, or NASA, that’s the paradigm. To send humans to Mars, I can almost guarantee you there’s no Point B, other than Mars. And we may find out the obstacles are too great. We’re not there yet. Who knows? It’s a moving target. Every new discovery shifts the plan a bit. Every political policy and economic policy can shift it. Organizational decisions can shift it. You gotta be like a ninja :dagger:, not a foreman.

That kind of validates my point. Corporations tend to use cookie-cutter approaches. It’s more efficient. I realize that as a creative company Disney must have something special going on, but it’s still a big corporation. I don’t think we should be overlooking the micro/macro dynamics of what you proposed - the entrepreneur and the media corporation. Artists, entrepreneurs, and small companies can be much more agile … can switch gears faster and easier to adapt to changing situations. Corporations are frequently big behemoths, and can be like the Titanic hitting the iceberg before they know what happened.

I’ll also point out that addressing problems in HR is not the same as leadership. HR operates on rules, leaders and entrepreneurs operate on risk. Oil and vinegar.

Leadership creates culture. And it’s focused on opportunities primarily. The culture defines how you solve problems inherently by moral leadership. If you know what the right thing to do is, you do the right thing. An old adage: “Leaders do the right things, whereas managers simply do things right.”

I am slowly getting back to normal… or what passes for “normal” for me, anyway…!

Indeed, leadership is a learned skill and one that not everyone is suited for. That’s not a value judgment; some folks are just better off left to their area of expertise rather than taking on a leadership role. I had absolutely no experience leading a large organization when I went back to JSC ten years ago, it was 100% on the job training. But I also got some classroom training and, best of all, had the experience of working for a wide variety of personalities over the years, and had front-row seats to both good and (very) bad leadership traits. Those examples were great for what to do, and more importantly what NOT to do.

What I learned was that a leader should always take the blame but never the credit; that s/he be trustworthy and live up to their word; that s/he be open and transparent about how decisions are being made (because even when not everyone agrees with the decision, they know the rationale); learn to accept the fact that you are often wrong and to own it overtly; never ask someone to do something one is not willing to do oneself; be accessible (open door policy) and devote full attention to anyone who comes to see you (no multitasking!); and of course, to know what one is talking about. Here’s a familiar image that I like:

A huge challenge in my position was that not only was point B not known, and in fact would keep changing in fundamental ways, but point A was often obscure too! I have no experience outside this realm, but I’ve never seen a “point A to point B” simple situation. If it’s that simple, it’s typically assigned to task leads or some other less formal allocation of responsibility. In other words, once it becomes that straightforward, it becomes SOP.

I will have a lot smaller of a leadership role in my new position. The Office of the Chief Scientist is small, fewer than ten people, and nobody will be reporting to me, I won’t be doing any performance evaluations anymore (hallelujah), etc. Now is the chance for me to try to take advantage of my leadership experience to help influence good outcomes. But this is also a good skill for leaders: know how to make your bosses look great. It’s an extension of always sharing credit-- one has to be comfortable simply ascribing one’s accomplishment to another and letting that ride. Again, not something that anyone can do, some of us just aren’t wired not to claim credit for their work.

The bottom line for me was that my personal desires and interests were to be set aside so that the greater good could be served. Because in the end, leadership really is about service IMO. You have to understand the sacrifices you will be required to make and be OK with that.

Now, how does this all translate to the music world? I have no idea…!


Thanks for the great response Dave!

Someone once said that “Leaders are not born, they are made.” While there’s probably some innate personality characteristics that incline some individuals to be natural leaders, everyone has to work at it IMO. It’s a constant learning experience, and very demanding, but also very rewarding.

Taking note of and studying “lessons learned” can be invaluable. Unfortunately, many people move on and forget about what happened. Studying interactions and outcomes strategically is usually the path to wisdom.

Everything you have described, and I agree with all your points, shows how being a leader requires a certain managing or disciplining of “the Ego”. It’s probably the hardest struggle of all, for all human beings. I think The Art of War speaks to this:

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. - Sun Tzu

This is not just a military slogan, it speaks to mastery of self above all other virtues. We can’t really lead other people until we lead ourselves. It begins with us. It is said that a healthy Ego is essential for a human being to function, but the unhealthy Ego is the cause of multitudes of problems. As Jordan Peterson says, set your own house in order first.

I think it applies everywhere you go. Authentic leadership comes from inside, you carry it with you.

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. - Isaac Newton

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships. - Michael Jordan

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then, you have to play it better than anyone else. - Albert Einstein

You’re way overthinking this. It’s not going to change anything regarding the pay scale of the audio industry by debating the different terminologies around leadership. Almost everyone is aware of the difference between management and leadership at this point. And as we know, the job title such as ‘technical production manager’ doesn’t enable or disable a person in that position from acting less like a manager and more like a true leader.

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Well, I think it depends on your worldview and your “value ladder”. You seem to be emphasizing the old paradigm of 1) profits, and 2) people. While I found your OP very interesting and thought-provoking, it seems almost totally bottom-line focused in terms of money and profit. I’m advocating for the Triple Bottom Line which is the new paradigm: 1) people, 2) planet, 3) profit. The whole point of that is that we need to think about and change how we’re doing business, and how everyone is potentially a leader in some way. There’s really no choice if we want a sustainable future IMO.

Everyone makes choices based on their value ladder. If you put profits before people, that’s one style and approach. If you put people before profits, that’s a very different style and approach. And when you insert planet (environment) into the equation, it’s even another quite different style and approach. All of these things - except the first one - require thinking :slightly_smiling_face:, because the first one is essential “same old, same old”. This is not some airy-fairy ideology, it’s becoming the new way to do business. (see article below).

As the famous Albert Einstein quote goes: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Also by Einstein (purportedly): “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

The Triple Bottom Line: What Is It and How Does It Work?


Gotcha. The individual asked me a question about which jobs pay the most. I probably could have been clearer on this context.

So for the sake of discussion, I did read through that article. I don’t have an opinion on it yet…I’ll revisit in a couple days.

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Yes, I think I understood that. I just took the opportunity to explicate on what you said you had learned from Dave.

Thanks! As I said, it does depend on your mindset, your value ladder. You had mentioned entrepreneurship … there’s also something now called “conscious entrepreneur” which is thinking holistically and globally as to how everything we do affects everyone else and the planet also. That conscious entrepreneur mindset ties in with the Triple Bottom Line.

I realize not everyone looks at it that way, and perhaps on a forum called “Six Figure” they are only focused on the bottom-line economics, but I thought it worthwhile to introduce these ideas to you since you may be an “influencer” on that forum. Part of leadership IMO is challenging people’s (psychological) “maps”, prompting them to look at things in a different way.

Here’s a real-world example of that, I think. Making waves, to say the least. Kind of sounds like a “hostile takeover” so far … somebody stands to make a lot of money, but a lot of bad-blood/bad-karma there too.

Over the weekend, Taylor Swift learned her six-album music catalog was sold to a company owned by music manager Scooter Braun, who Swift alleges has been bullying her for years. “Scooter has stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy,” Swift wrote in a Tumblr post. “Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.” She called it a “worst case scenario.”

More on the $300 Million sale of the Big Machine catalog:

I’m sorry. I when a publisher buys a catalog, I’m of the opinion that they can do whatever they wish to the material. Some countries have ‘moral rights’ which don’t allow people to republish, duplicate, or trade work in a way that demeans the artistic integrity of it. There is no moral rights clause in Title 17 of the US code. If people like Taylor (or perhaps yourself Stan) feel there ought to be, (which is fair…I get it and I totally understand), then it seems you should be having that conversation with the intellectual property lawyers that lobby congress as a part of our legislative system. What good is it doing complaining about this on youtube and to the news media??

Taylor apparently forgets that she’s beholden to the investors who risked their own money to develop her career. Those labels that pour billions of dollars into artists every year take the risk - they get the upside. I just don’t see her case having much merit. She signed the damn record deal. If she doesn’t like the way it works, then quit!! Its a free country! No one is MAKING her continue to sing.

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??? Hostile takeovers are a way of life. We have a thriving music industry now. There were some companies that had to swallow up others to keep cash flowing in this industry. Billions and billions of dollars, and that is a documented public fact if you look at the income statements, balance sheets, and cashflow records of the 10K forms that the record labels file with the SEC. Those hostile takeovers are necessary for the market to correct itself when it starts to implode - luckily there weren’t a ton of bullshit regulations in the music industry that prevented it from healing itself (which was the problem in the 2008 subprime lending housing crash). Basically, I see the hostile takeovers as a good thing, even though I do acknowledge that they can really hurt the losing party both professionally and some personally.

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I don’t know much about the legal aspects of this, but yes AFAIK this was all done legally and (relatively) ethically. It’s a lot of history and a lot of drama coming to the fore, reinforced by Taylor’s towering status in the music industry and with fans, and her well-known candor in speaking out about things she doesn’t agree with. :slightly_smiling_face:

Mainly, it just seemed very relevant to your analysis of business and wealth, and my presentation about leadership in terms of the values ladder.

Yes, she got into the music industry probably without knowing the business side, as many artists do IMO. Nobody, including herself, would have likely predicted her massive success. I think this also relates to what I said about Indie artists controlling their own music when possible. I think this whole thing just reinforces that.