Networking is not Speed Dating

A good friend of mine has been looking for work lately.  For the last few years, he had a really good gig doing post production audio on a television series, so he had gotten used to a fairly normal lifestyle, with regular hours, a great paycheck, and benefits.  Now, he’s been out beating the bushes, hitting his contact list, and lately, he’s been attending a lot of the networking events sponsored by different industry organizations.  We live on different coasts now, so we tend to catch up as time permits. Lately, that has meant a lot of phone calls from his car, seeing as how in L.A., everyone spends about half their life in their car. One thing he’s been talking about is how tough it has been to get any real “return” on his “investment” of time in these events.

I’m going to assume that you’ve been to one or two of these networking events.  Sometimes they have a panel component, where a panel of industry experts speak and answer questions about one or more aspects of the business.  Occasionally, they can be more intimate, held at a bar or restaurant, and designed so that like-minded people can gather and meet each other.  A few times a year, the organizations like ASCAP or BMI will have producer or songwriter sessions where folks can get together and critique each other’s work and meet each other.

All of these kinds of things are good ways to get out there and meet people.  If you are starting out, they are a fantastic way of meeting others who are also starting out. One of the things I discuss in the book is the necessity of building a support system, and meeting fellow music and audio folk who are on a similar journey is a great thing to do. However, it’s important to understand that building a network is a process, and that attending these events is something that works best if you can do so without a lot of expectations. Showing up at events, demo in hand, with the expectation that your phone is going to start ringing as an immediate result is not the best mindset to have. Networking requires patience. Not only that, but these kinds of events are artificial, and everyone there is very conscious of their place on the food chain.  If you are a panelist or “industry expert,” then people are going to be maneuvering themselves over to you so they can do their five minutes, ending with the obligatory handing over of the business card, CD, or other package.  If you are the unknown aspiring industry person, then you are the one looking to do your five minutes.  The ratio of unknown to known quantities is always very high, so there is generally a slight whiff of desperation in the air as aspirants jockey for position.  I’m not saying that these events don’t have value.  I’m just saying that they are not the sole definition of networking, and their artificial nature doesn’t make for the best circumstances to be fondly remembered.

Ultimately, what you are looking for in any networking situation is the chance to hang out with working professionals in your chosen area of the industry in their natural habitat. Sometimes these staged events can lead to opportunities which can lead to further opportunities to be where the real action is.  If you get a chance to be in the studio or edit suite and just hang out in a more relaxed atmosphere, the chances are much greater that you will have a real chance to form a genuine relationship with someone based on common interests or personalities that mesh. People like to work with people they like, and genuine relationships are rarely formed at staged industry events.  What you are more likely to get at an industry event is a conversation that leads to an exchange of contact information, and the chance to follow that up.  If you’re patient, that might turn into lunch a few months later, and maybe an afternoon of hanging at the studio a few months after that. It’s about staying relaxed, keeping your expectations modest, and enjoying the human interaction wherever it takes you.  Kind of like actual dating, come to think of it.

Sleep is for suckers

In my experience, there is  a mindset that successful music and audio professionals share. Without the security of guaranteed regular employment, we have learned to stay alert, plan ahead, and keep our eyes open open for the next possible opportunity.  I used to tell my friend Rosenberg that every morning I’d wake up sniffing the air like a rabbit looking for lettuce.  The life of a freelancer is fraught with peril. You never know when a gig is going to be pulled out from under you, how long a dry spell is going to last, or if the opportunity of a lifetime is right around the corner.

I have seen it over and over. A friend will get lucky and land a sweet, high profile gig.  Good bucks, industry cred, decent hours. And all of a sudden, they are buying stuff, taking trips, and hanging out at the top spots. In other words, they are behaving as if they now have a high-paying straight job.  You might ask, “Well, what should they be doing?” In my experience, the best thing you can do when you get a good job is go out and look for work. You might not feel any different, but there is a big difference in how you are perceived out there in the world.  Last month, you were just one more person without high profile work, handing out your resume’/credit list/demo reel to be buried in the noise of all of the others doing the exact same thing.  This month, you are THE ONE WITH THE COOL GIG. As the expression goes, “strike while the iron is hot.” You may not believe this, but just having this gig probably has already wrought changes in how you interact with prospective clients, how you carry yourself, how confident you are when you introduce yourself to new people. Instead of having to explain yourself to someone with five minutes of B.S., you can just say “I’m a musician and guitar player, and right now I’m playing guitar on GREAT GIG X.”

Too many people allow themselves to be seduced by that sweet feeling of great money, excellent working conditions, and the respect of industry cognoscenti and forget that they are one pink slip away from being “Joe Schmoe the unemployed guitar player” again. If you are lucky enough to land a hip gig, take that boost and work it like crazy.  The best time to look for work is when you HAVE work. You can relax later.

The mimic has left the building

Can you make it sound like “THIS?”

I have heard those words, phrased in a few different ways, for about thirty years.  In a way, my professional success as a freelance composer has mostly stemmed from my ability to listen to a piece of music and then write another piece of music that captures the essential feel or attitude of the first one.  Even when I was writing, producing, and recording what ended up being several hit records on a major label with Pajama Party, it’s not like I was at the forefront of the dance music world.  I was listening to what was out there, trying to figure out exactly what it was that people were grabbing onto, and then attempting to put my own spin on it.

With some kinds of work, though, sometimes a line gets crossed. People aren’t asking you if you can listen to something and then put your own spin on in. They don’t want your damn spin. For whatever reason, they are asking you to create something that sounds EXACTLY like “this.” One reason could be budgetary: they would LIKE to use “Born to be Wild,” but the client doesn’t want to spend fifty grand on the license.  Can I do a track that sounds very much like it for five or ten percent of that? Or, even worse, the client is willing to pay the money for the latest hipster band’s single for a shoe jingle, but that band doesn’t want their indie cred sullied by an association with a corporate monster like Nike or Adidas.  In that case, I have to be REALLY careful, since the band has already been approached and has declined the offer. Unlike the first scenario, there are now additional copyright landmines to be navigated, and legally, if the shoe company gets sued, they will dump responsibility on the ad agency, who will dump it on the music house, who will dump it on ME, the composer, who was only trying to make a living by doing the client’s bidding in the first place.  So, in my attempt to compose what the NY commercial industry calls a “ripomatic,” it becomes my responsibility to figure out where the imaginary line in the sand is between what the client wants (which really is the hipster band’s song) and my own (hopefully, from their viewpoint) extremely close, but legal “copy.”

Mix clients would always bring records to the mix sessions, asking me to make their music sound like “this” (the music on their CD of choice).  When I was a staff songwriter at Famous Music (the music publishing arm of Paramount Pictures), they would pass around a list of big name artists who were “looking” for songs for an upcoming album. My publisher would always try to get me to write something similar to whatever that artist’s last hit was, under the assumption that he or she (and their label) was looking to recreate that hit on the next record.

There are always times when someone wants you to put your creative impulse aside and do something that “sounds like THIS.” That’s the gig.  Unless you are an artist cutting a record, your creativity is in service to someone else.  The director. The ad agency. The client.  The music supervisor. The boss. Mostly, that’s been OK with me. I enjoy different genres, so when somebody asks me to do some “retro 70’s disco,” I know what they mean, and having lived through the era,  I can go to work merely by referring to the jukebox in my head. That’s creative.  That’s fun. “This” varies from job to job, so I’ve enjoyed moving from being Mozart to Hendrix to Smashing Pumpkins to Tito Puente. And I can understand why I’m doing what I’m doing.  Mozart and Hendrix aren’t available this week.  Smashing Pumpkins broke up.  Tito Puente is also hitting those timbales in the sky. And licensing their music might be out of the reach of most end users. So I haven’t minded it in the past when I’ve had to try to mimic someone else’s musical signature.

However, I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve decided that I can afford to call my own shots and turn some things down.  Recently I was offered a gig that involved imitating some cues that were written by another composer who the music supervisor loved, but who wasn’t able to deliver the volume of music that was needed for that show.  My job would have been to write material in the style of this guy, who was, frankly, just another guy like me who the supervisor happened to have gotten used to.  I decided that I’m retiring from that end of the business.  From now on, I’m happy to write music in styles, in genres, in any format, size or shape that the job calls for.  But I don’t think I want to copy anyone else’s work anymore. I’m just going to be me.

Are you a songwriter?

If you are, please visit my good friend Tony Conniff’s songwriting blog. It’s full of tips, ruminations, and advice regarding the art and craft of songwriting. I’ve known Tony forever.  He’s a fantastic bassist, producer, and songwriter, and he fronts a great band featuring a number of New York’s finest session players.  If you ever have a chance to see them, don’t pass it up.

There is no “extra credit” in Freelance World

My 16 year old daughter is a great kid.  She is cute and smart and funny, and generally tries to do the right thing. Last year, she had a really tough school year, taking all Honors and AP courses, including AP French and AP European History, which is known nationwide as a real back-breaker.  Like I said, she is bright, but within the normal range. I’m sure parents everywhere are cringing when I admit that my own daughter is of normal intelligence, and not a genius.  Well, after seeing her apply herself to her schoolwork for the past few years, I can honestly say that I couldn’t be prouder of how hard she has worked and how well she has done.  Some of her classmates don’t have to work quite as hard to achieve equal or even better results, but my kid doesn’t worry about them.  She comes home from school, gets a snack, watches a little TV or blows off some steam some other way and then she goes up to her room and takes care of business without any prodding from me or her mom.  And she has an “A” average. If an assignment is due Tuesday, she delivers it on Tuesday. If it is supposed to be 500 words, she turns in 500 words. Once or twice a year, though, the perfect storm of schoolwork, social activities, and acts of God all occur on a particular weekend and she is unable to turn in an assignment for a particular class on time. Does she whine to the teacher? Make up a phony excuse? Or worse, BEG? No, she does not.  My daughter takes her lumps like an adult.  She knows that over the course of the marking period, all of the high-scoring assignments and tests that she DID complete will result in an acceptably high grade for the term.  And she can be proud of herself for not compromising her principles by lying to the teacher or begging for a grade she didn’t deserve.  You do the crime, you do the time.  That’s how we roll in the Klein house.

Unfortunately, that’s not how many of my daughter’s classmates roll.  Some of them routinely turn work in days or weeks late, fail to study for tests, and generally display an extremely casual attitude regarding their responsibilities at school. At some point, these slacker kids become aware that their class averages are becoming dangerously low.  That’s when they approach the teacher and utter the MAGIC WORDS: “Mrs. So and So, can I do some extra credit work to get my average up?”

Unbelievably, this crap actually works in almost every class my kid has. Inevitably, the teacher will hand out some B.S. make-work for the kid to do to add points to his or her grade.  I’m not sure if teachers actually have any choice these days, with all of the helicopter parents threatening to sue if Johnny or Suzie gets a B, but beyond annoying me and my wife to no end, this makes my daughter GO FREAKING NUTS!  After all, she is the one who plays by the rules, busting her ass to make all of the deadlines and taking her lumps when she doesn’t. What is the lesson for kids like her? “Nice guys finish last?” Luckily, we tell her how proud we are, and that learning to do it the right way now will result in success in college and beyond, in life. So, as a matter of personal pride, my daughter does not do extra credit assignments.  She wants to earn her grades the old fashioned way.  You go, girl.

So what does this have to do with freelancing?  Well, if this is what you learned all through school, (extra credit actually exists at the university level in many cases), you might not fully appreciate the idea that you really only get ONE SHOT to get it right in the professional arena. Think about it: today’s high school seniors will be out in the workplace, attempting to compete, in five years or less. And they have been indoctrinated to think that they are SPECIAL, that they don’t have to take responsibility for their mistakes, that there will always be someone to pat them on the head and give them another chance, and another after that. The sad thing is, people like this have NO IDEA why they aren’t getting that second shot, that callback, those other opportunities.  They were never held accountable before.  They don’t understand the concept. If someone actually told them the truth about why they weren’t being hired/given work/called anymore after blowing their opportunity, they would feel that they were being treated unfairly.  After all, they always had a second chance in high school.  And probably in college too.

What do you guys think? My experience in the real world has led me to treat every single job as the potential opportunity of a lifetime. And for me, many of them have been just that. If I had gone in thinking that I didn’t have to get it right because there would always be another chance to make good, I would probably be doing something else for a living. There is no extra credit in life. You have to get it right the first time.