Out of work? Looking to post-production sound? Here’s what you need to know

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It’s been incredibly difficult to watch so many of my colleagues in the audio industry out of work in 2020 due to the pandemic. As of now (July 2020), live sound and theater likely won’t be back to work this year, and probably will continue into next year (at least in the U.S.). In Los Angeles, some recording studios have reopened after months of being closed (but with precautions). But, the entire situation has forced a cataclysmic change to the work situation in the industry. Artists are staying home instead of going out on the road, and that means jobs are gone. We’ve seen the same happen in production sound, where tv and film projects and shoots have been pushed with unknown dates to start again, and put out of work in the meantime.

Meanwhile, in my neck of the woods (post-production sound for tv), we’ve been working through all of this. It’s been hectic to move entire businesses and operations to working from home (and some of my colleagues are still working onsite). In the U.S., television operations have been deemed essential workers. While I don’t think of myself as nearly important as a doctor or a trash collector right now, the television networks are required to stay on air for emergency messages. Because of that, content is still being made (or repurposed or rerun) to keep television on air.

What if the situation was reversed?

What we’re seeing (as the audio industry) is some niches have work (like podcasting and television and others don’t (live sound and theater). The obvious thing to do when you don’t have work is to pivot to niches that do. The problem is, these niches were already competitive and hard to get into, and now they’re even more competitive with people trying to get in who’s expertise is outside these niches. If the situation were reversed and a post-production person was asking to get into live sound or music recording (at a professional level), what would you think? Would you trust them to mic a drum kit? Could they land on a gig on tour (when the competition/workforce is bigger than normal)? Are they going to be making any money? And if they’re not completely passionate about doing it, are they going to survive it?

The reality of getting into post-production sound (pandemic or not) is it is not a lateral move from other areas of the industry. I wrote about this in detail in a blog for SoundGirls (all pre-pandemic observations) but here’s some reasons it’s a challenge getting into post, in particular.

The main reasons why right now is a challenge to pivot into post

  • Most work has moved off-site, which means you need all the equipment necessary on your own to do the job. 5.1 gig? You need to have Pro Tools Ultimate and a 5.1 setup. Dialog editing? Izotope RX is expected. Do you have a professional level sound FX library? (ie, not just free sounds off the web you have to search for one by one). Want to do tv or film work? You gotta know how to do broadcast specs, M&Es, stems, see sync issues, etc. These are things you learn over lots of projects – not a couple days or from watching online tutorials.
  • Working off-site means there are no on-site meetings, interviews, etc. This means hiring someone without experience/credits/work history in post-production is a risk. Credits, experience, and relationships are going to mean more than ever.
  • There’s experienced professionals who have been laid off or furloughed available to fill gigs. Think if it this way – if you had to find a sub for a sound mixer for a theater show, would you be hiring someone who’s toured with a major rock band (and never done theater), or would you be hiring the A1 who got laid off from the theater down the road (who gets high praise from your existing crew)?
  • Because of all of the above, the way someone with little/no experience is going to gain experience is by finding indie projects. But, the types of gigs you can land on your own (not through a studio or another professional) are likely going to be low/no budget, a lot of hard work, and may be clients who need a lot of additional support. It’s a lot of work and time to invest if you’re not planning on doing this seriously in the future.
  • You’re also competing against graduates of schools focused in post-production skills. Through their education, they may already have credits, experience, and are on a mission to do post-production for a living.

Beyond this, if you’re just looking to make money/have something to do, you’re taking away from someone else pursuing their dream job.

Are you serious about learning post-production sound?

If you’re someone who could see getting into post production sound for the long haul, right now is an amazing time to learn, practice skills, build up experience/credits and relationships (as much as possible). Why? Because when production ramps up again, down the road there will be an influx of work. There’s more television work now than ever before. There’s people at home writing scripts, planning productions, and just need to get out there and do it.

The approach to take isn’t to get a job today – it’s to be prepared for the jobs that will be available in the future.

Start Learning On Your Own

If you’re interested in learning more about post-production sound (even if it’s out of curiousity, boredom, or it seems fun), do it yourself. You don’t need to land a project to learn. Download a video off of Youtube, strip out all the sound, and rebuild it yourself. There’s a lot to be learned just practicing on your own, and maybe you will be inspired to want to pursue it more professionally. But for the sake of the emerging professionals in the post-production sound industry who really need the work, let them have their dreams, if you’re not serious about it.

No one will ever hold it against you for being unemployed in 2020. In fact, it my be one of the few times you’ll get to do something outside the industry. Try mentoring, or teaching your skills to someone else. Participate in online forums, webinars, and further your perspective on the industry and the work that you are passionate about. If you’re freelance, learn more about business skills. Right now isn’t the time to pivot unless it’s a long term commitment.