As a busy freelance Re-Recording Mixer / Sound Designer and college educator, I get asked a lot about starting out, or making an upward move, in the industry. The answers to these questions are not so different than they were seventeen years ago when I was asking them, but there are some new wrinkles updated for the rapidly changing world we are in; particularly 2020 itself. It’s a scary, lonely time. And while I’m particularly applying this advice for budding production or post-production professionals, I think the crux of it is appropriate for any serious student looking to make his or her mark in getting their career off to a good start, or for any early-career professional looking to make their next step. More specifically, this advice is meant to acknowledge the challenges of a COVID-19-influenced world.
“Networking in Quarantimes”
By Justin Matley
The tried and true way to getting to know people is, well, getting to know people. This is the oldest trick in the book, and is true for any professional aspiration out there. It’s who you know. Fine. But, when you’re a junior in college and considering internships and how to escape your parents’ basement and start paying rent with an actual, career-focused job, the meeting people part can be tricky.
One of the easiest answers would be to attend a professional conference and workshops where you can get facetime with industry veterans: potential future colleagues and bosses. It’s a safe, non-confrontational way of bumping shoulders and talking shop with these folks that doesn’t feel like you’re being obtrusive. But, this is 2020. No one’s bumping shoulders. And no one wants to touch a conference with a ten-foot pole. So, we have to get a little creative these days.
Here’s an experiment for an aspiring film Sound Designer, for example:
Watch a film that you particularly enjoy the sound on. Dig into it a little. Find a scene where you ask yourself, “Wow, how did they do that?” and then, note the credits. Use the internet to figure out how to contact this person (or these people). It won’t be hard. They either (a) have a personal or company website or (b) have a LinkedIn page.
Next, start an email out to them. A resounding no: you won’t be asking them for a job or an internship. You’ll be doing four things in this order:
(1) Introduce yourself as a student eager to learn.
(2) Compliment them on that particular scene in that particular movie. Bonus points for expressing how their work helped shape the plot or character development.
(3) Ask them how they did it. For example, what software? Plugins? Found-sounds? Manipulation techniques?
(4) Politely inquire if you can talk to them about it. Finally, repeat this process ten times for a different film and Sound Designer.
Why is this a good networking project? It’s non-confrontational and non-committal for the professional. It’s also not in real-time. You aren’t cornering anyone, putting them on the spot, or asking for anything other than what inspired them to do what they do. You’re being specific: that shows an astuteness and attention to detail that will go noticed. And you’re not asking for anything in return, other than maybe an email back (at the least) or maybe a phone or video call. The goal of it? Sure, to learn about what they do and how they do it, but it’s to plant the networking seed. And maybe one or two of those seeds will lead to a real relationship. And relationships lead to work.
2020 has presented tremendous challenges, but it also has presented some unique opportunities for outreach. People are home. All. The. Time. People are also craving different methods of human contact. I venture to believe many of the professionals receiving this kind of note will jump at the chance to share some stories.
“Versatility: Finally an Asset”
When I started out in the commercial and film post-production industry, it was very segmented. An Editor for network TV promos was an editor for promos. A Sound Designer was devoted to a particular niche: Foley Artist for films, in-the-box Sound Designer for commercials, etc. There wasn’t a lot of crossover. Then, a series of things occurred that changed much of this formula.
- Technology became cheap. Tremendously expensive hardware that was necessary to accomplish high level results became largely obsolete, replaced by increasingly intuitive software and plugin technology by reputable manufacturers. In some niches it took a while to trust this evolution, but now, that circle is largely complete. There’s just very little justification for a $50,000 piece of outboard gear or $200,000 tape machine anymore.
- Economic conditions forced it. We’ve had two historic, life-changing economic tidal waves just in my tenure as a professional: the 2008 crash (coupled with the slogging 2009 recovery) and 2020’s COVID-19. This has caused both the funders of production and creators of it to come up with new ways to generate content and income. The first place this starts? The bottom line. Every neck-tied Bob viewing a corporate spreadsheet was highlighting ways to cut costs. One of the biggest ways to trim fat? Cut personnel. How do you manage the fallout from a career axe? Becoming adaptable. (More on this below.)
- The content necessitated it. With the internet, and then broadcast-level streaming, came many more hours of viewership across multiple corners of the industry. The need for more stuff increased many times over, but the budgets accommodating those needs didn’t rise linearly. This created an opportunity for those I like to call the “Solutionists” (a term I am gratefully borrowing from one of my mentors): people that were able to piece together either personal skills or a team of similarly-minded professionals who could create good-looking and sounding work in less time for less money.
So today, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we compromise the “old way of doing things” so much that the creative results suffer? There is an argument for specialists: people who are experts at a single element of the production. This methodology remains appropriate particularly in feature films, where the budgets do remain relatively strong, and the workflow still remains mostly entrenched. Also, the stakes tend to be higher, particularly on the major studio releases.
All of that said, there’s an increasingly growing industry for those that can do more with less. It may not be the industry niche of your dreams, but work is work; particularly when starting out. Arming yourself with a toolbox of skills from the outset is becoming a commodity. Being adaptable, nimble, and versatile has a place now. People who can direct, shoot, write a little, and cut have many more opportunities. So, dive down the YouTube rabbit hole and log onto those Zoom workshops: 2020 has brought a world of cheap (or free) educational opportunities to our homes. It’s up to you to grab them.
“Leave the Ego at the Door”
Finally, one that may seem obvious, but needs to be repeated time and again. There is a line between being helpful and being abused; this goes without saying. I have heard of many situations where an eager student accepts an internship and feels as though their free labor was exploited, all in the name of “earning your keep”. I get it, I did three internships myself. And it’s true: this is part of getting your foot in the door and earning the trust of industry professionals. But, at the same time, while knowing when to keep quiet is an imperative skill, knowing when to speak up and ask questions is its own artful endeavor. It’s not always easy, and sometimes the lines are blurred when you’re just starting out.
My philosophy has always been simple: be helpful. And make this clear right out of the gate. You are someone willing to do what it takes to earn your reputation. But almost equally, find opportunities to show them who you are as an individual. This will help you become memorable to someone. Don’t let this expression get in the way of the work: you are there to learn and to be a cog in the wheel, and that might start with getting coffee or answering phones or organizing mountainous piles of paperwork. But, once you establish your helpfulness, begin to pick your spots to engage on a human level. Give them a sense of your varied interests, your charming idiosyncrasies, and where appropriate, your ideals.
Why? Because when it comes to building that relationship I spoke about at the beginning, it may start with your work ethic, but it continues with the human side of things. You build the relationships that will elevate your career, and your life as a whole, by the shared human experience. And in 2020, this is something we need more than ever.
I hope this gave you a few basic starting points for building your confidence in pursuing what you love, as well as a practical understanding of the climate we all find ourselves in. Current and graduating students, as well as rising professionals, have faced a time more difficult than any other in recent memory. But, with these challenges come slivers of opportunity that, if done earnestly, can be taken advantage of. And when you get your feet under you, which you will: pay it forward. It may sound cliche at this point, but we really are all in this together.
Justin Matley is an award-winning Audio Engineer, Re-Recording Mixer, Sound Designer, and Music Director/Supervisor. After a decade at NYC’s largest audio post-production studio, Sound Lounge, he went solo seven years ago, and currently works out of multiple studios in NYC and Connecticut.
Justin works on a plethora of film, TV, radio, internet, music, and experiential projects for dozens of high-profile clients worldwide. An accomplished veteran of the broadcast, advertising, and film industries, Justin has thousands of projects under his belt, and has a reputation for being an excellent problem solver, team player, and creative executor.
Justin is a husband and father of two girls. He loves the outdoors, skiing, politics, good tequila, and Boston sports teams.