Having kicked around in the audio and music industry for a few years, I occasionally get inquiries from students and other people who want my advice on how to break into the business. Despite the many articles and books on this topic, there still seems to be a need for more perspectives — probably because breaking in is hard to do. Because “Final Mix” is an appropriate spot for fearless commentary, I shall take a short stab (sorry, that's all they give me) at conveying a few hints from my real-world experience.
Let's start with some of basic concepts. First, getting a job and making a living doing audio is easier than making a living playing music. Second, even given the first point, it's still a bear, and you can probably make a better living programming databases. Most of us in this business have difficulty bearing the thought of enduring such a boring profession as database programming, though. (That said, I recall a top-flight engineer who transitioned to precisely that job.)
Therefore, make your choices with the conscious understanding of what you're getting yourself into, what you're opting out of, and why the trade-offs are worth it — assuming that you conclude they are. Most forms of audio production that I know of, and nearly all forms of performing music, require lots of hours, struggles with technology, and difficult clients. Creating and shaping sound and music can, however, also bring immense satisfaction. If the satisfaction outweighs the frustrations, and the financial situation is at least acceptable, then it could be a fine career.
Next, you must endeavor to acquire the necessary skills. A lot of things I've read about the industry and promotions for schools I've seen suggest that being a Pro Tools wizard or knowing how to run a big SSL console are the things you need to know to make a living in this business. There is no question that understanding how to use modern tools is important, but that is the easiest knowledge to acquire.
What is emphasized less often is the need to under-stand basic underlying principles. Knowing how to make a crossfade of any shape is useful. Knowing why you would want to choose one shape over another for a given application is more useful. If you also understand how crossfading is accomplished inside the computer and the implications of that, then you've learned something of great practical value.
But even that is an advanced principle. In the last several years, I have seen many people coming up who don't know nearly enough about acoustics, transducers (for example, microphones and loudspeakers), and basic concepts of filtering. Many lack a full understanding of the importance of time in audio (not just delay and reverb, but phase; you do know that “polarity” is different from “phase,” right?). What is often missed is that this knowledge comes into play indirectly more often than directly. For example, if you grasp acoustical principles, you are well equipped to be able to make convincing reverb simulations, whether for a game or for ambience matching of production dialog and ADR dialog.
Another set of absolutely crucial skills not often taught in schools is project management and how to work in teams, including showing a constructive attitude, employing political skills, and mastering the delicate art of writing email. Without these skills, you can never rise from being a “worker” to being a leader. Do not let the fact that I am devoting less verbiage to this subject than to others in this column lead you to underestimate its importance.
Finally, it is true that who you know is more important to breaking in than what you know. So if you don't know the right people now, make an effort to meet them. Networking is extremely important if you want to break in to the business, so go to conferences, attend meetings of local professional groups, and, yes, join email lists. Ultimately, in-person contact is the single most important factor to getting work. Lots of people have good demos; meeting someone in the business and impressing them with your excellent presence will have much more impact than a demo alone. Furthermore, in talking to those who are already in the industry, you will learn more of what you need to succeed.
These are a few things I have found to be key but often underemphasized. Now that you know the “secrets,” go get 'em!
Larry the O is accustomed to spending hours alone in windowless rooms, during which time he fondles a small gold ring and mutters “My Precious!” a lot.