I am a guitarist, music producer and former academic from Northern Ireland. I received my PhD from Ulster University in 2012 and I am now the CEO of audio technology company, Delta Sound Labs, in the United States. My work in the music industry spans guitar and computer music performance, production, composing for TV, film and video games and education. My company focuses on the development of hardware and software for creatives, with a specific interest in modular synthesis and audio effects plugins and has recently engaged in projects at the Technicolor Experience Center in Los Angeles and Stax Music Academy in Memphis. I maintain a personal website for personal music projects and research at http://rickygraham.com and my company website is located at http://deltasoundlabs.com.
In my last post, I discussed part of my rationale for leaving the academy and how I dealt with the initial anxiety surrounding that decision. In posts two and three, I will discuss what I am doing now in the form of independent engagements and the challenges in starting my own music technology company. This post will focus on independent engagements, specifically on what forms of creative work are out there, how I have acquired this work, and the measures I have taken to ensure that I get paid.
On arriving in Memphis from Hoboken, I searched for local artists, musicians, and venues active in music technology and related fields. My initial search did not yield a great deal so I established a meetup group (via Meetup.com) under the general moniker of Music, Art + Technology in an attempt to connect with like-minded creatives in the area. To start, I kept the scope of the group fairly broad to draw people from all kinds of artistic backgrounds. After a few meetings, I was able to identify key areas of interest for people and get a sense of how often folks were willing to get together. We now have over 300 members and meet once a month to hangout and play music with a focus on electronics and related music tech products. My startup, Delta Sound Labs, sponsors the monthly meetup. Yes, that’s a tax deduction right there. I’ll talk more about starting a business in my third and final blog post of this series.
So, why is this community thing so important? It’s an incredibly valuable platform to let people know who you are and what you do on a local level. The meetup platform is a good way to do this quickly. It builds social capital and this yields opportunities for creative collaboration and independent contracts. It places you firmly on the local horizon. It’s also a great way to establish working relationships with venues. Simply by needing a place to host a meetup, you put yourself in a position where you have to find local businesses that are willing to host you, ideally for free, and in return your host receives the custom of your members. I tried out a series of venues before settling with our current host. While some venues weren’t exactly a good fit due to their location, size, or general environment (meeting in a cafe or music venue was simply too noisy and distracting), the positive outcome of this teething phase was that this was a great way to meet local business owners and see how they run their operations day-to-day, and how they engage with (and whether or not they value) creative communities. While we may not use those venues for this particular purpose, the contacts are now in place for future engagements.
If I have one mantra that I have carried over from academe and from working within a fairly large department, it is that you need people to take you where you want to go. You can’t do it all by yourself. Find a place that allows community to flourish, in a comfortable environment where you can talk, present your ideas, and collaborate with one another. Give the community time to grow, too. It took about three to four meetups to get the scope and attendance where I wanted it to be. You can do it anywhere. So, do it. Be resourceful and build your network.
Memphis Slim House, the venue for our meetup (and the original house of legendary American blues pianist, singer, and composer, Memphis Slim), eventually became the venue for a series of other job opportunities. My years of curriculum development in the academy prepared me to design and propose courses to music schools and art institutions. Recently, I designed a series of public courses to help musicians get to grips with their music production software (from more of a utility standpoint) but also to help artists and producers (mainly rap and hip-hop in this part of the world) get their ideas out of their head and into production. This has also led to studio session work with Memphis Slim members as an audio engineer, simply by running the course in the same physical space as Slim House’s recording studio. Again, this is a good example of why it is so important to find out where people do the things that you’re offering as a service and to make yourself available to them. The success of your self-employment will ultimately be determined by the types of communities in which you invest your time and expertise, as well as being visible within the community. I think it’s also important to note that I am personally fortunate to find the Stax and Slim House communities to be so welcoming and I am incredibly grateful for their hospitality and willingness to help me relaunch.
Expanding Opportunities Through Industry Certifications
Probably one of the most worthwhile software certifications that I’ve obtained in my time as a music technologist is from Ableton, a German company that specializes in music production software. This certification has led to work as an engineer and consultant for studio recording sessions and as an educator within the music community in Memphis, namely at Stax Music Academy (constituent of Stax Records and Museum consortium). This grew into the aforementioned music production course and other studio sessions with local musicians. More recently, I was contacted to run Live tracks for an artist’s international music tour for three weeks for excellent pay. It is also unsurprising that the skill sets necessary for studio and instructional opportunities have been honed through years of teaching music technology at various colleges. Your teaching skills are transferable without too much retailoring or further education. With that said, I didn’t just start making money as soon as I obtained the certification. Depending on the company, you can acquire immediate visibility with these kinds of software certifications (for example, through their company web presence) but it did take time to build a consultant profile and a client base. You definitely have to be willing to put in the time. I started with cheaper, discounted rates for my first round of clients and then built towards an hourly rate that I believe my time is worth.
Additionally, Live extends into the world of software development through its recent acquisition of visual programming language, Max, developed by David Zicarelli and Co. at Cycling ’74. This part of my skill set has led to music software development work for composers and artists, whether it be for use in the studio or for an art installation. I’m currently working on a series of devices for a composer based in Mexico. In short, there are a ton of certifications out there related to your practice that can help put you on the map and help you get work, whether it be Apple, Pro Tools, or Live. Ask people that hold a certification if it helps get them more work. You just need to look and reach out to folk.
Make a General Service Agreement
Aside from paid work generated through my business, Delta Sound Labs, independent contract work is fast becoming a stable source of income. To do this effectively, it is super important to work out a Service Agreement with your client(s) that outline the agreed work, start date and payment plan. You can grab a basic boilerplate template from the web but always have a lawyer look over the syntax when you’re done to make sure all parties are protected and you’re not digging a colossal hole for yourself. Having this service agreement template on hand is a huge time saver. It immediately weeds out the clients who are willing to pay versus those who are looking for a freebie. Sending this agreement immediately puts an end to time wasters and it will help you get paid. Make sure you get paid a percentage up front. I charge 50% of each project price tag upfront and I don’t do a lick of work until that money is in my bank account. Your time is incredibly valuable when you work for yourself. Don’t let people waste it. I will discuss contracts as they relate to my business in the next blog post.
You have to be prepared to hustle. You can’t expect for freelance work to just fall on your plate. You’ve got to really go out and look for it and create a presence in the community so that people know who you are and importantly what you can do for them.