Industry Intel: 2015 Recording Engineer Salaries (By Industry and Region)

It’s that time of year again: Time when audio students begin graduating into the workforce en masse. Also: Time to review the past years’ jobs data to see where the best prospects in the audio industry lie.

Each spring—not too long before schools let out—the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases its latest job numbers, which they collected in May of the previous year. The new figures are based on the Occupational Employment Statistics (“OES”) survey, a questionnaire filled out by businesses that hire and pay workers.

It’s that time again!

Because this is a survey of employers that only tracks the number of salaried employees, it leaves out far more jobs than it includes. So we’ll also supplement this post with data from the Current Population Survey (“CPS”) on occasion.

The latter survey is a bit less frequent and smaller in scale, but it actually tracks the responses of individual workers in real households. Using this data, we can infer that there may be roughly 10 times more audio freelancers than there are audio technicians working in salaried positions.

How many jobs are there?

Sifting through the data often leads to some interesting and unexpected conclusions. The last time we explored these numbers, in 2012, we found that despite all the stories of big studio closings, the number of jobs for “sound engineering technicians” actually increased by nearly 50% throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that growth that can’t go on forever, won’t go on forever. Current projections from the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook are that the number of “sound engineering technicians” is likely to grow more like 1% through 2022. On the brighter side, if we add in “broadcast technicians” and “audio and video technicians” those projections bump up to about 9%.  And some regions are likely to grow faster than others.

That said, if governments actually did a great job of predicting where markets were headed, there’s probably a major bubble or two that we could have avoided. Alas, that does not seem to be the case. So we’ll take their estimates of where we are a bit more seriously than their estimates about where we are going.

As far as the current number of jobs, the OES survey of employers counts just shy of  14,000 salaried “sound engineering technician” jobs in the entire country. However, if we take into account by the CPS survey—which makes an honest attempt to count freelancers and the self employed—estimates for the number of people employed in audio jumps up to something more like 121,000 nationwide.

This suggests a ratio of about 9 freelancers who do some meaningful audio work for each salaried “sound engineering technician”.

How much do they pay?

The last time we looked into the figures, we found that median salaries for audio engineers rose from $30,000 to $46,000 in the first decade of the 21st century. Today, the BLS reports that the median for salaried workers has continued to rise and is now just shy of $50,000.

The average salary however, is a bit higher, at about $58,000. This is because the smaller number of folks who earn more than the median can sometimes earn a lot more: The top 10% of earners average near $107,000, while the bottom 10% earn closer to $23,000 annually.

When we last crunched the numbers in 2012, the highest incomes—and the highest levels of job growth—were in “Motion Picture & Video”, where the average has risen just slightly, to $75,000. Since then however, audio engineers in the “Software Publishing” sector beat them out of the #1 spot with average salaries of $79,000.

Before you go running to do audio for apps and games, remember that they comprise just a tiny fraction of the reported number of jobs. For every 100 people employed in motion picture & video, there were only about 3 employed by software publishers.

Similarly, the relatively small number of audio engineers working in spectator sports and amusement parks earned $72,000 and $69,000 respectively. There aren’t nearly as many of them, but it goes to show that if you can find a small and economically productive niche without too much competition, it can pay to specialize.

What most people seem to ask about first of course, are the creative and music fields. Sound engineering technicians who were identified as working in the “Sound Recording Industries” earned more like $47,000/year on average, just slightly below the overall average. The much smaller number of engineers whose employers identified them as “Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers” earned an average near $62,000.

If you are somewhat puzzled as to how each category is defined, don’t worry, you are not alone. Many of these category definitions are about as clear and transparent as the tax code. The best that I can tell, these two categories are the closest we have to an official measure of you may be looking for.

A word of caution: Although these salaries look reasonable on paper, it’s worth stating that an “average” is neither a minimum nor a guarantee. It may also be worth remembering that these averages likely don’t factor in the wages of aspiring professionals who may sometimes earn either $0, or too-little-to-report.

Where are the jobs, by region?

The numbers we’ve been looking at so far have been national. Local markets can vary significantly. Within New York for instance, the projected growth is higher than the growth projected nationally. Here, the estimates in the  “sound engineering technician” category are 7% rather, than 1%. In California, the government economists’ best guess is about 5%.

As far as total number of jobs goes by region goes, there have been some big changes: California now beats out New York handily for the number of jobs, at a ratio of almost 2-to-1. This is a significant increase in disparity since we last looked at the reports in 2012, when the two were almost neck-and-neck.

Taken together, employment in these two states makes up nearly 47% of all of the jobs on the books at the BLS. That much has remained about the same since 2012. This suggests that a lot of engineers have moved from New York to California in recent years. This has had some interesting side-effects that we’ll look at more closely in just a minute.

After these states comes Florida, with about 5% of all the salaried audio jobs. That’s down from 15% from when we last looked in 2012. It’s followed by Tennessee and Texas, with roughly 4% of all salaried audio jobs each.

We can get even more granular, than this and look not at states but cities: Atlanta, Boston, DC, Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle all make it into the top 10 for number of jobs—although at a much smaller scale than New York or LA.

Some cities didn’t do as well as they have in the past: Chicago, Illinois and Las Vegas Nevada, all fell out of the top 10 cities for gross number of salaried jobs. Whether this is from a stark decrease in the total jobs, or from a switch to freelancing over salaried positions is not clear from the survey data.

Some very small and unexpected markets have an unusually high concentration of audio jobs compared to the total number of workers. By this metric, Hartford, CT; Salt Lake City, UT;  Madison, WI; Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT;  New Orleans, LA;  and Tucson, AZ; are nipping at the heels of L.A., Nashville, and New York. They may not have as many total audio jobs, but they do have a surprisingly high number of audio jobs per capita.

How much do they pay, by region?

The last time we evaluated these numbers in 2012, sound engineers in LA reported the highest average salaries in the nation. The few engineers who worked in Las Vegas also enjoyed unusually high average salaries. But no more! L.A. dropped from #1 down to #4 on the list, and Las Vegas dropped out of the top 10 completely.

Since our last report, the average salaries for L.A. sound engineers decreased from $83,000 down to $67,000, a loss of 7% in 3 years. Our best guess is that this is due in part to the influx of thousands of new engineers who had left New York in recent years, following the trail of moneycrumbs out west.

Meanwhile, here in New York, the average income for audio engineers actually went up from $66,000 to $73,000, an 11% increase in the same time span. This was enough to keep New York in the #2 slot for average salary, now beating out L.A. in gross numbers.

Again, a reasonable guess is that this is due in part to the same westward migration captured in the state-by-state jobs numbers. A reduction in competition (and perhaps a disproportionate loss of lower-earning engineers to migration) would drive the average salary upward for those who remained. And, although he audio salaries appear to now be 10% higher in New York, it’s also worth mentioning that the cost of living is about 20% lower in L.A., so direct comparisons of income may not always be what they seem.

Average salaries also moved significantly upward for the smaller number of engineers in San Francisco (now #1 at $75,000), Denver (now #3 at $69,000) and Dallas (now #5 at $65,000). This boost perhaps, owes to the generally growing, market-friendly economies in Colorado and Texas, and the growth of the technology sector near San Fransisco.

Although salaries are lower across the largest southern markets like Nashville (#9 at $56,000) and Atlanta (out of the top 10 at $49,000), the costs of living are far lower in these states, so conditions may even be comparable from a quality-of-life standpoint. It wouldn’t be surprising if engineers in the bottom 50% of earners in Southern markets had more room to stretch out in their homes than the top 50% of earners in New York!

How much training do I need?

The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a joint project from the US Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration (USDOL/ETA) offers some estimates about education levels required for audio work:

According to their data, 31% of these jobs required at least a high school diploma, 25% required a post-secondary certificate from a vocational school, and 22% required an associates degree. Presumably, the remaining 22% either required an advanced degree or required no training at all, but that distinction was not made, which would have been useful.

Fortunately—because I am a nerd—I did my own personal research when I ran an audio school in New York throughout 2014. When I took the initiative to survey employers there for my own edification, I found that 64% percent of employers in our field said that an associate’s degree credential offers applicants “an advantage” in hiring and career development, while only 14% considered a degree “a necessity”.

When asked for their preferred minimum education requirements for hiring, 22% of employers expressed no minimum preference at all. 43% asked for at least a post-secondary certificate from a vocational school, while 21% preferred at least an associate’s degree, and just 14% preferred a bachelor’s degree for a minimum credential. None of the employers who responded to my survey expressed any requirement for candidates to have a master’s degree or higher.

In looking at my school and a couple of the more reputable ones across the country, I found that 50-70% of graduates with post-secondary certificates from audio vocational schools were able to find paid employment in the field with in a year. Meanwhile, 70%-80% of graduates with associates degrees were able to find paying work in the field within a year. This closely parallels the survey responses, which suggest that 65% or employers would hire a candidate with at least a vocational diploma or certificate, while 76% would hire an applicant with an associate’s degree.

Choose wisely, because this is not a guarantee. I should mention that I did not look at these numbers at schools that were going out of business or had recently gone out of business. I would be unsurprised if their job placement numbers were significantly lower.

Furthermore, I collected some numbers on what kinds of jobs students who found relevant work soon after graduation were landing. Most recently, it broke down like this:

Live Events (Live Sound, A/V, DJ): 61%
Music Production (Recording Engineer, Freelance/Self Employed, Record Label): 18%
Sound for Multimedia/Sound for Picture (Post-Production, Audio Books, Broadcast): 15%
Other (Pro Audio Sales, Education): 7%

Tellingly, employment in the “live sound” category increased by almost 50% over a 3 year period, while employment in the “music production” category dropped by nearly 50%. Employment rates in “mulitmedia/sound for picture” and “other” stayed fairly constant as a percentage of job placements.

It’s also worth noting that over the same period, there was an increase in both the total number of graduates and the percentage of graduates who quickly found relevant jobs . So again, direct comparisons can only go so far.

There’s a lot of nuance in numbers like these when you dig deep. For instance, if there are more graduates, it can mean that the total number of graduates who can’t find relevant jobs may also increase—even if the portion of graduates who have trouble finding work fall as a percentage of the whole!

As always, no isolated statistic can tell the whole story. We need narratives, logic and sound reasoning to really make sense of the numbers.

What’s next?

One thing I’m certain of is that trying to predict the future too precisely is a fool’s errand. One trend will often continue unabated, until at some point, it can’t, and may even quickly reverse.

It’s also advisable to approach statistics with some principled scrutiny and skepticism. I also like to try and remember that many of these numbers come from the US government. These folks who work there are often well-meaning and well-educated no doubt, but they are also working in the same kind of institution that brings you the Post Office, the DMV, the VA, the FCC, and our tax system— none of which are widely renowned for foresight, infallibility, reliability, “getting how the internet works” or ease-of-use.

What we can say for certain is what is happening now. We can also make some reasonable guesses about what’s likely to continue for some time, barring major shocks. Here are a few things I’m sure of:

1. The world now has more video, and therefore, more recorded sound than ever before. As companies continue to figure out more ways to monetize streaming web video, we can only expect more jobs there.

2. Recorded music, after a decade long beating, is finally on a subtle upward trend again, aided in part by the slow but certain monetization of streaming audio and crackdowns on piracy. These developments have finally made “paying for music” seem like convenient option once again.

3. Live events, both in music and in the corporate sector, are attracting more revenue than ever. In an age of “everything at your fingertips” people seem to be refreshingly willing to pay for experiences. That’s good, because experiences make us happier than things.

4. Video games continue to bring in more dollars than movies and recorded music combined. The number of audio professionals employed here is small at the moment, but more money often attracts more competition. In the long run, that tends to mean more jobs and more creations.

5. As long as there is audio, there will be jobs in audio. Sometimes more and sometimes less. But this much is certain: Short of the collapse of civilization as we know it, audio isn’t going anywhere. It is here to stay for good. (And so am I.)

Justin Colletti is a mastering engineer, educator and writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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