If we’re not careful, a mix can be like a black hole. Learn to maintain perspective during the most challenging mixes.
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If we’re not careful, a mix can be like a black hole. Learn to maintain perspective during the most challenging mixes.
Contributor Michael Duncan share sounds advice from Joe Barresi, Rick Kwan, Heba Kadry, Abe Seiferth, Andrew Maury, James Saéz and Dan Korneff.
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.
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.
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.)
Kyle Joseph makes the case for why audio professionals should encourage—not discourage—new artists who want to make recordings on their laptops.
Ron Skinner of TQM Recording Co. visits a recently renovated Detroit recording studio that was almost lost to time. His goal: To faithfully recreate a seminal recording made there, using today’s technology and tools.
Before closing, the studio played host to countless artists from John Lee Hooker to Jackie Wilson, Bob Seger to MC5, The Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin, Issac Hayes to Parliament-Funkadelic to Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was even used by Berry Gordy to record the very first Motown hits, before he built his own studio nearby.
In 1954, on his 5th birthday, Robert Sprinkle was given a choice by his father, Leland Sprinkle: have a traditional birthday party, or take a tour of one of Virginia’s most famous caves, Luray Caverns. Robert chose the cave tour, and soon the Sprinkle family descended below the surface of the small town of Luray to view its main attraction.
When they arrived at a part of the cave dubbed “The Throne”, their guides indulged in a regular custom: “Playing” the cave’s stalactites like the keys of a marimba. “The guides had a habit of taking out a little rubber rod and tapping out ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’,” Robert now recalls. “They had noticed that these different stalactites, when hit, made a sound, and they had identified several notes.”
After the tour, Leland Sprinkle asked to speak with the cave’s owner, Ted Graves. They had coffee in the cafeteria, and Sprinkle explained that he was an engineer and an organist, and that he could make a musical instrument out of the stalactites of Luray Caverns. He could turn the cave itself into a giant instrument, the only one of its kind.
“[Mr. Graves] should have said ‘Are you kidding?’,” says Robert. “But he didn’t. He said ‘Sure, why not?’” Sprinkle spent the next three years constructing his organ. He combed Luray Caverns for stalactites of different pitches and wired up hammers to strike them when an organ key was pressed, all while finding ways to keep a complex electrical system from going to hell in a forever-damp 54 degree cave.
The “Great Stalacpipe Organ”—as Washington Post music editor Paul Hume dubbed it—debuted in 1957, but Leland Sprinkle would spend the rest of his life continuing to work on it in one form or another. Underneath the town of Luray, he had built his legacy, after navigating so many twists, turns and false starts in the years prior.
Leland Sprinkle’s Shortcut Detail
“My dad came of age during the Depression, and he had a number of opportunities that evaporated,” Robert Sprinkle tells me over the phone. He is now a physician and an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. “He ended up making his way in the world in a fashion that wasn’t entirely what he had in mind.”
Leland Sprinkle was set to begin a PhD program in physics at Harvard when his father was struck with a case of appendicitis. The appendix burst and Sprinkle’s father died, leaving Leland to care for his mother. His Harvard plans curtailed, Sprinkle worked for various arms of the World War II-era U.S. government. He worked in the Treasury Department, the Federal Housing Administration, and later, the Pentagon. He worked on the Norden bombsight and the UNIVAC computer. He taught pre-flight calculus in the Navy. Along the way, he studied organ at the Peabody Conservatory, and earned patents for several inventions.
“Wherever he ended up, he made contributions that typically reduced the number of equations needed to solve a multivariable problem,” Robert Sprinkle says. “He did it again and again and he kept referring to himself as having been assigned to the ‘shortcut detail’.” According to Robert, his father never quite got the credit he deserved for much of his work, but “this was sort of his story, and he was surprisingly not bitter about it.”
Employees of Luray Caverns remember Leland Sprinkle as a unique man. A genius in matters of math, science, and music, he was also a willing teacher, and someone who could seemingly talk comfortably with anyone.
“He was always very kind to me,” says John Shaffer, Luray Caverns’ marketing director, who has been there for forty years. “He was always taking time to show a little kid like me why something worked. It didn’t take him ten seconds to go over my head, but he was always trying to include even the younger people helping him.”
Larry Moyer was a teenager when he started work at Luray Caverns as a tour guide, over three decades ago. Moyer made a model of the organ’s automatic player system for a school project, and when Leland Sprinkle heard about it, he asked to meet the young man, and offered to let him tag along for some of the work in the cave. Today, Moyer is the manager of maintenance operations for Luray—and the chief organ engineer.
“He was a very interesting man, a very good man,” Moyer tells me. “He loved to learn and he loved to see other people learn.”
Moyer, like many people who aided Leland Sprinkle in the creation and maintenance of the organ, had an interest in electronics, but no formal training as an engineer. Not that it mattered. There was no engineering blueprint for The Great Stalacpipe Organ at all; it had to be configured from the (under) ground up. “You can’t just go down to the store and buy a part for a Stalacpipe Organ,” Moyer says.
In The Cave
One day in February 2011, Paul Malmström donned his white dinner jacket, set up a stereo mic on a boom stand in the main “Cathedral” of Luray Caverns, and placed a Nagra tape recorder on a chair in an attempt to capture history.
Malmström is one half of the group Pepe Deluxé. He and partner James Spectrum call themselves an ‘inter-continental collective orchestra’. They had composed, and then spent years trying to get the opportunity to perform, the first piece of original music written specifically for The Great Stalacpipe Organ, titled “In The Cave”.
“Recording an unusual instrument is often a challenge because you need to find out both what and where it sounds good,” Spectrum tells me in an email exchange. “I tracked down most of the existing Stalacpipe recordings and those really helped us to realize that we should avoid repeating notes, especially in the lower register. We also decided that the tempo of the composition should be quite slow as there is plenty of reverb in the caverns – reverb that tends to blur faster notes.”
The organ’s stalactites cover over 3.5 acres of the cave, and each one is wired individually. Playing a note on the organ console sends a signal through a wire to a “solenoid”, a type of electromagnet set to trigger a coiled rubber hammer, which then strikes the stalactite. Pickups are employed to help amplify the stalactite sounds, and with sometimes acres of wire to travel through to get to a stalactite (and then an amplification system to travel back through to get to the performer) some lag or latency in the signal is apparent. “Speed metal heads beware,” Malmström says. “This instrument isn’t something you’ll do lightening fast 16th note runs on for sure. The keys have to be pressed with tender determination.”
The organ’s main console was built by Virginia’s Klann Organ Supply. (They still assist with refurbishing.) Much of the rest of the design and construction is focused around a never-ending battle with the cold and moist conditions of the cave. The organ sits on a heated platform, and additional heaters have been rigged up inside the console. The control room holding the main power source is covered in heat lamps.
“I joke that it’s like the surface of the moon,” John Shaffer says. “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. It’s a hostile environment. It’s damp, and water seeps into every piece of equipment. Even though it’s sealed up with ways to keep the water out, when it’s down there for 365 days a year for decades…”
Robert recalls working with his father at home on a solution for keeping the stalactite pickups safe and dry. “When [my father] began discovering rocks that were too far away [to be heard acoustically] he needed to figure out a way to amplify something that was constantly being dripped on… We had a hot plate and an aluminum pot at home and we took very large chunks of beeswax and melted the beeswax, then dipped these magnetic pickups in the beeswax. It didn’t interfere with the magnetic field at all, but it kept the wiring from getting corroded.”
Sprinkle also had to design a way for the organ to play continuously to throngs of visiting tourists, so he fashioned an apparatus out of a spinning metal drum, covered with an outer layer of plastic. Sprinkle melted holes into the plastic surface so that it functioned much like a player-piano roll: Metal brushes would make contact with the metal drum where the holes were, triggering notes in the same way that pressing a console key would. Being a trained concert organist, Sprinkle of course did the transcriptions and sheet-making himself.
During our interview, Robert Sprinkle confesses that he only learned about a specific part of the organ’s functionality that day as he went through some of his father’s old paperwork in preparation for our talk. “If you look at the organ console, it’s preposterously in excess of need, really, with multiple keyboards (there are 4). I thought this was only for show–to say it was more like an organ. What I read today [is that] he envisioned an antiphonal organ: there would be rocks of a different character in different places… There would be a louder set and a softer set. You’d have parts coming from your right, or parts coming from behind you, so that you’re actually inside the instrument.” Leland Sprinkle was trying to bring us his organ in full Surround Sound, an idea that sadly came and went with the decision to amplify the organ’s stalactites.
Despite all of the ingenuity Leland Sprinkle displayed in Luray Caverns, none of his established patents relate to his work there. As Robert Sprinkle points out, “He never patented anything he invented for the cave. He wanted all of that to be freely available.He really thought what he was doing there was worthwhile and he didn’t want to do it in any proprietary fashion.”
Welcome to Luray
According to John Shaffer, Luray Caverns gets about 500,000 tourists per year. It’s a popular destination among DC insiders (the Obama family has visited twice), vacationing east-coasters, travelers passing through on their way to Shenandoah National Park or George Washington National Forest, and couples, who come to get married in the Cathedral to the sounds of the organ.
(Robert Sprinkle suggested this idea to his own wife before they were married. In a sense, Leland Sprinkle could have posthumously performed at his son’s wedding.)
Tourism is what keeps this town of 5,000 afloat, and Leland Sprinkle’s organ is a big part of that. “The organ has been instrumental–no pun intended–in maintaining our popularity,” says John Shaffer.
“It’s a U.S. Natural landmark now, which is a designation bestowed by the Department of The Interior. The Park service inspects our cavern once a year to make sure we aren’t doing anything to harm the environment, because they want us to maintain this for generations to come.”
The irony of course is that Leland Sprinkle’s tinkering in Luray Caverns—including his sanding of some stalactites to fine-tune them—would almost certainly get him thrown out of any natural landmark location today, if not arrested outright. Robert Sprinkle says his father was amused by the idea that, because of the natural growth of stalactites, the instrument would have to be tuned every thousand years or so. If some version of the U.S. government and its park service exists in a thousand years, that could mean trouble with the Caverns’ landmark status.
I wonder about Robert Sprinkle’s claim that his father’s life wasn’t what he had in mind. With his creativity, and a PhD in physics from Harvard, Leland Sprinkle could have been on the road to becoming another Einstein before his father died. But as a grown man with children of his own, Leland Sprinkle saw something in Luray Caverns that told him it could and should be his true life’s work. I ask Robert what it was about the cave’s potential that consumed Leland, and he takes a minute to sift through his own emotions.
“He thought that he could make an instrument out of an ancient thing—something that had existed for millions of years, that had a mellifluous potential that he could unlock. There was just the notion that there was something in there that he could liberate. To him, it wasn’t a sideshow. To him it was a mission and he didn’t want it to die with him. He wanted it to be maintainable, usable—he wanted other people to be able to use it.”
Robert Sprinkle means his father wanted people to be able to play the organ after he was gone. But it strikes me just how many other ways Leland Sprinkle’s organ is used today: The small town of Luray uses it to boost tourism. Couples get married to it and fathers take their sons to see it on birthdays. Pepe Deluxé used it to make music history.
“Oh man. I’m Googling ‘Stalacpipe Organ’ all the time to show off to friends and strangers alike,” Paul Malmström says. “Most think it’s a film set, while I naturally explain I’ve had a chance to man-handle the 8th wonder of the world.”
Initially, neither John Shaffer nor Larry Moyer intended to stay at Luray Caverns forever, but Leland Sprinkle and his organ helped them build sustainable and fulfilling careers there for the long-term. (Luray also employs a full-time machinist that works specifically on organ parts.) Moyer uses the organ as a teaching device, a way for an older generation to impart specialized knowledge to a younger one, reminiscent of his teenage days and nights in the cave with Leland Sprinkle.
“I got two young guys I’m teaching right now, and I kind of let them work as a team. I teach them in the same method Mr. Sprinkle taught me. I give them little projects to work on, and they go down and work on it, and I leave them alone and give them time to try and figure it out themselves. That’s the way Mr. Sprinkle taught me. He’d let me mess with it for a few hours or days before he came in and helped me solve a problem. I think you learn better that way. It worked for me anyway.”
The Great Stalacpipe Organ may be Leland Sprinkle’s greatest invention because it wasn’t part of his “shortcut detail”. On the contrary: There will always be water to keep out of the electronics, solenoids to clean, coils to rebuild, and consoles to re-key. And there will always be a need for the people and specialized knowledge to maintain it. Leland Sprinkle built an instrument that sustains the lives of those that continue to give it life.
Most paid rehearsal spaces stink, if not literally, then at least figuratively. For several years, my band rehearsed in one: A windowless room slapped together with drywall inside of a warehouse space in a sad and desolate part of town.
We played two nights a week in that rented space, sharing the room with up to three other bands. Our roommates, schedules, and the price of rent changed each time our landlord moved our room, which turned out to be four times in two years. Each member of our three-piece band often paid upwards of $100 a month for our share of the space.
Outside the room, beer bottles overflowed from rubber bins on the loading dock. If we needed to eat something after practice, our options were limited to whatever we could find at the nearest gas station. A metal band always practiced next to us at the same time we played. (ALWAYS.) My energy level dropped each time I drove to that rehearsal space at the edge of the world.
All this was before I saw The American Musical Dream in action.
A few enterprising (and lucky) friends showed me the way: I visited their houses and saw how they had converted a basement, a garage, or even a spare bedroom into a rehearsal space with little or no soundproofing. Why pay for shared space in some sketchy industrial neighborhood, when you could play in comfort in your own home for free?
Last year, I found a new home in a one hundred year-old, two-story house in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. I rented it along with three other roommates, including my friend Ben, a fellow bass-player also intent on realizing the dream of independence from run-down commercial rehearsal spaces. The basement of the house was long, with a concrete floor, and although the ceilings were a bit low, it was certainly big enough to fit a band.
What began as an abstract idea became a six month-long construction project. Musicians became architects and builders. Boys became men, and The American Musical Dream became a reality. All without anyone losing a finger.
“I’ve got 300 defective rubber kickballs from my job,” I told Scientist head honcho Justin Colletti over the phone excitedly, “I can soundproof my basement with these, right?”
“Probably not,” he answered coolly, harpooning my dreams. “The only things that can really help with soundproofing are mass and trapped air,” Justin explained.
It turns out that materials like mattresses, Styrofoam, egg crates and bedsheets don’t help nearly as much as most people think when it comes to keeping sound from getting in or out of a space. And, if you have just one place where sound can escape, you might as well have a thousand. Your only real solution is to either build an airtight interior space (with some form of ventilation) or to make every part of your existing walls thicker.
All this was information I’d end up finding in Justin’s article “Soundproofing the Small Studio”, and it would serve as our bands’ only technical background for the project. (If we failed, I would of course let Justin know that it was his article’s fault for misleading us, and not because we were musicians who had never built anything before in our lives.)
We started out by surveying just how bad the sound leakage was. For a preliminary test by ear, our band’s drummer, Aaron, played a snare drum in the basement while my roommate, Ben, and I walked the perimeter of the house. We were surprised to find that a small crack in the brick foundation made the snare drum sound like it was being played right next to us, even while we walked out five feet from the house. From where we stood, there may as well have not even been a wall at all.
Now we needed to soundproof thoroughly if we were to have any hope of playing regularly in the basement. We eventually settled on what seemed like the only plausible solution we found in Justin’s article: Building a “room within a room”. This interior room would be small, but we could theoretically ensure that all the sound created in it would stay in it, without having to do anything to the structure around it.
In the course of our building, we would learn some practical lessons about soundproofing, and some practical lessons about making a mess in the basement of a house you don’t own while four people try to live there.
Disclaimer: You Need a Mike Wong
At this point it’s fair to tell you that in order to build your home rehearsal space, you need a Mike Wong.
Mike Wong is a friend of ours, and a jack-of-all-trades. He’s a great chef, a world traveler, and a man who likes to get involved in projects like this one. Mike joined our construction crew for no money, simply because he liked the challenge it presented.
Ben and I knew what drywall was from our time in those industrialized rehearsal spaces. We also knew what studs were: You look for them in the wall when you want to hang pictures up. We were armed with Justin’s article, but that was about it. Otherwise, we were dumb as a bag of hammers when it came to building. Mike did have a background in construction but no knowledge of soundproofing. It was a match made in heaven.
Mike taught Ben and me how to measure, how to cut and screw in drywall properly, how to use a Japanese saw, how to insulate, how to mud, and what tools and materials we needed to do it all.
So, while this is technically a home construction project, unless you know a Mike Wong or are one, I wouldn’t recommend you try it at home.
The Construction Process
We designed our room-within-a-room in an “L” shape, about 15 feet long, 8 feet wide at the back, and 6 feet wide toward the front. This indent on the right side was necessary to conform to building code: Mike Wong informed us that we would need 3 feet of space between any other wall and our fuse box. Without that space, our room would be a fire hazard. We also had to drop a portion of the ceiling about 8 inches on the left side of the room to allow for the heating vent overhead.
After determining our design, we began constructing the wooden frame for our new interior walls: 2” x 6” planks for our bottom and top edges, with offset 2” x 4” vertical studs every 12 inches.
Once our frame was in place, we added a single layer of 5/8-inch drywall on one side of the frame. Of course, we got overzealous and did one drywall layer on a single wall before our full frame was even done…
We soon got back on track and finished the full frame.
Once we got our first full single layer of drywall up, we began stapling insulation to it in between each of our vertical studs. This would provide further dampening between our drywall layers.
You can spend some bigger dollars on an insulation made specifically for soundproofing, but we found a standard brown insulation for about $16 a roll that worked fine. Note: Don’t plan on going anywhere, doing anything, or talking to anyone after you’ve been handling insulation for an hour. It’s best to get directly in the shower, perhaps setting your clothes on fire first.
After adding our insulation, we added two more layers of drywall on the inside, making for a total of three layers: Two layers on the inside, then studs and insulation, then one more layer on the other side. We might have added a fourth layer by doubling our outside wall, but we were concerned about our budget.
With our walls done, we turned our attention to the ceiling, first putting up extra nailers in between our studs so that our drywall layers would have more support to screw into.
At 6’2, Ben already had to duck a little bit just to stay under our wood ceiling studs. If we tried to construct our ceiling like our walls, we probably would have lost another foot and no one would be able to stand in the room. In the end, we went with two layers of drywall and a layer of ceiling tiles directly underneath that.
We cut and hung a solid core door for an entrance. Concerned about leakage compromising the effectiveness of the whole room, we insulated the outside of the door frame with spray foam. We also added weather stripping and a “sweep” to the inside frame to help make the seal airtight, and even added extra ceiling tiles to the inside surface of the door, because why not?
Finally, we added two layers of “mud” to our drywall to fill in any cracks, and to cover stray holes left by our drywall screws. We also added two coats of blue paint, and some vinyl covering for the floor.
After adding a few layers of carpet on top, our “room within a room” was finished.
What We Did Wrong
Our rehearsal space took about 6 months and somewhere between $1000 and $1200 to complete. During a post-mortem evaluation over beers, Mike Wong, Ben, and I came to the conclusion that our biggest problem was not following the cardinal rule of construction from the beginning: Always overestimate the time, materials and budget needed for a project.
In an ideal world, we would have been honest about our budget up front, ordered all of our materials ahead of time and had them delivered all at once. Then, we might have taken a week off of work to knock the whole project out quickly in one go.
But in practice, we took shortcuts, and we ended up paying for all of them. Underestimating our material needs led us to take too many separate trips to Home Depot and Lowe’s, bleeding away our work time and our budget little by little. We probably spent $100 more than we needed to on van rentals alone to accommodate these extra trips.
Because our crew was small and variable (my bandmates helped out when they could) and because we could usually only work on weekends, and a handful of hours at a time at that, our project dragged on for far too long. This dampened our morale rather than sound. It also pissed off our non-musician roommates, who just wanted to be able to do their laundry without stepping in between piles of wood, drywall, and construction debris.
Mike Wong points to how much easier and quicker our work would have been if we could have just drilled into the foundation for extra support and as a way to compensate for the uneven floor. Being renters, though, we agree it’s a moot point, which brings us to our most controversial move.
We were already well into our construction of the room before we seriously debated the issue of when and if to tell the landlord, ultimately deciding to show her a finished product along with smiling faces and apologies. We still don’t know if this was the “right” thing to do, but we don’t know if we would have been allowed to create this space otherwise.
Our landlord knew we were musicians, and knew we planned to play music of some kind in the house, but it seems doubtful that any landlord would consent to having a separate full-blown room built in their basement by amateurs. If she had said no from the outset, we would have been dead in the water.
On the other hand, while she was initially upset by our clandestine construction, once we explained that a) the room was completely free-standing, b) we made no alterations to the foundation of the house, c) we built it with our neighbors in mind, d) we built it because we planned to stay in the house for a few years, which was something she said she wanted in her tenants, and that e) we would pay an extra security deposit and sign an addendum to the lease promising to tear down the room and clean the basement before moving out, she was at least amenable to the situation, if not thrilled by it.
We also researched our Washington renter’s law a bit, to see where we stood. It turns out that where we live, if our landlord was completely offended by the idea of our readymade room, the worst she could do was make us tear it down before the end of our lease, which is what we had planned on doing anyway.
It’s also important to note here that we like our landlord and were not looking for a legal fight. We had several discussions with her before moving in about how the house would make a great artist’s space, and we framed our room as just that when we presented it to her, gambling on the idea that she would be understanding.
If you are renting a home from someone else, and want to build a room-within-a-room there, it’s really a judgment call as to how to broach the subject with your landlord. The laws may also be different in your area. Ben believes we did it the best way, if not the ‘right’ way: “Better to build it first and ask forgiveness later, than to ask first and never get off the ground.” I rationalize it to myself by thinking it’s just like if we built a doghouse in the backyard. A really really big doghouse.
What We Did Right
With minimal experience and planning, an inconsistent work schedule, and a small and ever-revolving crew, we still managed to create a fully functioning, structurally sound rehearsal space. Despite our surreptitious building, we came to an agreement with our landlord, and both the future of our room and our tenancy seem secure.
After we finally finished the room, we put Aaron in with his full drum kit and told him to let rip as we walked around the perimeter again: The moment of truth. Whereas once his single snare drum was too loud outside, now his whole kit sounded like someone listening to a radio in a bathroom. Two feet from the house, you could still sense a little of the muffled force, but five feet away, it was barely audible. Ten to fifteen feet away, where the walls of our nearest neighbors’ houses stood, we doubted you could hear anything at all.
Our sense of accomplishment was palpable, if not audible. The only thing left was to start using the damn thing.
Enjoy the Silence
Our 3-piece band now rehearses regularly in the new space. We stay within acceptable hours of city ordinances to keep from tempting fate, but our schedule is wide open, allowing us to have lazy Saturday afternoon writing get-togethers, and even recording sessions.
At a total personal cost of about $600 for materials and transportation, the money I put into the room will be recouped in about 6 months from the savings I’ll have from not paying someone else to play in their space.
Our rehearsal space is everything we hoped it would be and one thing we didn’t even consider: It’s a place that keeps outside noise from getting in as much as it prevents inside noise from getting out.
I didn’t anticipate just how quiet and calming the room would be. The distractions of the world simply can’t get to me in a space that small and isolated. Going in and closing the door is my trigger, telling me it’s time to stop stalling and practice. As a result, I’ve recently done some of my best, most-focused practicing, and enjoyed it more, too.
And I can practice in my pajamas.
And I built something. Not something out of an IKEA catalog, but a real thing I built with my own hands, sweat, and blood. (Yes, we did bleed, although fortunately, there were not many tears).
We didn’t just build a room. We built musical freedom.
I am The American Musical Dream: Horatio Alger with a hammer and some nails and a Rickenbacker bass. You could be, too.
“Good habits are worth being fanatical about.”
Research shows that developing a skill is nothing like cramming for an exam. Creative ability, like physical strength, is something that develops slowly, almost unconsciously over time, given the right stimulus.
Because of this, the most fundamental determinant of how great your musicianship will become lies in consistent, focused practice. Evidence suggests that this is a more important ingredient than innate ability, specific practice tactics, or perhaps anything else.
This is true whether your goal in music is expressiveness or virtuosity, great song-craft or irresistible groove. It is true whether you play a traditional instrument like guitar, piano or drums, or if you work with machines like samplers, mixers or DAWs. And it holds not only for music, but for almost every creative pursuit. Ultimately, it’s neither what nor whom you “know” that makes you great at what you do. It’s how often you do it.
Of course, even armed with “knowledge” of how important practice is, few aspiring musicians and other creatives do it nearly as much as they’d like. For most of us, the obstacle lies not in the ability to practice well, but in actually doing it consistently enough to really improve.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Learning to practice consistently doesn’t have to be half as hard as we make it on ourselves.
For many of us, unless we find ourselves beneath the crush of an imminent deadline, actually getting started can feel like a willful decision that requires sacrifice and mind games. Under these conditions, it’s easier just to put off those things we say are among the most important to us.
For the truly accomplished or prolific, though, things are a little different. Practice becomes- by necessity- a habit, one that is only slightly less automatic than the brushing of teeth and about as fraught with doubt.
As the saying goes, most of the time, “getting started is the hardest part”.
So, in order for practice to become sustainable and enjoyable, that part—the getting started—must be made increasingly automatic. If getting started is to become effortless, it must not be a decision of will at all. It must instead become part of a routine.
I know, I know: The idea of creating routines of habit can seem pretty toxic to young free-wheeling music-y types — “Hey maaaaan, habits are for the maaaaaan, maaaaaan.”
But whether we like it or not, it turns out that we human beings are creatures of habit, and that we only really have two choices when it comes to routine: We can either try to pick good ones, or we can neglect to, and wind up with an inadvertent routine filled with dozens of lousy habits that we never consciously chose.
“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”
William James- a writer, philosopher and physician considered to be one of the fathers of modern psychology- wrote back in 1890 that if only the young could “realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.”
In his brief 1890 work, Habit, James laid out observations on forming new and lasting behaviors that have held up better to the scrutiny of modern science than almost anything out of Jung or Freud:
“Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way;” He wrote. “Make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.”
Since the time of William James, there has been tremendous scientific study into habit formation. We now know more than we ever have about why some succeed and why some fail at everything from losing weight to learning an instrument. And it turns out James was mostly right. But we’ve also come to discover that people remain more plastic throughout their lives than James once thought.
It may well be more difficult to teach an old human new tricks, but it’s far from impossible. Given reasonable musical exposure at a younger age, there is ample evidence of people who have made dramatic improvements as musicians or artists—even late in life—when they have finally adopted a more uncompromising practice routine.
Find Your Reasons and Create a Plan.
If you want to practice more, admit it to yourself, and write your new goal down.
Human beings strive to be internally consistent—we want our deeds to match our words. This is something that we can use to our advantage. Unsurprisingly, studies show that when people write down their plans and goals, they become far more likely to follow through on them.
This does not even have to be a particularly ornate or effortful exercise either. Just open up an email draft or text document, grab a Post-It note or a piece of paper. It doesn’t even have to be permanent. Experiments have shown that simply writing down an opinion, belief or goal on an Etch A Sketch or dry-erase board has a marked effect on increasing follow-through.
Writing down your goal works. So do it. We’ll still be here when you get back.
Success Begets Success.
A common mistake in starting a new habit is to go all-in with excessive effort, wearing yourself out before you even get off the ground.
Gym regulars are used to seeing this kind of thing around January 1st each year: A whole slew of newcomers will crowd the facilities, punishing themselves with an unsustainable level of effort for a week or two, never to return.
This is one regard in which musicians and artists are no different from the gym rats. If you decide to go straight to practicing 2 hours a day, 7 days a week, out of guilt over your negligent practice habits, you are almost certain to fail.
When consistency is the problem, it is far better to commit to practicing for just 5 minutes a day and succeed at it, and then slowly add to the habit.
To make a habit like practice stick, he says, you must make it small enough for it to be unfailingly consistent from the very beginning. Floss just one tooth, he suggests, do just two pushups, walk for three minutes, drink just one glass of water each day, write a single paragraph, or perhaps, practice just one measure of music for 5 or 10 minutes.
The goal at this point is not volume. The goal is to make the habit automatic. So start by setting yourself up to succeed by giving yourself goals that are easy to meet.
Many professionals will also give themselves a day off from the habit. If 7 days a week proves too difficult, it is far better to schedule in one day off a week than to try and commit to a schedule that you cannot maintain.
Remember: If your initial goal is to practice 4 hours a day, you have a very good chance of practicing zero. But, if the goal is to practice for 10 minutes a day, you have a very good chance of practicing more.
In the beginning, you’d even be wise to cut yourself off before you feel done. If you force yourself to stop practicing after 30 minutes or 1 hour, when you still have some juice left, you are more likely to be motivated and raring to go for your next session.
First build consistency. It is the most fundamental and necessary component. Once you’ve done that, you can build in volume, intensity and depth as you progress. If you approach it the other way around, you will not get far.
Know Your Cues.
Have you ever found yourself waking up in the morning and checking your email before even getting out of bed?
Have you ever spent the better part of a weekend afternoon on Facebook? Have you found yourself venting on internet comments sections, or having an extra soda or beer when you know you don’t need one? How about biting your nails, watching too much TV, craving a cigarette after a meal, or eating ice cream when you know you “shouldn’t” be?
If you have ever caught yourself doing one of these things when it’s not what you consciously want to be doing, then you are most likely playing out a routine that has been etched deep into your brain through the power of repetition.
Evidence suggests that these kinds of automatic habits are almost impossible to “erase” completely. Fortunately, they can be replaced by better ones. We can effectively take the same powerful forces that make these kinds of habits take hold, and turn them to our advantage.
The key to replacing habits—or just adding new ones—is to start identifying your triggers and rewards for these habits.
All habits, good and bad, have their triggers. Finding the trigger for an existing habit is fairly easy. For example:
“After I turn off my alarm I check my email.” Or “After I get out of bed I boil water for coffee.” Or “After I read an article that annoys me I spend too long in the comments section.” Or “At 3pm I go to the deli and get a soda.” Or “After I finish work, I change clothes and go for a run.”
To make a new habit stick, you must figure out what your trigger will be. You must decide when, in your existing routine, it will fall.
For practicing music, this might be after you wake up. It might be after you’ve made morning tea or taken an afternoon walk. It could be after lunch, after dinner, after brushing your teeth or reading the news or watching your favorite TV show.
Whatever you choose, for the practice habit to have any chance of taking hold, it is essential to decide where it will fit into your routine. You must identify a trigger, commit to it, and use it.
You can also use this same tactic to replace a bad habit: Keep the same trigger, replace the behavior that comes afterwards. As the new habit becomes more ingrained, and as the neural pathways associated with old one slowly fade, the good habit becomes even more automatic than the old. After a point, willpower is removed from the equation and the new habit simply takes over.
Reinforce your new habit.
In addition to a trigger, each habit has a reward: “When I check Facebook I feel less bored.” “After I eat ice cream I feel satisfied.” “When I read internet comments sections I get to feel smugly superior to people I think are dumb.”
To break a bad habit, you not only have to know what the trigger is, but also what the reward is that goes with it. Then, you simply keep the trigger and the reward, and replace the behavior in between. The same goes for adding in a new habit like practice.
How will you reward yourself? You get to choose. These rewards can be surprisingly small and still be effective. Charles Darwin apparently, after a day of writing, would say aloud to himself in a satisfied voice “I’ve done a good day’s work.” Seems to have worked for him. (Pick up a copy of Origin Of Species some day and feel the weight of that one.)
Remember: Every habit needs reinforcement in order to stick. Every day that you practice, offer yourself some small reward. For a week’s worth, you can offer yourself a larger reward like a night out to see an especially good concert, a new musical toy, or a nice bottle of bourbon to savor. In your mind, link this reward directly to having done the practice.
Have your friends and family hold you accountable.
Once you’ve gotten going, it can be very helpful to make your practice plan known to others.
This doesn’t necessarily mean blabbing about it at every cocktail party or writing about it on the interwebs. But it does mean telling at least one other person, who might be disappointed if you back out, and proud of you if you succeed. This can be a teacher, a friend, your bandmates, a significant other, or a community of peers.
Studies show that this tactic can dramatically increase follow-through. For some people, this kind of social accountability is an even greater motivator than writing the goal down. Put the two together, and you’ve really got something.
“Don’t Break The Chain”
In order to keep up your new practice habit, you must continue to reinforce it. Track your progress in a journal or on a calendar.
In 2007 Brad Isaac wrote about a piece of advice given to him by prolific comedian Jerry Seinfeld:
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
So track yourself.
“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
If you are able to cement a routine of consistent practice in music or any other craft, there is no question that you will improve.
It’s true that you may get even better and faster if you develop great strategies and tactics for deliberate practice. But no amount of fine-tuning matters unless you are devoting sufficient and consistent time to making better and better art.
It’s also fair to say that if you happen to be in an uncompetitive field, true mastery might not even be necessary to make a living. And if you’re in an especially competitive field, mastery of a single skill alone may not be sufficient for making a living.
Still, even if you never arrive where you planned, nothing is better than knowing that you’re heading in the right direction. The path to greatness may go in any number of directions. But no matter what, that path is turning thought into practice.
This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.
It’s early 1975, and Brian Eno strains to hear the recording of 18th century harp music a friend has given him.
Eno is in recovery after being hit by a car and can barely get out of bed. After putting the record on with great difficulty and lying back down, he notices the volume is too low, and that one channel on his stereo is blown.
The sheer pain of moving forces him to listen to the record at a volume that barely eclipses the background sound of the room around it.
“This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music — as part of the ambience of the environment, just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.”
Later that year, a healthy Eno would release Discreet Music. The title track, a full album-side long, is a series of slow-moving, delayed drones that wash into each other. It’s like spending an afternoon watching a harbor full of tugboats from a cloud above. Eno suggests that the listener play it at low volumes, even “to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility”.
In 1978, Eno would give his experiments in sound both a name and a purpose. In response to a particularly unnerving trip through an airport, he devised Ambient 1: Music For Airports, a collection of four languid instrumentals meant to induce calm in the weary and uptight air traveler.
Eno, who felt that the Muzak played at airports grated rather than soothed, wrote in the album’s liner notes that “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
Talking Loud and Saying Nothing
“It used to be said that a lot of English rock ‘n’ roll bands went to art school. We went to Brian.”
-U2’s Bono on Brian Eno
Music for Airports is 36 years old this March. It, and years of subsequent ambient releases have established Brian Eno as godfather to the genre. He has even made the claim that he “invented ambient music.”
This statement has irked academics, who rightfully assert that droning music devoid of any defined melody, rhythm or structure existed long before Eno came on the scene.
It’s unclear whether Eno actually believes this statement, or if he intends to express what is true: That he shone a spotlight on this music, spoke about it in more intellectual terms than anyone before or since, and brought it into the cultural consciousness. He may not have invented ambient music, but he is perhaps its greatest marketer.
Eno’s power had long come from provocation. In the early 70s, he was a gender-bending champion of glam rock, a mixture of outsized libido and pretension. In a now infamous 1974 interview with Chrissie Hynde for NME, Eno waxes poetic on the high art of pornography, casually gives Hynde a glance at his shaved pubic region, then ends the interview abruptly around 1:00am when a redhead covered in parakeet feathers informs him that a guest known only as “The Carpenter” has arrived. The Brian Eno of 1974 played up the “eccentric” rock star angle. By 1978, he was rebelling against the very idea of the rock star.
In ambient music, as defined by Eno, the composer, performer, and even the audience become irrelevant to an extent. Song structures, hooks, and chord changes are similarly useless, indicative of how a human being would try to create music, and therefore too predicable. A piece of ambient music could—and should, he thought—loop itself in perpetuity. A listener could choose to pay attention or not. It was a brilliant bait and switch: Eno let us know that the artist wasn’t important, as long as we remembered that it was Brian Eno, the artist, making the remark.
It isn’t much of a stretch to accuse Eno of artistic grandstanding. By his own admission, he is a man who values the concept behind a piece of art as much, or more, as its execution. But even this itself is a form of posturing. In Ambient 1: Music for Airports Eno, who had made efforts to paint himself as something of a charlatan, reveals himself as a skilled technician, and has crafted music that’s melodically appealing and memorable in a way that pure randomness could never achieve.
The Music-Making Machines
If you go in search of sheet music for either Discreet Music or Music for Airports, you won’t find any. Instead you will find a series of diagrams that look more like the hieroglyphs of an alien language. These diagrams represent the systems used to make the music, which Eno found far more important than any individual notes.
Eno drew much of the inspiration for this from composers of experimental and “generative” music like John Cage, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.
Riley’s 1964 composition In C, for instance, consists of 53 melodic patterns played in order by a variable number of musicians. There is basic notation, but the musicians are allowed to rest in between phrases or repeat them as they see fit, as long as they don’t rush too far in front of or fall too far behind the general pace of the ensemble.
Similarly, Eno gave the musicians on Music for Airports instructions such as ‘play the note C every 21 seconds’. The result of systems like these is music that is never played the same way twice, but which never strays very far from its core ideas, a sort of ‘controlled randomness’.
Unlike Riley, Eno introduced new technology into the equation, increasing both the controlled elements (with selective tape editing) and the random ones (with pre-set tape delays that moved independently of the musicians’ patterns).
“I had four musicians in the studio, and we were doing some improvising exercises that I’d suggested. I couldn’t hear the musicians very well at the time, and I’m sure they couldn’t hear each other, but listening back, later, I found this very short section of tape where two pianos, unbeknownst to each other, played melodic lines that interlocked in an interesting way.
“To make a piece of music out of it, I cut that part out, made a stereo loop on the 24-track, then I discovered I liked it best at half speed, so the instruments sounded very soft, and the whole movement was very slow. I didn’t want the bass and guitar – they weren’t necessary for the piece—but there was a bit of Fred Frith’s guitar breaking through the acoustic piano mic, a kind of scrape I couldn’t get rid of. Usually I like Fred’s scrapes a lot, but this wasn’t in keeping, so I had to find a way of dealing with that scrape, and I had the idea of putting in variable orchestration each time the loop repeated. You only hear Fred’s scrape the first time the loop goes around.”
This may seem like a lot of work for music that people are supposed to “ignore”. But throughout his career Eno has let discipline and chance duel in this way. In 1975, Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created Oblique Strategies, a series of flash cards with aphorisms printed on them, designed to break musicians out of creative blocks. Examples include “State the problem in words as clearly as possible.” And “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” It’s a sentiment that comes into play throughout Music for Airports.
Speaking about the construction of the dense choral pieces on the album, Eno explains:
“One of the notes repeats every 23 seconds. It is, in fact, a long loop running around a series of tubular aluminum chairs in [engineer] Conny Plank’s studio. The next lowest loop repeats every 25 seconds or something like that. The third one every 29 seconds or something. What I mean is they all repeat in cycles that are called incommensurable — they are not likely to come back into sync again. Your experience of the piece, of course, is a moment in time, there. So as the piece progresses, what you hear are the various clusterings and configurations of these six basic elements. The basic elements in that particular piece never change. They stay the same. But the piece does appear to have quite a lot of variety.”
Despite Eno’s tinkering in ways both conscious and not, Music for Airports sounds more organic than worked over. It lives up to its promise as soothing and engaging music that you shouldn’t pay any attention to. It’s good for studying, general relaxation, and, in my personal experience, as a soundtrack for sleep. There is of course, one place you’re unlikely to hear it.
Why Isn’t Music for Airports Played in More Airports?
Music for Airports’ “1/1” (as in “First track/first side”) begins with the gentle loops of Robert Wyatt’s piano, later joined by Eno’s long synth pulses. It’s the sound of early morning light, cut in sharp angles by wings and tails of planes, seeping through large windows to awaken a traveler asleep in a chair, on a long layover after a red-eye.
“2/1” and “1/2” introduce those clusters of choral swells—the kind that later made Enya famous—and call to mind the duality of air travel: the hope and fear, the hellos and goodbyes, the lives ending and beginning again. In “2/2” Eno’s synths float by themselves with as much air beneath them as a 747 at 30,000 feet.
The album is the perfect match of concept and execution. Or not.
“It sounds like funeral music,” at least one terminal worker remarked during a brief period in 1980 when Music for Airports was installed in LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Air Terminal.
This was one of only a handful of instances in which Music for Airports has played in an actual airport. (Airports in Minneapolis and Buffalo also briefly had the music installed).
While Music for Aiports seems to soothe in every other scenario, it sits differently when rushing to make a connection, or saying farewell to a loved one. In this context, the vocal-heavy pieces do have a certain sadness and heavy air to them (the funeral tone the worker heard).
Perhaps the album is just mislabeled. It’s not so much music for airports as it is the music of them—a soundtrack to the tangled web of emotions and anxieties one feels when traveling great distances in huge metal machines that always have some small chance of arriving at a Final Destination other than the one we hoped for.
In an interview with Jim Fleming, Eno’s biographer, David Sheppard mentions a time that Eno became the victim of his own creation:
“Brian did tell me a very funny story of a later installation in the airport at Sao Paulo in Brazil. He had a piece in an exhibition there and he went to go to the opening of this exhibition. When he arrived at the airport, in his honor they were playing ‘Music for Airports’ but as he recalls, they were playing it at an excruciating volume, which was kinda anti-physical to the idea. He said it sounded like really bad heavy metal. So it obviously didn’t always work.”
Interesting, just not ignorable.
Coming full circle, Eno has recently created works for Montefiore Hospital in Hove, England. It’s music expressly for the relaxation and recovery of patients, the kind Eno dreamed up in his own debilitated state all those years ago.
Health officials confirm that Montefiore Hospital will be the only place to hear these pieces, making this music that most of us would want to be in a position to ignore altogether.
“Of course I’m ambitious. What’s wrong with that? Otherwise you sleep all day.”
50 years ago this week, The Beatles touched down in New York City for the first time. It is a cliché, but a truthful one, to say that the pop music world has never been the same since.
By any reasonable account, The Beatles stand among the most successful bands in history, both creatively and commercially. Their story is testament to the idea that art and business are not necessarily incompatible. At their best, the two can even feed and inform one another.
According to the Daily Mail, the Beatles machine was earning an astonishing $56 million in revenue in 1963, only a year before the band arrived in America. By the end of 1964, estimates are that this figure had doubled.
Before they even managed to exit Kennedy airport in New York, reporters asked the group how they had already achieved such heights of success. “We don’t know, really,” said a young Paul McCartney. John Lennon chimed in: “If we knew, we’d form another group and be managers.”
With that in mind, we present a few of the music business lessons that The Beatles left behind.
“Help!” The Power of Incentives
One of the most fundamental facts about The Beatles’ success is that they had a lot of help.
From their manager to their producer, from their label to their PR people, specialists outside the band were deeply and personally invested in the band’s success. If The Beatles did well, they would do well too, and vice versa.
Though we’ve come to decry “middlemen” and “gatekeepers” in our industry over the past decade or so—sometimes for good reason and sometimes not—it is undeniable that The Beatles owe so much of the magnitude of their success to these very stripes of people.
Although the band gave away a lot of revenue to their businesses partners (perhaps too much at times), they also made a lot more money, could finance far more experimentation, and reached a far wider audience than they might have otherwise.
Their experience makes clear that artists can potentially benefit more than they lose by having good help—even if that help is, like all things, far from perfect.
When the band members signed with manager Brian Epstein at the beginning of 1962, they gave a powerful partner a good set of reasons to invest himself in them. John Blaney, author of The Beatles for Sale: How Everything They Touched Turned to Gold writes:
“It was in Epstein’s best interests, of course, to get as much money as he could for the group. His rate of commission increased in relation to how much money the group was making, so the more they earned, the more he earned.”
In late 1962, the band updated their contract with Epstein, increasing his commission rate so that he was entitled to 15% of The Beatles’ earnings on up to £100 per week (nearly $2,200 per week today), 20% of earnings from £100- £200, and 25% for anything above £200 (almost $5,000 per week today.)
For Epstein, this was a step up from an earlier contract that had allotted him a modest 10%, with a far higher threshold to cross in order to earn just 15%. Even with the new elevated rate, and after investing his own money into the band, Epstein would later admit that the group made so little for the ensuing 4 months that he collected no commission at all. But he did have the motivation to pull out all the stops and crusade for a band he believed in.
There was nothing particularly “standard” about either one of these contracts. One gave less than what we might consider normal today, and one gave more. Either way, the group faced a tough decision: Do you continue taking almost all of next-to-nothing, with no solid plan of your own to make it grow? Or do you give away a larger share of your potential earnings in order to have capable people invest more of themselves into what you’re doing, thereby earning more than you otherwise might?
It’s a choice that creatives and entrepreneurs are still confronted with today. It’s easy to keep everything for yourself when the stakes are low and no one is invested in what you’re doing. But ultimately, the more you’d like to get, the more you may need to give, one way or another.
McCartney would later sing that “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Perhaps a similar kind of thing applies to money, of which in 1963, John Lennon was singing: “That’s what I want.”
The Beatles also understood the power of incentives in their own lives. McCartney has been quoted as saying: “Somebody said to me ‘But the Beatles were anti-materialistic’. That’s a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, ‘Now, let’s write a swimming pool’.”
Of course, nobody makes great art for money alone. But it can be a great motivator for actually getting things done, and for making music that other people actually want to hear.
You Will Make Good Deals and Bad Deals (And there will always be room to make them better)
Paul McCartney has said of their manager that “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.”
Whenever Epstein made smart moves, the band reaped incredible rewards. When he signed them on to play The Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964, he cut an unorthodox deal that would pay dividends for years to come.
Rather than get the band a higher rate for a single performance, Epstein, knowing that repeat exposure and marquee credibility help win long-term fans, negotiated a lower rate while securing the band top billing, as well as three nights on the show instead of just one.
For this standout series of headline performances, the group earned $10,000, or about $75,000 in today’s dollars. While still a fair amount in its own right, it was the rest of the deal that made these TV appearances so monumental.
The promotional value, implied credibility, and repeat exposure that came from headlining three consecutive Sundays on one of the nation’s biggest television shows helped rocket the band to the top of the US charts rapidly—and establish them as a shared cultural touchstone, rather than as a flash in the pan.
But as instrumental as Epstein was in making The Beatles the band they would become, he was far from infallible.
In late 1963, overwhelmed by constant requests from companies that wanted to manufacture and sell Beatles swag such as sweaters, shirts, buttons, belts and drums, Epstein signed a contract allowing a spinoff company called Seltaeb to handle all of The Beatles merchandising agreements. (Read that name in reverse.)
At the time, few people had any sense of just how significant merch sales would become for pop musicians. Accordingly, Epstein agreed to take only 10% of Seltaeb’s merch licensing fees to share between the band and himself. Meanwhile, the operators of Seltaeb, in an effort to encourage as much volume as possible, demanded only a 10% licensing fee for manufacturing and selling Beatles merch to begin with.
This means that despite the millions of dollars in Beatles merchandise flying off the shelves, the band and their manager only retained a paltry 1% of those revenues.
Within a year, Epstein renegotiated the contract with Seltaeb so that he and the band split nearly 50% of Seltaeb’s revenues. But by then the damage was done: The Beatles and Epstein lost up to $100,000,000 in estimated potential revenue.
One company, The Reliant Shirt Corporation, sold over a million Beatles t-shirts in just three days. 10% of the $100,000 licensing fee they paid would have earned the band less than $10,000 to split four ways.
To make matters more comical, this income would have then been subjected to the 95% supertax that The Beatles were expected to pay in their native England. (Quite literally, “one for you, nineteen for me.”)
The band would make many of their own business blunders as well. When they started Apple Corps—essentially in order to dodge their enormous tax bill by reinvesting their earnings into questionable new businesses they knew nothing about—they hired bad help, neglected to write out contracts, and generally hemorrhaged money for years to come.
But success in business, as in art, isn’t about getting everything right. It’s only about getting more right than you get wrong.
Respect Yourself and Your Rights
Perhaps it was their experience with Seltaeb that caused The Beatles and their managers to take increasingly tight control of their copyrights going forward.
Once they paid their dues, and their catalog and stature had been developed, saying “no” more often than “yes” helped preserve the value of The Beatle’s music, its economic power, and its cultural importance.
Even to this day, The Beatles catalog remains one of the most valuable in all of popular music, due in great part to how much it has been protected from overexposure in the media.
This reluctance to license their music everywhere eventually led to a payout of a whopping $250,000 for the brief use of the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a 2012 episode of Mad Men.
It wasn’t the first time the show’s producers had asked to use a Beatles song. This license approval followed a long string of rejections. By setting the price tag high, it was possible to ensure that the band’s work would be used only when it made sense artistically, and not just commercially for some third party.
This stands among a small handful of original Beatles recordings ever used in film and television. Other instances included brief appearances in seminal and influential 1960s TV shows Dr. Who, The Prisoner and The Monkees, as well as over the opening credits for The World According to Garp, and the closing credits of the 2010 film The Social Network.
Their collection of #1 singles, released in 2000, went 12x Platinum, becoming the best-selling album of the 21st century, in an era when recorded music revenues dropped by a whopping 60%. They made millions on video game sales with Rock Band in 2009. Sony paid almost $100 million to gain temporary control of 50% of their publishing rights in 2005. And whenever an online store or music service is able to negotiate access to their catalog, it is seen as a major coup, and a legitimizing force for their brand.
Go Where The Market Tells You
One of my favorite John Lennon quotes has long been, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” This is not only a favorite because it’s true, but because it implies that even for John Lennon, becoming John Lennon was Plan B.
No matter what we end up doing in life, it’s unlikely to be exactly what we had anticipated. It’s a wise artist who keeps an ear open for what the times want from us, and who recognizes that there is only so much of our own will that we can impose on the world.
For The Beatles at the beginning of their career, this meant going wherever the paying gigs were, and performing constantly, often from midday until morning.
In 1960, that meant leaving Liverpool for Hamburg, Germany, where they found a more happening and less saturated market for bands of their kind.
In 1961 it meant returning to Liverpool, where they now benefited from exotic billing as “The Beatles: Direct from Hamburg”, helping them stand out from the crowd.
In 1962, it meant returning to Hamburg to earn more money in half the time it took two years prior. On this trip, they earned about 2000DM per show, or just over $4,000 in today’s dollars.
In 1963, it meant playing regularly on BBC radio programs for an average of about £55 per show or just over $1,000 in today’s dollars. That year, they earned about £42,000 from live performances, or just shy of $1 million in today’s dollars.
After 1965, it meant leaving behind touring for good, as the audio technology of the time just couldn’t keep up with the demand for reasonably-priced, ever-larger concerts by one of the world’s favorite bands. At that point, the studio just made more sense for everybody.
“And In the End…”
Paul McCartney has looked back on the moment that manager Brian Epstein died of a sleeping pill overdose in 1967 as the beginning of the end. To him, the breakup of The Beatles three years later had a lot more to do with that than with scapegoats like Yoko Ono, or anything else.
Relations in the band slowly but surely devolved into drug-fueled finger pointing, petty squabbling and creative tension, but the legacy they left behind in less than 10 years has stood as a monument for more than 50.
In their early days, a reporter asked the band if their time in the spotlight was all just a fad. “Obviously,” said Lennon. “Anything in this business is a fad. We don’t think we’re going to last forever. We’re just going to have a good time while it lasts.”
At another press conference, a reporter asked if the band would sing them a song. “NO” they answered in unison. Another reporter pressed them, saying, “There’s some doubt that you can sing.” Lennon replied: “No… we need money first.”