More and more of us are setting up our studios at home.
Once the term bedroom studio was a pejorative term used by elites to undermine the credibility of audio professionals who did not work in a large facility. Those days are over; you are as likely to find a top album or TV show that has been worked on by professionals working from home as you are to discover they have been made in a large studio or post house.
The invention of modern computer-based creative technologies offer professional results at a fraction of the price gear used to cost is one reason. The high-speed internet revolution is the second reason, as I've been typing this article a producer in a studio in LA has sent me the test footage of two cameras to check. It took a matter of seconds to download a gigabyte of high-quality content. At some point, I will be interviewing another professional in that LA home studio over the internet, and then the rushes will be sent to me for editing, it will take a couple of hours. It certainly won't take a flight to LA, a hotel, the hire of a crew and gear to get that interview and within days we will have high-quality content to share on almost any medium we want.
Several times a week I have to get voice-overs done, not by someone who visits my studio in Ireland, but by voice talent who lives in Canada. The scripts are often for a client based in Scandinavia, shared, amended and approved via email and then sent to the VO artist to record in their home studio. On a good day, I can have a script approved in Europe and the VO recorded in Canada and sitting on my timeline in an hour... really.
I'm sure there are many reading this who like me do the same thing when recording music. Your talent is all over the globe, but you can have the guitars, bass and drums all done by top talent for a song in a matter of hours
The third (and most important part) of this modern creative economy is getting paid. I routinely pay people across the world using a variety of online payment systems that are fast, secure and in many cases cost effective. Just yesterday I spoke to someone in Washington who had asked me for payment, 5 minutes later the invoice arrived by email and was paid by return. Creating invoices for our work and getting paid has never been easier.
A professional can work alone from their shed, garage, basement, spare room and have all that they need to succeed in the creative industries - it's a bloody modern miracle.
This new way of working sounds like heaven, but there are downsides to it, and I want to talk about them.
Count On Me
There's no water cooler or kitchen.
If you work in an office or remember a time when you did, then you'll remember those water cooler and kitchen moments. These are the momentary interactions with your colleagues that seem trivial but often help you to do your work better. These are the moments when you share your ideas, what you are working on and a small conversation takes place about it. Sometimes those conversations confirm you are on the right track, at times a better idea emerges, or you realise the idea is dumb and needs scrapping.
This seemingly trivial part of working in a team is an essential way to make sure we produce great work. If there is no one to tell us the idea we have is a moment of genius or conversely our worst one to date, then the first person to say it may be our client.
Often the issue is less binary and an idea may be good but could be great with some tweaks. Is that keyboard part the right one, have you thought about changing the real piano for a Suitcase? Or it might be that you need to move the guitar riff before the verse to middle 8 of the song?
A production is rarely ascribed greatness by one single idea, but a lot of smaller decisions made in production that when combined take the concept from average to amazing. In my opinion, it's the water cooler or kitchen moment, the shout across the room, the someone passing your workstation interactions that contribute to this.
I've sometimes ploughed on regardless with a song or video and after two days realised the idea stinks? Or does it, there's no one there to tell me either way? If like me, part of your work is pitching ideas to your clients then making sure it's the right idea is essential.
But there is a second and equally important reason why these small team interactions matter and that is in the area of communicating with those outside your bubble.
Every week opportunities, ideas, challenges, concerns and complaints hit my inbox, most of them are small, some of them are big. How do I decide which is which? How do I make the right call and give an appropriate response? Part of that is experience, but when you are in the middle of a stressful project and have a deadline looming, then you are not always functioning at your best. Tiredness and stress can often reduce our ability to respond as we should, and if we are not careful, we can send what I call "a solo email."
What is a solo email?
A solo email is one that is written and sent, but the author hasn't used the checks and balances or the advice of a third party. I get them all the time; it's inevitable as so many of us work alone these days. On a bad day, I probably send some as well; I hope fewer than I should.
A solo email can include a number or all of the following issues;
- Getting the wrong end of the stick in the first place.
- It is written fast, so the reply arrives almost by return.
- Inappropriate emotional content such as anger, rage - an easy way to spot this are a copious amount of run-on sentences.
- Poor spelling and grammar.
I call them a solo email because had the author (sometimes me) taken the time to ask advice before responding then the email may have been written differently or not at all. The opinion of a second person can be the difference between you carrying on with your day or thermonuclear war via email.
For example, you get an email, and it seems that the person is suggesting your idea is terrible, or you are dishonest, or that they are not going to pay, or your dog is ugly. But perhaps they are not suggesting any of these things, this is where a second opinion can help, where you can show someone the email and get the following advice;
- What does the email mean? A second opinion from someone not as emotionally connected can make a hell of a difference to the interpretation.
- Should I respond? Good question.
- When should I respond? Equally important question - timing is everything.
- How should I respond? The amount of care taken to this part is relative to the importance of the exchange.
Without these checks applied, you can see how things can go badly wrong and before you know it your favourite session singer or your best client is now your worst enemy.
I recall a profound conversation I had with a friend some years ago who had once tried to take her own life. She told me that as she waited for the pills to take effect she re-read the suicide letter she had written. As she read it she noticed a spelling mistake and for some reason this trivial thing jolted her into thinking she had made a terrible mistake, then she rang for an ambulance and lived to tell the tale.
It is unlikely you re-reading an email will have such a far-reaching effect as the story I've just conveyed, but it could make the difference between you winning, keeping or losing a client, partner or friend.
Working solo can be tough, and so I want to suggest some practical ways to make sure you create an ecosystem to give you the best of both worlds - a solo business owner with a support network.
You've Got A Friend In Me
To illustrate the issue I've used this story a lot of times, but I think it stands me repeating it.
A father is woken one night by a loud thunderstorm; lightning is lighting up the sky as the storm rages. He runs to the bedroom of his 4-year-old daughter to find her standing transfixed at the window looking out into the night. "This is scary Daddy," she says as he enters the room. "Don't worry; God is with you." He replies to reassure her, to which she replies "But Daddy I want someone with skin on."
Despite all the modern forms of communication we all still need people with skin on. Real flesh and blood who can look us in the eye and grab us when we need a hug or to shake our senses!
We need two lines of defence, a short term and a long term plan. We need people who can offer advice on the spot and we need those who can be long term supporters and mentors to help keep us grounded and stop us from going insane.
One of my greatest concerns is allowing my work life to spill over into my family life, so as much as I can I try not to involve my wife in this kind of thing. It's not that I think she isn't able to help, on the contrary, she is far smarter and more level-headed than me. It is simply the case that when I walk out the back door of the house, I go to work, even though it's 15 seconds to my office. When I return, I come home from work, Work may be in the garden, but it needs to remain separate. So I would suggest you try and avoid involving your partner in this strategy, although sometimes it is unavoidable as there may be time constraints that make it impossible to ask anyone else.
There are occasions when something has been bothering me, and I need wisdom, especially about people, which my wife is great at reading. Then I'll explain the situation; I might show her the emails involved and then ask her advice - it is usually good advice.
Some of these things are not huge, so surround yourself with a network of people with different skills who you can ask advice. Some of them will give creative advice, others technical. Some of them will help you with client or supplier issues, or money, the truth is that you can't have too many people you trust to help you make the right decisions.
There is one fundamental rule about the people you choose, don't surround yourself with 'yes' people. You need to have the counsel of individuals who don't always agree with you and who know you well enough to know your blind spots and your flaws. We all have faults so if you are reading this and think you don't need anyone then you need a team quick to get you back on planet earth.
This strategy is partly the reason I also don't involve my wife; she is my biggest fan, so telling her someone has said something derogatory about me will often invoke her defences and before I know it she wants to punch them. Although this doesn't always translate, I recall a time when I had acted foolishly, I turned to my wife and said "I've been such a twat!" to which she replied, "Yes Russ, but you're my twat!"
So find a group of trusted people who can offer you a range of advice, it can be as simple as shooting them a message or jumping on Skype to ask what they think of a song idea. Or it might be a long phone call asking them what you should do about a client who owes you thousands of pounds.
Without a group like this supporting you your business is going to suffer and may never reach its full potential.
Are Friends Electric?
Technology has transformed the way we make music, TV and movies it has allowed us to work flexibly in ways even a decade ago we would have dreamed of doing; it is a modern miracle for which we should all be thankful.
But as I have outlined in this article, it is possible that solo working isolates us from the benefits of a team, it is essential we don't let this happen. For all the benefits working from home alone offer we all still need people with skin on.