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One of the most common questions I hear young engineers and producers asking is, “how do I get clients?” They should really be asking how they keep the ones they already have. It’s way easier to keep a client than it is to gain a new one!
Win over the client, win more clients.– Russel Crowe’s character in Gladiator I think
Make sure the client knows what to expect
It took me a while to learn that one of the more difficult parts of this job is managing the client’s expectations. This is especially important when you’re working with someone that has never been in a recording studio. Before every session, I like to have a short exchange with all of my clients either via email or phone, to get an idea of what they are trying to accomplish in the upcoming session. This allows me to effectively plan how I’d like to run the session. I can also answer any questions that the client may have.
Clients can be overwhelmed by the whole experience. Recording can be extremely intimidating for any artist. Easing their worries is only going to make things go smoother and make the session more enjoyable for everyone. A common misunderstanding I see clients making is underestimating how much time they will need. It’s important to make sure they are aware of how long things like setting up, breaks, and exporting and transferring files can take. On large sessions, setting up may take a few hours. It’s crucial to make sure that everyone involved is aware of this and to make sure they are comfortable while they are waiting. This is where having a nice lounge area in your studio comes into play. Everyone will appreciate having access to a TV, video games, and other time-consuming entertainment to help keep them occupied. There is nothing worse than having five band members standing in the control room talking while you’re trying to dial in sounds.
Be prepared, have a plan
You know what they say… If you don’t plan, you plan to fail! Everything’s better when you have a plan.
Writing out a plan forces you to think of possible scenarios and what you might need to prepare for them. During my initial conversation with the client, I like to ask questions to get a better idea of what we will be recording and what they are trying to accomplish. How many people are going to be recording, what instruments, and what type of music? What would they like to leave with? In most cases, I’ll already have everything I need ready to go, but there will be those times when I don’t. Making sure you have all the tools you need for your session will save you a lot of stress.
I’ll also ask the client if they have any particular preferences on how things should be done. Are they recording completely live? Are they using a backing track? Do they need a specific guitar sound? What kind of kit does the drummer usually play?
Then I will map out the physical setup and where I’d like to place things in the room. I’ll also write out a rough itinerary with a schedule to help me manage time more effectively. I want to make sure the client walks out with exactly what they expected to, and hopefully even more.
Lastly, when things go wrong (and they will), try to remember that nothing ever goes exactly as planned. The ability to adapt to any situation is a skill that every great audio engineer must possess.
Have water, coffee, tea, snacks, and other necessities available
This one is pretty self-explanatory. One of the most important parts of a studio’s job is to make sure their clients are as comfortable as possible. This means making sure they are well hydrated and have something in their stomach. If you’re working a long session, it’s surprisingly easy to forget to eat or drink. A good way to mitigate this is to always have some basic refreshments readily available; this way, at least, everyone isn’t completely starving or dehydrated. It also shows the client that you are putting in extra effort to make their experience better.
And coffee. You always need coffee. You can’t record without copious amounts of coffee.
Manage time efficiently
It’s important to keep the session flowing smoothly. Clients are artists, and they can be hard on themselves (and sometimes even delusional). There are times when someone you’re working with might want to spend hours doing something that’s not working and is only bringing everyone’s morale down. Fostering positive momentum is extremely important when creating; getting stuck on something for too long can have a detrimental effect on everyone’s mood.
You should’ve already made a plan and figured out how you’d like to manage your time. If you have 10 songs to record in one day and you’ve spent 4 hours on 1 song… That’s probably not good. Whoever is running the session needs to make sure they’re always aware of the clock and make sure things are getting completed in a relatively timely fashion. In the past, I had been way too passive and let the client dictate how their time would be spent. I’d find myself working on a guitar solo for 10 hours when I knew, in the end, it wasn’t going to make any difference. There are certain times when it might be right to work on something for that long or however long, but usually, it’s best to just move on. You can always come back to it later.
Set the mood
I feel a lot of studios fail to emphasize how important the actual physical environment is to a recording session. Creating a good vibe in the workspace will not only make you and your clients feel better while working but it will invoke different emotions and feelings that wouldn’t be there in a sterile, harshly lit, plain white room. One of the first studios to realize this is Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studios in New York City. John Storyk, the original designer, made sure the bright, colorful, relaxing environment catered to the vibe of the studio and invited all that entered to create.
Luckily today, we have Home Depot and Amazon, which have a ton of options for new ways to spice up your studio on a budget. A good place to start is the lighting. String lights and LED lightbulbs and strips are easy and effective.
Don’t forget about the smells! Our sense of smell is extremely powerful, and we studio rats sometimes have a tendency to disregard it. There’s also always the classic lava lamp or what I consider to be the modern lava lamp, the Himalayan Salt Lamp.
Yes, this is a business transaction, but it’s much more than that. You’re helping someone create their art, which can, and probably should be, a very personal and intimate experience. The easiest way to get clients to come back is to get personal– be friendly, talk to them about their past, their history, what they like, what they don’t like, and why. Everyone wants to work with their friends. The more a client becomes a friend, the more likely they are to want to keep working with you. That doesn’t mean fake it, although at times you might have to, it does mean opening up to be more personal with everyone that walks through your studio’s doors.
Control the session without being controlling
There’s an art to being able to direct a session effectively while also being able to keep it fun. Sometimes you’ll need to tell someone when something isn’t that good or that the best course of action is to move on to the next thing. Artists can be extremely insecure and difficult to work with, especially when they are creating something personal to them. Sometimes they are just looking for approval or someone to tell them what to do. Or sometimes, they want the complete opposite. The skill there is learning how to read the situation so you can lead the session while making sure the client is happy and producing a good product.
Do something the client wasn’t expecting
Bring out a cool guitar amp they’ve never seen, add real tube distortion to the lead vocal, add an instrument the band has never heard of, splice in a dropout, and completely edit the arrangement. Enhance their music with impressive production tricks. Make a point to emphasize your special touch (whatever that may be). This helps leave a lasting impression, and they’ll know who they need to come back to next time in order to get that same badass production.
Exceed their expectations, make the client sound better than they do
Exceeding the client’s expectations is the most surefire way to get a repeat client. The client will go into the session with an idea of what they want and what they hope the final product will sound like. If you’re able to exceed these expectations and produce a product even better than they had originally imagined, they’ll likely want to return so they can experience the same thing. Now the client isn’t just booking a recording studio. They are booking you because they know you’ll make them sound good.
This is how you form a team and partnership with your clients that can turn into a long term working relationship. If you ask any successful engineer, they will tell you that these types of relationships are paramount to sustaining a career in this field. Your loyal clients are not only valuable because of their direct business– they’re also going to be putting your name out there, spreading the word, and ultimately bringing you more clients. Word of mouth advertising is by far the most form of marketing for any engineer or producer.