Dr. AIX's POSTS — 09 April 2014

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There’s a disturbing trend happening in the production of commercial music releases created by some of the world’s biggest artists and producers. The basic concept is to give a particular stage of the audio production chores out to a group of engineers and have them do the work in competition with each other. These individuals spend hours of time in a well-equipped studio mixing or mastering a track and then submit their work for evaluation. The producer gets the work done by a number of skilled experts, picks the one they like the best and pays only that engineer. The rest of the mixers or mastering engineers get nothing. The assembled group of mixers is not compensated but if asked to participate they really can’t refuse or they won’t have a shot at any future work from the same producer…paid or not.

I first noticed this “strategy” when I happened upon a website that was offering graphic designers the chance to compete for a logo design job. The website posted “competitions” for graphic design work that would pay a “prize” at the end of the competition. It seemed like a scam to me at the time. Dozens if not hundreds of aspiring designers would work on logo concepts for the company or individual that needed a new logo design. All of the work would be done and entered in the competition and then a winner would be picked from all of the designs. They would receive the prize of $500…and amount that would never have paid for all of the work done. It’s a brilliant scheme to get design work for free. And websites have been built around the idea.

And now the idea has migrated to record production. I heard that Ric Rubin had given 5 mastering engineers the opportunity to master one of his projects. He would get them to do the work, choose the one he liked the best and then only pay the engineer that did that version. The others got nothing. And now a very prominent producer/musician is doing the same thing with the mixing stage of a production. The files are provided to a select few well know mixing engineers. They use their own studios and equipment and deliver a master back to the producer. They only get paid if the producer likes their work above the other submissions.

What happened to the days when you were hired to do a job, did the work and got paid for your expertise? They’re gone. The reason is that there are too many studios, too many individuals working in their bedrooms and garages with the same tools as the big boys and there are countless online tutorials that purport to teach everyone to be an engineer. The value of audio engineering has been eroding for many years. The cost of mixing a single tune in stereo has gone from around $600-800 per track to about half of that over the past 5 years. The same amount of work is being done but it’s being undervalued.

I recognize that this is trend in other industries as well. Why manufacture something in this country when you can ship the work overseas and get a better price. And I’m guilty of this practice as well. The backend programming for my new website is being done by a team in India. I simply can’t afford to pay the rates being charged by domestic programmers.

Perhaps this is just the state of affairs in 2014, but I thought that getting paid for your work was a given. Apparently, it’s not.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(15) Readers Comments

  1. We can lament the usual way of getting projects or work done or get on board the disruptive train of the W.W.W. and learn how to benefit ourselves.

    • I like to think I’m good with the disruptive innovations of the web. I use Lyft, AirBnb etc but having someone do professional work without paying for it, goes against my way of thinking. I pay my interns and I have them do real work so that they can be educated. It just seems like the right thing to do.

  2. I don’t see it your way at all.

    If I was young and hungry I’d do anything to get someone like Rick Rubin’s attention. Rick knows this and is offering that chance. I’m guessing he gets asked this any time he’s out and about in public: “Rick, how can I get into the industry?”

    Also, nowadays every kid has access to mastering programs. There’s so many dinosaur’s in this part of the industry who keep doing the same crud over and over to the same boring titles. Audio Fidelity is notorious for this. I mean how many times can you keep mastering Billy Joel, Skynryd, etc? Why people pay for these remasters is beyond me, but again, people buy into it like members of Jim Jone’s Temple drank the Kool-Aid without questioning it.

    Rubin is exposing mastering and mixing for what it is!

    • This is not about being young and hungry. These aren’t newbies doing these mixes or mastering sessions…they are the best in the business that have already paid their dues. Mixing and mastering are highly skilled professions and not something that can be tossed off by using a plugin. I ran a mastering studio for 13 years…it’s not easy.

      Beyonce just paid a mixed $80K per tune to do the same thing that these guys are doing for free. Ric is ripping these guys off. What if the artists and labels were to do the same thing to him. They offer him the chance to produce and album for Robin Thicke as well as several others and then don’t pay him when they like what T Bone Burnett did better. Not cool.

  3. Perhaps they have realized that since the producer is going to compress any DR out of the final product due to the loudness war, and it’s going to sound like garbage anyway, what’s the point of paying talented engineers?

  4. Perhaps I’m messing the point. But isn’t this the way architectural projects have been done since the beginning of time? Ask people to present their best project developed in their own time using and paying their own equipment and draft-people, etc. If your effort is liked, mind you this is art in as such it is subjective, you get rewarded. Otherwise, try again and again. In my opinion this is how creativity is rewarded.

    • I did think about that situation. I believe that a large architectural firm operates somewhat differently than a private individual doing mixing and mastering. And I’m not sure that submitting a concept is always without compensation. I know military bids are paid for.

  5. Hello Dr.AIX. High-resolution audio is here to stay. Blu HD Music is coming. The concept is supposed to be simple: Marketed as high-resolution audio on Blu-ray disc, which is quite capable of supporting high-res formats. Universal is setting a minimum resolution of 24/96, which definitely qualifies as high-res. The one Blu music disc I have bought has high-res soundtracks in multiple formats including DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, and PCM. The first two are lossless formats, and the third one is uncompressed, so no lossy nonsense here. There’s no video; these are strictly audio-only discs.

    • I wrote about these products some months ago (Click here to read. The Blu-rays that are being sold by UMG and others are not made from high-resolution sources. I see absolutely no benefit from this rehashing of older masters. They are better served as files or you can rip your old CDs and get the same experience.

  6. I think it is a market like any other. If those scammers succeed it is because there are professionals willing to participate in such “contests”. Not that I agree or would do it, but there is nothing wrong with it. If the whole thing goes down too much, well, let them organize themselves in a union and create rules, etc.

    • The reality is that in this small world…you can’t say no if you’re asked to mix something otherwise you risk never getting any paying work from those same producers.

  7. Frankly I would like to see a couple of regulations introduced, in the name of human decency:

    1. Punishable offense to require completed works in a tender or bidding process for the work. Completed concepts, yes, methodological details, yes, but not the work itself.

    2. Punishable offense to make commercial use of the entries in a competition.

    Without regulation, too many commercial operators seek to abuse labor. The above examples are becoming widespread. It is time for corrective action.

  8. The producers put pressure on mixing mastering engineers , the have the means etc etc
    What is stopping the producers to put pressure on producers?
    I don’t have all the data about the relationship between them but I’m pretty sure if the
    If they try to think outside the box maybe the engineers can find an alternative approach (those ideas come based on my limited/outside knowledge about how your business works):
    – further delegate the task to no name engineers and in the same time they scout for talents. polish they work and present it to client producer
    – refuse this type of “contest” / contract / aproach
    – use the same dedicated time for other projects to master / mix something else for free or for an obscure artist.
    – develop a scheme where you will have the product for producers to die for. and them make it in your own terms.

    It comes to you as a professional group to find alternatives. The client/producer is there to make more money without any concern about the welfare of you. The client/producer will never make things easier for you is up to you to change the way your business works.

    GL

    • It is a real challenge to balance what is fair and the nature of the relationships that happen in this business.

  9. The way I see it, it’s an exploitation of some sort. It is just and fair that you are compensated with what you have worked for – you deserve that at least. However, these people do the work willingly and they know the risk involved that they may not get paid. Hence, the only way that this can prevented is that if no one will allow someone to exploit them that way. As long as there are people who are willing to do things without getting paid, then chances are, there will always be people who will gladly exploit them.

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