Portfolio careers: the many hats of a music producer
Working in the music industry has many exciting aspects: it’s incredibly diverse, it requires ongoing skills development, wearing multiple hats, and it’s often seen as a non-traditional form of employment. However, interestingly enough, this type of ‘portfolio career’ is not only applicable to the music industry. It’s widespread, and following the latest research, it’s definitely on the rise.
Does this sound interesting to you? To get a better understanding, we interviewed some of our recent graduates from the different Institutes to share their experiences of starting a career as a music producer. But first, we’ll have a closer look at the dynamic profession of the ‘modern’ music producer and their portfolio career.
‘Wait, what is a ‘portfolio career?’ you may ask.
Well, there are several definitions. For this article, we look at it as the ‘pursuit of having multiple sources of income’. Basically having multiple jobs, simultaneously, often as a freelancer or a combination of contract & freelance work. Some juggle these different jobs out of necessity, while others make a conscious decision to embrace it as a lifestyle.
For some people, this kind of ‘career’ seems logical. They’ve been doing it ever since they started working, without knowing there is an actual name for it. Artists, including musicians and other music professionals, have long embraced the portfolio career. They have often dealt with the challenge of finding a stable income so they have multiple. Performing musicians and artists moved from gig to gig to make a living. Hence the origin of the name ‘gig-economy‘.
Besides moving from gig to gig, musicians often have a so-called ‘side hustle’ to make ends meet. Depending on country and culture, having a side hustle can have different reasons, but often with one aim in mind: “I want to follow my heart and do what I love.”
Meet the Slashers
So a portfolio career sometimes evolves out of necessity. However, more and more people are turning to portfolio careers as a long-term lifestyle choice. The main reason for choosing this career path is that it provides them with a sense of autonomy because they can decide how they work, while others seek a better work/life balance. Meet the slashers!
A slasher is not just a type of horror film: since the recession, it emerged as a term for the fastest increasing segment of workers in both the UK and the US, another form of the portfolio careerist.
The term ‘slash career’ is coined by Marci Alboher in her book – One Person/ Multiple Careers: a new work/life success model. A slash career is different from freelancing because a slash career involves having two or more professions in parallel. And a quick glance on LinkedIn shows they are on the rise. Previous generations focused on one job or career for life, and current generations prefer portfolio careers in larger numbers.
So what’s up with the slash?! Well, it means a career that can be defined as an accountant/web designer/song-writer or producer/yoga teacher/lecturer. Notice the slash between the job descriptions?
How come these kinds of careers are rising?
A quick search online shows that the main reasons why people pursue and choose a portfolio or slash career are twofold:
- Having several sources of income gives them security because they are not relying solely on one stream. The latest recessions and fast-changing industries show that something people have worked for their whole life is suddenly no longer applicable, which requires a flexible approach to their career.
- Wanting to explore their interests and not letting their talent go to waste, many pursue a career that provides them with a sense of personal development and growth. (For instance, the vast majority of Millennials—93%—see ongoing skills development as an essential part of their future careers and embrace lifelong learning)
We can all agree that this is quite different from the traditional form of employment, where people would have one job at a time and 2 to 4 different jobs throughout their entire career.
The modern music producer
So, instead of working a single full-time job, a portfolio career is about working on several paid activities simultaneously. The modern music producer is not any different. He or she is wearing several hats, having a multitude of roles, most of the time related to the music business.
In the past, the music producer (often referred to as record producer ) was defined as “the recording project’s creative and technical leader, commanding studio time and coaching artists, and in popular genres typically creates the song’s very sound and structure.” In general, music producers were often viewed in the same role that directors serve for the film: offering creative guidance and directing the process of making a film, or in this case, a record.
But the term has become quite distorted in the last decade. Due to the advent of DAW’s like ProTools, Cubase, Logic and Ableton Live, music producers are now capable of doing many things that are part of the production process themselves. Instead of ‘only’ being the person picking the right studio and engineer to work on your song, and coaching you as an artist, he or she can now do a big part of the arrangements, recording and mixing.
And it doesn’t stop there: many of the new generations of music producers are now assuming responsibility for the different roles in creating music, that used to require 6 different people 20 years ago. Besides engineering and mixing as they are writing the song, they often play (several) instruments, choose co-writers, supply the studio and sometimes even balance the project’s finances. And last but not least, many of today’s music producers have also embraced A&R roles, scouting the artists, developing and nurturing them as part of artist development and eventually bringing them to a label on a silver plate.
So the modern music producer wears many hats. Hats that are often presented as separate services (like mixing, song-writing, arranging, advisory roles) usually lead to additional work due to the versatility of the music producer. One day you are mixing for a client, the other day you are working on the arrangements for another, and the following week you are doing all of the above for one song or even a whole album: several roles, multiple streams of income.
What about specialisation?
Does that mean there are no specialists any longer? Being an all-round producer has benefits. But specialists are still needed. Especially when budgets become bigger, specialists (with specialist rates) come into play, which oftentimes results in a higher overall quality of the production.
The music producer can do certain parts or provides the general ideas of the production, but in the end, it will be forwarded to a specialist. For instance, a mixing – or mastering engineer is a typical specialisation.
But as a starter, being an all-round, portfolio career music producer, is becoming standard practice. And, since you haven’t found your sweet spot yet, it’s worth exploring all the different music production aspects. The overall value is in having and fulfilling several roles—almost a one-stop fix-all approach.
Some have portfolio careers that are all directed to music, like producer / artist manager / studio owner, while others have broader portfolio careers, like sound engineer / IT specialist / blogger.
But of course, like every role or career path, there are pros and cons to consider.
The pros of a portfolio career
So portfolio careers are on the rise in all work fields, and several studies confirm this. We listed some of the advantages that are related to a portfolio (or slash) career:
- Achieve your creative potential: A portfolio career provides you with the chance to explore your creative potential and achieve your goals.
- Job security: Have several jobs and roles safely protect you from redundancy.
- Flexibility: It is ideal for people who want a creative career or those who need to fit work around other responsibilities
- You can also be fully independent (freelance, self-employed) or have a combination of self-employment and a part-time job.
- Distinguish yourself from others: Become more desirable for clients and/or employers due to a broader skillset.
- Enjoy variety: Broaden your ideas to include various points of view.
- Transferable skills: Survive under challenging circumstances by developing critical overarching and transferable skills.
- A sense of meaning: Musicians, artists and many other creatives consider what they do meaningful work.
The cons of a portfolio career
Besides the pros, every career path has its cons. Based on the feedback we received and our online research, we also listed some of the challenges related to portfolio careers:
- Lacking security and dealing with uncertainty: You’ll have to deal with income that may go up and down.
- Flexibility: You always have to try new things if something fails.
- You will also need to think creatively to become self-sufficient.
- Positioning yourself: Explaining what you do is often not an easy task
- Time management: Wearing multiple hats and juggling jobs and roles can be challenging when it comes to time.
- Project management skills: Ability to manage a varied workload.
- Staying organised: dealing with deadlines and keeping your skills up to date for more than one job can be stressful.
- Networking is crucial: If this is not your strength, this is something you need to develop.
- Nurturing your clients: Without clients, you’ll have no income.
What it’s like to have a portfolio career
How do our graduates deal with these movements in society while building a career in music? We interviewed some of our Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering graduates from the Institutes in London, Paris and Amsterdam, to ask them about their experiences in having a portfolio career. What are the pros and cons of this ‘lifestyle’, how do they nurture clients and do they have some tips to share with those considering this route as a future career? Read on to find out.
Meet Martial and Raphael from Paris, Ed and Natalia from London and Yoma and Bob from Amsterdam.
How would you describe what you do when you meet someone for the first time?
Martial De Ranieri: I would say, I run my own music business and I have my own studio in Cannes, France. But before anything else, I’m a sound engineer and a music producer. That is my true passion. Before I started at Abbey Road Institute I was a musician, a composer and I also did and still do ‘front of house’ (FOH, live sound) and management for a big band. The management part involves finding gigs and shows, arranging the technical aspects for their performances, … basically running a lot of different aspects. I’m also managing other artists, helping them with their strategy and marketing. And currently, I’m investing in video equipment to do music videos in my studio. So another hat to wear.
Raphaël Guédin: I work as a freelance sound engineer and music producer. Nowadays I think engineering is part of the music producer job. But looking at all the different roles, I compose, do writing, recording, mixing and arranging. But I also do artist development, helping artists in their creative process and finding their identity. As an engineer I mainly work for Audioscope Studios in Paris, doing my own sessions and also as the assistant for Guillaume André. Music production I do as an independent producer.
Ed Shaw: It’s always difficult to describe what you do when you meet someone for the first time because it can take ages. Simply because it’s not just one thing. I feel like people might get bored (laughs) when they ask what I do if they’re not from the music industry. I just say I’m a producer. That’s it, I try and keep it simple. But yes, I do have a lot of different roles.
Natalia Milanezi: Basically I do a little bit of everything, but primarily I’m a recording, mixing, and audio engineer, working as a freelancer. Besides that I also do arrangements, I compose, write and also do some production work, including recording and mixing with and for different artists. In addition, I work for Youth, managing his label, called Painted Word, where I also do artwork for the album covers and events, and work on the distribution, test pressings and authorising vinyl releases. I also work for Abbey Road Institute London as a technician, which involves supervising the facilities, helping the students and supporting the learning process. It’s fun to do both because I never get bored. There’s simply so much to do!
Yoma Schertz: I would say I’m a singer-songwriter and music producer because that’s why I started at Abbey Road Institute. But I’m also a writer of short stories and music articles, and I’ve written a children’s book, which is about to get published. But I’m not an artist, even though I release my own albums. I simply don’t like to perform, and often people ask me why?! …well, because I’m a music producer! I love to work behind the scenes. So yeah, my work involves songwriting, doing arrangements, producing recording and mixing. For both myself and other artists. And I’m a musician too: I play the saxophone, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano. Maybe I forgot something (laughing), but it’s certainly a lot of different things.
Bob Varo: I’m a music producer, arranger, mixing engineer, mastering engineer, musician/guitar player, I give music production courses and guitar lessons. As a producer, I work with several (international) artists and on my own music. And since last year I started with live streams on Twitch and other streaming platforms. Basically to interact with other like-minded people and use it to attract new clients. But I never saw my job as a portfolio career. I assumed that this is what a music producer does. And when people ask me, in general, I would say that I do music; I record music and put it all together. But in general, I don’t say I’m a music producer because quite often they think that I’m a deejay or something. And I do so much more!
What are the advantages of a portfolio career?
Martial: Every day is different, each project is different, and 99 per cent of the time I am a free man! I believe that you earn your freedom by doing the things you love. And I’m doing that. I’m doing many different things and really feel I’m building on my career. It’s also very gratifying work. I see my work as trying to find solutions for my clients, something I used to do in my previous job as well. I was literally a ‘solutions manager’ inside a company. And now, I still do that in my role as a music producer. I like to help artists, to develop them and support their growth.
Raphael: A portfolio career allows you to be free in your life. Letting you choose and decide to work on a project or not. But also to be as versatile as you want. For instance, you can work as an assistant in a studio in the morning later that day you’ll be recording a band in a warehouse. That’s how I see it. You’re just free. And free to work on your passion.
Ed: I don’t think I’m in the position to give advice, since I’m just starting, but for me personally, the monotony of having the same routine, day in, day out, just freaks me out. Currently, I’m figuring it out myself. I would love to work and love working in a recording studio. But I just couldn’t do the whole runner thing, like starting as a runner for two months and then after that, work as an assistant engineer for instance. But don’t get me wrong, for other people that really works. For now, I put in as much effort as possible and try to be the best that I can be. Having that freedom and being able to work on things I want to and things that come up has a positive impact on the work I create.
Natalia: I would say, there are many benefits. From a professional point of view, I think it’s very important to understand all the different stages or the different steps in the process of making a record. It makes it easier to communicate, like if I’m the engineer, but I know how to produce and I know how to write an arrangement or compose it makes it easy for me to talk to the musician. Or if I then have to send my mix to mastering and then deal with the producer and the record label. I know what the record labels do and so I can talk to them a bit better. And from a personal point of view, just gaining so much knowledge, which I think is great. It’s having a greater understanding. Because I like understanding things. I’ve always been very curious since I was a kid to understand everything that’s happening in the world around me, how things work so if I work in the music industry, it’s just good to understand how it all works.
Yoma: Freedom, definitely freedom. It sometimes really feels like I’m not working. And I can work from everywhere, like from my home or even a cafe. I had these moments where I really felt extremely privileged because I took my laptop, went to the beach, wrote an article today, worked on my book, did a bit of surfing (at Timboektoe in Wijk aan Zee), and basically worked on different projects. And sometimes I even bring my headphones and do some vocal editing for a client. Currently, I’m building my own studio, which will be finished soon. I love working in studios and due to the pandemic, it’s not easy to find a studio to work for. So I’ve decided to build my own. I’ve already done some recordings and it sounds great. So it gives me even more flexibility to do projects.
Bob: Having total freedom, 100 per cent. And it really feels like personal growth, learning a lot about yourself. It makes me happy and I feel extremely satisfied. And all the different people I’m working with, and attracting like-minded people too. Besides that, being versatile, offering different services, it’s a great way to work for clients. I start with mixing for them for instance and often I continue doing arrangements, play the guitar tracks and might even do the mastering. Abbey Road Institute really opened my eyes to this.
What are the challenges of a portfolio career?
Martial: You have to develop a lot of skills, which is both an advantage and a challenge. So you have to keep in touch with everything, especially on a technical level. And for every project, you need to deliver professional quality. You need to know the latest developments, but also, you have to develop a routine in your work. That’s all time consuming and requires quite a lot of energy every day. And sometimes I have simultaneous projects to work on, and therefore making long days. But then, I deliver a project, the client has millions of streams and is extremely satisfied, which makes me truly happy in the end.
Raphael: Being versatile also means being stretched and divided between projects and that can bring stress. Also, making sure to have enough work and income to pay the rent can be challenging. But in my case I’m very lucky, having a stable position in a commercial studio where we always have work while at the same time developing myself as a music producer. I wish that everyone who starts their career in music can have it like this. For me, it’s the perfect situation.
Ed: You’ve got to be really organized. And I thought I was organized, but I realized I’m not! (laughs) No, seriously it’s crazy how organised you have to be. I have so many things that need to be addressed. The little things can be easily forgotten. I often work with different people, working on multiple sessions. So you have to strategize, figure out and plan the next steps. It can be quite messy in my brain sometimes, so I am still figuring out a workflow/system.
Natalia: I feel like you have to be very good with time management and you have to be very good at working under pressure and not getting stressed. It’s about knowing how to deal with stress because it involves lots of other people. It’s not like it’s just you. You have lots of other people to work with and you’re doing different things all the time. So you have to coordinate, you have to have your calendar. You have to have good people skills and be good at ‘reading the room’ and understanding who’s doing what, what am I doing today and be versatile, learn how to adapt to that particular role that you play on that particular day.
Yoma: I think that my main challenge is structure. I’m very creative and I feel I have to do something all the time or my mind will get bored. Recently I read an article about creative people, that if they don’t do anything, it’s like a dog that doesn’t get a walk or get to play with a ball – basically, it will destroy your house. And it’s like with creative people, your mind will destroy itself. That’s my main challenge: to structure and to focus. With all these different roles and tasks, I have too many options, I can work on anything and no structure. That’s the biggest challenge. But I’m working hard on that part. I love deadlines and I create my own deadlines, which helps me a lot.
Bob: You constantly have to challenge yourself and get comfortable with the uncomfortable. That means that you meet your own limitations sometimes. And having a stable income can be challenging sometimes, so you have to keep trying new things, and again, keep challenging yourself. But that’s also the best part of a portfolio career!
How do you get and/or nurture clients?
Martial: I’m doing quite a bit of advertising. When I finished at Abbey Road Institute I did some training on Google Ads. I’m now certified for Google Adwords, and also learned how to do this on Facebook, Instagram and other Social Media platforms. But also through word of mouth from my clients and their network. A big part of my (new) clients come through worth-of-mouth. At the same time, I’m also actively contacting people, seeking new clients and networking.
Raphael: Often I know them for a long time and a simple email does the job. But I’m also using social media networks or contacting people through my network. It really varies.
Ed: For me, it’s all about building a relationship before getting into the studio. Of course, there are times when you meet the artist for the first time in the studio and even then I will spend the first hour or more just chatting and getting to know the person. I feel people remember that and that’s how I’ve got in the room as it were.
Yoma: Well the thing is because I think I’m really sociable (“sometimes a bit too much” she says laughing) and I want to get to know everyone I meet and drink coffee with them. When I meet someone in the studio for instance, in general, I’m not interested in their musical life, but more about the person behind it. I have a big interest in people, and through interacting with them I get jobs. 80 per cent of my work I get through word-of-mouth. Something I really advise people to work on is interpersonal skills. You have to be there, stand out, be nice, interact with people. But always stay humble at the same time.
Bob: I believe that being open and friendly to all of these people and always aim for offering the best service is the most important thing in a successful career. Because a good amount of these people come through worth-of-mouth. And that is not only in music. Maintaining good relationships is crucial to the development of my career because I can’t do everything on my own. In addition, I think that regular contact with new people, good old networking (online and offline), is the basis of getting new clients.
Do you see yourself working in this way long term or for the rest of your life/career?
Martial: In the long term I would like to specialize and focus on helping artists. So it can be managing and composing with them, and of course recording and mixing in my recording studio. But really like a music producer.
Ed: Yeah, 100%. I feel like what I’m doing now is what I’m going to be doing forever. I’m lucky enough to have had other experiences in my life, having worked as a performer in the past. Doing the same thing for a year, absolutely killed me. So I know what that’s like and thankfully I have experienced that to be able to truly know this is it. The freedom of it is really attractive to me.
Natalia: For me, I tend not to think too far ahead. I have a general goal of obviously building a career and getting more work and doing things as well as I can. Getting a name for myself as a professional and established in the industry and all that jazz. I think everyone wants that. In 20 years time if I’m working the way I am now I will be running my own company to manage all the different areas of work. Like an art house, with a full creative team that covers both music and visual arts – recording, songwriting, music, painting, and all that that includes.
Yoma: I think there are many people in the business that just focus on one thing. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for me, it just turned out this way because my whole life I’ve been writing, creating melodies, doing everything. And I also happen to be a multi-instrumentalist. So, most likely, I will be doing this forever. Simply because I love it and I can choose the things I love doing. Nevertheless, working in a big studio is still very appealing to me. I really think I can be very happy in a place like that.
Bob: Yes, because if I gave that up, life would get really boring. Money is good to have, but it’s not the income that satisfies me at the end of the month. I do this work because it is a kind of therapy for me and sometimes even for my clients. Something that helps me become a better person, and that helps me share this love and passion for music with the rest of the world. It’s a constant process that never ends. I think that if it’s all about the money in the end, it would have a negative influence on my creativity.
What does this type of career bring to you personally?
Ed: I am someone that needs constant stimuli or else I go nuts! This line of work is fitting that bill and I love it! I honestly can’t see myself doing anything else.
Martial: Happiness. The happiness of the artist is the most important of course. And when they are happy, I’m happy. It also brings me a lot of fulfilment. Doing the things I love, working with great people, building strong relationships with the artists and building trust.
Raphael: Excellent work-life balance. 9 out of 10 because it can’t always be perfect.
Natalia: It is exciting. Because there are so many different things (you’re working on) and you learn so many new things and you meet different people. It’s just the excitement of not being repetitive and learning what different people in different roles are doing. And creativity as well, because to work in that way, you have to be creative because you have to adapt.
Yoma: Fulfilment! As I said earlier, every day is different for me and I can work on a song or on my own album, or on a story or on a book or whatever. So, yes, my personal needs are very much fulfilled, simply because I can choose whatever I like.
Bob: It’s all fun! Just pushing my limits, because the world has so many things to offer. But for me, the essence will always be around music. As mentioned earlier, it’s about challenging yourself. And there is constantly something happening, every day there’s something new. It just inspires me, because you talk to so many different people from all over the world with different backgrounds. It’s pure mental satisfaction. I think I would get really bored in a fixed job.
What advice would you give to someone starting out and looking to build a career in this way?
Martial: You have to develop a routine in your work. And you have to dedicate time to your passion. I often say to the people I meet, like beat makers, sound engineers or people that want to learn about these things, ‘go for it!’ It’s your music passion. You can earn money with it, you can fulfil personal life goals and become really happy. Follow your passion! It’s the driving force to make it work.
Ed: I think you’ve got to be self-motivated. That’s a big one. And develop your skills, sharpen your tools. Like, open up ProTools and just have a dummy session going on and practice your shortcuts the night before. Eat healthfully because you’re not going to get much sleep. You have to get your goodness from somewhere else. For example, the album I’m working on right now, the artists I’m working with love to work until seven in the morning. Then I will have a session the next day recording on set. Most importantly be as honest and open as possible, never say you can’t do something, even when you feel like your eyes are about to fall out and someone says “can we just do that again” just do it. People remember that stuff. Go for a pint or a coffee with people it’s all about building relationships and making work conversational.
Natalia: Obviously, you have to work towards having the right skills and the necessary knowledge and when you are at the right place at the right time to be able to grab the opportunity because then you’re ready for it. But at the same time, create opportunities by being at the right places and with the right people, because at some point, you will be there at the right time. I find that it’s a lot about people management because you always go back to how you deal with people, even if you have lots of knowledge if you don’t know how to deal with people, if you don’t know how to socialize in different environments and adapt to the environment that you’re at, then you can’t.
Yoma: Socialize. I would advise people to work on their social skills. If you are shy, do something about that because I feel like I get 80 per cent of my projects and work through word of mouth. So you have to be out there, stand out, be nice and drink coffee with people.
But also, as a woman in the male-dominated music industry, it can be quite challenging and feel intimidating. But don’t forget that you can do a lot and bring a lot to the table. When I started, I felt like I was an imposter, because there were all those guys who were talking about plugins and stuff and I didn’t even know what a freaking plugin was. I was really struggling, so I asked a lot of questions. But then later I found out that my grades were pretty high and the guys in my class were also struggling but they didn’t show it. We were all in the same boat. So to all the women out there, don’t be afraid, and ask questions. You can do this! And I learned a lot from my fellow male colleagues in class. We can all learn a lot from each other.
Bob: There was a point, years ago, that I learned that you have to be consistent in the stuff you are doing and that you shouldn’t give up so easily. Because in the end, that’s what differentiates you from the rest. I remember telling myself that if I want to achieve something, I need to put a lot of work into it and that it takes time before I actually start to become good at something. I’m still busy with it, and I’m getting there. And I’m going to keep doing it as long as it inspires me.
Thank you all!
Is this something for you?
Much like small-business owners and independent entrepreneurs, working as a music producer or music professional, in general, is seen as taking charge through self-determination. Many music professionals enjoy the freedom and responsibility of shaping their career, which forms part of their identity through self-development. Besides that, creatives, in general, are lifelong learners. They want to continually learn new skills in and outside their field.
Are you seen as a creative person, multi-talented, with multiple interests, always willing to learn new things and open to change and variety? Maybe the perfect job isn’t out there? Perhaps you need two or more? A portfolio career might be the perfect fit!
In our Advanced diploma programme at Abbey Road Institute, we approach the music producer and sound engineer professions from all different aspects. From technical skills (like sound theory, effects processing, microphones) and music skills (like music theory, arranging, film sound), to business skills (like copyrights, licensing, marketing) and interpersonal skills (like teamwork, presentation skills, communication in the studio).
Come join our Open Day or make an appointment to speak with our team to learn more about our extensive curriculum and the different roles, types of work and possible careers.
- Millennials careers: vision 2020