You’re on your fifth revision of a mix, weeding your way through conflicting opinions, abstract criticisms and unrealistic expectations.
You’re frustrated with a bruised ego and a deflated opinion of your skills. “Maybe I should have been an accountant?” you think to yourself. “I’m sure they have great health benefits.” Then comes the sanity-breaker: The client says they want the vocals to be really close and intimate with a big, cavernous reverb. Your twitchy eye returns as you think “the client is always right… right?”
I was once told by a very successful producer friend of mine that “a happy client is a paying client," and for those of us who rely on a paying client to pay the bills, yes, the client is always “right”. It’s their song and their vision and if they want to steer that car off the cliff, it’s their choice. So you smile through grinding teeth, turning knobs for your client like a marionette. We’ve all been there and it’s certainly part of the job, but like Robin Williams said in Good Will Hunting, I’m here to tell you that it’s not (always) your fault.
One of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned is the importance of good working relationships. Our craft isn’t black and white so we’re left with a seemingly endless grey area of opinion and subjectiveness. Because of that, the qualifier of a good working relationship shouldn’t be “you need stuff recorded and that’s something I can do for you." We have to find people whose creative visions, professional approach, work ethic, etc. align with our own. We all have our individual ways in which we work, and our own musical sensibilities, and we are completely entitled to them. This isn’t a question of who’s right or wrong, it’s just about compatibility and a lot of the time I find that the essence of compatibility is mutual respect. You may not always see eye-to-eye but you can at least appreciate the other person’s opinion. That’s not to say that you can’t work with people who you’re not perfectly aligned with, or even that there isn’t something to be gained from those working relationships, however, to my experience they tend to be much more arduous.
This isn’t a carte blanche to be a close-minded, self-indulgent, egomaniac. Great producers and engineers are collaborators and that means being receptive to all ideas and opinions. I admit that at times I go into something thinking “this will never work” but come out pleasantly surprised. Assuming you have the luxury of time, there is nothing to be lost in creative exploration.
There are times though where you’ve been open-minded but still have reached a stalemate. The reality is that there are so many variables that are out of our control. Sometimes clients want you to mix songs that just aren’t recorded or produced well and no amount of sample replacing or autotuning will remedy them. It’s not your fault (unless you recorded or produced it). Sometimes clients expect you to give them diamonds even when they can’t afford them. It’s not your fault (unless you agreed to it). Sometimes clients think they know everything and won’t let you do your job. It’s not your fault. Period.
I’ve had to fire clients before because it just wasn’t a good fit. A client may be entitled to their opinion but that doesn’t mean that they’re always right or that you should be the one doing the job. It’s never an easy call to make but you have to watch for the warning signs because more often than not, those jobs don’t end very well. That said, sometimes we just have to roll up our sleeves and get the job done.
Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.
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