Unlike in the past, degrees in audio engineering are now quite common, and many universities have added bachelor's as well as master’s degree programs for the specific professional niche of sound design. However, while these programs may teach the latest software and philosophize masterfully about the effects of sound on the human subconscious, surprisingly few degree tracks include the necessary knowledge of how to acquire actual work upon graduation.
In order to best understand the business of getting a job in sound design, you must first understand the types of employment available to you. Although these opportunities may be divided into two categories for tax purposes (independent contractor vs employee), I would like to further divide them into three in order to make important distinctions in business responsibilities in addition to the financial ones.
*Please keep in mind that I am not a legal professional, nor am I a tax accountant. This advice is based on my own personal experiences as a sound designer in the United States and should be considered as such. You should always consult a tax accountant or legal professional who understands your unique situation for accurate personalized advice.
Freelancing demands the most business knowledge from the sound designer. Being "freelance" means that you are solely responsible for searching out potential clients, pitching yourself to them, and gaining the work. You will be required to use your own gear in your own space (usually your home). Each project will pay an agreed upon lump sum, and you will be responsible for managing that money as well as hiring and paying any other personnel whose services the package requires. You are then in charge of invoicing the clients when the project is finished, collecting on that invoice, and subsequently paying all personnel whom you yourself contracted. In essence, as freelance, you will be running a one-man or -woman business.
As freelance, you are what is referred to as an independent contractor, or self-employed, for tax purposes. Come tax time, you will receive 1099 tax forms from each project on which you have worked. This means that you will have no taxes withheld during the year, and must pay everything come April of the following year in one lump sum (unless you make enough that you are required to make quarterly payments or be penalized--definitely discuss this with your tax accountant). This is a dangerous situation, and many freelancers have fallen into the trap of living off their entire income and then not having the cash on hand to pay their taxes. Always make sure that you are setting aside the necessary funds. The percentage that you need to set aside will depend on your overall income, so seek out a consultation with a tax accountant as soon as possible for accurate advice on how much you need to save.
Independent Contractor for a Studio
This position requires only slightly less business acumen than being freelance. You are still considered to be an independent contractor, or self-employed, and have all of the tax, invoicing, and record-keeping responsibilities of a freelancer. However, in this scenario, you retain a regular relationship with a studio--large or small--and do not need to court your own clients. The studio will call you with a project, and you will deliver the services.
Payments tend to be more regular in this scenario, in that you are working with a brick and mortar business and not on the passion project of independent film-makers who may or may not have handled a budget in the past. However, you still may need to follow up on invoice collection, so accurate record-keeping in key.
As an independent contractor, you must be allowed to create your own hours, choose to work from home with your own gear, and possibly sub-contract portions of the work (but always ask about this as a courtesy).
Staff Sound Designer for a Studio
This is the most sought-after position that a sound designer can have. As a staff employee of a studio, you are put on payroll and do not need to invoice per project. You will have taxes withheld from each paycheck and receive a W-2 tax form at the end of the year rather than 1099s, and may even be eligible for a refund in April. You will not need to seek out your own projects; the studio will find the work and assign projects to you. They will also likely provide you with an office, gear, and a regular schedule .
Right now, you are probably thinking: great, staff sound designer it is! Unfortunately, so is everyone else. Staff jobs are few and far between, and so, you will almost certainly need to start as a freelancer and move on to being an independent contractor for a studio before becoming a staff employee somewhere. Even as a staff employee, most sound designers choose to continue to freelance on the side to supplement their income.
Daunting as all of the above business-related information may seem, it’s important to understand because now you can prepare yourself for your new venture. Assuming that you will begin your business venture as a freelancer or independent contractor, here are the ten things you must do:
1. Get a business checking account.
This does not need to be designated as a business account by your bank. It can be a regular checking account, but needs to be separate from your personal account. Trust me, this will make tax time exponentially less likely to drive you insane, and is no harder to maintain throughout the year. Deposit all of your professional payments into this account, and make all business purchases (such as gear, software, professional subscriptions, etc.) from this account. Do not ever make a personal deposit or payment from this account. That will ensure that you have an easily accessible and already separate list of all business income and expenses at the end of the year.
2. Create professional invoices and a spreadsheet to track your invoices.
You do not need to go out and buy Quickbooks, but you do need to have a clear system of tracking your invoices so that you know who has paid and how much time has elapsed since the invoice was sent for those who have not. This information will also be great to have come tax time as you will have a list of every project on which you worked and how much you were paid for each.
I make my invoices in Pages, and then save them to a folder on my Google Drive for future reference. There are also many free online invoice creation sites, like this one. Make sure that each invoice has a new number so that they are easy to track and that you always save them to a designated folder for easy access later.
Then, I make a spreadsheet on my Google Drive with the following information: date invoiced, invoice number, project name, contact name, contact info, date of follow-up correspondence, and date payment was received.
FREE DOWNLOAD: Here is a link to my freelance invoice tracking spreadsheet on Google Drive. Save a copy to your own drive to be able to edit.
3. Obtain a tax registration certificate.
Review your city's policies on this, as it will vary from location to location. In Los Angeles, as a freelancer or independent contractor, you are required to obtain a tax registration certificate and pay the required business tax if you are engaging in business activities in Los Angeles County. However, if you apply for an exemption as a "creative artist," fulfill those requirements by the set deadline, and earn less than $300,000 per year in gross receipts, the fee will be waived. Again, this is an important point about which to speak with your tax accountant.
4. Ask your tax accountant to advise you on your deductions.
Tax deductions are also commonly referred to as "write-offs." These are expenses which are necessary in order for you to operate your business. Deductions for sound designers may include meals with clients during which you talk about business, a portion of your cell phone bill, gear purchases, and a portion of the square footage of your apartment if you work from home. You should have a consultation with your tax accountant in which he or she can give you a list of the exact deductions which may be made. These are always changing, and this is a huge point of misconception in our industry. Do not simply rely on your fellow sound designers or the internet to advise you on what is or is not deductible.
You must also beware of the common mistake of thinking that "write-offs" equal free purchases. That is not how it works. In fact, deductions are just that--deductions. Come tax time, your accountant will calculate your income for the year. Then, he or she will deduct the cost of your deductions from that number. This adjusted income is the number on which you are taxed. The point of deductions is to reduce your adjusted income so that you owe less money due to lower income and hopefully a lower tax bracket. Deductions are not the equivalent of free money, so only spend if you truly need the item for your business. Buying a giant flatscreen TV for playbacks only makes sense if you actually need it, even if it is deductible.
5. Make a reel or a portfolio.
People will want to see what you can do before they hire you. Make a reel of student projects or things that you’ve simply done for fun. But, if you would like to use work that you did for anyone other than yourself (as a freelancer, independent contractor, or staff), you MUST always ask permission before placing it in your reel. Often, this permission will not be granted, in which case it is much safer to instead create a list of work you have done without clips. Do not ever post any content on the internet or disseminate it in any other fashion without permission, as this will leave you legally liable.
6. Create a website for yourself.
When people want to learn about you and your business, your website will be the first place they turn. It is not difficult to create a site as there are many free and low-cost website building options such as Wix and Squarespace. Include a short bio, your reel or list of previous work, contact information and an email form, and possibly even your full resume. When emailing studios looking for work, attachments often get misplaced over time. But, with your own website, simply googling your name will now bring up all of the necessary information for them to contact you with work.
7. Email studios.
As a studio owner, I am often asked: what is the best way to contact a studio to inquire about work? The answer: email. At Boom Box Post, we are very busy and taking unsolicited phone calls is cumbersome and quite honestly awkward. However, a polite email inquiring about positions or simply introducing oneself and asking for 15 minutes of time to meet in person is wonderful.
This is a very important fact: legitimate sound design jobs are almost never posted anywhere. You will not find them on monster.com or Craigslist, and any that you do find on job listing boards will likely be for fairly amateur clients with low budgets. Instead, studios are always keeping an eye out for additional talent and will usually tap those individuals who reach out to them to fill any positions that arise. So, get out there and start emailing your resume (and new website!) to every studio you can find, and always ask for the time to meet in person. An emailed resume is great, but face-to-face contact makes you memorable.
8. Get on LinkedIn and IMDB.
I know, LinkedIn is not cool. It’s corporate and cold, and very off-putting to those of us who think of ourselves as creative professionals who should be gaining employment through our shiningly obvious talent. But remember, you’re not just an audio artist as you were taught to be in school. You are also a business now. So, join some discussion groups, create a page with your resume, and connect yourself with other professionals and studio owners. You can segue those connections into the emails and studio visits mentioned above. Remember, all of these internet tools should be the jumping off point for person-to-person interactions.
As you gain credits as a freelancer, you should regularly add them to IMDB. When a prospective employee emails me, I do two things: check LinkedIn to see his or her resume and check IMDB to see his or her credits.
9. network in person.
As mentioned above, networking via email and LinkedIn, or even on community internet forums is great, but the fact remains that if that’s all you’re doing, no one really knows you yet. In the end, you will be hired because you are talented, but also because people enjoy being around you and find you a pleasure with whom to work. So, go out in person and attempt to make the necessary connections.
If you are looking for freelance work, go to screenings of short films at festivals or graduate programs. Take business cards and pass them out to all of the involved directors. If you are looking for small studio jobs, find networking mixers that put you in a room with those specific people. And if you are looking for staff positions, befriend someone who has a similar position, and ask to be invited to a professional or personal event that may put you in the room with other people at the company. Then, work your conversational magic, making sure to mention that you’re excited about the prospect of new work.
Always remember that it doesn't matter how good your pitch is if you're in the wrong room. Networking in person or on the internet with other sound professionals can feel like you're accomplishing a lot. But, think about exactly who are you are hoping to gain work from (indie film makers, post-production supervisors, etc.) and then adjust your "room" accordingly. Often the best networking is not done with professional peers.
10. Ask specific questions.
Whenever you do get into the room with someone who may help you, don’t just sit back and wait for them to impart wisdom to you. Ask if they have any positions available and what they are looking for in candidates. If they aren’t hiring, ask if they know of any studios that may be a good fit for you. Most studios have close relationships with other studios and may be able to recommend one that would be compatible with your skills.