What is a Portfolio Career?
Modern producers are always on the go, constantly juggling multiple projects and roles in and out of the studio. Being able to create your own path in this ever-changing industry is a necessary attribute that all great producers have, so having a ‘portfolio career’ is often the norm amongst industry professionals. But what is it?
Put simply, a portfolio career is a working lifestyle of maintaining multiple income streams that relate to your skillset and knowledge; in this case as a producer or engineer. As one project ends, producers will set their sights elsewhere, often taking on a different role in the next project compared to the previous. This makes working in the music industry an exciting prospect with the opportunity to face new challenges and employ many different skillsets on a daily basis.
This is not a new concept or one that pertains only to the music industry. The term portfolio career has many other names such as solopreneur, side hustle, multi-hyphenate or slasher (due to the hyphens or slashes in the job title). It’s an idea that has been around for some time, popularised by business-minded philosopher Charles Handy in his 1995 book The Empty Raincoat: Making Sense of the Future who argues that if overall income is comfortable and sustainable, a wide portfolio of jobs tailored to suit the interests of the individual is the best way to achieve job satisfaction. A recent survey found 64% of millennials would consider having a second source of income alongside their full-time job, with many driven by wanting something different or special from what they’re already getting at work every day. With the music and arts industries being built on a ‘gig’ economy of short-term freelance work, it’s no wonder that many producers want to take on side jobs for creative fulfilment!
What does this mean for music producers?
In the studio, producers already wear many different hats. The definition of a ‘producer’ is generally accepted as someone who oversees the creation of a song or album, but what this entails can vary between people. You may find yourself in charge of seeking out studio time, engineers and session musicians for the project or balancing finances, all while taking on songwriting, mixing and mastering. You might also have an interest in artist development and management, scouting out new artists and helping them to set up their own career.
Outside the studio, roles may include performing as a musician, live sound at a venue, teaching or tutoring, composing, sound design and more. The skills a producer learns can be applied in a huge variety of situations, and so building up a portfolio career seems like the logical choice, even if you are thinking of specialising later on in your career.
So what are some common types of work which your skills as a music producer can naturally feed into? Let’s look at a few examples.
Having a solid foundational knowledge on the principles of audio and ‘bits of kit’ used in engineering (whether software or hardware) means you can comfortably take on audio engineering work.
The most obvious example of this is in the studio. Since the introduction of DAWs in the early 90s (like Logic Pro, ProTools and later Ableton Live) producers now not only have the ability to record an artist but also to contribute MIDI programming, editing, arranging, mixing and mastering to the project using just one single piece of software. In a typical scenario, you might expect to program some MIDI instruments as a backing track prior to the recording session. After recording is done, you’ll spend a couple of hours putting together a rough mix in order for the eagerly-awaiting artist to hear how their song sounds, and then go on to complete a full mix, and potentially master as well if desired. This is great if you want to have creative control of the process from start to finish, ensuring that the end product sounds exactly as you and the artist envisioned it.
Live sound engineering is a field with many opportunities, especially for those who enjoy getting involved in live events. The techniques used to capture and produce audio at venues like stadiums or concert halls differ from what’s seen during studio sessions, however there are still basic principles that are essentially the same or can be learned very quickly. The best way to start is as an assistant sound technician, helping to set up microphones and monitor speakers while learning how the sound system at that particular venue works.
For something slightly left-of-field, multimedia or non-music sound engineering is another great way to go. This can include working on an audio mix for a film, TV, theatre show or video game where music, dialogue, sound design and sound effects are incorporated into one overall mix. It could also include engineering with spoken word content such as audiobooks, voiceovers and podcasts which all use the same techniques as processing vocals in a song.
Composition & Sound Design for Media
If you want to combine your love for writing music with your love for entertainment, there are plenty of opportunities to compose for film, TV, video games, advertisement and many other media formats.
To be a successful composer, you not only need to have an excellent understanding of music theory and great compositional skills, but also possess the ability to turn around your work quickly (sometimes in a matter of days!) and know how sound affects your audience. As well as this knowledge comes the ability to navigate through orchestration and be able to manage live recording sessions, or create convincing compositions without live instruments, all while convincing them that what they’re listening to is real! Depending on the size of the production, you might also be required to mix and master the final product. As a composer, you’ll work closely with the director to ‘spot’ which on-screen points need music and what exactly the music should convey, so great communication and planning is essential.
The job of a sound designer is similar to that of a composer, the main difference being that you’re working with sounds and effects rather than music. Taking on a sound design role will allow you to employ your knowledge of microphones, recording techniques for creating different timbres and moods, plus all the sound synthesis and audio processing knowledge needed to construct the perfect sound effects and atmospheric soundscapes.
Award-winning composer and founder of Primerchord Production Music, Amara Primero, talks about the importance of a portfolio career and the ability to adapt and problem solve that comes with it:
“Composers and producers who get the most work and repeat work in the industry, are those who are willing to extend themselves beyond what they already know. Become versatile across many genres and styles. Oftentimes a brief can change half-way through a project, as the production team develops different story ideas, so you want to make sure you can adapt to their needs.”
Management and A&R
A&R stands for ‘Artist & Repertoire’, also sometimes called a ‘Talent Scout’. Their job is to find promising new artists or bands and help them develop their sound, identifying their strongest tracks and match them with people who can extract the best out of them, be it a record label or other producers and collaborators. In recent years, this role naturally progressed into artist management where you further nurture an artist’s career, helping them with day-to-day tasks and setting goals for the long-term.
In order to find new talent, you go out and about in the music world, visiting live venues, open mics and talent contests or networking with other producers who may know of emerging local artists. Once you’re working with these artists, your role becomes more about overseeing the recording process. You will oversee the choosing of songs, handling payments and studio bookings, arranging training for the artist such as a vocal coach, setting up collaborations with other artists and producers, and managing the marketing and promotion of their next release.
You get the opportunity to travel around and be involved with different music scenes at clubs, venues and festivals while you’re on the search for talent. This helps you build a strong network and allows you to utilise your knowledge of how things work in this industry.
Interested in learning a portfolio’s worth of skills?
With the freedom to acquire new skills and explore an ever-changing world of music-related jobs, the portfolio career can certainly be fulfilling to a highly creative and multi-talented music producer.
In our Advanced Diploma of Music Industry (CUA60515), we cover all the different technical, musical, business and interpersonal aspects needed for professions in music production and sound engineering. In addition to the skills you learn in class, you’ll be a part of the extended Studios 301 and Abbey Road Institute community and have access to the network of industry connections with a wide range of skillsets, which can be invaluable for setting up your own unique portfolio career.
Over the hands-on course you’ll learn:
- Audio engineering principles (e.g. sound theory, processing techniques, recording techniques)
- Skills for writing & producing music (e.g. music theory, orchestration, DAWs, synthesis)
- Music for multimedia (e.g. film sound, film music, post production)
- Legal knowledge (e.g. the Australian legal system, copyright, licensing)
- Music business (e.g. management, teamwork, accounting, royalties)
When combined, these skills construct a well-rounded base for you to discover your place as part of the global music industry.