Friday, November 19, 2010

When a studio's clients want to leave—and take you with them

As a freelance recording engineer, what do you do when artists approach you directly and ask you to produce their recordings in your own right, after you've made their acquantance in someone else's studio and on someone else's dime?

This is a situation I've found myself in a few times over the years. On two occasions, clients told me that the studio we met in didn't sound good and wanted to go elsewhere—with me—to record in the future. In another case, a performer said that the producer was too hyper, "not laid back enough," and could we record somewhere else where the atmosphere was more relaxed. Similarly, in another instance, an artist complained of being stressed out in the presence of the studio owner, and consequently couldn't turn in a first-rate performance.

When this started happening, I thought it best to speak frankly with the producer or studio owner, one of whom told me that none of his other freelancers would ever dream of "poaching" his clients, whose business he had worked diligently to acquire over months and years.

I pointed out that I wasn't in the habit of poaching clients—the industry is far too small and such behaviour is ruinous to one's reputation. I suggested that those who were dissatisfied were eventually going to go elsewhere anyway, and rather than lose their business entirely, why not work out a finder's fee arrangement for him—call it a commission or kick-back if you will—so that his role in securing the business was recognized tangibly.

He rejected this suggestion out of hand, insisting they were HIS clients, and that I should endeavour to convince them to stay despite their expressed concerns.

Well, no one is automatically entitled to a client's business for life, and as the saying goes, whatever it took to get you here isn't enough to keep you here—you're only as good as your last gig. Clients are free to go where they will.

Knowing that some clients may approach competent staff members directly in an attempt to secure their services at more favourable rates, some employers insist that their employees sign a non-compete agreement.

But this doesn't wash with many freelancers, something studio owners should bear in mind when building a business based on out-sourcing the work. It's a two-edged sword—freelancers are not employees, and do not enjoy the same benefits and security that employees do, and turnabout is fair play.

Some savvy studio owners offer freelance engineers a piece of the action—participation in the business akin to stock options—in order to make it more attractive for freelancers to discourage the studio's clients from going elsewhere. I have suggested this on several occasions, with mixed results.

In the end, it's difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a good working relationship with a studio when its clients become dissatisfied and want you to take them elsewhere to record. But for a studio owner, recognizing that you're in a business relationship with freelance engineers, and not a social one, is a necessary first step in arriving at a business solution to what might otherwise become a thorny personal problem.

For a studio owner, it should serve as a wake-up call that all is not as it should be when clients express their dissatisfaction to a sympathetic ear behind the board. The solution may be as simple as staying away from the session, however tempting it may be for a studio owner to participate in the proceedings. From a "strictly-business" perspective, this is the most straightforward solution.

In the case of a home or project studio, this is not as easily accomplished, and sharing a business with a home may open up the studio operation to a level of personal micromanagement that may be detrimental to its success, exposing clients to everything from a simple request to remove their shoes, to disagreeable cooking odors emanating from the kitchen.

When home studio rates are well below prevailing commercial rates, such irritants may well be tolerable, but if home studio owners set their rates equivalent to—or higher than—commercial operations, they may need to adjust their expectations and behaviour accordingly.