TOBY ALINGTON: Fight the good fight

Getting your budget for the right people and tools can be hard in these days of ever-tightening purse strings.

It’s often very tempting to give in, accept you’re not going to be able to achieve what you want, but make things work as best you can.

I have been reflecting on this issue since winning the Pro Sound Award for Studio Engineer last month, and reminding myself of the many tussles I had with production companies and labels over the year leading up to winning the award. It seems I had my fair share of cutbacks, compromises and arguments, but it’s clear that the main thing that allowed me to produce the calibre of output which warranted the gong was fighting for the right level of people and kit, and asking for enough time for us to get it right.

We are often up against someone in the chain of command who wasn’t actually responsible for setting the budget, but rather they have been given a budget beyond which they’ve been told not to go. Label budgets are based on internal P&L guesswork, while production company budgets tend to be based on a competitive market place where they have promised to deliver excellence at the best price. Usually, it isn’t until those budgets have been capped and signed off that I am asked for a quote to record and mix, or mix live to air, a music event. “I simply don’t have that in my budget” is a common response to our first costing, and it would be churlish to reply, “I’m not surprised, as I didn’t do your budget”.

We will obviously try for the best possible solution, but that fact is that we have all had to compromise to make things work in recent years. Technology has helped hugely – just take MADI equipped recorders by way of an example. Recording 128, 192 or even 256 tracks effortlessly, and leaving the gig with something little bigger than a fag packet with all the audio on it, compared to 24-track 2” recording. Or look at the speed of rigging fibres compared to copper multicores. All the way through the production and post-production of audio, technology helps us to keep costs down. But there is a budget point below which we know we’re going to compromise the artist and the product if we say “yes.”

In a way, I guess the Studio Engineer award is as much for my ability to fight the corner on a budget as it is for my audio skills. If I had rolled over and not taken the time to explain why we needed things, and taken the time pleading with clients and suppliers to make it work, the end result wouldn’t have been as good.

As I said above, we’re often not pleading with the decision maker, rather someone who has the unenviable and tough job of trying to bring a project in for a capped amount. So our explanations need to be clear, logical and unemotional, as they will be passed up the chain of command if there’s a good enough argument, and much of that argument will be lost in translation if it’s too technical, too emotive or too vague. Email is a wonderful tool, because clear and concise budget arguments can simply be forwarded onto the decision-makers. Bear in mind that no production manager is going to send their producer 500 words from you attempting to explain audio nuances, even if those nuances are the key things you wish to achieve.

Line items in a budget versus a quote are also a nightmare, because you don’t see the budget against which someone is comparing your quote. If one item is too expensive, they’ll ask you to cut it; but if one quote line is cheaper than what they put in the budget, the budget is chopped. Harsh, but fair in this commercial world! Quotes are a lot to do with the perception of the client when they receive them, and the focus often seems to be on line items rather than the bottom line. Understanding and working with this can increase your chances of getting who and what you need for a project.

There was a lovely moment when the head of a large PA company in London asked the production manager of a big TV event if he could join her on a supermarket shopping trip, as he’d like to get the till with her and listen to her say, “£150?! I’ve only got £90 in my purse.”

The success of our work depends on having the necessary amount of equipment, time and crew. If we fight and win, compromises included, we can take the responsibility for making the end product something amazing. If we lose, we may as well walk away; it’s hard to be enthusiastic about something when you know you’ve been rolled-over and ignored, and there’s always the next one.

I should probably be using the word Negotiation rather than Fight, but negotiation doesn’t describe the fierceness with which we should all protect our industry and artists, and to give them the best results possible. In my twenty-five years of fighting (sic) for budgets, the times where I have lost and walked away have been sad moments, but they didn’t stop me holding out for the chance of doing the next one as best as we could. And the recent award joins others on my shelf as witness to doing what I could to make things as good as possible.

So my thanks for the Pro Sound Award not only go to my highly talented and lovely teams of people who make the impossible happen with ridiculously tight schedules, but also to the production companies and labels who listened to my pleas, saw the logic behind what we were asking for, and went out of their way to make it work for the sake of the project and the artists. I hope that the resulting success of the project brought the extra money back in, and then some.

Twitter: @tobyalington

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