Interview with Andrew Munsey: On Building a Life in Music and Audio Production
Since writing my last post about the practice of “community building” in the arts as a more personally sustainable alternative to “self-promotion,” I’ve been thinking about ways to show how some artists have put this principle into practice in their own lives. Briefly, the idea is that most of us grow weary of “self-promotion” because it forces us to focus only on ourselves and what others can do for us. I recommend focusing instead on “building community” — building reciprocal relationships with other artists, professionals in our fields, and more broadly with anyone who believes in the beauty of a more vibrant world through the arts. I think that all of us, or at least most of us, are doing this already, and we’ll do ourselves a world of good by thinking of it this way, rather than only thinking about promoting ourselves. Andrew’s first sentence in his answer to the “community” question is excellent:
In the simplest terms, it’s your friends or like-minded colleagues that are likely to involve you in their projects.
So, artists, get out there and make those “friends or like-minded colleagues,” right? This attitude comes out of Andrew Munsey’s work as a drummer, educator, film composer, and sound engineer in Brooklyn, NY. I met him through a good friend when I was looking for an engineer to help me learn to use Logic audio editing software and by helping me mix a project for AnyWhen Ensemble that we recorded two years ago but never finished. I wanted Andrew to contribute his thoughts to the blog because he is a great example of someone who has built a diverse set of skills — performance, education, and audio production — as a way for him to make a living that is personally fulfilling. But, all those skills would be worthless without a community of people around him that help him to benefit others through those skills, and keep him sane through all the running around that he does. You can hear Andrew’s music at this link and hear some of his audio production work here. I can say that in addition to being a great musician and a thoughtful, competent engineer, he also gives some very sound advice and great insight in this interview. Enjoy!
Douglas Detrick: How did you begin to build a career in film scoring and engineering? How did you start, and how have things changed since then?
Andrew Munsey: When I was really young, I visited a recording studio while my Mom was recording a project of hers. I was really intrigued with the whole process and pretty much decided then and there that I really wanted to record my music in that same way. In middle school I was playing in a little punk band and my older brother noticed we had a bunch of friends who were coming out to our shows so he helped us record an EP and released it on his label at the time, Hoovz Records. I think from there the creative spark for that line of work really ignited something in me. I apprenticed with a recording engineer throughout high school and in college I started getting some broadcast audio work assisting. I also spent all the time I could in the recording studio during my undergrad at CalArts, honing those skills. I studied jazz so learning how to self produce recordings really complimented that. My last year there was when I started getting involved in scoring and mixing film projects, mostly by animation students but also some filmmakers who I’m still involved with today. Those skills made for a fairly seamless transition into professional work out of school: performing, recording, mixing, scoring and the like.
In the past five years alone, the amount of media content available to us has exploded. Internet video is a primary form of media (and music) consumption so the opportunities for work like mixing and scoring are growing. Also, it seems that independent musicians are now expected to be producing video content of their own, even on par with their studio recordings. It’s certainly a new challenge for musicians and artists seeking attention. Fortunately, the technology has also become so cheap that anyone interested in writing for picture or making recordings (and videos) can do so and get great practice at it with little risk. Producing quality work isn’t necessarily easier, and it’s certainly hard to make work that sticks out, but I feel that opportunities are aplenty.
DD: What are your goals for the future, and how will you get there?
AM: One of my first goals is to officially release some music of my own. I’ve been writing as much as I can, and I’m pretty close to having enough material for two projects—one small and one large. I’m planning on avoiding the recording studio, at least for the first project this summer. I’ve been making more location recordings of musical ensembles lately, simple sessions with 8-16 microphones, and I really enjoy it. Finding a great sounding room is usually half of the battle when choosing a studio so if you decide against recording through a proper console, all sorts of interesting and non-conventional spaces could be considered. Self-producing skills can get you quite a bit of mileage when taking this approach too. I’ve planned something like that first.
DD: How does this work intersect with what you would call your “creative” work? Do you see a difference there?
AM: I do see a difference. Sound engineering and writing for picture is creative work, but sometimes it doesn’t necessarily encompass my full vision as a musical artist. It’s a lot of fun, and the confines and specifics of each project are best viewed as creative challenges; the speed of things is also part of the fun too—some projects need to be turned around in less than a day’s time. Sometimes it’s a great mode for expressive work in a musical way, sometimes it’s more about serving someone else’s vision very specifically. I think that is the challenge in this line of work — learning to find the overlap between function and an inspired idea, something that’s totally personal. I think it intersects with my artistic work in really positive ways though. I always find it fun to mix music, especially when it’s good! It’s a chance to listen really deeply to someone’s compositions and performance, and for me it’s always a learning experience that can be applied to my own compositional and recording work.
One of the latest projects I’m involved with is an experimental film called Music For Prepared Bicycle, by the artist Caecilia Tripp. It’s required that I get involved with fabricating and preparing a bicycle (in the extended technique sort of way) with guitar strings and the like, then recording it on an epic bike ride throughout New York City. It’s been a challenge, requiring some convergent thought about composition and recording for picture — all on a tight deadline! It’s the sort of work that brings all those skills together in a very rewarding way.
DD: What advice do you have for a younger musician who wants to do what you do?
AM: The best advice I could offer is to take risks. I had never mixed an album or scored until I said yes to an offer (or offered of my own accord). Of course there’s always a bit of hair pulling when you commit to a job you’ve never done before, but it makes the reward greater. And, of course, just like excelling at an instrument, it’s takes a lot of practice and listening to get better. Fortunately, there are so many opportunities for musicians and sound engineers (your skills definitely need to overlap!) that finding something to get involved with shouldn’t be the hard part—making something worthwhile always is.
DD: One last question. I’ve been writing about the idea of “community” on this blog recently, and I hope to show concrete ways in which different artists have (or have not) applied this idea in their own lives. How do you see a “community” of people having helped you to achieve your goals so far as both a creative musician and in scoring films and engineering? How have you tried to build up the community of people around you?
AM: In the simplest terms, it’s your friends or like-minded colleagues that are likely to involve you in their projects. I’ve found it really important to be involved with a small circle or community of people whose work I enjoy and who can appreciate the work I do. I’ve worked with strangers or people who reach out of the blue, but most of the things I’m involved with and enjoy are the work of friends and such. I also find it really important to have that support structure of people who are somewhere around your level of progress as an artist or professional, people who can open up about their ideas and work and with whom you can do the same.
From a professional standpoint, it’s much easy to barter within a community too. You can put your skills or resources to work for others and they can return the favor, even if you never articulate that exchange as a trade. Lastly, I just enjoy making and recording music with friends and it’s obvious that even the masters of music operate like that. It’s pretty clear to me the relationships you foster in your artistic and professional communities are quite an important factor in your enjoyment and success at whatever you’re doing. What’s that old saying: a rising tide raises all ships? If you’re contributing to the success of your friends or community, everybody wins. At least that’s what I think.