THOSE WHO USE, or want to use, your amateur field recording work tend to fall into three broad categories.
First, there are those who probably make tunes and music mixes at home. They’re the ones who download your efforts from Soundcloud but almost never add a comment or send you a message to say thanks. Digital objects to them are like blackberries on a bush. The bush might have a few blunt thorns in the shape of a copyright notice, an ineffectual right-click disabling function on photos, or a forlorn ‘Donate’ button. Eager, grabbing hands won’t be put off by any of that, don’t you worry.
Just about everyone now treats pictures, code snippets, music and videos like they’re tumbling out of a post-scarcity digital cornucopia somewhere on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Institutions whose revenues aren’t threatened have recognised and begun managing this in various ways, such as Creative Commons licensing or, in the case of the British Library recently, by letting people take cameras into their reading rooms so they can photograph the contents of books. This is an enormous boon to researchers.
The second group are on a similar level to the recordist. They might be podcasters or musicians, or they might work for a community radio station or a small record label. Typically they can’t pay you much, if anything, but they’re more than happy to give you a credit, and they’ll do what they say they’re going to do. Sometimes there’s a reciprocal element to this: if they publicise what you’re doing, then you can do the same for them. Trust is built and friendships are made.
The third group is the real focus of this post. These are the professionals, typically working in broadcasting but occasionally in the museum/archive/gallery sector too. Relations tend to be more formal and businesslike than with the second group (the first group probably don’t think of you as an individual), and most of them work efficiently and to a set of clear expectations. But some don’t and I call them media chancers. Here are three examples presented as cautionary case studies, based on personal experience. The names and some other precise details are made up.
Dominic works for a well-funded county archive. He first contacted you asking for advice on different ways of making sound maps on websites. You answered him at some length by email. He thanked you and then came back asking for some more specific pieces of information. Again, you do your best to provide good answers. This time there was no immediate reply.
A few weeks pass and Dominic sends you another email, asking for help in beta-testing some aspect of the new website the archive is putting together. He also lets you know that the archive will soon be looking for a sound recordist, working in exactly the same specialism as you do. ‘We have someone in mind,’ Dominic writes suggestively.
Asking him whether that someone might indeed be you somehow seems crass, so you don’t. Instead, you provide him yet again with what he wants. ‘Thanks’, says Dominic this time, before adding that the recordist in mind is not you. Sorry about any confusion this may have caused.
With the miracle of hindsight you realise that a more forthright approach on your part would have been better early on, such as asking how he intended to reciprocate all the help and advice you’d been feeding him.
Part of the problem here is the context. You weren’t expecting a county archivist to be like someone out of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, which Dominic probably uses as a self-help guide.
Antonia works for a major broadcaster. She sends you a very flattering and slightly surprising email, asking whether they can use your seven-minute-long recording of small household items being dropped into an industrial wood-chipper for a children’s program. Sadly, neither the program nor the website formats will allow space for you to be credited. ‘Would this be a deal-breaker?’ she asks brightly.
She’s written a lot of nice things about your recordings in her email, and it’s possible that she’s even listened to some in addition to the wood-chipper. But there’s no mention anywhere of payment. The request is easy to answer: no.
Hear Today is one of your favourite radio programs, presenting as it does the work of upcoming British poets. You’re delighted when producer Oliver emails you to ask if they can use not one but four of your recordings! ‘We will of course talk about the site’, he promises.
The email avoids all that vulgar stuff about you getting paid something, but it doesn’t matter. You’re more than happy to support Hear Today and a credit on air would be great. You root around your dusty old hard-drives so you can send Oliver the edited WAV files rather than the MP3s which are closer to hand, and you go off to make a cup of tea when gazing at the upload progress bar becomes unbearable.
No reply comes but Oliver must be busy. You email him the next day to make sure he got the recordings and the program went out okay. ‘Yes thanks very much we did’, he replies, before adding a sentence the full implications of which don’t sink in immediately:
We didn’t name check it as we wanted it to appear as a secret bit of sound magic without too much signposting.
This hints at something of greater significance, like the way anthropologists can reconstruct an entire ape-man from finding a single piece of shin bone. But what is it?
Then you grasp what’s going on. The sentence is a hole through which you can see all the dismal things in the world drifting through a black void: the restaurant you end up in at the office Christmas party, the £12 margharita jug with its homeopathic alcohol percentage, films full of CGI effects, self-service tills, scrambled egg done in the microwave, the meaningless made-up names of rail companies, slimy marketing-speak.
You email to ask for clarification and in his reply Oliver seems contrite, although he now claims the omission was made in error rather than from design. It would’ve been much better if he’d started out with that explanation.
That’s the end of that, although you won’t enjoy Hear Today quite as much as you did before.
None of these are exactly terrible things to happen. It’s more like the feeling you get when you’re walking along and you get splashed by a car driving through a puddle. The answer is to be a little more circumspect.