Despite stories of big studio closures and contracting CD sales over the last decade, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests that the audio engineering profession has grown considerably since 1999. Although competition remains fierce and growth is expected to slow, median annual incomes have increased in recent years, rising from $30,000 to $46,000 between 1999 and 2010.
But before we dive into these numbers, it’s important to know their limitations.
The government’s data on salaries draws heavily from the Occupational Employment Statistics (“OES”) survey, a questionnaire which is filled out by businesses that hire and pay workers. Although the BLS also conducts a Current Population Survey (“CPS”) survey that attempts to fill in gaps with answers from individual members for the labor force, it’s likely that even with this extra data, the government’s numbers may not fully account for the impact of the self-employed.
Based on the way these surveys work, it’s especially unlikely that the incomes of aspiring engineers who make a little extra money through recording on the side factor in much at all. While this can seem like a limitation at first glance, it may actually help keep the wage data fairly pure for our purposes. Despite their limitations, the government data on engineer salaries represents the best and most comprehensive collection of full and part-time compensation currently available.
Where are the jobs, by industry?
According to the U.S. government, the number of jobs for broadcast, audio and video engineers in general grew by 20%-25% from 1999 to 2010. Surprisingly, an even higher rate of job growth near 50% went to the small subset of those engineers who work specifically in sound engineering.
Unfortunately, growth isn’t expected to remain quite that high over the next decade, even as the rest of the economy picks up steam. While federal economists expect jobs for broadcast engineers and A/V technicians to keep pace with the average for other occupations and grow at a healthy 10-13%, the outlook for pure audio positions is not quite as good. Job growth in that area is expected to slow to a paltry 1% for the next 8 years.
Although the BLS statistics are unlikely to be a perfect indicator of the exact number of Americans who do any paid audio engineering work, they can give us a great sense of where most of the work can be found. Today, the industries that employ the most sound engineers are Motion Picture and Video (24%), Broadcast and Cable Television (14%), Music Recording (14%), Live Arts, Entertainment and Sporting Events (12%), and Broadcast Radio (4%).
How much do they pay?
While national median wages for sound engineers are roughly $46,00, government economists say the averages are significantly higher, near $56,000. This is because salary disparity can be significant in this line of work, with the top 10% earning averages near $100,000 and the bottom 10% earning closer to $20,000 annually. For comparison, the average salary for all workers in the U.S. was $46,000 in 2010.
The highest incomes (just like the greatest levels of job growth) are in motion picture & video, where the average is about $73,000. Meanwhile, broadcasters working in television can expect averages above $50,000, and those who work in the recording and live sound industries see annual incomes in the mid $40,000s.
For the very few engineers who work in designing circuits, computer programs and architectural installations, average salaries range between $60,000 and $80,000.
Where are the jobs, by region?
California beats out New York, just barely, as the largest market for sound engineers. Taken together, employment in these two states makes up nearly 45% of all of the jobs on the books at the BLS.
After these major markets is Florida, with nearly 15% of all the audio jobs, followed by Illinois and Texas with nearly 7% of all audio jobs each. After that, Nashville, Boston, Las Vegas and Seattle have high concentrations of audio positions relative to other cities their size.
Although there may be more total employment in New York and California, expect competition to be fierce. Even the government’s economists predict that those who are new to the field will have a better shot breaking into smaller markets.
How much do they pay?
Thanks to a healthy film and video sector, sound engineers in LA report the highest average salaries in the nation, earning near $83,000 a year.
Although far fewer engineers work in Las Vegas, they also enjoy unusually high average salaries around $80,000, thanks to their profitable live entertainment industry. The same dynamic holds for the pockets of audio engineers who work near Sacramento or San Jose. They can expect averages around $70,000 due to the robust computer technology industry in those areas.
Here in New York, the average income for audio engineers is roughly $66,000. Our bustling recording industry surely plays into this equation, although once again, averages are often even higher for those engineers who work on the television and video sides of the discipline.
The rest of the Northeast does pretty well too. Although upstate New York, Washington D.C., Rhode Island, and Boston have a fraction of the number of total jobs, salaries in those areas are also firmly above the national average, and hover just above $60,000.
In the South, salaries are significantly lower. Florida is the 3rd largest audio market in the country, but reported salaries are barely above $40,000 near Miami and $30,000 near Orlando. While the small city of Nashville, Tennessee has a higher concentration of audio engineers than any city other than L.A., average audio salaries there are closer to $30,000 each year.
On the other hand, costs of living is far lower in these states, so conditions may even be comparable from a quality-of-life standpoint. It wouldn’t be surprising if engineers in the bottom 50% of Southern markets have more room to stretch out in their homes than the top 50% of earners in New York!
Although the growth of pure sound jobs is expected to slow dramatically going forward, there are plenty of related areas that are picking up steam.
Audiobooks, podcasts and internet radio are small, but growing markets. More significantly, the world now has more video, and therefore, more recorded sound than ever before. As companies continue to figure out how to monetize streaming web video, we can only expect more jobs there.
When the hosts of our Input/Output podcast interviewed Avid’s Tony Cariddi for an upcoming episode about the future of Pro Tools, he suggested that the audio and video professions may continue merging to a degree. It’s a theory that many analysts share – myself included.
Today, many audio schools – from reputable age-old universities to fly-by-night diploma mills – are modernizing and morphing their educational programs to adapt to the changing times. We’ll investigate developments on that end in the coming weeks.