GaWC Research Bulletin 406

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“Forget It. No One’s Going to Work with You Again”: Reputation Building, Emotional Labour and Active Networking in the Recording Studio Sector of the Music Industry

A. Watson*


Although networks have become a major analytical concept in economic geography, most research has tended to focus on the meso-level of inter-organisational networks. It is typical of much of this research that overlapping social networks, the individual actors that constitute them, and the fragility of these networks are not given sufficient recognition. Essentially, meso-level research has failed to recognise the full heterogeneity of network practices. This paper reports a micro-level case study of networking in the recording studio sector of the musical economy, based upon qualitative interviews with record producers and recording engineers working in recording studios in London. Drawing on the concepts of ‘social capital’, ‘networked reputation’ and ‘active networking’, the paper examines the networking practices of producers and engineers as they attempt to develop their reputation and maintain employment in an increasingly precarious industry. In particular, through employing such a micro-level approach, the paper exposes the little-recognised importance of emotional labour in building reputation within networks. Informal, ‘softer’ personality characteristics and symbolic attributes, it is suggested, are an important part of reputation, being a means by which clients legitimate studio producers and engineers, and thus play an important role in obtaining work.

Key words: Recording studio, emotional labour, networked reputation, social capital, active networking, social networks


Although networks have become a major analytical concept in economic geography, most research has tended to focus on the meso-level of inter-organisational networks. It is typical of much of this research that overlapping social networks, and the individual actors that constitute them, are uncritically subsumed into inter-firm networks. Ettlinger (2003) argues that this top-down strategy excludes the people involved in the daily practices of work, and leads to an ‘ecological fallacy’ whereby it is presumed that what holds for firms in networks also holds for individual actors. Furthermore, recent critiques have argued that the networking paradigm in economic geography is inherently positive and associative (Vorley et al. 2012), and does not recognise unequal power relations and the fragility of networks and social relations (see Markusen, 2003; Grabher 2006). For Vorley et al. this associative paradigm “fails to recognise the full heterogeneity of network practices in economic geography” (2012, 80).

The continued lack of attention to networking at the micro-level of the individual is all the more surprising lack given the recent ‘relational turn’ in economic geography (Storper 1997; Boggs and Rantisi 2003; cf. Bathelt 2006; Bathelt and Glückler 2011). A relational perspective on economic geography explicitly draws attention to the importance of economic actors and how they associate and interact in space (see Bathelt and Glückler 2003). Thus from a relational perspective it is social actors, rather than the firm as an abstract entity, that have become the key analytical focus (Ettlinger 2003; Yeung 2005). However, recent research that takes this perspective forward, such as that adopting a global production networks approach (see, for example: Coe, 2001; Coe and Johns, 2003; Johns, 2006, 2010; Yoon and Malecki, 2009), has retained a focus on the meso-level of intra- and inter-firm networks.

Such perspectives have undoubted value in developing our understanding of the complexities of the structure, nature and form of organisational networks. However, more micro-level, or ‘microspace’ (Ettlinger 2003) approaches have much to offer to our understanding of the heterogeneous and political nature of social networks, and the tensions between these social networks and economic transactions, across a wide range of industries. One area of research in which micro-level studies have proliferated is in the importance of social networks to work in the cultural and creative industries. Industry-specific examples of such research from across a range of academic disciplines include Blair (2001, 2009; Blair et al. 2001, 2003) on the film industry; Antcliff et al. (2007) and Lee (2011) on the television industry; Christopherson (2002, 2004) on new media; Norcliffe and Rendance (2003) on the comic book production industries; as well as Hesmondhalgh and Baker’s (2010) study of three cultural industries.

The focus of much of this micro-level research on the cultural and creative industries can be explained through the increasingly pervasive effects of the neoliberalisation of work in these industries, which is reducing employment security and eroding working conditions in these industries. In particular, as patterns of project work have become more temporary and flexible, freelance has become increasingly common (see McRobbie 2002; McGuigan, 2010); in some sectors, such as film and television, fragmentation and deregulation have resulted in almost universal freelance working (Davenport, 2006; Saundry and Nolan, 1998; Ursell, 2000). As stable notions of careers have given way to more informal, insecure and discontinuous employment (Jones 1996), increasing numbers of cultural and creative workers are engaged in insecure, casualised, or irregular labour (Gill and Pratt 2008) - ‘precarious’ employment (see Murdock 2003; Neilson & Rossiter 2005; Ross 2008) marked by “structured job insecurity” (Blair et al. 2001, 174).

The aim of this paper is to take a micro-level approach to the examination of networks that considers the importance of social networks to employment and work in an industry in which employment is ‘precarious.’ To be specific, the paper is based around a case study of networking in the recording studio sector of the musical economy. In this sector there has been the comparatively recent development of a freelance project-based model for recording (Leyshon 2009), with a corresponding rise in insecure and discontinuous employment. Drawing on the concepts of ‘social capital’ (Coleman 1988) and ‘networked reputation’ (Glückler & Armbrüster 2003; Glückler, 2005, 2007), this paper examines the active networking practices of freelance record producers and recording engineers as they attempt to build reputation and maintain employment in this increasingly precarious industry. In particular, the paper exposes the little-recognised importance of emotional labour in building reputation within networks. Informal, ‘softer’ personality characteristics and symbolic attributes, it is suggested, are an important part of reputation, being a means by which clients legitimate studio producers and engineers, and thus play an important role in obtaining work.

The discussion presented in the paper is based upon empirical data collected through 19 interviews undertaken with recording studio producers and engineers working in recording studios in London. All interviews were undertaken between June 2010 and March 2011; the interviews were recorded and analysis was analysed using a grounded theory approach (Charmaz 2006). The roles performed by record producers and recording engineers in the studio workplace can be approximately defined as follows: record producers control and supervise the recording process, directing proceedings and making aesthetic decisions concerning the overall sound; while studio engineers are skilled in operating the complex equipment of the recording studio, and in getting the required sound and effect from the equipment, transforming sound from performance to artefact (Tankel, 1990). However, there is often much overlap in the roles performed by producers and engineers, and while the skills of studio engineers in particular are generally considered to be technical, the practice of such technical skills also involves aesthetic decisions making (Kealy, 1990).

The paper is structured in three main sections. The first section of the paper considers the importance of social networks to winning work in the recording studio sector. In particular, it highlights how recording studio producers and engineers actively network in order to build a stock of ‘social capital’, understood as a relational resource capability that is vital to being in continuous paid employment. Then following this, the second section of the paper considers how producers and engineers build reputation, considered central to getting work in the music industry and as a stabilising feature of an otherwise uncertain business. In particular, the section highlights the ways in which reputation is spread through word of mouth and becomes a networked asset for producers and engineers. The third section of the paper then moves on to discuss the little-recognised importance of emotional labour in the building of networked reputation and to winning work in a precarious environment, arguing that emotions are a key means by which clients legitimate studio producers and engineers.

Active networking and building ‘social capital’

In the introduction to this paper, it was noted that a key feature of the cultural and creative industries is informal, insecure and discontinuous employment (Jones 1996), with increasing numbers of cultural and creative workers are engaged in insecure, casualised, or irregular labour (Gill and Pratt 2008). Necessarily, when high levels of uncertainty prevailing regarding employment exist, job seeking becomes relentless in order to sustain sufficient employment, even during times of employment (Patterson 2001; Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2010). Networking is a proactive strategy commonly used for getting work in labour markets where a lot of hiring happens informally through contacts (Coulson 2012). In this regard, social mechanisms are considered to assume a particularly important role in the allocation of work in the cultural and creative industries (Baumann 2002). For Randle and Culkin (2009) for freelancers working in such industries, thedevelopment of a good network of personal contacts is vital in finding work, as when work is scarce the quality of these networks may determine whether a freelance career continues or ends.

Thus in “an economy of favours” (Ursell 2000, 822) it is often personal networks, rather than formal firm contractual networks, that provide the basic social infrastructure for finding employment. For example, in her study of new media, Christopherson highlights how media workers “overwhelmingly depend on personal networks to make employment matches” (2002, 2011). As McGuigan notes, “frantic networking is a salient feature of such working life” (2010, 333). In their study of the British film industry, Blair et al. (2001), found that the majority of workers from someone they had worked with before. Similarly, the importance of social networks of contacts to hearing about and winning work was made particularly clear through the responses of three interviewees, one of which had moved to London from abroad and two that were considering moving away from London to work abroad. In the first case, a now London-based engineer-producer and studio owner had originally moved from Sydney, Australia, to work in London. His account tells of how the technical skills he developed in Sydney were worth little when he arrived in London as he did not have an established network of contacts through which he could obtain work:

After doing six solid years [in Sydney], three years of making tea and then three years of starting to engineer projects, I was probably in a good position to have most of the skills to make a record. But what I didn't have is any support network when I came to London. So I then went for a year or two without any work at all… So I'd got to the point where I was too experienced to be tea-boying but I wasn't established in London. And so that was probably, in retrospect, quite an awkward place to be because I had to build things up from the start. What I would have done if I could have gone back and done it again is just gone straight into studios and just said “I want to be tea boy. I want to work for nothing”. (Interview 17, male engineer producer, forties)

The above quote highlights how a lack of personal networks can make new entry into a new project ecology very difficult (see also Johns, 2010, on the film and television industry in Manchester), and how leaving an established regional network of contacts to move elsewhere can come at a cost to career development (see also Christopherson 2002 on new media workers). Supporting this finding, another of the interviewees was acutely aware of the problems associated with lacking a network of contacts. He described how he had worked with a leading American producer on a recording project in London, who had subsequently offered him work out in the United States. However, he felt that he would be lacking a social network that would give him sufficient work outside the few times that the producer would require his engineering services:

I worked with an American producer... he wanted me to go over and work with him in the states... it would have been a great opportunity but then it would have been hard because if I wasn’t working with him I would have no contacts at all... I’d have to start making contacts, going round, asking for work and all that kind of stuff, which is fine but I think it would have been really difficult for a couple of years. (Interview 15, male engineer, thirties)

For this interviewee, building a network of contacts to gain sufficient work would then effectively require him to begin his career again from the beginning, despite the reputation he had developed in London. In the case of another interviewee, a freelance recording engineer who had taken the decision to move from London to Melbourne, Australia for family reasons, he had already travelled out there on a short visit and worked free of charge in an attempt to build a network of contacts before moving permanently. Here he describes building network reputation as gaining ‘cred’ (an abbreviation of credibility) which would allow him to get work on projects when he moved to Melbourne permanently:

...I thought well I’ll try and make some contacts ... I had a friend there who already knew a studio and I did some research on the internet... I put a couple of ads on bulletin boards and things as said, look, anyone up for doing some recording, you don’t have to pay me, I’ll finish things off in London. All you have to pay for is the studio and I’ll come and work for you for nothing. And two people responded and two people took me up on it... I didn’t get paid for that but it got me in with the studio out there... and hopefully... when we do move over there then I’ll be able to get some work there... I’m hoping that I might get a little bit of a resume behind myself [so] that when I go out there eventually I will have enough cred... I’ll be out there and have a bit of cred behind [me] I might be able to get some decent stuff in straight away and see where we go from there really. (Interview 8, male engineer, twenties)

The case of the above interviewee highlights the way in which networking is an active, on-going and conscious process in which producers and engineers knowingly and instrumentally engage. Blair (2009) terms this ‘active networking’, arguing that “individuals consciously act to make and maintain contacts with other individuals and groups, assuming that a variety of forms of information or opportunities for work will be more readily available as a consequence” (Blair 2009: 122). Forming networks, then, is a deliberate action involving conscious consideration of the potential usefulness of the selected individuals in the network (Coulson 2012). In the case of the above interviewee, who would continue to work on a freelance basis in Melbourne, the establishment and maintenance of a network of contacts through which opportunities of work become available is of particular importance to reducing employment uncertainty. As Blair (2009) asserts:

Freelancers operating in this manner build up a large number of contacts on whom they draw for information and for job opportunities. The reduction of employment uncertainty, rather than taking place through a fixed set of working relationships, is more dependent upon a wide net of contacts in positions either to recommend, set up a job or offer a job directly. (Blair 2009: 131)

Following Bourdieu (1986), we can understand the personal networks developed by the engineers and producers as being their stock of ‘social capital’. Social capital can be understood as a relational resource capability that is built collectively and cannot be possessed or built without the active involvement of others (Coleman 1988; Bathelt and Glückler, 2005). This social capital is important in reducing the uncertainties associated with uncertain demand in project working, as strong social capital offers a set of opportunities for gaining future work that recording engineers and record producers can “draw from the quality and structure of their relations with other actors in order to pursue individual objectives” (Bathelt and Glückler, 2005: 1555; see also Bathelt and Glückler, 2003). Thus the higher the quality of social capital on which an engineer or producer can draw the more likely they are to be in continuous paid employment. If we take the earlier example of the interviewee who moved to London from Sydney, put in Bourdieu’s terms, when he arrived in London, the interviewee lacked a sufficient stock of social capital to gain work.

The producer or engineer’s own structural position (access to industry contacts, skills, education etc.) will determine whether they are more or less capable of making the required contacts and building social capital. Accordingly the outcome of networking activity may be “more or less ‘successful’ depending on the resources a job seeker has prior access to as a result of their own structural position in addition to the structural position of their network of connections” (Blair, 2009: 125). As one interviewee explained about one of his social circle, a producer who worked on a commercially successful recording project:

...because of that [commercially successful project] he'll get a lot of work coming his way through certain people, and they'll recommend him to other people and suddenly, once you're in there with someone quite often you're in there with a lot of people. (Interview 8, male engineer, twenties)

Thus through working on a particular project and with particular people, the structural position of this particular producer has been improved, increasing his potential to develop a stock of high quality social capital.

This networking is however not just about making and maintaining contact to potential buyers of labour power and to people who can make referrals; it also includes scanning of the markets for future employment opportunities, actively selling oneself for future projects, and enhancing one’s employability by updating and developing skills (Haunschild and Eikhof, 2009). Christopherson notes that once employed, new-media workers “spend a considerable portion of their work-week in activities related to maintaining their employability” (2002: 2011). She identifies that for some workers, as much as twenty per cent of their time was spent looking for new work. However, for McRobbie (2002) such quantitative measures perhaps ignore or underestimate time that is spent networking in industries in which workers must fashion a ‘useful self’ and project themselves through strenuous self-activity.

Building ‘networked’ reputation

Building reputation is a key part of the strenuous self-activity identified by McRobbie. Mirroring the ‘active networking’ (Blair 2009) in which individuals act to build and maintain a network of contacts through which work becomes available, developing a reputation through a network of contacts involves active ‘reputation work’. In his study of the Hollywood talent industry, for example, Zafirau finds that maintaining a favourable reputation is “not only an object of necessity, but a fundamental piece of the day to day work that Hollywood agents and managers do” (2008 - 102).

Reputation is central to getting work in the music industry and the creative industries more widely. This centrality is in large part due to the project-based and precarious nature of these industries, but also in part derives from the features of cultural and media production, specifically the very public nature of the products, transmitted or circulated to audiences of at least hundreds and sometimes millions (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2008). As Zafirau (2008) argues, reputation is an important feature in the interactional contexts of work in the creative industries, due to the way it acts as a stabilising feature of an otherwise uncertain business, helping to make contacts, facilitating the development of trust within networks, and marking competency (see also Murphy, 2006). For Glückler (2007), two significant types of reputation can be distinguished (see also Glückler and Armbrüster, 2003; Glückler, 2005). The first is ‘public reputation’, which is public domain information, published and communicated freely in media and press. The second type of reputation is ‘networked reputation’. The links between these two types of reputation form the basis for the discussion presented in this section of the paper.

Glückler (2007) argues that reputation is networked when new contacts learn about each other’s reputation through joint trusted contacts within their social network. Following Glückler’s line of argument regarding networked reputation, if we were to consider the role of networked reputation in the recording studio sector, it can be argued that if a producer or engineer is referred to a potential client (be they a musician, a record company, or a producer) through a mutual contact, the client would be more likely to commission this producer or engineer to work on their recording project. Word-of-mouth recommendations about competency are therefore of particular importance in sectors such as the recording studio, where high levels of uncertainty prevail with regards to getting continued work, networked reputation is particularly important.

One interviewee for example, when asked about the importance of word-of-mouth in getting new work, stated that“I think that’s how we get most of our business here. The website helps. But I don’t think, when people are searching for studios and things like that, I think a recommendation from a friend is a lot more valuable than all these things” (Interview 11, male engineer, twenties). Another interviewee, in response to the same questions, responded that “it is very much about creating a social circle, yeah definitely. It's very hard to get your name out there any other way because, obviously you can post yourself over the internet but how does anybody find you on the internet?" (Interview 1, male engineer-producer, thirties).

For many clients, be they a recording company, musician or recording artist, when they are taking the decision to work with a particular producer or engineer on a particular recording project, they may not have met the producer or engineer. They therefore will not have had the opportunity to engage in the usual forms of confidence-building activities that contribute to the development of trust in more traditional, enduring forms of organisation (Grabher 2001). Rather, they will know them by their reputation, and it is this reputation that will be the basis of the trust placed in a producer or engineer when they are commissioned to work on a recording project. Grabher (2001) terms this ‘swift trust’, which he describes as a category-driven trust where actors can deal with one another more as roles than as individuals. Consequently, expectations of producers and engineers are more standardised and stable and defined more in terms of tasks than personalities. One interviewee describes this relationship between reputation and the trust placed in him to undertake large-budget recording projects:

I mean the thing I always say is there's a trust thing that happens in that when I'll be working on a, I can be recording something that someone's costing two hundred and fifty thousand pounds for example and I will never have met that person before. I might be able to have a conversation with them, but they've come to me based on my reputation. (Interview 2, male engineer, thirties)

This reputation is in large part built through the experience of the producer and engineer, such as described by one interviewee:

…the wealth and experience I give it is immeasurable… because I've done everything. I've worked with the biggest rock stars on the planet, I've worked on the biggest films, I've worked on the smallest films as well. I've worked for every single kind of budgets that are miniscule or done stuff for free, to stuff that is multi-million dollars. (Interview 2, male engineer, thirties)

These experience-based skills become ‘attached’ to reputation through the portfolio of previous projects undertaken by a producer or engineer. One interviewee explained how “this is my 40th year doing this. So you build up your reputation, good or bad. But you build up a reputation over that time, of experience. And partly because of the projects that I’ve worked on over the years I suppose” (Interview 5, male engineer-producer, sixties). A producer or engineer’s portfolio of previous projects is a crucial part a reputation that attracts work from new clients. As one interviewee described:

I think the main reason people come to me is because I've got a track record, because obviously people don't know me until they come down. So the main reason, what brings the carrot is the track record. People want their song to be produced on a level, they want to know their single has no compromise whatsoever. (Interview 4, male producer, forties)

Another interviewee noted that a track record of successful previous projects is particularly important to getting work with record companies, where success in these cases is judged by the commercial sales of the recording: “record companies pretty much all they think about is ‘did he have a hit recently?’ That's really all they're worried about because that obviously means that he'll have another one" (Interview 19, male producer, forties). This focus on the reputation of producers, engineers and recording studios based upon their previous commercial successes can be explained by the fact that the record companies often invest heavily in artists and need to get a good result from expensive studio time. As one interviewee explains, for record companies there is a pressing need to:

...pass it to someone that you can almost guarantee a good result from. Lots of companies are investing thousands of pounds in the band... that’s the reason a record company would hire a producer is that they’re passing it on to someone who knows a little bit more about the recording side so that they can say, if we give it to him we’ll definitely get a good record, doesn’t matter what happens. (Interview 11, male engineer, twenties)

A number of interviewees noted that their reputation increased considerably following their first commercial success, resulting in a significant upward turn in their career paths in the industry. As one interviewee described:

I ended up producing four tracks on his album and I also wrote, co-wrote with him and produced a track called [name omitted] which was number one. And from that point onwards my career just absolutely blew up... it was massive and that gave me the recognition (Interview 4, male producer, forties)

Another interviewee noted how the development of such a reputation may in large part be down to chance in terms of the producer or engineer getting the initial opportunity to work on a recording project that is successful in terms of sales:

…possibly by chance you’ve worked on a record that’s done really, really well and then on, because you’ve done that one you get another one and because that’s got [the] backing of a record company, that one’s going to do well as well. So then you’re now the man who’s done two. And then you become the man who’s done three and four… and so it goes. (Interview 3, male mastering engineer, fifties)

A number of the interviewees noted how this type of commercial success is often valorised over other reputational assets. As the same interviewee noted, “if you’ve had some success then yeah people take you more seriously”, going on to say that “other guys have got bad reputations and their people still want to work with them if they’re successful” (Interview 19, male producer, forties). Conversely, the work done by producers and engineers in the studio may be devalued by a record company if it is not felt that the output will have quantifiable commercial success. As one interviewee explained, “I’ve always felt that the most important thing, the most important people I have to please are the artists. They have to like it. But unfortunately if it’s a major label and the artist likes it and the record label doesn’t, they won’t put it out” (Interview 16, male engineer, fifties).

However, the ‘good work ‘on which reputations are built (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2008) can be considered more widely than commercial success alone. For some studios, it is rare for any of the music recorded at the studio to go on to have quantifiable success, and thus the quality of the output must be judged by other criteria. Some producers and engineers will work for example in niche markets where total sales may only be small but reputation may be high within that niche market due to producing or engineering a hit in specialist charts. Other producers and engineers may gain a reputation based on their technical ability in the studio and the way this translates into recorded output of a particular quality. One interviewee explained how "sometimes it's the actual music itself that you can get credit for which of course you have been involved in, but sometimes people say "oh, I love the way that was recorded”" (Interview 2, male engineer, thirties).

In the same way that a positive reputation can be beneficial to a producer or engineer attracting new or repeat work, so the development of a negative reputation can be damaging in this respect, cutting off potential new lines of work. One interviewee noted how “you can't really ever have a bad day, you can't have an off day…. you're only as good as your last game" (Interview 2, male engineer, thirties). This sentiment, that poor performance can damage a painstakingly built reputation, is echoed by workers in a range of cultural industries, including film (see Blair, 2001; Jones, 1996) and television (see Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2008). This drive for success and a highly-regarded reputation can lead some producers and engineers to be very selective about the clients they choose to work with on recording projects. One interviewee, for example, described how:

...because your work goes by word of mouth, it's important that the networks that you establish are networks of musicians and artists that you want to continue working with... Just make sure that the clients that you're working with are the right ones that are going to maintain your reputation. (Interview 17, male engineer-producer, forties)

Emotional labour, reputation and repeat work

In the previous section, the discussion of ‘public reputation’ and ‘networked reputation’ (Glückler 2007) was predicated on an understanding of reputation as being based on experience, technical skill and a portfolio of work. However, while this ‘good work’ (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2008) based around the skills of the trade is without doubt of great importance to reputation, Grabher (2001) identifies another set of skills - ‘inter-personal skills’ – as being important to building reputation. These skills are important because feelings and emotions such as trust, mutual respect and friendship are key to reputation in networks, and can only be developed as result of closer inter-personal action (Ettlinger 2003).

Recording studios are insulated spaces of creativity characterised by very intense collaboration between musicians, producers and engineers (Gibson 2005); they are spaces in which creative relationships are built and maintained, often over a short but very intense period of work. Thus studio work highlights a particular form of creative labour that emphasises the inter-personal, relational nature of working rather than the task-based aspect of work per se (see Steinberg and Figart 1999). Increasingly for producers and engineers, technical expertise must be combined with the skills and musical ambitions of the clients, as well as emotional support and encouragement for the creative process (Leyshon, 2009). In emphasising such relational working, this form of labour involves the ability to build personal relationships and accordingly manage personal emotions in a way that is conducive to completing a particular task. Thus, the concept of ‘emotional labour’ (Hochschild 1983) is particularly applicable to work in the recording studio sector, due to the relational nature of creative work in the studio; it is predominantly face to face, collaborative, and emotive. Indeed, for Leyshon (2009), emotional labour is considered to be part of the service being provided by recording studios, and an asset that studios can actively cultivate and promote as reputational asset. Emotional labour is defined by Hochschild as:

… the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labour is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange-value… This labour requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others. (1983:7, emphasis in original)

This type of relational work, involving the management of emotions in order to facilitate the building and maintenance of relationships, and termed as ‘emotional labour’ in academic literature, was to the producers and engineers interviewed understood to involve ‘people skills’. Almost without exception the interviewees spoke about the importance of the ability to build relationships with musicians and recording artists in the studio. In many instances, these people skills were considered to be even more important than the ability to competently perform a technical role and operate complex studio equipment: “I have seen a lot of producers who are very, very good at gaining people’s confidence and their trust but actually aren’t very good at production.” (Interview 16, male engineer, fifties).

While emotional labour is of crucial importance to the maintenance of creative relationships during a given recording session, it is not just in this respect that emotional labour is important. Interview responses highlighted that emotional labour is an important part of building a wider reputation, and is particularly important in attracting repeat work. Repeated cooperation is of great importance to producers, engineers and recording studios; as one interviewee noted “you have to be re-booked. You can't survive on having a great CV and then having loads of one-off bookings" (Interview 4, male producer, forties). It was clear from interviews that the management of impressions and the ability to build personal relationships with clients is vital to gaining repeat work, due to the way in which studio clients look to develop a personal relationship of trust with a particular producer or engineer, and who they will then return to for future projects.

Trust can be understood as an “interpersonal phenomenon” (Ettlinger, 2003: 146) and “a sociospatial process enacted by agents through relations” (Murphy, 2006: 429), shaped by, amongst other things, knowledge, emotions, reputation, and appearance. It is important from the offset that trust is very quickly developed in the relationship between the producer / engineer and the musician or recording artist. More specifically, Ettlinger (2003: 146) identifies two types of trust; firstly emotive trust “based one’s personal feelings about others”, and capacity trust “based on one’s judgements about another’s capacity for competent performance in a workplace”.

For Ettlinger (2003), capacity trust is often predicated on emotive trust. A critical part of developing emotive trust inside the recording studio is that studio workers ‘locate’ their clients in terms of a range of cultural categories (see Crang, 1994) and adjust their own emotional performance to suit each situation. How engineers and producers communicate a specific social identity can foster feelings that facilitate the emergence of trusting sentiments (Murphy, 2006). A client’s choice of producer or engineer thus becomes about something more than the technical competence of that person in the studio.

...I would say that a lot of the repeat business I get and recommendations I get is because I get on with people in the studio and I think the most important aspect for me is that people feel comfortable, like I said I'm dealing with a lot of people who could feel quite exposed in a studio environment… (Interview 10, male engineer, thirties)

The above quote highlights how client perceptions of good service hinge on the extent to which the studio worker is helpful, supportive and conveys a sense of genuine interpersonal sensitivity and concern. Therefore, as Ashforth and Humphrey suggest emotional labour can be considered as:

…a form of impression management to the extent that the labourer deliberately attempts to direct his or her behaviour towards others in order to foster certain social perceptions of both him or herself and a certain interpersonal climate (Ashforth and Humphrey, 1993: 90)

Thus, for studio workers emotional labour becomes a part of the “intensification of the self-commodification processes by which each individual seeks to improve his/her chances of attracting gainful employment” (Ursell, 2000: 807).

In the recording studio sector, where formalised criteria for evaluating performance are not present, more informal, ‘softer’ personality characteristics and symbolic attributes can become a more important means by clients legitimate studio producers and engineers. Many clients will judge their experience of working in a studio on the atmosphere of the studio and service offered rather than the end product per se. As such, the higher the producer or engineer’s empathetic and expressive abilities, the higher the client’s satisfaction will be (see Ashforth and Humphrey, 1993) and the higher the chances of gaining repeat work from that client. Furthermore, emotional labour is central to the development of relationships of ‘emotive trust’ (Ettlinger, 2003) in the recording studio:

Feelings or emotional energies may be associated with symbolic representations of morality, trust-worthiness, or honesty, and an agent’s ability to control his or her emotions, in accordance with the norms associated with a social situation, increases the probability that trust is achieved. For example, empathy is an emotional response that contributes to trust building practices… (Murphy 2006: 434)

Correspondingly, if a producer or engineer does not convey a sense of genuine interpersonal sensitivity and concern, or has poor empathetic and expressive abilities, the level of client satisfaction may be low, trust may not develop, and potential future lines of work may become cut off:

.. that’s what a lot of people fall down on. Personal skills. They might be able to do the job properly, but if they’re argumentative or whatever, then forget it. No one’s going to work with you again. (Interview 5, male producer-engineer, sixties)

Concluding discussion

This paper has taken a micro-level approach to an examination of networking in an industrial sector in which employment is ‘precarious’, namely the recording studio sector of the global music industry. In this sector, the effects of the neo-liberalisation of work have become increasingly pervasive. As patterns of project work in music production have become more temporary and flexible (see Lorenzen and Frederickson 2005) and there has developed a freelance project-based model for recording, previously stable notions of career have been replaced with more insecure and discontinuous employment. This mirrors developments in the wider cultural and creative industries. In such ‘precarious’ economic sectors, it is considered that thedevelopment of a network of personal contacts is vital in finding work, as when work is scarce the quality of these networks may determine whether a freelance career continues or ends (Randle and Culkin 2009). It is not the size of the network that is important however; rather it is the quality of the network. In this paper, this ‘quality’ has been considered in terms of the building of a stock of social capital and in terms of building reputation. These two related ‘assets’, it is argued, are vital to being in continuous paid employment in such a precarious sector.

As highlighted in the above discussion, the reputation developed by a record producer of recording engineer is in large part based around their experience and level of commercial success. Experience-based skills become ‘attached’ to reputation through the portfolio of previous projects undertaken by a producer or engineer. Such portfolios are central to developing a reputation that attracts work from new clients, and represent a form of ‘public reputation’ (see Glückler, 2007), which is public domain information, published and communicated freely in media and press, and, in the specific case of the recorded music industry, in the sleeve credits given on albums or recorded output. However, findings from this research suggest that arguably of much greater important than public reputation is the development of ‘networked reputation’ (Glückler, 2007), when new contacts learn about each other’s reputation through joint trusted contacts within their social network. Here, findings support Hesmondhalgh and Baker’s (2010) finding that in the cultural industries, there is a strong sense that the contacts which eventually lead to contracts rely on sociability, that is to say that the importance of networking reputation though the development of a social network of contacts is widely recognised. The creation of such a network of contacts involves ‘active networking’ (Blair, 2009) or active ‘reputation work’ (Zafirau, 2008), an on-going and conscious process in which producers and engineers knowingly and instrumentally engage in order to build a stock of social capital and enhance their networked reputation.

While the importance of social capital and networked reputation to maintaining employment in the ‘precarious’ cultural and creative industries has been well recognised in literature, the importance of emotional labour in developing these ‘assets’ has yet to be fully recognised (although see Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2008). This represents an important area for further research into work in the cultural and creative industries. In the case of the research presented in this paper, the ability to build relationships and manage emotions was seen by record producers and recording engineers as being vital to gaining work, due to the way in which studio clients look not only to develop ‘capacity’ trust in a producer or engineer, but also ‘emotive’ trust (see Ettlinger 2003). A client’s choice of producer or engineer thus becomes about something more than their technical competence in the studio, especially where formalised criteria for evaluating performance are not present. Informal, ‘softer’ personality characteristics and symbolic attributes are an important means by which clients legitimate studio producers and engineers. Thus, to a significant degree, the networked reputation of a producer or engineer is built through the emotional labour they perform in the recording studio, and the resulting creative relationships and client experiences of the recording process.

However, as Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2008: 113) note, a contradiction exists here where “the pressure to deliver work that will help build one’s reputation impacts on the individual’s ability to do emotional labour. Yet building one’s reputation hinges upon the management of emotions”. In the case of record producers and engineers, pressure to finish recording projects on-time and to deliver a product which meets the expectations of a record company (i.e. commercial success), and so add to a producer’s or engineer’s reputation, can result in producers and engineers being more dictatorial and less collaborative in their approach to the recording process. In such situations, in attempting to enhance their own personal reputation, client satisfaction may well be lower because the producer or engineer’s empathetic and expressive abilities are compromised. Thus, conversely this can damage networked reputation and reduce opportunities for new and repeat business.

Finally, while the discussion presented in this paper has largely considered networks as assemblages of contacts used to gain individual advantage, to conceptualise networks as purely an economic resource is to fail to take account of the social and organisational settings in which these networks are embedded (Antcliff et al. 2007). Networking may not always be seen as ‘compulsory sociality’ required to survive in a field (see Gill & Pratt 2008; Gregg 2008). Rather, as social networks are important in creating a sense of community within fragmented industries (Scott 2004; Coulson 2012), and in giving workers a sense of social identity and continuity (Staber 2004), networking can also be seen as pleasurable ‘hanging out’ with friends and contacts (Pratt 2006).

Given that networks are constituted by a wide range of agents with varied practices, motives, and also very importantly emotions, the full heterogeneity of network practices can, I suggest, only be fully understood through the type of micro-level or ‘microspace’ (Ettlinger 2003) examination developed in this paper. The meso-level approaches that define so much of the current work in economic geography, I would argue, continue to have limited ability to develop explanations of such a complex phenomenon as social networking, especially in industries characterised by high levels of job insecurity and employment uncertainty.


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* Allan Watson, Department of Geography, Staffordshire University, UK, email:


Edited and posted on the web on 13th September 2012