How to Build an Irresistible Sound Library To Evade Competition


Modigliani, Portrait of Leopold Zborowski, 1917-Small

I remember precisely the moment when I began to think of field recording differently. I began to see sound effects as more than data files produced by metal and plastic in France, December 2002.

At that time I was dating a woman who lived in Bordeaux. We visited the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. They were hosting a special exhibit of Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani. Modigliani is known for his style of crafting mask-like, elongated faces.

She was a fan of his work, and I asked why. Her answer surprised me. It had a large influence on the way I think about field recording. Of course, I didn’t make the connection between painting and recording sound effects then. That happened years later.

I was thinking of this when responding to a recent reader email. The reader was asking about posting their library online:

How will my sound effects perform? Will people buy my collection? Is selling a sound library a viable way to make a living?

The answer to each of these questions is commonly thought of in terms of competition. If you’re planning to share your work, and earning money from it, you’ve likely thought about your competition. This is common whether you’re cutting in an edit suite, or creating a shop online.

So, in today’s post, I’ll explain how you can evade competition and share clips that fans will be thrilled to support.

What was that comment that influenced me? How did I apply it to field recording? How can this help you share sound effects and sidestep competition?

I’ll explain more at the end of the article.

Questions About Sound Library Competition

How does competition affect sound libraries? Here are common concerns:

  • Is recording and selling sound clips a sustainable career? Is there any money in it?
  • Is there a point to recording sound effects? Hasn’t every sound already been recorded?
  • How can I compete with towering sound effect Web shops that stock a half-million clips?
  • Will I make sales when there are thousands of free sound fx available?
  • I have a Web shop online. How will the dozens of small shops appearing monthly affect it?

All of these questions concern worries about competition, risk, and consequence.

Often people want to be sure they’ll make money from sharing their sound library. They’re worried about investing cash and time they won’t recoup. Some won’t tolerate risking $50, or a day of work. Others have a higher threshold. Some field recordists think about competition in an abstract sense: by either failure, or success.

It’s a natural way to think. After all, we’re surrounded by stories of risk and success in corporate business, and in sports.

The fact is that if you are thinking the right way about field recording, competition doesn’t matter.

Recording and Sharing ‘Properly’

Isn’t that naive?


Here’s the hard truth: if you’re worried about competition you’re not recording sound effects correctly. If you are concerned about this and you have a Web shop, you’re not sharing your library properly.

Those are bold statements, I know. What do I know about your technique, or skill, or how you’ve designed your online store?

I mention it because I’ve done both myself. Since I’ve changed my approach, my Airborne Sound library has performed dramatically better. Yet I don’t check Google Analytics, or Alexa traffic stats. I’m dimly aware of what other Web shops are doing, and only from creative curiosity.

Some say that’s reckless. They say you must track your competitors. Some of my clients talk about competition, and SWOT analysis. I’ve noticed a common theme between the libraries and sites that succeed, and those that struggle. What is it?

Whenever I hear anyone mention competition at all, I know they are focusing too much on technology. This is true for sound effect shop owners who surf tech blogs to unearth a trick that will crack Google’s ranking. It is also true for field recordists who dig through catalogs, stat sheets, or trade up gear to improve their work. Many libraries stall on technical aspects of Web stores: code, traffic, and layout. Recordists become tangled in stat comparisons, measurements, and metering.

A Matter of Focus

Technology is an equalizer. It levels the playing field. That’s why competition is brought up frequently when gear or code is involved. It’s a way of standardizing work. If everyone has the same tools, one has to look for another way to get an edge over other Web shops, or other libraries.

After all, anyone with cash can update gear, or hire someone to write code. However, I’d go so far as to say that emphasizing technology in your work makes you replaceable. By focusing too much on gear, you are deliberately planing your obsolescence.

There’s nothing wrong with discovering new technology, or enjoying new gear. That’s part of the technical field we work in. It’s good to use tools to make life easier.

Instead, the problem is focus.

There are so many more ways a sound library or Web shop can add value beyond technical means. And this is done is quite simple, actually.

Jackson Pollock, #1

Creative Work

Focusing on competition, and how you rate against it, is a distraction. Battling competition and scrounging for an edge consumes incredible energy. What’s better?

Sound libraries become remarkable when recordists focus on creativity. Why?

Competition doesn’t apply to creative work. A Rubens collector won’t be interested in Jackson Pollock’s canvases. Yes, they are both painters. However, their styles are utterly different, each with their own inspirations, and execution.

Would The Rolling Stones compete with cellist Yo-Yo Ma just because they recorded in the same studio, using the same console? Of course not. What each of these artists offers is unique, and has nothing to do with the tools used.

Considering competition is abdicating a field recordist’s most valuable contribution: unique expression. If your field recordings are expressive, you will never face competition. This is the only useful way to improve your craft, and evade competition.

That is the most important contribution you, as a field recordist, provide.

How to Build an Irresistible Sound Library

How can you add value to your field recordings? How can you evade competition?

Evading Competition While Field Recording

  • Stop thinking about equipment. This requires a challenging mental shift. Competition is embedded within our society, and is enhanced when we use technology. Shift your thinking from the value of gear and stats. Gear is required in field recording. However, de-emphasize it in your routine, and its role in your clips.
  • Focus on the act of creation. Emphasize capturing inspiring performances. In my e-Book Field Recording: from Research to Wrap I suggested the best way to capture clips is by cataloging expression, and influencing performances. Record takes with flair and personality to document every voice a subject has. More here.
  • Develop your style. Record sound effects in interesting ways. Vary your microphone selection and technique. Use the sound effects star to enhance your field recordings.
  • Invest yourself in your recordings. Add your imprint to your clips. Sound effects recorded with your personal approach can never be mimicked.
  • Stop buying new equipment. Instead, have more inspiring experiences. Creativity is enhanced subconsciously from many avenues. Explore other arts: reading, writing, photography. Travel. Bring the inspiration you find there to your craft.
  • Blend your passions. Unique creations appear when diverse, and often contrasting elements are mixed, such as in the acclaimed film, Django Unchained. It blended Italian spaghetti westerns, a study of slavery, cowboy movies, American history, humour, and extreme violence to create a film only Quentin Tarantino could make.
  • Keep only the highest quality sound fx. When you aren’t certain if fans will like a clip it’s a signal you should delete it. Keep your collection trim. Listen to your shit detector.
  • Do what others are not. Don’t imitate other sound effect libraries. That’s deliberately inviting competition. Is everyone creating car libraries? Record a collection of mopeds and motorcycles instead.

Evading Competition on the Web

What about your Web shop? What can you do to ensure your store succeeds?

  • Web shops are framed by the sound effects you host. Most offer common bundles: household clips, whooshes, Foley fruit destruction, and cars. Skip these. Present novel libraries. Share packs with new themes, or sound effects presented or delivered in a new way. Share only signature sound effects.
  • Post only your best material. Those ten mediocre whooshes that nicely round your pack up to an marketing-friendly 500 clips? Abandon them. Be merciless with what you put online. Only your best, most expressive material belongs.
  • Choose contrasting Web shop architecture. Avoid creating a store in the same style as others. Do all Web shops use Twitter Bootstrap, a jQuery image carousel, or a white background? Recognizing the same plug-ins and themes everywhere? Differentiate your design, and store structure.
  • Ignore search engine optimization (SEO). Don’t bother with Compete, link exchanges, or website analytics. This includes fussing with promotional social media. Sure, let people know about your work. Remember, though, good SEO is authentic, not contrived. Many shops focus on SEO first. I’ve seen these stores defaced by supposed keyword-rich pages. These techniques are used as a shortcut to success. Google always discovers sites that try to game the system. Then they punish them. Instead, focus on providing the best possible creations for your fans. Traffic will follow.

What about the other questions?

Should You Be Worried about Free Web Shops?

No. People crave thoughtful, high-quality sound effects, and will be happy to pay you for them. Most free sites host poorly-organized, weak clips.

Also, the reasons people visit free websites are completely different than those who spend on collections. That may seem obvious. They just want stuff for free, right?

It’s more complex than that. Marketing psychology can tell you more. I’ve owned and worked for both sharing and pay sites, and have seen the differences between what visitors want. The end result? There isn’t an significant exchange of visitors between free and pay sites. That means that very little competition actually exists.

A crude analogy? It’s similar to people who are fans of Macs, and Windows. There’s some cross-over, but people stay predominantly in one camp or the other.

In other words, the impact of free sites matters less than you think.

Have All Sounds Been Recorded?

There are endless sound effects on the web, and common theme packs. What chance do you have to contribute something new?

Remember, only one part of the sound recording is determined by the subject (i.e., a door). The most significant part of its composition comes from the field recordist’s influence: their style, the gear they choose, how they perform the prop. This means that even 50 field recordists will capture the same door differently.

Add your own “spin” to the sounds you capture.

Are Other Web Shops a Threat?


Think of it this way: are two art galleries competing, just because they sell paintings?

Of course not! That’s ridiculous. Why? They sell completely different canvases. Maybe one store features abstract work, and another is traditional. The same shopper won’t want both.

And consider the shopper, too. There is no “best” painting. There’s only the one that’s right for their living room wall.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night

Signature Sound Effects

When I asked my girlfriend why she liked Modigliani, she replied that she liked the way he saw the world: as if he walked the streets seeing everyone with elongated faces and thin noses. Or, as with The Starry Night, van Gogh saw swirling colours in the sky that we can’t perceive.

Previously I had enjoyed painting and museums as just witnessing creative work. That comment put me inside their head. I imagined the artist perceiving a completely different world than the way everyone else sees it, then expressing it on canvas.

Can you do the same with your sound effects?

Can you interpret, capture, and perform sound in a unique way? When you do, your sound effects will be valuable.

What this means is that every field recordist can succeed. It doesn’t matter if there or thousands of effects floating around in the Web, or millions. Success isn’t constrained by gear, or tech specs, or stats. It is determined how you, as a field recordist, cultivate and embed a unique perspective within your recordings.

For my part, I began to focus on recordings of rare and difficult atmospheres. I aimed to capture not just passive ambience, but recordings that represented the culture I was in, and how people felt being there. It had the effect of making work more enjoyable, and fulfilling. I’m discovering more about this every day.

Diminish the role of gear in your technique. Ensure you capture technically-sound clips, of course. But the most important goal of field recordings is to embellish your sound effects with your own style, personality, and flair.

When you do this, competition will be irrelevant. Your sound library will become irreplaceable.

To stay in touch, receive free updates by email newsletter or RSS feed.  |  Follow on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or SoundCloud.