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Lessons Learned: Instructive Anecdotes From Four Decades In “The Biz”

Keeping an eye on the money, adhering to solid business practices, understanding who you're dealing with and more in the "wild west" that can be working in live sound. (An audio version of this article is also available for download.)

I’ve been at this for more than 40 years, and in that time, I’ve learned a few things about people and money. Here are a few of them.

Watch The Money

Very early on, my entre into the entertainment world was through a DJ business that I started when I was around 14 years old. By the time I was 16, things were going well enough that I had a booking agent who would find me gigs all over the province of Prince Edward Island, where I grew up.

There was one particular gig, a dance put on by one of the local service clubs, where, at the end of the night while we were packing up, I would see the organizers counting the money at the door. Then, one of them would detach himself from the group, walk up to me on the stage and say “Here ya’ go, $125.”

The problem was the gig paid $145. When I pointed this out to the guy, he would say something like “No, I’m pretty sure it was $125…” This would go back-and-forth for a bit until I suggested that we call my agent to verify the amount. At this point, another $20 bill would magically appear, and the guy would walk away with a disgruntled look on his face.

This happened every time I worked that particular dance. The first time I put it down to a communication error somewhere along the line, but after the second time, I realized that this guy was hoping to make 20 bucks for his short walk across the dance floor.

So, lesson learned: Know your price and stick to your guns when someone tries to pull a fast one.

Bankruptcy Proceedings

In the early 1980s, I had a club gig in Toronto that consisted of going in late Monday afternoon to do a soundcheck with a band and then coming back on Friday evening to make sure things were still dialed in for the weekend. The rest of the nights were “set and forget.”

This went on for about a year, until the club went bankrupt. It wasn’t disastrous for me because I had a day job at a sound company, other freelance gigs, and, the club just owed me a few hundred dollars for my labor.

Nonetheless, when I was asked if I wanted to sign on to the list of creditors, I thought “Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain”. So, I did. Over the next few months, I received various legal documents and reports in the mail documenting how much was owed to various creditors and so on. Eventually this culminated in a creditors meeting.

It was at this meeting that I found out how these things really work. To wit: any money that was recovered was going to the really big fish… a bank, of course, the liquor supplier and, IIRC, one of the local papers for something like $70k in unpaid advertising. Everyone else got nothing.

Lesson(s) learned: 1) make sure to invoice and get paid regularly, and 2) be prepared to walk away from small receivables when things go south.

Prove It!

In 1992, I’d been managing a sound company for about six months when one of the account managers introduced me to four young men who were looking for a sound system for what would have been an early rave. The one thing that struck me about these guys was their insistence that we prove to them that we were capable of providing the earthshaking, ball-rattling (no joke! One of the guy’s sole contribution to the conversation was that he “wanted his balls to rattle”) sound system that they were looking for.

There were a lot of, “How do we know that this is actually going to go as loud as you say it is?” kind of questions and a lot of skeptical and dismissive responses like “easy to say that!” So, we felt some pressure to convince them that we could do the job. But we eventually did, partly based on the promise that we were going to supply a truckload of a particular loudspeaker system that we had to cross rent.

I forget the specifics, but one of the bigger companies, not based in Toronto, had parked a bunch of its proprietary loudspeakers in a warehouse and was renting them out as racks-and-stacks. I do remember that this was a big win for me as they were priced at $90 a box, powered, with no room to move on the price, and, after a lengthy negotiation, I got them for $70 a box.

So, we got the gig, the die was cast, and when I walked into the shop the following Monday morning and asked how the gig went, I found out that our “clients” had split with the gate receipts a few hours into the gig and we’d been stiffed for our fee!

Well, on reviewing how this whole situation had played out, I thought “Wait a minute…we have a sign over our door, we have a listing in the phone book (web sites weren’t a thing then), we have been in business for 20-plus years, we have a scrapbook full of thank-you letters from satisfied customers… who the hell are you?!”

Lesson learned: When someone casts doubts on your abilities, especially when some very basic research will affirm them, it’s time to take a very close look at who’s asking.

How Much Is That?

Around the same time, we had a seasonal freelancer that I’ll call “Jack,” who would work for us in the summer and spend his winters somewhere down south. Jack had a van that he lived in and, he had a nice effects rack. This was a real asset to me, as that first summer that I ran the company we were chronically short of outboard gear.

I suggested that he park his rack in the shop so that I could rent either the whole thing or individual units as needed, without having to track him down and ask, and without having to cross rent from a competitor. In exchange for this, I promised to keep meticulous records of what got used and to pay him our book rate, less 20 percent, which was the standard for cross rentals at the time. This arrangement worked out nicely for both sides, and Jack left at the end of the summer with a few hundred extra dollars in his pocket.

The next summer we repeated the arrangement. However, things had changed by this point, partly because our inventory had increased and partly because I’d gotten much better at managing what we had. So, Jack’s rack lived in the shop, but I found my self raiding it less and less frequently.

One morning, part way through the summer, Jack called me up and told me he needed to get paid for his rentals. I told him that I would tally up what we owed him and get him a check that very day. I was in the process of doing this when he walked into my office about an hour later and announced that I owed him a really specific amount of money – something like $347.19.

Now, I hadn’t gotten to a total yet, but I had noticed that we hadn’t raided his rack very often and that we were unlikely to hit that amount. I also had trouble believing that however many rentals at whatever price less 20 percent was going to land on that particular number. When I told him as much, he got kind of agitated and kept insisting that we owed him that specific amount of money.

Well, in the course of going over the figures with Jack, and getting him calmed down, it came out that something had broken down on his van and the garage had charged him $347.19 to fix it! At this point I had to explain to him that, while I sympathized over the van trouble, that didn’t mean that we owed him exactly what it cost him to get it fixed. Then, I finished the bookkeeping and sent him on his way with a check for what we did owe him.

Lesson learned: When someone comes to you in a negotiation with a very specific amount of money in mind, it’s a good idea to ask why they need that particular amount. It’s also good to keep in mind that in these cases there’s probably an emotional reason that may be overriding a rational one.

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