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Making It Work: A Conversation With Veteran Production Pro Bill Di Paolo

A discussion on the changing nature of the production market, adapting and growing, shared histories, serving clients and more.
Bill Di Paolo at his shop in upstate New York with some of the RCF inventory he recently added.

ML: In that vein, you’ve changed your approach towards gear and crew labor pretty drastically since we started working together. You used to have a big shop full of a ton of stuff, and so it used to be “How many hands can we get?” And we were loading tons of trucks and moving a bunch of heavy stuff all over the place. We wanted to get as many hands onsite as we could because we wanted the in and out to go faster.

But we evolved that into slimming things down and really taking a close look at our efficiency. Taking the same labor budget and using it to bring in a few really high-level techs. And that works because now, for example, we have a smaller, lighter, more compact, and surprisingly powerful PA that I can fly by myself. The lighting rig is all-LED now so we don’t need eight hands to help put it up. Stuff like that. The gear that you’ve invested in, in terms of equipment, allows us to travel lighter, and that in turn allows using the budget to bring in some great “hired guns” who can just come in and do their thing. Plus, your entire rig fits in your garage that you rebuilt into a shop.

BD: Exactly. That was always the thing – I figured with more people, things would go quicker. Which is true, to a point. But I have to say, the investments that we’ve made here over the last few years – for example, lighter weight line arrays that can go up faster, and then we can also use rigging systems that don’t necessarily require power – that’s the way to go for a lot of the work that we’re doing.

If it’s a bigger show then we call in our friends from other companies and we partner with them to help bring in what we need. A couple years ago, we had a huge warehouse filled to the rafters – you couldn’t even move in there – and half the stuff didn’t get much, if any, use. Of course, it was hard for me to get rid of some of that gear, but I don’t regret it.

Inspecting some rigging equipment.

Now our front of house footprint is so small – I always think about how many seats we would have had to kill back when everything was still analog. Your little Midas [Pro 1 console] alone replaced racks and racks of analog gear. And now you show up and you plug in the digital snake and off we go. I mean, we all agree the sound of the old boards was great, but for what we’re doing, that’s done.

ML: It kind of goes hand in hand with the evolution of what we expect from a crew member in the modern world. I think about the old “roadie” stereotype, the big burly dude with the ponytail and the T shirt, and nowadays it’s all about techs. These people aren’t getting hired for their strength. They’re getting hired because they know the systems inside and out.

BD: Sure, like on the “Monsters of Rock” cruises I do, they use Loud and Clear Inc. and those techs know everything. All of the audio team, they have to be able to do everything. And that’s what is needed now – it’s a lot more than pushing cases. You have to know the entire toolset.

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ML: This was the big driving point behind me buying my own console. It’s not a return on investment thing, because I don’t rent it out. So, in terms of dollars, that doesn’t make sense. But it takes a lot of variables off the table – I work faster, I’m more accurate, I don’t have to worry about unknowns, I know exactly what I’m dealing with.

Remember some of the crazy held-together-with-tape consoles that we’ve run into in some venues, where there are error messages popping and consoles actually locking up during the show? And remember the guy at that one venue telling me “Don’t touch it here or here, or it will shut off.”? Come on – are you kidding me? I don’t want to deal with that. It’s worth something to me not to have that stress. I’ll provide a console. I’ll carry my own tool. And when you’re working as LD you carry your own console as well.

BD: Right, sitting there at the console wondering if you’re going to make it to the end of the show before the thing goes out – we’ve been there. That’s no good. If the rig goes down during the show, everyone’s going to look at us, even if the failure wasn’t our fault. We don’t need that. I bought a lighting console so I don’t need to worry about that.

There’s a venue I work with here and their console kept crashing. The crew chief called me during a show one day and said. “Well, the board went.” During the break I walked the crew through creating presets in the backstage architectural lighting controller. It wasn’t pretty, but they got through the show. But the reason I bring that up is because for two years prior I’d been telling the venue management, “This board has a problem.” And the sad part was, even though they had the money, they didn’t want to deal with it and ended up ruining a production.

Di Paolo and Michael Lawrence preparing his new RCF HDL6-A line array system for rigging prior to a local event.

ML: And that’s kind of where we started. Our job is to say something to the client ahead of time, so we can head off those issues, and prevent those issues before something fails during a show. Not after. To me it goes right back to the same idea of hiring the right people. I like to think of it like the lawyer versus the paramedic. The lawyer can say, “Well I know where to get that answer,” but the paramedic has to know the answer immediately. And those are the people I want behind the console. If something happens with a patch or in monitor world, or if there’s a wedge melting down on stage, I don’t have to go running because I know they’re going to handle it.

We have a great team now to handle these things. I’ve had problems crop up in audio world during shows that you didn’t even know about because you weren’t on my comms channel, and because we had the right people up there on stage to deal with it before people ever knew there was an issue. I just kept on mixing the show and I knew the crew was talking care of it. I didn’t have to worry.

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BD: That’s really what keeps the phone ringing. The peace of mind for clients – whatever happens, they don’t have to worry about it because no matter what thing they forgot to ask us for, or the promoter forgot to tell us, we make sure it happens.

But, yeah, that’s the thing – I hope that other regional companies, smaller companies realize – it’s OK to let go of that gear. You don’t need to sit on a warehouse full of stuff that you don’t use.

ML: I think about all of those lighting “meat racks” we used to have with hundreds and hundreds of lekos that went out three times a year.

BD: And I finally got all my clients to be OK with the LED lighting rig. There was this fear of LED lighting fixtures. I really had to sit down with them and show them how it would work, and now they say, “Well, this is a lot easier.” I also don’t mind hanging the show now because it goes up so quickly, and I don’t have to do a massive labor call to get it up in the air. One client I work with was scared of the LED rig until he realized he could have any color he wanted, and now he thinks he’s “king of the LEDs.” [laughs] He comes up with new ideas for looks and he loves that I can just program it for him without having to go change gels.

This allows us to keep moving forward and doing cool new projects. All these years we’ve been working together, we’re always doing new stuff. We never settle. The projects I’m doing now, I never thought I’d be doing them. But it’s great. And it’s fun to be working with folks on that level who are passionate about the work. I hope we never settle – I hope we can just keep on doing what we’re doing.

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