Study Hall

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Pay Now, Pay Later: The Decision To Go In-House Or Rent Systems & Components

Carefully do the math to find out what's best for your specific situation in the long run...

One of the great questions in the meaning of life (when it comes to audio) is why buy an in-house system when you can rent?

I believe that I can present an unbiased opinion on the subject as the owner/president of a retail store, a sound installation company, and a concert rental company. I’m gonna cash a check any way you decide to go.

The big plus in owning a system is that you can use it anytime you want. But the myth is that there is no additional cost, the concept that once you’ve laid out the initial investment, use is free.

In terms of real-world accounting, this is just plain baloney. You must take the number of times you can use the system (before it becomes unusable or obsolete, whatever comes first) and divide this into the fixed cost of the rig to get a “per show” cost.

Let’s say you’ve convinced the facility director to shell out $1 million for a shiny new line array, two big consoles, a rack of outboard gear, and two dozen wireless headset microphones for the theater department.

Nice going! My install manager thanks you. If you walked in off the street with a shopping list from a consultant, my store manager thanks you.

The Rule of Atrophy

Will this gear be around to use for the next 10 years? Probably not. Shrinkage (also known as theft) will eliminate some of the mics and outboard gear.

Food, dust and general neglect can destroy the consoles. Snakes will get trampled. Loudspeakers will become a “swingin’ bachelor pad” for mice, birds and other homeless creatures.

Granted, this won’t happen in the first few seasons. But it will happen. It’s a rule of science called atrophy. Just as gravity eventually pulls our chests ever downward toward our laps and rust never sleeps.

Therefore, accept the fact that the system is probably only good for five years. We also know that the snob factor in this industry (that I’ve pointed out before and will continue to do) states, “Anything that is over three tours/albums old is for club use only.”

So with a yearly schedule of 150 shows (every weekend of every week, a bit aggressive for a restored movie theater – but realistic), multiplied by five years, you get a total of 750 shows. And to keep the math easy, I’m leaving out rehearsals and the occasional mid-week rave that the boss doesn’t know about…

The bottom line is that $1 million initial investment, divided by 750 uses, equals $1,500 per show. Sounds pretty reasonable for a rig of this size.

However, this figure counts on several conditions that we know are not realities. The system works perfectly for those 750 shows with no maintenance or repair required. The system is suited to every performance and requires no additional, “Oh, by the ways.”

Further, every single act that advances the hall says, “How did you know that was my favorite combination of equipment for a consecutive five-year period?” And, “You’ve got exactly the correct number of wireless I need for my Easter day parade!”

Now, the big one. The techs responsible for this system – the ones who maintain it and generally treat it as their own, down to cleaning the scum off of the windscreens – are very hard to find. They’re also expensive to hire and retain, because if they’re that good, they can make more money touring.

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I’m not saying these folks aren’t out there because I run into a lot of them in my travels. But the other sound companies, national acts, production companies, promoters, magazines, manufacturers, rep firms – and, uh, me – are always hiring them away!

On the other hand, renting a system means that your labor and related costs should be covered in the rental agreement. And if you don’t like the support you get from one company, there’s always another ready and waiting to supply a system and support that’s commensurate.

Doubling the Cost

So let’s get real and admit there’s an extra 10 percent per year for two techs and an extra five percent a year for upkeep with an in-house system.

With that in mind, within about 6.5 years, the cost of your in-house system has doubled.

This does not include cost of living raises or the need to upgrade certain aspects of the system as new products come to market. (Miniaturization of mics, piano transducers, wacky outboard stuff, hearing assistance, more channels, new playback – from tape to minidisc to DAT to CD to Pro Tools, and so on.)

Now you’re looking at closer to $2,600-ish per show, and now you’re way into the rental price book.

Remember, this is based on the aggressive show schedule I mentioned earlier. But subtract three months off to account for “slower” show season(s). Now you’re at almost $4,000 per show. Cut the number of shows in half and the per-show cost jumps to over $5,000 per night!

I doubt that even most colleges or high schools with big arts programs and wonderfully diverse schedules host many more shows than this over a 20-year period. We’ve all seen a lot of 20-year-old house sound systems that make grist for the journalistic mill of this publication and elsewhere.

These systems were put into place by the same types of dreamers, consultants, and accountants during the “heydays” of the mid-1980s.

My advice: do the math, and you may find that in the long run, it’s more economical, cash-flow friendly, budget-tolerant, and artist-rider satisfying to work out a comfortable long-term rental program with your local concert sound vendor.

If you get in a bind and need a few more wireless systems or ticket sales are strong and you add another day, your local vendor will most likely cut you a sweet deal for the extras and only charge full price for the batteries.

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