Part Three: Truth In A Bottle
There are obvious lessons to this tale. One, expect payment upfront. At the very least expect the final payment on the first day of load-in. Production companies are not in the business of lending money or extending credit. Many smaller corporations lack the resources necessary to fully gauge an individual's credit score. Two, charge the credit card when contractually allowed. My bashful attitude about money owed was reprehensible and foolish. Now I know the cost of that shyness in real dollars, and I am unlikely to ever forget it. Three, trust your gut. My stomach warned me about Mr. Wilson long before my brain did, and I should have listened to it. That unease should have guided my decisions, which would have meant a more protective and proactive posture. Lastly, don't take it personally. Angrily banging my hand with a water bottle so hard I could no longer make a fist is arguably the definition of taking it personally.
However, it's the un-obvious lessons I really want to discuss. Gigs have an inertia to them, a lot like a freight train. At first there's only an engine. However, car after car slowly adds mass which increases the amount of force needed to slow the train. A fully loaded train can take miles to stop. Gigs operate very similarly. At first, there's only an idea which can easily be halted. However, as the load-in approaches that gig becomes harder and harder to stop as elements get added, gear gets ordered, staff get scheduled, and deposits get paid. At some point, the amount of effort to seriously course correct or halt altogether becomes impossible for just one person. Bad things happen at this point.
For me this phenomena ended up costing only money. Other times, the cost is much, much higher. A gig's inertia begins to peak at load-in. Clients walk around, antsy and nervous, and that ripples down through the staff. The concert begins in hours. Doors open in minutes. The show must go on! So, what happens when incorrect gear ends up on-site, or naive pre-planning in preproduction smacks up against cold reality? Do we stop everything and wait? Usually not. Stopping takes too much effort because the inertia is too high. Tweaking however - a slight course correction -- takes much less energy. Human nature opts for the path of least resistance.
So instead we start figuring the odds. Maybe the wrong truss gauge was sent. Do we overload the structure? Well ... it will probably be okay. Maybe these breakers cannot handle the load. Do we by-pass them? Well ... it will probably be okay. The wrong Genie was sent. Do we stand on the handle bars? Well ... it will probably be okay. Do we wait just a little longer and see what the weather's gonna do? Well ... it'll probably be okay.
Gig inertia is seductive and often permeates a job site without anyone being consciously aware of it. Thus, the most dangerous time on-site is right when the bulk of the of load-in ends but before the show starts. The period when times grows short, or when all the short-cuts and improvisations are now under full stress. It's also the period when those in-charge are most reluctant to cancel the show.
I don't know any easy fixes for this issue. Often no clear chain-of-command exists on-site, which creates a diffusion of responsibility. Studies clearly show when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. This fosters an environment perfect for the practice of, “Making it work,” a gig inertia credo of sorts. Gig inertia may already be enormous the night before a huge load-in. A culture of honest and frank communication across all parties must be in place to combat bad decisions from being executed. An on-site awareness of gig inertia may also slow things down. Over ordering gear and over engineering structures should be routine practice, since gig inertia -- an immutable fact of life during a load-in -- routinely causes the envelope to be pushed. All should recognize at some point one individual, acting alone, is incapable of exerting enough force to stop the forward momentum of a gig. Instead, only a group of people in positions of authority or influence can. Everyone on-site needs to know who those people are, and those people need to understand exactly what's at stake. Lastly, all should recognize money adds to gig inertia and usually in a negative way. When losses begin to figure into go/no go decisions, it's a clear warning sign this speeding freight train might be heading for disaster.
By the time the alarm bells rang in my head when Mr. Wilson finally signed the contact, from my perspective the gig's inertia was too great to just stop. In retrospect, I should have demanded the entire amount up-front, citing some bogus company policy, and apologetically walked away when Mr. Wilson refused. By that time, however, crew had been tentatively scheduled, gear had been quoted, much work had been done, and verbal agreements had been made. To pull out at that moment would have taken enormous effort and caused enormous consternation with our referring client, the venue.
At the very least I should have been communicating my concern to everyone who would listen the moment I felt my stomach churn. In retrospect I feel sure others shared my leeriness, and together we may have mitigated our loses. My inability to act under such pathetic amounts of gig inertia (since we were just signing the contract) is humbling, and shows me just how much more I have yet to learn. Thank God my lesson only cost dollars.
Another not-so-obvious lesson: The court system is largely impotent. Before a business can seize assets, the individual or other business must first possess assets to seize. An individual who owns nothing and rents, like Mr. Wilson, can be very difficult (read: expensive) to track down. Suppose we had decided to sue Mr. Wilson in Civil Court and won, obtaining an air-tight judgement in the company's favor for the amount owed plus legal fees. Then what? While a judgement does give authority to pull money out of his bank account, the money first has to be in the bank account in the full amount of the judgement. Few, if any, keep that amount of cash in a checking account, particularly an inept deadbeat like Mr. Wilson. I also have to know where he banks and his Social Security number. With this much information in hand, I probably could have run a credit check and learned way before the gig started loaning money to Mr. Wilson was an incredibly stupid idea. Even if Mr. Wilson owned real estate, I think there are limitations on putting a business lien against someone's primary residence.
Suing a small business can be equally as futile. Setting up a basic LLC takes little cash and effort. Most incorporated event planners and production companies in New York City work out of their homes, which are likely rented. So, again, the business itself possess very few assets which can be seized. Entrepreneurs explicitly set up LLCs and S-Corps to limit their liability. Piercing the corporate veil to pursue a debtor's personal assets costs even more money with no guarantee of success. Procuring that air-tight judgement will allow for a lien against the business, but I don't think many of these businesses are routinely sold. Most just evaporate. Maybe serious money would get collection agencies or judgement collection firms more excited about taking up the case. However, you're still ultimately settling for cents on the dollar and those significant up-front costs must be paid regardless.
The solutions to this is simple: don't lend dinky companies or unincorporated individuals money you aren't prepared to lose. Better yet, expect payment upfront to avoid large financial risk. I realize having a law firm on retainer is laughable. Few companies can afford the expense. Nevertheless, every small business should ... at the very least ... know and have a relationship with a small business lawyer. They are plenty of good lawyers in the world that didn't make partner at a huge law firm who now operate on their own.
It surprised me how little help I received from the court system. I naively thought courts settled right and wrong, and then helped those in the right be made whole again. Turns out to be a pipe dream. Courts provide legal permission to seize something from an individual or corporation, but never confuse permission with actually doing it. Ideally the two would be related. Then again, ideally people would pay the money they owed you.
It also surprised me how little power a contract actually possesses, even though, ironically, much of our entire economy is based on contract law. However, the effectiveness of a contract presupposes a few important factors. One, the business or individual is legitimate and findable. Two, the business or individual has seizable assets. Three, the wronged party has the capital to enforce the contract the other business or individual has breached. Without any of those three factors, a contract is just, “...a worthless piece of paper.”
I think a lot about Mr. Wilson and often wonder if I got conned. Someone with knowledge of our feckless court system and the difficulties associated with collections would know how to take advantage of it. Young and dumb small business types would make easy prey. So ... was I conned? Was Mr. Wilson actually a criminal mastermind who acted out of malice instead of incompetence? We'll never know for sure, but I tend to think not. A few weeks ago he friended me on Linked-In. Not the hallmark of a very devious criminal. I politely thanked him for the opportunity to become a connection, and then told him to go f*** himself.
I'm not a savvy, wheeling and dealing business type. Mr. Wilson and the entire experience definitively proved that to me. I design for a living. I concern myself with how things fit together, telling a story, and addressing my clients' concerns without usually being told. I'm good at it. My preferred role is more analogous to The Help, and I'm comfortable with being a silent, behind-the-scenes entity making other people look good who largely don't remember my name or know I exist. I don't care about contracts, lawyers, risk management, collections, or anything else you'd study at business school. I admire the people who do concern themselves with this stuff. It's incredibly important. If those business-types want most of my fee, they can have it so long as I never, ever have to talk to a judgement collections agency again.
I still own and use the stainless steel water bottle I beat my hand with the day all my poor decisions finally burned me. No longer a perfect cylinder, I enjoy it's oblong shape and colorful history. I keep it as a reminder of who I am, and the high cost of pretending to be somebody I'm not.