This is, ostensibly, an audio column. Therefore, when I was first asked to cover how rental-and-staging companies navigate audio emergencies, I initially imagined a Top 10 list of potential nightmares, and how to avoid them.
But, while it's important to keep a stash of redundant cables in a safe place, or be prepared for RF problems that may occur at the event site, covering technical areas isn't the only factor that will shape whether you'll have a good show and repeat clients — a lot rides on working smoothly with others. Yes, these are business basics to a large degree, but they are also critical to your company's survival.
In this issue, you'll find my laundry list of emergency do's-and-don'ts, reserved for the end of the column. The bulk of the focus will be on fundamentals.
“I've seen very few flawless shows,” says Shauna Scott, rental manager of Rocky Mountain Sound in Vancouver, British Columbia, a leading company with a 25-year history in the area. “As a company, you've got to make sure you've prevented all the other problems, just so you can deal with the one that's inevitable.”
Scott notes that pre-production meetings have increased substantially at her company, primarily to voice concerns and develop strategies to handle common logistical problems. Yet, the biggest challenge remains an old standard — lack of information from the client.
“You have to be ready for, ‘Oh, by the way, we're putting a 400lb. ice sculpture where your rig is,’” she advises. She adds that some people prefer to retain control over their show and portion out pieces of it to several companies.
“And what happens is that when all those suppliers show up at the same time, they don't know what the others are doing, and they all go for the same range of plugs or the same loading bay,” Scott adds. “In those scenarios, we end up having to work more with the other vendors than with the client.”
Mike Aug of Event Tech in Hanover, Md., handles primarily corporate work, but his company will cover everything from small lectures to outdoor rallies with 250,000 people attending. It's common in his experience for production managers to hire multiple companies for one show.
“Sometimes, you step on each other's toes,” he says. “That's why it's always good to know all the players involved on any show — down to who's doing the catering.” Aug adds that it's easier to work out factors like a staggered load-in if you know all the players involved. It also helps to avoid a time crunch that can lead to hurried decisions and costly mistakes.
The nature of being in a relatively small industry often requires many companies to routinely find themselves working side-by-side at gigs that hired multiple vendors. Therefore, as much as anyone scrambles to handle a problem, eventually you're going to have to fall back on your neighbor. John Martin, director of sales and marketing for Colortone, a staging-and-rental company headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, couldn't agree more.
“It's a gypsy-like community,” says Martin. “You can be competing with every company in town for a piece of business, and all of a sudden, everyone else is now a potential resource for you in emergency situations.”
Scott concurs, adding “It's a buddy system, really. All favors. And companies that isolate themselves eventually burn out, because they don't have enough support.”
Emergency situations are, by definition, unexpected — a turn of events where you may have to turn to someone who has an extra runner to go back to your shop. Thus, it's key to develop healthy relationships with your competition. If you do that successfully, you then develop respect within the industry, and you attract the best possible staff to deal with tough situations. Beyond logistics, reciprocity and good will sustain a company through the most horrific of circumstances.
“The same things we learned in elementary school apply here,” Aug says. “Plus, your competitor one day may be your customer or co-worker the next.”
Even when one company is managing all aspects of a gig, clients can have a hard time leaving all responsibilities to the vendor. They often hang on to details that throw a wrench in things. These difficulties can be serious where safety is an issue.
“In the past, we've had to say, ‘No, you have to hire an electrician at $400. You can't get my sound person to handle this job,’” says Scott. “In most cases, the issue is electricity or rigging, where people want to cut costs because the labor per hour is so much. Now, we have liability concerns where, when a plan is drawn up, we get the client's signature promising to not change anything during the show that would compromise our ability to provide something safe.”
Avoiding potential emergencies also can extend to the philosophy of the company.
“One of the things that sets us apart is that we are the only company in the area that refuses to drop our price to get the gig,” says Scott. “Eventually, it will compromise the quality, and possibly, the safety of the show. And, in the long run, it affects the entire industry.”
Despite all this, Scott adds that the issues she is most often asked to deal with usually revolve around cosmetic issues.
“It's the extra touch that makes their day, and rarely the audio specifics,” she says. “I've seen people hang their PA, and have the client show up and tell them to take it down and paint it. You can arrange an incredible front-of-house with top-of-the-line equipment, and the client will say, ‘You can't leave these cables visibly hanging out the back of the console.’”
In other words: if you forgot your pipe-and-drape kit, that's a problem that could get you scrambling.
Remember the Basics
While developing good relationships and planning in preproduction make a huge difference when you're up against a possible show-stopper, there are a few other basics that might be useful to remember:
Adequate Staffing: If you can afford it, have runners available to go between the job site and the shop. That may mean having another person at the shop in case you need fast turnaround.
Point of Pride: Having your work be a source of pride is also a factor in avoiding potential problems.
“We place employees in accountable situations,” says Shauna Scott. “So when the head rigger puts all the points in, they can also put a stamp on their work.”
Do not underestimate how critical this is. I just finished a show where avoidable audio dropouts occurred because the engineers were not focused on the task at hand. Accountability also has another benefit. Employees will make fewer excuses about their work quality and directly experience the concept of being part of a team.
When to say no: OK, you don't want to lose the gig. You can't afford to, for one thing. It's not worth the hassle, and you can live with most compromises the client is seeking. Still, saying no saves time, and sometimes, lives. If a client insists on having your company do something risky, stick to your limits. Specifically, know when to bail out of an agreement. Sure, someone might swoop down, have no problems with the client's needs, and run the show flawlessly. But that doesn't matter. Walk. The nightmare scenario you might encounter will be lesson enough.
Any company worth its salt spends time developing preparedness for the unexpected. Part of that strategy has to involve maintaining good relations with other companies directly, and indirectly, involved in the business. This makes it more likely that the next crisis will simply be a wakeup call that strengthens you, not one that sinks you.
Alex Artaud is a musician living in Oakland, Calif.