Every lighting company principal comes to the ultimate crossroads of his or her career when faced with the glorious opportunity of bidding on a tour, which comes in various guises of country, corporate, or, if you're real lucky, a rock tour, just like the one you've always wanted. Let's say you decide to go for it despite the fact that you will be up against Lights 'R' Us. What next?
You must first get the lighting designer or production manager into your shop if at all possible and demonstrate your ability to do the job--not only with the specified gear involved but, more importantly, your personnel. Remember that the people you propose for this venture are not necessarily your best, but the best for this specific job. Be sure to offer to pay for the potential client's airline ticket, hotel room, and meals. It could make a big difference.
So you got the thumbs-up from the client and he went back and told the manager or show producer that you are a serious contender and should be allowed to bid. You've got the bid specifications in addition to up to two plots--the light plot showing the number and placement of instruments and truss, and the rigging plot which determines your rigging points and motor placement. Your next determination is how much of the gear you already own and how much you will have to purchase. More importantly, once again, is how many personnel can you safely and efficiently do the tour with (week after week) without killing your crew. Keep in mind that this staff requirement may already be determined by the production manager or designer and may be inflexible.
Breaking out the costs of doing business on the road includes equipment, personnel, per diems, rooms, airline tickets, rental cars, and so on. Equipment and personnel are part of your cost of doing business. The remaining costs depend on your position, relationships, and negotiating skills. Let's look at these expenses line item by line item in more detail.
New equipment is amortized in a different manner during a long-term rental such as a tour. If your gear is already paid for, so much the better. If you just purchased it, you will have to do a little math to determine the percentage rate that your company accountant needs to see to make a decent profit margin while attempting to retire your debt load and recover your cost of goods.
Very few vendors are able to get full price on equipment rental during production rehearsals so be prepared to discount up to half for this one. It is generally not a good idea to do the same with personnel since you have a weekly commitment to their salary.
Personnel is a fixed weekly cost determined by the technician's level of skill. There are up to five levels of weekly salary depending on which league you happen to be playing in (U2 may require much higher skill levels than a Jake and the Rakes tour). Call around to get an idea of what the weekly going rates are and this will help you determine where you need to be. Take care to keep your crew comfortable as they are your ongoing company representatives on a daily basis.
Per diems are paid to each crew member when they work outside the minimum mileage requirement from the office location. The Internal Revenue Service has a pamphlet that lists the allowable amounts for each city, but many people average this around $35 per day per person. More should be considered when in major metropolitan areas since some of us can do serious damage when eating out in restaurants. The rate definitely goes up when leaving the country depending on which part of the globe you are traveling.
The show's producer usually takes care of rooms and transportation while on tour but you may be faced with the cost of getting the crew to the first rehearsal and home from the last date. There have been a few where the crew has had to transport themselves. Once again, your leverage in this area is determined by the political factors mentioned above and your gift of gab.
Many of you will be faced with the problem of "buying" a tour and this is where you have to be very careful not to price yourself so low that you will not be able to afford to service it. There will undoubtedly be an unexpected flight or two, many next-day counter-to-counter shipments, or a crew switch. Gear does go down and chemistry between vendor staff and client is not always predictable. Be prepared. You may even want to make some allowance for promo swag, but whatever you do, wait until the end of the tour before you give it out. This way you can count on at least one positive finale, just in case.
If you're actually conducting your bidding process with a tour accountant, price is more of an important factor than if you are dealing with a designer who has never had a budget restriction. By now you have determined if this bid is based on price point or not. Low bid may win every time with some clients and get you thrown out on the first pass with others.
Now it is time to contract this nice little piece of business, but you have basically been a rental house based on the huge quantities of loose fixtures and big lack of pre-rigged truss. Some of us are big supporters of running the contract proposal by the company attorney. Never assume you know all there is to know about contracts of this nature. They get very tricky.
The artist's business manager pays vendors weekly (hopefully) so a payment schedule needs to be drawn up as an addendum to the contract. Deposits are usually paid to the vendor in the form of one week's full rental price, or first and last weeks depending on how you as a vendor feel about the stability of your client or the longevity of the tour. You can get a copy of Billboard every week and track artist charts until you're blue in the face--and one never really knows whether or not a new act is going to break out a hit. Don't feel too bad if you do worse than the research team at Sony Records. If we were really good at this process, record labels would have much bigger staffs.
Another good idea is to be present at the end of production rehearsals and for the first show or two. Stay in daily contact with your crew chief and check in with the production manager often (unless he calls you every morning at 3am from the hotel bar). Visit the tour again around the halfway point of the itinerary and always be at the last show. . . your competitor probably will be.
Randy Wade is an independent writer in Atlanta who has spent the last 12 years immersed up to his neck with some of the most renowned lighting companies and manufacturers in the industry.