Our culture is enamored with ”cheap.” This notion, “more for less,” permeates every sector of the economy, including our own little corner. Wal-Mart and Ikea, for example, are two celebrated, cheap retailers who have posted profits during these difficult economic times. However, at its heart, I think the promise of cheap is a lie, and on some level, we all know it.
There is no such thing as “more for less.” Behind the seductive illusion of scoring a deal are troubling consequences our culture is beginning to face—consequences regarding labor practices, as with Wal-Mart (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices, produced/directed by Robert Greenwald. Brave New Films, 2005), or environmental implications, as with Ikea (Shell, Ellen Ruppel, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Goods. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009). We make tradeoffs for cheap, whether we know it—or admit it—or not. Cheap production is no different, and three elements make cheap production possible: design, labor, and gear.
Cheap design is rampant when discussing cheap production. It is functional and predictable, emphasizing not innovation but mimicry. We see it ad nauseam in the events market in the form of “a warm and flattering stage wash in a hue of amber and pink,” or “vibrant uplighting gelled to complement the decor,” or “a single 4:3 screen stage-left of the presenter,” or “a 8'x20'x6" stage with brown drape as a backdrop,” or “toning and focusing pin spots.” I don’t even know what “toning a pin spot” means. To me, this form of design is heavily vested in the status quo and resists change because, hey, the status quo is simple and lucrative.
Cheap design also has little impact. It is flat, like a front-light stage wash. Attempts at concise branding fail because the event must fit into a form factor, which comes with a stale bag of tricks. Thus, individual character or branding attempts are muddled because nobody is paying for a thought-out gesture. For that, designers would need to be consulted, which significantly ramps up the price. A writer who uses the same 15 words generates rather uninteresting prose after a time. A writer who uses the same 15 words generates rather uninteresting prose after a time. See what I mean? The same can be said for design.
However, most clients are unaware that options exist other than the typical “event in a box.” Prices are perceived to be arbitrary, a notion exacerbated by large, seemingly random “discounts” that appear in many estimates for no particular reason. Fearing being swindled, clients learn to exert enormous downward pressure on price. What’s left may barely feed overhead. There is little room for nuanced design.
Cheap production, of course, always leads to cheap labor. Former President William McKinley said it best: “Cheap merchandise means cheap men.” He was speaking about five-and-dimes, but it’s applicable to us. Knowledgeable, courteous, well trained men and women are not usually cheap.
Cheap labor isn’t necessarily qualified labor. A few months ago, I heard about a multi-cable knuckle exploding in a New York City venue for the second time. Apparently, it burst into flames and damaged the carpeted floor again. Breakouts do not have moving parts and rarely explode, so it begs the question of just how much current the thing was carrying. Another favorite: the locally infamous story of the not-so-well-trained “rigger” who lowered an entire truss structure while chatting on a cell phone. Disaster nearly occurred when the individual realized, some 40 seconds later, one of the motors had not been captured and was slowly taking more and more weight as the truss twisted.
Despite equipment manufacturers’ Herculean efforts to make gear redundantly safe, cheap labor can negate those safeguards. Common sense isn’t always so common and is no substitute for proper continuing education. Companies who pay their people the bare minimum perpetuate the problem. Earning low wages in an uncertain work environment makes continuing education for the people who need it most impossible. Furthermore, why should our workers invest in an industry that is not investing in them?
This leads to another point about cheap labor: It is disposable. Early in my career, I worked for a company that did lighting in the Hamptons. We would work for six to eight hours without a break or lunch, marooned on a job site in a tent with no possible means of escape, sometimes without water. I know that it sounds like the introduction to a joke. I wondered at the time how this systemic abuse could so casually occur; repeated disorganization of this magnitude seemed unlikely. Eventually, I realized I was disposable, not unlike toilet paper. Once used, you just flush it away without a moment’s thought. After all, there’s always more. You have a freelancer who complains too much? Then it’s time to find a new freelancer. Cheap labor learns to keep its mouth shut, which has obvious advantages for employers.
Downward pressure on price equates to downward pressure on labor rates. Expensive labor speaks to competency and professionalism, which is inadvertently overlooked when pushing “rock bottom prices.” When things go badly, it pays to have valued, qualified men and women on your side.
Finally, when cheap production is around, cheap gear is often loading in the door. There are several problems with cheap gear and the shops that supply it. For one, volume is a priority. Maintenance, then, takes a back seat. I designed the lighting for a huge corporate party years ago, where the production company I wanted to go with wasn’t the lowest bidder on the lighting gear. I was hesitant, but ultimately, the decision to go with the lowest bidder was made by somebody higher up the food chain. What resulted was disaster.
The moving lights had been shipped directly from another closing show. The lamps were nearing death, the lenses were caked in years of dried hazer fluid, and the templates were custom and loaded in different slots. Two of the eight units kept over-temping and resetting, and the lamps had no hot restrike, which meant, at any given moment, I had only seven working movers. Their output was so bad that reflected light from the projection screen rendered any saturated color from most of the movers invisible. Given the template irregularities, that was probably a blessing. The coup de gras was when a guest came up to me and said, “Get this party goin’! Put all the lights on the dance floor, and rock it,” to which I replied, “They are rocking it,” much to our dismay. In other rooms, I received Twin-Spins that gurgled when turned on—I think a truck ran over one of them—and a stage pin cable with two male ends. It was a hard day.
The shops that push cheap gear have little concern for what’s actually specified, especially when busy. On that disastrous job, the incorrect amount of pipe was sent. I think the same amount of linear feet showed up, just in different denominations. That caused problems.
On a different job, one of these shops subbed a 48-rack in place of two 24-racks without telling anyone. In many ways, they are equivalent but not when trying to negotiate steep, wooden stairs in a Manhattan Off-Off-Off Broadway theatre.
Cheap gear usually lacks onsite support. I once did a no-budget show in Midtown Manhattan where I went with the lowest bid and called in favors to make it happen. Then the console crashed. What was the shop’s response? “Oh well! That’s too bad!” I had to beg for a console at my own expense from the shop I should have gone with originally—a powerful, humbling lesson.
Ultimately, cheap gear always ends up costing more money; I think the same could be said for cheap anything, though not always directly or immediately. As we feverishly underbid each other, we are building a dynamic not unlike the airline industry’s current plight, where unionized, legacy carriers cannot compete with younger, non-union airlines. This trouble goes far beyond one job or one season, with ramifications that negatively impact us all. What works for Wal-Mart and Ikea spells troubling consequences for production. In an economy focused on cheap, all of us—our audiences, our labor, our clients, our world—get less for less.
We may be deeply mired in the Age of Cheap, but that isn’t stopping Tinc’s Lance Darcy from ranting about its negative effects on our industry and people. Cautionary tale, or grumpy designer tired of uplights? You decide. When not spreading the gospel against cheap, Darcy runs the design department for Tinc Design & Productions, where he is in charge of all things aesthetic. He writes the blog “LD on the DL.”