Paying to Play

by Brad Schiller
in Feeding the Machines

A new trend has emerged in the concert touring world where opening acts are paying a main act to get on the bill and play at a concert. Gone are the days of a management team making deals to get a band as an opening act; now it is simply who has the cash to play.

Similarly, I also see many programmers who think that owning their own console will help them in their career. By investing in the technology, they believe that more skills, more gigs and more money will come their way. While this may be true for one or two, it is certainly not the average. Let’s take a look at the various options and angles of console ownership.

‡‡         The Technology

First, the console manufacturers have a plethora of items ready for any programmer to purchase. From dongles to programming wings to consoles of various sizes, you could easily spend anywhere from $500 to well over $50,000. That is just for the main item; roadcases, monitors, switches and more are often required for a true FOH experience. Furthermore, shipping and insurance of these items adds additional costs and expenditures.

Depending on your budget, console brand and production needs, you will need to determine the equipment that is best for you. Perhaps you don’t need a full sized console and instead can work with a programming wing. The most scaled-back choice would be a simple USB widget to output DMX through a 5-pin XLR connector.

Some console manufacturers offer free universes of control through Art-Net or sACN or the ability to program for free with specific visualizers. If your main goal of ownership is to get more time on a desk, consider using these free options.

‡‡         Paying for your Education

If the main reason you are thinking of buying a console or wing is to help you learn a desk, then you might want to think again. Owning a console simply to play with at home and hone your skills is not a good return on your investment. While working with an actual console helps perfect muscle memory, it can easily be accomplished without the hefty investment in a console.

Most lighting rental shops will have some consoles in their inventory. If you develop a good relationship with the staff they will likely allow you to come to their shop and practice on a console. You could connect to a few fixtures or work with a visualizer. Either way, they probably won’t charge you to sit in the corner and use their desk. Also as a bonus, they will see your passion and might even offer you a gig.

If you do purchase a console simply to learn, understand that you will not be making any money back on your purchase and thus are simply paying for a self-taught education. This is usually not a good decision.

‡‡         Paying for Gigs

We all want to work more often and gain more experience. Many new to the industry think that owning their own console will help them secure more gigs. They believe that, by being able to offer a console for free when hired as an LD or programmer, they will have more opportunities than others. In most cases, this is simply not true. Often, that kind of gambit will backfire, with the production manager or producer questioning your skills if you are offering a console for free just to work with them.

If you do decide to provide the production with a console, you need to be prepared for all that this entails. Now you need to also consider shipping and insurance of your desk and negotiate who is paying for those items. Furthermore if there are any problems with the gear, you now must provide support as well. Are you prepared to provide a backup console if yours has a failed power supply or screen?

Keep in mind that your local lighting rental company will always negotiate a great deal for clients that often includes heavy discounts (or free) on consoles (and provide backups). This means that the freebee you are trying to provide to a client with your desk may not be that great compared to what they get with the total lighting package.

If you do purchase a console to get more gigs, understand that you will again not be making any money back on your purchase and thus are simply paying for the opportunity to program shows. This too is usually not a good decision.

‡‡         Becoming a Rental Company

Some LDs and programmers have found success in owning gear and renting it back to a production. Generally, this is because they already own something unique, such as media servers or automation equipment. They also are usually friends with the production manager or producer and ask to provide the consoles along with the other gear to the tour or show. These successful LDs and programmers that own consoles all purchased the gear once they confirmed they had a long running gig that would pay for all or nearly all of their cost. None of them purchased desks and then hoped to get a gig to help repay their debts.

Gear ownership also means that you need to find space for storage when not on the road, pay to update and maintain the equipment and cases and determine the best time to sell it off while there is still value. If you want to work as an LD or programmer, think carefully if you really want to start a rental company. Most people can be very successful in this business without owning specific lighting equipment such as consoles, media servers, or visualizers.

‡‡         It’s Your Choice

Making the decision to own a console can be a difficult one for some. Many want to rush into the industry and believe that ownership will help them to move forward with education and productions. However, the simple reality is that in most cases there is no value in owning a console or wing. You can easily practice or learn with a free off-line editor or borrow (or even rent) a wing or console from a lighting company.

Very few programmers have found the need to own a desk, and most who have purchased a console find the financial burden much too heavy. Only in rare instances does it work to the programmer’s advantage to actually own the gear. New console models come out every seven to 10 years, so the timeline to gain a return on your investment is relatively small. In addition, the saturated market means that most rental companies already have many consoles in stock. So you will have lots of competition, too.

‡‡         Don’t Pay to Play

Working as an automated lighting programmer is much like being the pilot of a jet fighter. You need to hone your skills and master your job, but there is no reason to own the plane. If you are wealthy enough and know you will have passengers lining up, then sure, buy the jet and start an airline. Otherwise, keep working on your piloting skills and be ready to learn the next model plane when it comes out.

Take the time to learn about other console resources to practice your skills before considering ownership. Talk with your local lighting company and ask to practice with their gear. Earn gigs based on your skills and not on the gear that you can provide. This will certainly help you go much further in the industry. Remember that most bands that pay to play as an opening act never become the headliner.

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