Sexy Toys and Money

in LD at Large

illustration by Andy AuI spent some time recently talking to the people who run a few different lighting companies. Being an LD myself, I don’t see the business through the same eyes these people do. I tend to pick on them to lower prices on older fixtures. I don’t look at the big picture, what it really takes to run a lighting company. Besides just purchasing new realms of sexy toys, one has to take into account all the other nuts and bolts; the non-sexy items that enable these fixtures to perform.

Last month I questioned a vendor on why he still wants to charge me $250 per week for the Vari*Lite VL3000 spot on tour. These fixtures have been workhorses over the years for this company and have been paid off several times over. His reply was simple. “The $250 I charge is not paying for this sexy fixture. That money is applied to all the other facets of this organization to keep it running. It’s paying off those certain lights we bought for designers two years ago that nobody else wants now. It’s paying for all the non-sexy stuff I have to buy to keep you happy.”  He went on to explain a bit more about how successful lighting companies have survived.

Picking and Choosing

Every year, the lighting community gets to choose from hundreds of new toys. For us lighting designers, we would like to try them all. Some will be extremely sexy, and we realize everyone will be seeing tons of these fixtures everywhere for years to come. Some may be cool to use for one show only. Purchasing the sexy ones may be a no-brainer. Last year we saw the onslaught of Clay Paky’s Sharpy. This original, sexy beam of light is certainly a “must have” on just about any musical show out there. This year, it may well be the Martin MAC Viper. Nobody can deny that they wouldn’t really like to have a few of either of these fixtures on their show or in their inventory. But what about the hundreds of other products? Is it a gamble to buy these? Same theory applies with consoles. Some lighting desks are incredibly sexy-looking. Some are bland-looking. The sexy ones may cost five times as much as the others. But they all do close to the same thing in my book. If I drove a Maserati, I’d probably have an ego that demands I use one of these fancy things. Personally, I prefer to own two cars instead of one expensive one. But that’s just me, and I’m not the one buying the console.

Quantity vs. Quality

Everybody always thinks about the sexy items, but does anybody ever think of all the expensive, non-sexy items it takes to put a show together? The bands’ accountants certainly don’t notice. They look at fixture count versus rental price. They don’t care that 10 percent of your moving lights don’t work every night. No audience member has ever asked for a refund because some lights don’t work, or the bulbs are all old and brown. They don’t care if all the lights are hung in some fancy expensive auto truss enabling you to shave an hour off your load-out.

The labor guys are charging for a four-hour minimum anyway — use all 20-inch box truss, for all they care.

Unlike accountants, I may be one of the few people that take a look at the unsexy things a lighting company provides. For instance, it takes a crack team of guys in the lighting warehouses to keep gear working. Certain rental houses are notorious for providing multi cables with bad circuits. Or having constant troubles with bad motor cables. Any new guy can be taught to tape cable hods together, but will they care enough to test every XLR cable, twist lock 208 and multi cable going out on a show? Good guys need to be paid accordingly. And what about the guys in the shop who prep and repair moving lights constantly? This is a craft learned over time. My friend pointed out that the price I pay for the weekly rental of that same Vari-Lite is what covers the cost of that team of techs who clean and maintain the very same lights after each tour.

Truss Appeal

I find truss sexy. Those guys at Upstaging developed the 24” wide Hud truss a few years back, and it set a new precedent in the biz. PRG took that example and designed its own version, the Bat truss. It’s awesome. Christie Lites has built a lot of its own truss. They came up with their own model of this smart truss, which is even better than the rest.  The problem is, these are all line items on a rental sheet. All three companies would love to continue charging extra money for these items, because they spent a bundle building them. But when the companies compete in a bidding war on a long tour, the first thing slashed from the cost sheet may well be the sexy truss. It will still be demanded on the tour of course, but someone will throw in the extra cost of using this truss to get the account.

AC distribution racks are not sexy. Some have cool voltage meters and all kinds of new-fangled plugs and ways to get power and data to everything in your rig. They are extremely necessary, and they cost a small fortune. In this day and age of safety consciousness, everyone demands our business follow a guideline for building such devices. The UL listing and testing costs money. Canada and the European community have their own stringent laws for these racks. Now California is passing a code that is making tons of rental racks obsolete, or in need of serious refurbishing. An AC rack that may have cost the buyer $15,000 (five years ago) may now be illegal in that state. This is not sexy. The companies can’t fight it. It is no longer economical to design your own racks.  You got a show traveling the world? Get ready to spend some money on unsexy stuff.

Hoists are not sexy. Chain motors get you dirty, they need maintenance, they are not cheap, and they aren’t always legal wherever you go. Rigging laws vary from country to country, as do electrical codes.  In America, CM hoists are the most popular. But many countries in Europe do not find them satisfactory to their own safety codes. So now I am seeing tons of new, larger CM motors on the scene. They are not any sexier, but they needed to be upgraded to be acceptable worldwide. Every shop has a guy who has to be certified and paid well to service these motors. That guy is usually not very sexy (with the exception of Chris Schmidt), but necessary.

Need vs. Desire

When I think of the least-sexy thing in any business, it has to be the price of insurance premiums. Of course, that never gets any better-looking. The more gear you own, the more employees you have, the more safety standards show up, the more we must pay. Just when it appears that the corporate shows are all coming back, the music business is going great guns, people are seeking live entertainment, we need more unsexy stuff.  Because without them, there would be no sexy light show.