More things I learned running a sound company in the 1990s

Previously (LSI April 2017), I described some early adjustments made to the daily running of a sound company I worked with in the 1990s, particularly the ins-and-outs of show inventory. That article apparently struck a chord, plus I’ve recalled several other things we did that made a significant difference, so in no particular order here are some additional practices.

Staffing. One thing that was a common occurrence when I took over was the appearance of one or more account managers late in the day with the announcement that they’d just sold our services for a show that loaded in the next morning. It would inevitably lead to a late night and the necessity of feeding the shop crew, usually pizza. This, of course, required a cash outlay, and if it happened more than once in a week, would often lead to the staff going into overtime.

At the same time I noticed that some of the staff habitually had trouble making it to the shop on time in the morning. My solution was a split shift. I called the staff into my office and asked who were early risers, who liked to sleep in, who needed to leave early to beat traffic, etc.

Here’s what we worked out: The early shift was 8 am to 4 pm, with the people on that shift responsible for unloading any trucks that came in over night and checking in those shows. The later shift was 10 am to 6 pm, and they were responsible for loading trucks at the end of the day. During the time that the shifts overlapped, everyone was responsible for building shows and rentals, as well as the usual day-to-day tasks. There was also a tacit understanding that if we got really slammed, the early shift would stay at least another two hours to help out and everyone would stay longer if needed.

The results? Happy staffers that got a choice in their work hours, less overtime, fewer pizza parties, better workflow through the shop, and regular business hours from 8 am to 6 pm, something that was greatly appreciated by our dry rental customers. And at no cost to the company.

Loudspeaker prep. When I first started, it was a point of pride that every loudspeaker was tested with a frequency sweep before it went out the door. It didn’t take me long to realize that while this was great, it meant that problems were being discovered as the units were on their way out of the shop.

I changed the process so that every loudspeaker was swept on return from a job. This provided two benefits: it gave us far more time to change out drivers or make other necessary fixes, and if the loudspeaker was damaged either through negligence or operational failure (say, a bad amplifier), it gave us a much better chance of finding out who/what was responsible and doing something about it.

Trucking. There was a week in the summer of 1992 were we got just about every ticket possible for trucking violations. There were overweight cube vans, overweight 5-tons (becausethey were the lower weight class anyone-can-rent-and drive moving vans), 5-tons that were not overweight for their class but were being driven by a driver who didn’t have the proper license for that weight class, and so on. This required several responses:

trucking - efficiency - zimbel audio1. I got the company to agree to facilitate our regular techs and freelancers getting higher weight class licenses. This typically involved nothing more than encouraging them to take the written test and get the medical, and then supplying a truck and driver so they could do the road test.

2. Account managers were often specifying a cube van to make their numbers work on a quote, and that had to stop. We had cube vans leaving the shop with their back tires smoking because the box was sitting on them. I also made a policy of “no seat, no seat belt, no rider” so they actually had to think about how to get the crew to/from an event, safely and legally.

3. I began inspecting every load that left the shop, something that continued through the 8-plus years I was there, right up to 53-foot trailers. After a while, my suggestions and changes trickled down to the general shop staff, which resulted in them becoming more knowledgeable about truck packing, securing loads and weight distribution.

Identify! Identify! Identify! When we started to get better at checking in shows, I found there were often a few items that could not be accounted for as either definitely being returned or definitely being lost. The most common was the “quad box” (i.e., two duplex Edison plugs) extension cord.

Because we were an integrated company with sound, lights and staging, sometimes one of these cables would have been packed by audio and borrowed by another department on the show. And sometimes it might have been lent to the promoter for some reason, or sometimes it was in the account manager’s car because he’d found it on a walk-around after load-out, and so on. The trouble was, even if one turned up, there was no way of really knowing if it was the one that had been marked as missing because while each one had a sticker with the company’s coordinates on it, they did not have a unique number.

Since just one of these cables, when built properly, has at least $100 worth of parts, it’s an important thing to be able to keep track of. So I implemented a program where every one of these cables was given a unique number and suddenly it was possible to know with 100 percent certainty if one of them was truly missing or not. (It sounds so basic now but we were years away from getting a bar code tracking system.)

Two things to keep in mind on this front. The first is deciding if an item is worth that level of inventory management. For example if you pay $4 for 3-foot by 1/4-inch DI cables, in bulk, is it worth it to have shop staff spend a lot of time looking for a lost one? The second is if an item is likely to be seen on camera, like a microphone (or the female end of a mic cable), develop a discrete way of numbering it (and we all know to put the tie and the ID on the male end of a mic cable, right?) so the bar code doesn’t lose you a gig when it shows up on IMAG.

Check lists are a good thing. We had some very nice ABS briefcases that a single wireless microphone kit would fit into… except that I was constantly getting phone calls complaining that there was no AC adapter, or no mic clip, or only one antenna. Plus rentals were coming back missing one or more of those items. The solution? A check list in every case. Over time this expanded to include any case that contained a specific package – mic kits, spares kits, pre-packed cable cases (as noted in my earlier article), and so on.

Another aspect was development of a new “pull-and-pack” sheet for building shows that included a space for what case an item went into, the initials of the person who packed it, a space to indicate that it had been loaded on the truck, and a final check box to indicate that it was back in the shop.

Initially I got some pushback from staff about initialing when they packed or checked something but it put a halt to the “I don’t know” responses when inquiring about who packed a certain case. I explained to them that most of the time, it was helpful because if someone made a mistake in packing, I wanted to know so the person could be shown the correct way to do it the next time.

“The show with three names.” This was a phenomenon that came about from having multiple, fairly autonomous departments (audio, lighting, staging, staffing and trucking) that were often informed at different times (and in different ways) about an upcoming event by the account managers. So I might be talking to my counterparts in lighting and staging and mention that we were building for “Name Of Band,” at which point head LX might mention that he was building “Name Of Venue” while staging might mention an order for “Name Of Promoter.” Further, the people in trucking might have rented a truck for each one only to find out that they were all the same event.

The solution was to consolidate all of the various show requisition forms (then still mostly on paper) in one place in the account manager area. Crew booking was done in Filemaker, which generated a unique number for every event. So on a table in that area was a book with upcoming show numbers, and as previously mentioned, requisition forms for every department. After that shows were built and referred to by the show number, which also kept things more confidential, especially when a competitor came by to pick up a cross rental and had a nice long look around the shop to see what was up.

As an outgrowth of this, we had at least one delivery driver on the road every day, and from the traffic on the shop paging system I could tell that they were constantly dropping gear at gigs downtown. After we’d gotten on top of the shop forgetting to pack things, this still continued. When I challenged the account managers with “Why are you guys forgetting to request so much stuff?” they replied that they weren’t – the clients were constantly asking for “Oh by the ways.” To which I countered, “Well O.K. then! If the clients are ordering extras, they need to be billed for the multiple deliveries, too!” After that, every driver drop was logged against the relevant show number and (hopefully, I never was able to confirm it) billed to the client.

Speaking of billing… When I started, invoices were generated from a handwritten form called a “request for invoice,” which for a dry rental had to be submitted along with the multipart rental contract (also handwritten). Eventually an invoice would come back for approval, along with the shop and customer return receipt parts of the rental contract. If you got a call about a rental that was out while its contract was up in accounting, too bad. This was a cumbersome way of doing things but the part that really irked me was the request for invoice form, which ended up with exactly the same information on it as the rental contract.

One day I asked why this was required, and the answer came back that it really wasn’t! Then I discovered that the rental contract form was actually already set up to print from a computer and managed to do away with another handwritten document, the “rental hold form.” Simply, it become one layer of the rental contract, which saved typing the information twice and also gave a us a database of rentals. As a result of all of this, the paperwork required for dry rentals and their invoicing was greatly reduced and sped up to the point where it all happened the same day, which, wait for it, improved cash flow!

Looking back, the two things that I helped change the most, and for the better, were communications and workflow. One of the main qualities that makes us humans different from the rest of the herd is the ability to communicate. The “show with three names” is an example of a communications issue, and asking why I had to enter billing information twice is an example of communicating about workflow.

While all of the events in this article happened 20-plus years ago, the relevant points remain: Keep your head up and your eyes open for opportunities to streamline your operation by eliminating redundant practices and poor communication.

This article first appeared in the July 2017 digital edition of