9 Jul 2020

Counting the Beans

by John O’Brien

Who wants to be a millionaire? So the old refrain goes… Well, I don’t. Apart from the millions of stars I get to look at on clear nights, I’m good living like a pauper. But I can’t do it without watching the pennies pretty carefully.

Looking down the back of the couch

We’ve all had to do some hard sums and fiscal reality checks recently. Whether you are the employer, the employed, work for yourself or just plain don’t have any work, the great shake-up has found everyone checking the piggy bank and tallying up the change.

Hopefully, you have found some way to get by. Video conferencing and streaming people may have even prospered a little. Well done them.


Budgets are all about balancing the incomings and outgoings. With either good luck or providence you end up with more in the plus than minus column. In our industry, this negative column is much more prominent right now.

There are some loud voices making considerable noise, but it is so far falling on the tone-deaf ears of a culturally vacuous national leadership. Nothing towards the plus column for the arts sector. Already under a steady decline in support, we have been hung out to dry. So, as ever, we have to go it on our own.

The announcement of the Live Entertainment Industry Forum (LEIF) gives me hope. Allying many major entertainment bodies to work on our own solutions seems the only way out. It leans heavily on sport, but their broadcast and associated industry is closely aligned to ours.

Different performers but same tech, same technicians and same logistical support teams. Speaker boxes are sector agnostic and push out sound waves in the sporting arena just as well as in an intimate theatre.

Creative Accounting

We have built our industry on our own sweat, hard toils and taken the risks required in an uncertain environment. When planning an event, you never really know how many tickets are sold until the doors have closed.

I’ve been part of plenty of well-intentioned and seemingly bankable gigs that failed or fell over and plenty more that rocked way beyond what anyone could expect.

On most of them, regardless of differing degrees of accounting professionalism, the pennies were always counted only after they were banked, not before. Even the promoter who fleeced me as he debunked overseas with the pre-sale’s takings knew how much he was holding as he ran.

Event people are far more aware of working within budget than those who get a pay cheque every week, regardless of the efficacy of their output. The intriguing farce of the JobSeekerKeeperStimulusWriteoff appears an exercise in budgeting on the fly by those whose biggest financial worry is their third investment property.

This is both from the national perspective and the personal.

On the sole trader end, I’ve spent more time researching and trying to gain access to potential assistance than I would have to earn any equivalent income received had my income stream not crashed due to the shutdown. I understand why things have happened the way that they did, but it doesn’t make it any easier to keep filling the fridge as I continue working at my chosen career.

On the federal end, they had no option but to think quick to make some big decisions. That’s why we pay them big bucks. It must be more than a wee bit embarrassing to get the numbers so far wrong. I mean, what’s $60 billion between friends? Surely a little bit more than a mere rounding error.

Now, when the creative, cultural and sporting events industries are again allowed to stage public spectacles, let’s not forget the $150+ billion that they will contribute annually to the plus side of the national balance sheet.

Equally, let’s consider the contributions from the public purse to aforesaid entertainment and events scene. Even rudimentary maths suggests a major imbalance here.

We gave our services for free over theBlack Summer, but goodwill doesn’t quell a rumbling stomach or pay the utility bills. Continuing this largesse can only last so long.

More fun than MYEFO

For someone who has long prided their professional selves on delivering large commercial projects on or under budget, I have simultaneously been a little hopeless when it comes to personal budgeting. Somehow, it all seems easier to take seriously when it’s someone else’s money!

To compensate, I have consulted greater wisdom to help juggle the pesos. There are some popular methods. Elizabeth Warren’s 50/30/20 budget rule (that you allocate your after-tax earnings 50% Needs, 30% Wants and 20% Savings) is all well and good if you earn enough to cover your needs (rent / mortgage, utilities, food) with 50% of available income.

Another oft promoted model is the 70% rule, where the split is 70% Needs and Wants, 20% Savings (or pressing debt) and 10% Donate or Invest. Try doing that when you are already on the breadline. Even with temporary top-ups, benefit schemes like JobSeeker leave little room to become a philanthropist when it’s a struggle to fill even a shelf on the fridge.

Event people are far more aware of working within budget than those who get a pay cheque every week, regardless of the efficacy of their output

Here at the country bogan villa, we are used to living on sweet Fanny Adams, so we treat those rules as ideals that nice, preppy first world people can gloat over. Even before this year’s craziness, we were mending clothes, baking bread, growing vegies and generally living frugally.

We tend more to the 100% rule, where we cover 100% of our bills and then see what is left over to eat with! The spreadsheet says if we get steak this month. Whatever your methodology, accounting is all numbers. Finding which ones to value and what column they go in is the trick.

Performance without an outlet

With the gigs shut down, many have turned to other outlets to keep the flame alight. Performing artists have pivoted to streaming, podcasts and vlogs (is that even a term anymore?).

Free online streams might be cheap for the punters and keep a known artist’s profile high but that is little solace to supporting crew that aren’t getting a job or those less established artists out trying to make a name for themselves.

Further, freely giving away your talent for exposure doesn’t exactly cover the bills. The arts industry has long been rife with intern-like scams such as this. Even furloughed rent has to be paid eventually. For most artists, this amounts to little more than online busking.

For (previously) live crew, this model doesn’t leave much to do beyond setting up the stream or mix. Of course, many a professional YouTuber / Twitcher / social media influencer started off as a nobody. We’ve seen umpteen rise from obscurity to become extremely lucrative media enterprises (that employ crew to shoot and produce their content). However, this is rarely an overnight proposition and it takes a lot of time and effort to successfully monetise an online presence.

I’m sure more fall by the wayside than succeed.

Major changes in the income streams necessitate major changes in business models. If you can pivot online, or turn the side hustles into dollars, great – do the sums and get on with it. If this is not an option, do what you can to survive. Gigs will come back, but they will be different for quite some time and so must our approach be.

Live to a budget, work to a budget

I consider myself lucky enough to have lived in pre-ATM days … if you wanted to party all weekend, you’d have to set a budget in advance and make sure you got to the bank before 5 pm Friday closing. Then, when all the fun vouchers ran out, it was home time. No finding the nearest hole in the wall for a cash top up and certainly no tap to pay options back then.

More than once, I got near the end of the night or weekend and made the call to blow the taxi or train fare on another drink or two. St Kilda to Moonee Ponds on foot took a few drunken hours but not as epic as walking from Richmond to Ringwood. Add a beer or two to the plus column and put sore feet on the minus side. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Leaving something aside for contingency seems like a better approach right now. More than ever, it’s time to get your budgets sorted. Crack out the financial software, spreadsheet or crayons of choice and stay on top of the accounts. If you get good at it, I hear that some quality bean counters might be needed in Canberra.

CX Magazine – July 2020   

Entertainment technology news and issues for Australia and New Zealand
– in print and free online www.cxnetwork.com.au

© VCS Creative Publishing


Published monthly since 1991, our famous AV industry magazine is free for download or pay for print. Subscribers also receive CX News, our free weekly email with the latest industry news and jobs.