17 Jun 2019

My Business in Show Business


My Business in Show Business

by John O’Brien.


Show business – there’s no business quite like show business, right? We all know that – it’s our gig. We also know that getting the show on requires equal parts talent and perspiration. However, not many events would be staged unless someone was making some money from them. Hence, the commercial side of shows.

Over several decades, I’ve been involved in a lot of different roles in a lot of different show related businesses and it’s been a constant learning curve. There have been personal successes and failures but each phase has offered a different perspective on the process of making a living.


Watching how others conduct their business and using continual self-reflection to apply what you like to your own approach is a great way forward.

These days, circumstances and choices have led me back to being self-employed. As a freelancer, I’ve found three distinct parts to the business cycle – getting the work, doing the work, and administrating the work. They seem to take up nearly equal amounts of time and energy. The administration is the least exciting but, at the very least, it should get me paid and keep me out of court.


The Bureaucracy of Business

Long gone are the times where it was all a handshake and wads of cash. While that approach may have had its upsides, these days it’s somewhat difficult rocking up to the bank with a fistful of folding as a deposit on your new house / car / expensive shiny thing. “It’s all hard-earned and legit … honest.” Yeh, right – better get a lawyer, son.

Paperwork, forms and acronyms … ABN, CRM, GST, BAS, etc. These tedious details are an endemic part of every business. Even as a sole trader (freelance contractor), you are required by law to follow the rules of doing business in this country. Pay your taxes, get registered and ticketed, get insured, and make sure that you are receiving (or paying) WorkCover and Super.

To be honest, I haven’t always given this advice the weight that I may have. After all, one of the main attractions of rock and roll to me was its mythologised lawlessness. However, now in my early 50s, I have little super accumulated and bear the scars of many wounds not treated under the WorkCover that my casual employers often never had.


Friends, Foes, or Colleagues?

Some of these employers became colleagues. Some colleagues became friends. Businesses are run by people and people need relationships to prosper together. Building relationships with suppliers, colleagues and
employers / customers is crucial to your success as a business.

Whether you are a sole proprietor / contractor, employee or head honcho of a mega enterprise, you are reliant on these relationships. Nurture these connections but keep it professional. You never know where the next job is coming from or who you might be working alongside in the future.

Do be careful if you mix pleasure with business though.

Many moons ago, I set up a company with a friend and fellow LD. We were both still regularly gigging and I had another sideline producing sculptural lighting and artworks. Our intent was to build or source set pieces and tie them in with some production management, event staging and the like.

Great idea and there was room in the market for it. However, the first client started with a retail clothing display rack, then 2, then 3 and it morphed into us producing hundreds of polystyrene point-of-sale displays. Somehow, the direction of the business had changed before we even got our first big production client on board.

My partner then found the promoters for a large dance party and we were to provide a bunch of set pieces including custom steel dance platforms that were all caged in. Awesome – that was more the type of gig that we were chasing.

Meetings were had, plans were drawn, a new factory space rented and it was all go. “Contracts – nah, that stuff’s boring. These guys are good for it.” I took the bait and ran with it. Before getting any up-front payment, I bought a whole heap of materials, partnered with another fabricator and got to constructing these platforms.

And then, the wheels fell distinctly off the chariot.

First of all, my business partner turned around one day and said: “The surf in Melbourne is s**t.” and promptly left for Sydney, never to return again. Only a few days after, I botched up on the installation of some sculptural hat racks that I’d made for the manager of two of the bands that I regularly lit.

Due to over-commitment, I needed to get another friend in to fix the mess (bye-bye any immediate profit) but the real loss was the regular LD gigs that were pulled because of my mistake on a part-time hustle.

Next, the dance promoter client decided to pocket all of the advance ticket money and piss off to anonymity in Canada without paying us (now just me!) a cent. This left me considerably out of pocket but not so much as when the rented factory got flooded a few weeks later and I had to ditch most of the remaining stock and materials.

Final insult – the original customer went belly up, owing our sinking endeavour thousands more. Including seed capital, I burned through a couple of house deposits right there. That particular business is now ancient history and the friendship is also long gone. On the upside, numerous lessons were learned out of the fiasco.

I’m also now a much better judge of character.


Success or Failure? 

Many entrepreneurs will celebrate this kind of failure. Viewing the whole catastrophe as an opportunity to learn from rather than a personal shortcoming is a good way to get back up off the mat and start swinging again.

My lessons from above included:

• spreading myself too thin and diluting focus … it’s better to concentrate on core strengths and perform them well.
• confusing being busy with doing good business.
• not having clear and agreed upon goals.
• working with friends (not an absolute no-no but best done with some very clear and agreed upon parameters).
• not getting it all in writing, which leads to…)


Getting It All in Writing

Paperwork might be boring but it does cover your butt. Spreadsheets, contracts, accountants, lawyers and other mundane things won’t get the crowds roaring but they are a necessary part of us doing business in this day and age.

If I’d done the right thing in the personal example above and insisted on a bit more organisation (maybe even some clearer goals and demarcation), perhaps my business might have lasted a little longer and even had some success.

When a much wiser and more experienced me was later employed as a project manager for a multi-million dollar AV install, the first task was to lock myself in a closet with the contract until I knew its every word. Suitably forearmed, I was confident staring down hard-nosed building contractors when they started playing funny games at the crunch end of an already over budget project.

Several other AV contractors went broke on that job, but I knew ‘exactly’ what we’d signed up for and ensured that: a) we didn’t get shafted, and b) we still got paid. I had great trust in the power of good documentation after that.

Now that you’ve taken care of all your corporate responsibilities, there is still a show to go on. Get your ducks in a row, then go enjoy making your living knowing that the business essentials are covered and you can focus on doing what you do best.


CX Magazine – June 2019   Entertainment technology news and issues for Australia and New Zealand – in print and free online
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