In 1971, I was about to be a new dad, had an incredibly demanding but low paying tech job, and was stranded in one of the planet’s armpits, Hereford, Texas; where when the world gets an enema, that’s the place the tube goes. I needed money and there weren’t a lot of options for decent payinjg 2nd jobs in that place at that time. So, I talked to a couple of Amarillo music stores and my local store and began a music equipment/instrument repair service. Fairly quickly, I learned two things: 1) music stores rarely pay their bills and 2) musicians are even less likely to pay bills. No surprise, right? It was for 23 year old me, right out of tech school and at one of the many “I’m outta here (music)” points in my life.
The truth is that it isn’t fair to imply that ALL musicians didn’t pay their repair bills. In fact, I became a regular stop for the many Mexican bands in the area and they paid their bills like clockwork. Country Western dicks, on the other hand, were reliably unreliable. They were gods of “if you let me take my amp today, I’ll gladly pay you on Saturday after the gig.” Not once did that ever happen. There weren’t many rock bands in 1970’s west Texas, but the ones that were there were only slightly less bogus than the C&W assholes. Most of the rock guys were high school kids, so I should probably cut them some slack but I was barely out of high school and I had a family to support. So fuck ‘em.
Lucky for me, I was on a mailing list from Don Lancaster, the future author of The Incredible Secret Money Machine, and his newsletter taught me some of the things that would be key to my businesses for the rest of my life. Rule #1: “Know the difference between cold cash, j-dollars, and megabucks.” “j-dollars” are the engineering business term for imaginary money. The rule for megabucks is “the odds of you ever getting one red cent are invariably much lower than you think.” Those rules stuck with me, especially after two years of wrestling with musicians and music stores for the money they owed me. The cap on that money in my business career came after I had a spare room filled from floor to ceiling with repaired equipment that had yet to be paid for and I was about to leave Texas for a new job in central Nebraska. I posted a notice in the local paper and sent post cards to the customers who had given me legitimate addresses warning them that I would be selling all of the customer equipment in my shop for the repair bills. Of course, everyone thought I was bluffing and one weekend I emptied the spare room and the following Monday we were on the road north.
Off and on over the next forty years I ran a variety of service businesses out of my home, studio, and or office. In four decades, I wrote off about a little more than $1500 in bad debts over several hundred thousand billed and collected. (One hint to the right to the source of one of those bad debts.) Lancaster’s rules became pretty much kneejerk for me, including “Doing something stupid once is just plain dumb. Doing it often is a philosophy.” Not only did I not get screwed out of a payment twice by anyone, but even if I eventually got paid after a protected hassle I did not bother testing those waters twice. Several name studios from L.A. to Denver to Minnesota discovered that I always had enough paying customers to be able to refuse work from the non-paying types: including an ex-employer. More than once, I heard the whine, “Don’t hold a grudge, Tom. This time will be different.” Thanks, but fuck you. Nobody is famous enough to con me into working for free. Although a few of the most famous people I’ve worked with were also the most reliable and generous customers I’ve ever experienced.
When I canned the acoustic consulting and the audio equipment repair businesses, an energetic, personable, and talented young man caught much of what I was tossing off. He gave me a lot of crap for bitching about how little I liked working for musicians and how much I hated the billing hassle. Less than six months later, he quit the work too, saying, “I can’t believe it took you so long to quit doing that shit.” I know what you are saying, kid.
As much of a hardass as all that makes me sound, the fact is that I have done shitloads of work that I’d have rather avoided. Repair works is rarely fun and often miserable. I used to tell my studio maintenance students, “Get used to being wrong a lot if you want to do repair work. If you are really good, you’ll be right one our of ten times.” That is not as much fun as it sounds. Along with busted stuff and lousy designs kicking my ass for 40 years, a lot of the work I did was just grunt work: equipment installation, studio wiring, CAD/CAM programming, debugging other engineers’ designs, and politics. Most of it was better than a sharp stick in the eye and some of it paid better than being a slave, but if I could have been a rock star or a trust fund baby I’d have picked those options in a heart beat.
Now that I’m retired, I’m doing all sorts of bullshit work around our house, volunteering to run sound, recording music, helping with construction or design projects, and some of the silly crap I’ve done my whole life that probably deserves the label “hobbies.” My general rule for considering a project, today, is “If I like it, I’ll do it for free. If I don’t, you can’t afford me.” That offends some people. They think I’m being an asshole for not working cheap, now that I have the spare time, especially since I do some work for free and it all looks the same to them. Learning how to say “no” took me most of my life and it still makes me very uncomfortable. However, that’s what I’m saying more often than not these days and I’m getting better at it. The day I don’t feel compelled to explain why I don’t want to record your awful music, run sound for your awful sounding cover band, make you a guitar, fix your computer, guitar amp or home stereo equipment, build you a wall or a fence just like the one I just built for my wife, help you roof your house, or whatever, will be the day I am officially comfortably retired. Until then, I’m still practicing with the “no word” and if it looks unnatural on me, it is.