$1.00 per usage cycle is a magical number.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
Whether or not you like them, energy drinks are actually pretty cheap.
That is to say, for about a buck you buy a can of soda. You consume the contents of that can and chuck out the container without a second thought. You got exactly one use out that product for $1.00, and you barely noticed the transaction at all.
In my mind, that’s a pretty strong definition of “cheap, and cost effective.” The acquisition price was basically forgettable on its own, and the amount of utility you got for that acquisition price was reasonable to you – maybe at an unconscious level, but reasonable.
For show-production techs, there comes a day when we either have to procure our own gear or procure gear with someone else’s money. On that day, we have to think about cost effectiveness. We may not give it the conscious thought it deserves, but some sort of mental evaluation takes place. In this business, an oft-occurring result of considering gear is “sticker shock.” We look at the price attached to something and go “Geeze! That’s a lot!” Sometimes the reaction is justified, but there are other times when the number associated with entry isn’t rationally compared with what happens after the entry occurs. In certain cases, the long-term utility of a piece of gear actually makes the entry cost seem microscopic – but that can be hard to see at the time.
Now, there are all kinds of ways to determine cost-effectiveness. Some available methods are incredibly granular, taking into account depreciation, cost of transport, industry acceptance, and so on. Dave Rat, for example, put together a rather interesting “Buy Vs. Lease” calculator that you can find at the bottom of this post. If you know me, you know that I’m a great appreciator of granularity. I like to be able to deal with all kinds of minutiae. I like sniper-rifle focus in lots of areas, especially when it comes to mixing FOH (Front Of House) and monitors from the same spot.
But when it comes to making purchasing decisions in a rational way, I think that getting buried in a barrage of detailed considerations can lead to paralysis. I think that a basic shorthand can help make cost-effectiveness decisions go much more quickly – which provides a shortcut to the fun part, which IS GETTING NEW GEAR AM I RIGHT?
When I talk about shorthand, I mean REALLY shorthand. It’s probably one of the quickest questions you can ask yourself about a piece of gear: “Will I be able to get enough usage out of this item that each deployment cycle will have cost $1.00 or less?”
Of Power Amps and Microphones
At my regular gig, the amplifier for the full-range FOH loudspeakers is a QSC GX5. It’s been very good to us, and by my shorthand test, it’s been entirely inexpensive.
See, I just passed my four-year mark at the job. We do just a bit more than 104 shows per year, so the amp has about 416 shows on it. GX5 amps retail for $400 when brand new. Divide $400 by 416 shows, and you get a “cost effectiveness factor” of $0.96/ deployment. To be brutally honest, that’s peanuts. It’s not that we’d want to, but at this point we could just give the amp away and have lost nothing more – proportionally speaking – than if someone had bought and consumed about 400 energy drinks.
And the amp is still going strong! (It needed a replacement power switch last weekend, but that’s it.) It’s cost effectiveness is already slightly better than what we, as a society, expect from a product that we simply buy, swallow, and eliminate into a toilet.
Four hundred dollars might seem like a sizable chunk of change (and it is when your budget is constrained) but when you look at the whole utility of something like a power amp…well, you ultimately realize just how cheap certain aspects of live-sound have become.
In the same vein, I bought six EV ND767a vocal mics at the beginning of last year’s August. One of them died early on, so the total cost per working mic was $155. They haven’t all been used at every show, but figuring everything out in excruciating detail isn’t what a shorthand is for. As a group, those EV mics have been available to me at about 132 shows so far. Their cost effectiveness factor (as a group) is $1.18 / deployment, and improving every week.
When you consider that a vocal mic can be trouble-free for hundreds of shows, $100 – $200 for such a transducer works out to be what you would expect for a “mediocre commodity.” In the long run, a bog-standard stage microphone doesn’t actually cost any more than something you would casually throw away.
So, when it all comes down to it, dividing the purchase price of gear by the number of expected usage cycles can be illuminating. There’s quite a bit out there that, over its lifetime, becomes of no more monetary consequence than “fancy sugarwater.” If you need a quick assessment of what it makes sense to buy, items that can reach the $1.00/ deployment neighborhood are probably decent bets.
You have to be careful, though, because this kind of shorthand doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The Blind Spot
What you have to realize is that there’s plenty of gear in plenty of situations that can not, and should not be expected to meet a long-term goal of “throwaway” pricing.
Mixing consoles, for instance, are unlikely to quickly reach the price point of mass-consumables. Pricing as compared to functionality has indeed gone over a cliff, but even that hasn’t stopped mixers from being a premium product. A $3000 digital console can do a LOT these days, but even doing 312 shows a year (six days a week, every week) it would take over nine years to make the console “disposable.” Especially with digital consoles, nine years is rather longer than the effective product lifecycle.
A console is a premium product, not a consumable. You can use the dollars/ usage cycle calculation to get an idea of your potential value for money, but trying to get to the $1 point just isn’t an appropriate goal. If you’re going to use a shorthand to determine cost-effectiveness of gear, you have to take care to apply the appropriate “goal ratios” to appropriate items. Gently treated and well-constructed mics, cables, amplifiers, and small-venue loudspeakers can usually be looked at as commodity items. Mixing consoles and large-format loudspeakers usually can’t.
For the non-commodities, an approach more in line with traditional cost/ benefit analysis is far more appropriate.
For everything else, if it seems to be made decently and will have a long-term cost effectiveness that’s comparable to premium soda, it’s probably a decent buy.