There's No Business Like the Hi-Fi Business Page 3

The security guard out front was able to call the building's plumber, who lived 30 miles away and said he would be there as soon as he could. I spent the next two hours on wet knees, forcing the broomstick into the water heater while I waited for the plumber—and the TV producer, who went ballistic when he saw what was happening. He cursed me, my friend, the audio industry, the building, the building's owner, the building's supervisor, the plumber, the city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia, and the entire southern United States, which he called a "Godforsaken third-world nation." He also cursed himself for "having been stupid enough to leave New York."

By the time the plumber arrived, the producer had downed a couple of drinks and regained his sense of humor. He now saw the whole episode as comedy, in keeping with what he called "his entire Southern experience." We went downstairs to check on the neighbors' apartments. No damage on the second floor; it had been bypassed as the water ran through the building's frame and down to the ground-floor apartment, whose occupants came home just as we were knocking on their door. We all went in, turned on the lights, and saw a mini-waterfall rolling down the wall just inches away from a Steinway grand piano.

Total disaster was avoided by what I interpret as divine intervention, because I'd undertaken the job on a handshake and was operating without the protection of even the most basic liability insurance. The TV producer told the building's owner that I was a friend of his who was helping him move in. Miraculously, the owner agreed to absorb the costs for all repairs.

Dancing without a net
You can't afford to be either stupid or greedy. I had a meeting recently with a well-connected and very upscale Home Theater retailer who was trying to recruit me to do a huge custom installation he'd sold to a wealthy software executive and his attorney wife. We looked over many pages of blueprints for their proposed California dream home: a $5 million, multilevel, curved and cantilevered architect's statement set into a tremulous oceanfront hillside. The drawings specified a whole-house background music system with in-wall speakers in every room, including the gym, the cigar room, and both wine cellars. It also included one stand-alone high-end music system—which could be tied into the whole-house system if desired—and two Home Theater systems, one of which was to provide entertainment for guests in the partially open upper-floor game room, where the video projector was to be mounted in the ceiling a good 30' above the ground-floor entrance.

The more I studied the drawings, the more reluctant I became. The dangerous architecture spooked me. I've done this sort of job before, virtually living on-site for three months as the house is being built, and for another month after completion as I debug the system, which has undergone several revisions during construction. After the owners finally move in, there are endless house calls because they've lost the remote control or can't remember which button to push, or because one of the kids has fried the motor on the projector lift by running it up and down, or has loaded the VCR with his pet hamster.

For this installation the retailer alluded to big bucks, which I sorely needed, but in the same breath he badmouthed his former in-house installer and all-around electronic genius, a brilliant, hard-working kid with whom I'd collaborated on a system for one of San Francisco's most trendy restaurants. The kid had split in a dispute over money; not a harbinger of good things coming my way.

I nodded and made sympathetic noises while my retailer friend spilled his guts. He needed to "nail" this job, which he saw as the springboard to more like it. For reasons I will never understand, he confided that he was in deep financial doo-doo, behind on the rent for his showroom, and recently had canceled his liability insurance, all of $1600 per year, because he "couldn't afford it." This is a guy who runs around in Gucci loafers and a shiny black BMW, who thinks nothing of slapping down his American Express card for a $90 dinner. His showroom is gorgeous and his salesman's patter convincing, and, like many people in this business, he's dancing on the high-wire without a net. I told him I had neither the time nor the temperament for any more big-scale jobs, and politely disappeared.

Help wanted
If you want to get into the custom installation game and do it right, you'll need good installers. Where do you find them? That's a difficult question. Putting an ad in the newspaper will draw you an unbelievable assortment of unqualified job seekers: guys who unrolled cable in the army or kids who converted cheap pickup trucks into low-slung rolling boomboxes. The right candidates will display immediate evidence of higher intelligence, both in their sense of aesthetics and their use of language. They will have a solid knowledge of residential construction and a wide range of related skills including carpentry, electrical, plastering and painting; a deep intuitive ability with electro-mechanical devices; a familiarity with architecture and interior design; and the ability to converse comfortably with wealthy clients. It goes without saying that they'll understand audio and video systems inside-out and be able to do their own troubleshooting.

If you can't find ideal installers any other way, you may have to train them. College-educated carpenters are your best bet; of all the construction trades, carpenters probably have the most comprehensive understanding of the building projects in which they're involved, and have to exercise the most ingenuity in order to solve problems. Bring them into your store and train them on systems there before you send them out into customers' homes. Good, reliable installers are no longer an occasional requirement for the modern audio retailer: they are the essential pivot around which your whole enterprise will revolve.