Creating a Sustainable Rep Plot – Mitigating the risk of Early Adoption

Last week I got a chance to meet in person with Justin. He was in NYC and sitting over some Five Guys burgers we talked about what we’d been seeing in the entertainment lighting industry. As we talked about some trends particularly regarding the rapid adoption of LEDs, traded stories about ancient gear we’d both seen walking into theaters around the country. That spurred a conversation into how the industry might change that. That conversation inspired this post.

First, some background – I went to college at Pace University. It was there that I was taught lighting design by the late Chris Thomas. Chris taught me that you can make a lighting design successful with any equipment, having the newest gear doesn’t make the best designer.

He was right of course, but even when I was a student (which wasn’t that long ago) the movement toward sustainability was little more than a whisper. Today if a lighting designer wishes to use less energy, the newest gear is often vital to the pursuit. Using LED technology represents a quantum leap in our ability to conserve energy, while maintaining the quality of design audiences have come to expect.

After I finished my studies, I went on to work as lighting coordinator for the university’s 700-seat theater the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. Like many university theaters, the Schimmel Center struggled to be not only a thriving venue for the performing arts, but also a profit center for the university. As such, it was consistently asked to do more with less, including a distinct lack of updated equipment. At the time, the best we could do was replace the oldest instruments first, usually in four and five instrument batches as supplemental funds became available.

We wanted to be more cutting edge, we wanted to be more sustainable. However, reality was we couldn’t pitch the university on capital level improvements without demonstrating long-term profitabilty. It’s tough enough to argue that having the latest gear will increase revenue over the long term. There was something else holding me back from making the pitch effectively.
I wanted to change out upstage washes and cyc lighting to RGB LED sources. I wanted to add moving light sources to save on man power moving and focusing “specials” for conferences. But there was a problem…what should I recommend?  While the moving light market in general is more established, the LED market then, as now was rapidly changing. There were certainly products I favored. Yet, I couldnt guarantee (or even plausibly assert) that the fixtures purchased this year would still be the best available on the market next year. This hesitation made it difficult for me to convince myself, let alone the university, that a major equipment investment would be worth it.

The point of my little story isn’t nostalgia, but rather to demonstrate an opportunity. LED techonlogy today is anaolgous to computer technology in the early 1990s. In the early nineties, the rapid improvment of personal computers made them both thrilling and dangerous. Thrilling because finally, the match of operating system and software improvement combined with the affordable availability of hardware capable of running these new programs held amazing possibilites for companies large and small. But investment was also dangerous. If you bought today, you knew in 6 months your computer would be obsolete. This wasn’t a matter of “keeping up with the joneses” often computers a little as a year old were rendered useless as new software was released requiring ever more powerful hardware. The PC comparison seems to be apt as it came up unprompted in an email I received from the folks at Cree Lighting. Michelle Murray, spokeswoman for Cree had this to say,

…compare this to another semiconductor technology—computer processors.  Sure, the next level of processing power is right around the corner—but you can’t keep running a DOS-machine waiting for innovation to stop. The benefits of moving to LED lighting far offset any concerns about immediate obsolescence…

Wes Bailey of 4wall had this to say on the pace of LED innovation and adoption…

We are definitely seeing new LED products at a rapid pace, and more importantly, we are seeing the demand for these products from a rental standpoint increase faster than ever.  Previously, when an LED product was launched it took a good deal of time for designers to begin requesting these products…in turn it gave us a larger window of time to investigate them before we started carrying them.  In the last two years that has changed quite a bit, now it seems that new LED products are being spec’d on shows as soon as they are released to the public.

It’s hard to compare the market available to a university theater over 5 years ago to the state of LED technology today. But in an important way the situation is the same, the market for new, better lighting instruments is always evolving. How do you know when to jump in? How can we mitigate the risks of adoption?

In the computing industry, a response was developed to this consumer ill. Computer leasing programs became widely adopted across most large corporations as a way to stay current in a rapidly changing computing environment. To this day, most large corporations have some form of renewing lease with their computer vendors. This incentivizes long term investment, without the fear of obsolensence.

What I propose is rental houses create similiar long term lease offerings for clients providing repertory light plots across the country. They add up to little more than a long term rental, with additional service offerings should equipment fail. Like an auto lease, it would be expected to be returned in good working order, ready to turn around to other clients. This would promote a move toward more sustainable lighting by mitigating the risk of an ever-changing market place. It would also ensure a steady stream of income for rental houses.

That’s not to say there wouldn’t be challenges. To make this a truly sustainable concept, there would need to be an end-of-life cycle for the lighting gear being returned to the vendors. If it’s all simply scrapped in favor of the newest model then the energy saved on stage doesn’t mitigate the lost embodied energy of the gear. At a minimum the gear would need to be sold at a reduced price elsewhere on the market to extend it’s useful life. The best of all possible scenarios is the gear goes back to the manufacturer where as many of the components as possible could be reclaimed and turned into new gear or otherwise put to good use.
I put this idea to the folks at 4wall and I got a thoughtful response. Again Wes Bailey,

Currently 4Wall does not offer any official leasing options.  I will try to explain to you the closest scenario we have to that.  We do have a number of venues (especially back east) that we do long term rentals with, and these venues are of course free to trade out rental gear for new items during the rental period, but that of course incurs differentiating costs.  Because we do basically offer our entire rental stock for sale on, any of these long term rental clients are able to have the gear they currently have priced out for them from a used sales standpoint.  When pricing the equipment for the used sale, we definitely take into account how long they have had the gear, and of course we also take into account the age of the gear…  While these type of options are not exactly a leasing plan, it does occur frequently that venues who have been renting long term do decide to purchase from us as a used sale. Another thing to keep in mind on this is that some venues (we run into this with churches, schools, and to some extent, casinos) are forced by management into using specific monthly budgets…  In these cases this can lead to a venue simply renting gear over and over that they might actually save on by purchasing….this also prevents them from being stuck with older equipment (so maybe not a bad idea after all?).

Have you designed any repertory light plots recently? Do you work for a venue which owns or rents gear? What are you doing to adopt more sustainable solutions? Have you figured out a way to mitigate risk? The comment section awaits….