Don't Get Ripped Off!

In the early 1990s, Eugene, Oregon, had four leading recording studios. During one infamous afternoon, that number was reduced to three. A week earlier,
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In the early 1990s, Eugene, Oregon, had four leading recording studios. During one infamous afternoon, that number was reduced to three.

A week earlier, two men had toured Triad Studio on the pretense of booking an album project. They returned the next week on the first scheduled session date, pulled guns on the owner/engineer, pushed him into an iso booth, and nailed its door shut. They proceeded to rip out all of the equipment in the well-appointed control room (including a huge console), and then loaded the whole kit and caboodle into a moving van in broad daylight and drove off.

That was the end of Triad. Years of hard work building a dream suddenly evaporated in a nightmare.

The owner had a full-replacement-cost insurance policy on his gear, but he had overlooked one critical detail: a business-income loss provision. Some of the equipment was eventually recovered, and the insurance company paid the claim on the rest. However, the entire process took several months, during which time the lease payments on the studio's building crushed Triad's financial resources. A business-income loss provision would have paid the studio's owner enough money to keep him afloat until the conclusion of the claims process, enabling him to recover from his tragic loss.

Insurance matters aside, no one knows whether Triad's robbery could have been prevented. That said, you can take some specific steps to lessen the odds that this sort of thing will happen to you.

In the years since Triad's demise, I have developed a discreet method for screening potential clients. My studio has been cased by burglars three times (that I know of) over the past 20 years, but so far I've never been ripped off. I'll share with you some of my ideas for keeping your studio — and yourself — free from harm.

LOCATION, LOCATION

Unless a prospective client has come to you through the recommendation of a friend or other word of mouth, he or she most likely got your telephone number through a listing or ad in a telephone directory or other publication. Because recording studios do not typically serve walk-in customers, there is absolutely no need to include your studio's street address in such listings. A telephone number usually suffices for contact information. If you feel the need to provide an address for mail inquiries, a P.O. box keeps your street location off printed media. Make anyone who wants to find your studio have to call you for that information, so that you know who's looking.

Most musicians will want to know if your studio is located a convenient driving distance away from them before considering it for their project. If your studio's general location is not obvious from your telephone number's area code and prefix, serious business prospects will call you to find out where you are located. Before I give out specific directions to my place, however, I want assurances that I or the police can find the person to whom I'm about to hand out directions. This can be discreetly and politely accomplished simply by making an excuse to call the inquirer back in five minutes. (Saying you're wrapping up a session or on the phone with another client are justifiable excuses.) If the inquirer can't or won't give me their phone number for a call back, I don't give them directions to my studio. It's that simple.

If the caller gives you a return phone number, don't immediately assume it's legit and start giving out detailed directions to your studio. It's important that you hang up and call back the prospective client before you give out directions. It's all too easy for someone to cite a bogus phone number. If you call back and reach a pizza shop, for example, and nobody there has ever heard of the prospective client who moments ago claimed the shop's number as his own, chances are you've just been cased.

Try to get both the first and last names of the people who call you, and politely ask what city they live in. If you can obtain their name and home phone number, a quick perusal of the telephone directory will often reveal their address, assuming their number is listed. If the address is in a different city than the one they mentioned but is in an area covered by the same telephone directory, chances are good that you've just been cased by someone who flipped open the phone book and gave you a random name and number. They just weren't smart enough to anticipate you asking them for their general address as well. Follow up by calling the number they gave you to make sure it's their phone number or that the people who answer your call know that person.

SHOP TALK

Casual conversation can reveal a lot about a person. A red flag goes up for me if the individual I'm talking to professes to have an extensive musical background but can't answer the most basic questions about, for example, the equipment they use.

This information needn't be extracted as if you're conducting an interrogation. I am genuinely interested in my clients' musical vision and gear, and most musicians are very eager to talk about their passion. By asking some friendly questions — either during the initial telephone contact or the subsequent studio tour — you can get a feel if the person you're dealing with is legit or not. For example, if a prospective client maintains they make their living producing rap acts in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere, be suspicious. I had this happen once. It's amazing how unprepared burglars can be when it comes to answering unanticipated questions about the very industry they wish to steal from. Their off-the-cuff answers are often incredibly lame.

TOUR DE FARCE

Most musicians will want to follow up their phone call to you with a tour of your studio, assuming you've piqued their interest. Keep in mind that thieves are mostly interested in small but pricey objects they can grab for a quick getaway. Accordingly, musicians touring your facility don't need to know where your microphone cabinet or locker is located. If you find yourself fielding persistent questions about such details, consider that a warning sign. Again, I speak from personal experience.

If you're getting a foreboding feeling from the folk who are touring your facility, start asking friendly questions that will either reinforce or dispel your suspicions. Where did they record their last project? Who was the engineer they worked with? Do they like to record to a metronome? Burglars will sometimes be caught completely off guard by such questions, and will give ridiculous and telling answers.

By the time a studio tour has ended, you'll probably have a strong feeling as to whether or not your guests have legitimate business interests in your studio. If alarm bells are ringing in your head, accompany your guests out to the studio's parking area and make some mental notes of vehicle description(s) and license-plate number(s). Don't worry if you can't remember everything. Whatever you can retain will be helpful later if the worst should happen and you're ripped off. It's also a good idea to alert the local police immediately if you think you've been cased. At least in my area, the police were happy to swing by my studio a little more often after it became obvious it had been cased. And they also offered some common-sense tips for protecting my studio from burglary (some of which I'll discuss momentarily).

Remember that there is safety in numbers. Get to know the owners of other studios in your area, and establish a common watch list of shady characters. Many burglars use the same aliases over and over; after all, they have to be able to remember their names, too! It never hurts to watch your neighbor's back, and a good turn is usually reciprocated.

THE BEST INSURANCE

I already touched on the importance of adequate insurance coverage in the beginning of this article. The best way to get coverage that's right for you is to find a hard-working, knowledgeable insurance agent and ask lots of questions. If they don't know and can't get you the answers, or if they're too busy to bother with a “high-maintenance” client such as yourself, move on and find someone who truly wants your business. Be sure also to read your insurance policy carefully after it arrives, to determine if there are any loopholes or lapses in important areas of coverage.

The very best insurance against burglary is an installed alarm system with professional 24/7 monitoring. How such systems work and which configuration is right for you are subjects beyond the scope of this article. Again, shop around and ask a lot of questions. Whichever system you go with, however, it's important to remember one critical point: all 24/7 monitoring is accomplished using telephone lines. The greatest alarm system in the world becomes worthless if the telephone lines are cut. Therefore, it behooves you to turn the area surrounding your outside telephone box and connecting wires into Fort Knox. For the security of my own studio, I won't go into details here about how to accomplish this. But your security agent should be more than happy to provide you with ideas for protecting this Achilles' heel of all alarm systems.

A few common-sense measures will go a long way toward protecting your studio. A well-lit perimeter — possibly using motion sensors that trigger outdoor lights — with sparse vegetation make it difficult for burglars to go unnoticed while searching for an entry point into your studio. Oftentimes, the prominent placement of labels warning would-be intruders of an alarm system — positioned, for example, on vulnerable windows and sliding-glass doors — will be enough of a deterrent for burglars to move on to the next unprotected place. Finally, if your studio is in your home, entice a friend to house-sit while you're away on vacation. The best measures for countering rip-offs are preventative. Be smart, be safe.

EMcontributing editorMichael Cooperis the owner of Michael Cooper Recording, located in Sisters, Oregon. Cooper's studio offers recording, mixing, and mastering services.