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Protect Your Gear: Guide To Equipment Security For Musicians, Studio Owners, Sound Crew etc

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* * * INTRODUCTION * * *

I've been a studio, touring and performing musician for 20+ years now. I've performed live on 4 continents, done USA tours, produced 9 studio albums, DJed all kinds of events and parties, and done live sound for countless festivals with pro audio companies.

I won't say I've done it all because I have not - and I don't mean to boast - but I have done a fair amount of this, and picked up tons of tips and good ideas along the way. I've also made my share of mistakes over the years, so catch a few tips from me and avoid having to learn some things the hard way.


I've also heard way too many sad stories of gear and instruments getting ripped off; so I thought I would write a guide to equipment security for musicians!

Please note that I'm not a security or health and safety professional and so I can't make guarantees - but I've studied this, had a fair amount of experience and done my absolute best to provide the best info for you. You need to be sure that your safety procedures are up to code.

I invite security professionals to look over this document and critique it. Also, if you have any ideas for how to improve it, let me know! If I like the ideas I will include them and give you a shout out and a link!

Let's make this the best guide to equipment security and help our friends! Working together can help: If it's known that the musicians are a team, and that they are not going to let anyone mess with them - we can win this.

Insurance and serial numbers

First things first: If you have not already done so, create a document and write down the make, model and serial number of every single piece of equipment in the studio. Another, possibly quicker tactic would be to use a digital camera and take photos of all your equipment, plus close-ups of the serial numbers. Do this NOW - and right away when you acquire new equipment. Back the document / photos up... you could also print it out or upload it to a private location online (if you don't have a web host you could email it to yourself and leave the email on the server).

If anything should happen, you might thank your lucky stars that you did this. It may also be necessary for insurance purposes. Also - if it was well known that every musician did this, it would be an additional deterrent to thieves as it would be that much harder to sell stolen gear.

As an aside idea on this - wouldn't it be cool if there was a database of equipment serial numbers, so that if someone is offered used gear for sale, they can do a serial number check and make sure it is "not hot"? This was done with the VIN (vehicle identification number) system, why can't it be done for music equipment and instruments? Maybe a site or page where anyone who has had equipment stolen can post the S/N's for buyers to peruse? Just an idea for someone.

Another good tip is to open up equipment (if this does not invalidate the warranty) and hide a name label inside the cover (somewhere it will not touch circuitry of course).

Next - get music equipment insurance. The company I have used is Music Pro Insurance (I am not affiliated with this company, just a happy customer) and they cater specifically to the needs of the musician with policies that can cover your gear in the studio or on the road. The insurer will need an updated copy of the equipment inventory mentioned above.

You may have insurance - but you still need security. Some pieces - customized gear and rare, treasured instruments - are simply irreplaceable.

* * * PART #1 - THE STUDIO * * *

The first observation...

is that most theft of musical equipment, is not random. The majority of rip-offs from studios are "targeted" - they come from people who know about the studio and know the value of what's in there. So be careful who you invite round, be careful who you tell about the studio, and be careful who knows your schedule and your movements. If someone doesn't need to know, don't tell them! If possible, when you advertise, don't give out the exact location. Why would you want random callers anyway? Have visitors by phone appointment only.

Exterior security

It might be good to have the place look entirely unobtrusive and plain from the outside. From the outside; just another door, just another building. If possible, don't give any indicators that you have items of value inside.

The next observation is the old saying: Ultimately you can't stop them, but you can slow them down enough to deter most of them. It's often said that given enough time, a thief can get in to anywhere. However, if you make it very difficult - if you slow them down enough and see to it that they would have to make a hell of a noise to get in, they will almost always pick an easier target. Most thieves are by nature "opportunists." They take things because it is easier than getting things through other methods. So, if you make it difficult enough, and slow them down enough, they will most often be deterred.

It's usually good to get a little tougher security than you think you need. The more valuable the gear you have, the greater lengths a thief would be prepared to go to in order to steal the gear. So go "hardcore" on window locks and door locks. These are your first and most important line of defence. You simply do not want anyone in there who is not meant to be. A big guy can often overpower a basic "Yale" style lock with a single well-aimed kick - but stronger locks, fitted with bigger screws or bolts into more substantial framework, which has perhaps even been reinforced on the inside with metal plates, can be quite a different story. So if you're really serious, a heavy security door that cannot be kicked in, with two different-keyed locks required in order to open it. Also, get the biggest, baddest deadbolts you can find and fit them on the inside of the door, with BOLTS (not screws); domed heads facing the exterior - so that the door can't be forced when you are in there.


If you're in the city, window bars may be good. With hardened window bars, even if someone smashes the window, they can't climb in. They would have to bend or cut the bars or prise them out of their holes - and if the system is well built, this would be very difficult - and not worth attempting from the street - especially if there is motion-sensor light or good street lighting shining outside. If the street lighting outside your studio is faulty, alert the council or relevant authority and get them to fix it.

A good additional protection for sliding windows and doors is to get a piece of rebar or square section steel cut to exactly the right length, and have it sit "in the groove" inside the outermost sliding panel whenever the window / door is not in use. This prevents it from being opened from the outside without breaking the window, even if the lock is picked from the outside. You can put a loop of tape through the bar to enable easy removal by you when needed.

If the studio door or roll-up loading door is facing the street or open parking lot and has much valuable gear, could a car be driven into the door at an angle to break it in? If so, "ram-raid pillars" are a good idea. I found examples here.

The first test of whether you have done well, is - can you break in to your own studio? If you can, you have not done well enough. Don't be tempted to hide a key "under the plant" outside - this just makes things too easy for the would-be thief. Stash a spare key in another secure location and leave it unmarked - so that anyone coming across it would have no idea what it is the key to. Taped to the underside of a piece of furniture in your own home might be a good idea.

Alarm systems / CCTV / lights

If you have a bigger studio or rehearsal space organization, you may have a front desk and receptionist. The recep should have CCTV - with the monitor hidden from general view, and access to security alarms. Interior cameras can be highly visible - but beware that flashy exterior security sometimes alerts opportunist thieves to the fact that there may be something valuable inside to steal. Keep your strong defences discreet.

Equipment Rack security

It's worth bearing in mind that most studio equipment thieves are after the gear for quick liquidation. Think about it - they are probably desperate. This also means, that they will not want to damage the equipment badly in order to steal it. So the racks are a prime target.

First of all, bolt the rack itself down. If the rack is not already built into the furniture, it's good to secure it to something so that it can't be moved. One possibility is to get a padlock with a long hardened steel cable, and run this through the handles, sides, whatever you can. In the past, I have done this by chaining the rack , computer and many other things through other furniture. But, anyone can buy bolt cutters from the hardware store so look out for a way to secure the rack so that it can only be accessed when the equipment is removed. Then, make the equipment itself difficult to remove.

You may be able to drill through the base of the rack frame and bolt it to the table it sits on, or something - this is highly recommended if the rack is permanent and not going to be moved - but if it is going to do road duty you don't really want holes in it. Some racks have rubber feet which can be unscrewed, and there's a bolt hole there. You could use this to bolt the rack down - and then when the first piece of gear is in, these bolts cannot be accessed.

The next step in this strategy is to secure the equipment into the racks with special rack bolts. These can be seen / purchased at Studiospares in the UK (really great company by the way, I was a very happy customer for years - thanks guys), or from Markertek in the USA (another company I have had extremely satisfactory experiences with). These bolts, as you can see from the pics, can only be accessed with the right key. Also the domed heads are resistant to being sheared off with a hammer and cold chisel.

In short, if you have these two steps down, the thief needs the right key (which most will not have) - or they are completely "screwed"! In most cases they will not want to beat the gear up to remove it - plus, if all your pieces are bolted in this way, they are going to have to make a hell of a noise and take much time to remove the gear - so they probably won't bother.

Instruments are a little more difficult - the best suggestion is to keep them in locked cases and chain the cases down - however, this is not too hard to overpower once a thief is in - so you might simply want to put the most energy into making sure they can't get in, in the first place.

Lockup protocol

When you leave - make sure all windows and doors are locked - even if you are sure you did not open them. Often, a potential thief who has been in the building during the day, will open slightly or unlock a window - perhaps in the bathroom where they can do so unobserved - so that they can come back later. And don't assume that the person breaking in is going to be adult-sized. I've heard of cases where thieves paid a kid to squeeze through a small window and then let them in the door or larger window.

Get into the habit of doing a walk-through when closing up: This is also a good time to turn off lights and make sure appliances not in use are switched off. You'll save money on electricity this way too - and if you don't have a fridge, timers, alarms or a 24/7 power supply, a nice idea is to power down the breakers (apart from those of security lighting) when you leave for the night. In addition to being extra fire protection, this also makes it harder for thieves to switch the lights on and see what they are doing - especially if you hide the breaker box behind a wall hanging of some kind.

Flood

The best advice I can give is "don't" - but if you must put the studio in a location that is prone to flooding, or is known to have flooded at any time in living memory, a few precautions may be necessary. First, it may be good to chat with someone who has lived in the neighborhood for a long time, and find out what's the highest water level they can remember. If it's gone that high before, it may go that high again. If there's any danger, sandbags can help - and so can being prepared in advance.

As an aside on this - a musician friend of mine actually had a flood rush through his studio when a river overflowed its banks one rainy season. Much damage was caused - but astonishingly the good ole' Mackie SRM450 speakers, left to dry completely after being totally submerged, actually powered up and worked fine!

Other causes of flood - such as storm damage to roofing, or burst pipes, are harder to predict and so insurance is important.

Fire protection (coming soon)

Data security (coming soon)

* * * PART #2 - ON THE ROAD * * *

Flight cases

If you are serious about your music - flight cases are an absolute ESSENTIAL!

Until you've been in pro audio for a couple of years, you may baulk at the idea of expensive "flight cases" for gear. Chances are, you spent every last dollar acquiring the piece of your dreams - and now you need to produce a few hundred more for a flight case. However, you only need to have had an item or two crunched, knobs broken off or crushed to death by other hard cases, and you'll quickly change your tune. So see to it before it happens.

On the consolation side, as well as protecting your valuable kit on the road, flight cases give you professional status.

As a band member and sound engineer, I've seen musicians - sometimes even respected professionals, show up with stuff wrapped in pieces of fabric, cardboard boxes held together with parcel tape... sometimes not even wrapped in anything at all. I've been a broke musician too - truly, I really did pay some dues - and finances do not always come easy as a musician. But remember; not only does it look amateurish - but most of the other music gear is in big, tough cases with metal corners. Your precious item is surrounded by animals with sharp claws. The relatively small investment in cases not only pays for itself protecting your gear from expensive damage, it also pays for itself at resale time when your undamaged gear fetches a higher price - and of course, you can often sell it together with the case, which increases salability.

Get pro cases. There are generally more expensive than the "cheapie" ones you see on eBay etc - but that's for a reason. They are built tough.

I've had good experiences with Anvil Case, Star Case, Odyssey Cases and Pelican Cases and I hold these brands in very high regard indeed. Their stuff is built TOUGH and it needs to be. The only thing is that some of these cases are heavy - and by the time you've put your gear in, it might easily be over the 50 pound limit of most airport baggage check-ins. [ see article on flying gigs - coming soon ] It also increases the risk associated with heavy lifting - so get cases with wheels if you can, and assistance with loading whenever possible.

The flipside of all this is that flight cases often make another kind of statement - they say "Hi! I'm a really nice expensive piece of music equipment! Why don't you steal me?" This happens especially often with laptop cases - which are often totally obvious by their appearance. I once toured the USA with a scruffy looking old padded envelope covering the laptop case. It looked like nothing exciting - and I kept my laptop.

It's worth keeping equipment cases (as well as trucks and building exteriors) free from decals which advertise the kind of gear that will be inside. It's tempting to display the prestige of the brands that you love - but save that for people you trust. Don't advertise what you have to people who could be anyone.

Load in

This can be a dangerous time for equipment. Often, you are parked on the street and are at the mercy of approaches from any characters who come along. Very often these characters may offer to help with the load - and they may just be wanting a dollar or two, but they may be seeking an opportunity to make off with something. Don't leave the equipment unguarded or the truck open with no-one supervising.

Organize in advance (preferably at contract level) for the venue / event producer to provide enough crew so that a "loading chain" can be created, with one person in the truck bringing things down to the gate, one at the other end, and the rest going to and fro. Never leave the truck unsupervised - and never accept help from a "random". I'm sorry to those guys who really do just want to earn a couple of bucks - but the risks are too great. Also, it's possible that these things may invalidate insurance policies - and you can also always use this as an excuse to turn away someone whose help you do not want.

In the venue

The first note is that load-ins and load-outs should be orchestrated in advance, as far as possible, so that the gear is not left in the venue overnight.

However, this is nowhere near always possible - and even an engineer has to eat / sleep / go to the bathroom occasionally.

Backstage areas are very often not well secured. At concerts and festivals, all kinds of people seek to hang out or wander through the backstage - and I remember back in the day, doing sound for open air festivals, on more than one occasion having to sleep on the stage with a baseball bat next to me as nighttime security was non existent! There was one guy once who was so drunk (or high) that he absolutely convinced himself that we had stolen his backpack - and kept trying to pick a fight with us / break into backstage and rummage through our stuff. This went on for hours and he would get pushed away, only to come back again a few minutes later, stumbling, confused, angry and incoherent.

So, step one is that the contract should include a written agreement that 24/7 security will be guaranteed if the gear is left and / or the room should be lockable.

For bands - make sure if possible that the contract includes a lockable or 24/7 guarded area for valuables. There should only be keys for the band, venue and security staff. However, at outdoor festivals and such, this often does not happen. You may well be shown a small area side-of-stage - perhaps even a patch of tarpaulin, grass or dirt - where you can dump the equipment before your set time.

Another time when gear is at risk is in between sound check and show. Bands for evening concerts often load in their stuff, sound check - and then go out to dinner. Usually, everything stays put - but sometimes, gear gets stolen. In a new venue in a new town, you have no idea how tight the security will be. The safest policy is to have someone go and get takeout and bring it back - but of course it's tempting to go and explore. Maybe take it in turns to be the one who stays put and guards the equipment.

Leave as little to chance as possible. Establish protocols. Lock the cases of valuable items - also get a padlock with a long steel cable, and run this through the handles several items - especially smaller or more valuable ones such as a microphone case. It will help deter "opportunity thieves".

During the show - items of clothing and small valuables often disappear. Over the years I've had more jackets stolen from events than any other kind of item. A good tactic I have used as a sound engineer is to use an empty flight case as a seat - with my personal belongings shut inside.

Another essential tactic for sound crews is to inquire in advance as to whether there will be crowd barriers - especially at smaller events. It's always an excellent stratagem to have a handful of these in the truck if at all possible - and they really can be a godsend. I've done sound for so many events - even in mid-sized venues - where the mix position / monitor position had no supplied crowd protection whatsoever. Just using a console case as a crowd barrier is a bad idea - people put drinks on them. I remember one New Years' Eve show as a performer which was complete chaos. There was no backstage whatsoever - just an absolutely packed room full of drunk people and a stage at one end of the room. The floor was wet everywhere with spilled drinks and people were putting them down anywhere. A few minutes after our set ended, someone knocked a drink from a flight case right into the sound console. Boom! Loudest 60Hz noise I have ever heard come from a PA - and end of story for that room! I remember another show where a guy was so out of it that he thought the console case, positioned in front of the mixer at the back of the hall, was a bar - and when the engineer refused to serve him drinks, he became angry and started knocking drinks off the console case! Less than thirty seconds later he was being dragged outside by security - and fortunately on that occasion nothing went in the Midas Console that cost tens of thousands...

End of show

The first few minutes after curtains are prime time for theft. Have all the crew poised and ready to start taking down the gear AS SOON AS the stage / house manager gives word that the show is done. Sound crew, take the microphones down IMMEDIATELY - expect perhaps one which may need to be left up for an announcer. As soon as the "head count" is correct on the mics, lock the mic box. It should still be cabled by a handle to something solid. And then bring in the DI's and any other small, valuable bits of gear such as laptop used for recording. Watch the musicians and other crew milling around on the stage: We had a microphone worth over $1000 stolen once from a show within a couple of minutes of the end of the show. We're almost certain that it was one of the headlining band's crew - but we will most likely never know.

Only after the small valuables have been safely stashed, should you consider yourself free to relax a little and start winding cables etc.

Load out

Same rules apply for load out as for load-in, but with a twist: Rounding up a crew after the show is often more difficult. Isn't it amazing how everyone melts away after the action stops? Also it's dark, people are drunk... you have to be careful. This is another good reason to have a "gorilla" or two on your crew: Would-be thieves are less likely to want to tangle with a big guy. It's often easy to hire a gorilla for the load - big guys often like the opportunity to get some bucks, a free ticket to the show, some drinks and an opportunity to show off their strength. Just make sure they don't slam the delicate stuff around.

Next observation - always always ALWAYS do an "idiot check" before driving away from the venue. The "idiot check", as we call it, is a final walk-through of the building to make sure everything actually made it into the truck. You would be amazed. We made this an absolute protocol - and it saved our butts countless times. Even when "absolutely sure" we had everything, a final walk-through turned up missed items on several occasions....

Parting shot

You know the one thing that gets stolen, in my opinion, more than any other thing at gigs?

The folding table.

Decorators, lighting guys, vendors, DJs, bar staff... heck, everyone! - is on the lookout for a table to put their stuff on. They will assume that the folded table you just loaded out of the truck "belongs to the venue" or something - and they will simply walk off with it. Of course, you don't know where it went - and with 5 bands coming up too soon, two thousand people filling the building, and cable spaghetti everywhere, there's no way on earth you are going to be able to go looking for it. It's gone.

Where are all these folding tables? I think there's an old guy down south somewhere with a warehouse full of folding tables and a shotgun...

Write on the underside of the table, in big letters, something like: "THIS TABLE BELONGS TO THE SOUND COMPANY. THIS IS NOT YOUR TABLE. DO NOT PICK IT UP AND WALK OFF WITH IT. EVER. WE WILL HUNT YOU DOWN."

I once drew a big skull and crossbones on the underside of a folding table and wrote in big letters "WARNING! DANGER OF DEATH! This table is fitted with an anti-theft device. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES turn on vehicle ignition with table in vehicle!"

It was a joke, of course. But we still have that table.

* * * * * * *

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Disclaimer / note. At TheRichMusician.com we are not lawyers, or professional business consultants. We're just some folks who've been in the music business for a while and are tired of seeing artists not getting what they are worth, and we want to help musicians out. All materials on therichmusician.com are for general information purposes and should not be seen as professional business or legal advice. No guarantee is made of accuracy, timeliness, suitability etc of these resources and you use them 100% at your own risk. Having said that, we've done our best to make this the most useful info we possibly can and we hope it's of real benefit to you. If you find something you think could be improved, or some out-of-date info - be sure to let us know and we'll look into it.

Has anyone benefited from this guide? I'd love to hear from you! - alexalcyone [[[[att]]]] gmail.com

© Alex Newman 2010

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