My music society is thinking about buying a lightweight modular stage system. It's something we've talked about for ages. The existing stage is extremely strong and very heavy. It lives in the commune opposite the church, who use it as well in exchange for housing it, and the volunteer who has been in charge of putting it up and taking it down for years has decided that as he enters the second half of his eighties it is all getting too much.
A new stage with components light enough that anybody could handle them seemed a good investment, and brochures were collected and compared. Ultimately the project failed because none of the stages seemed guaranteed to take the weight of a grand piano. By no means all of our concerts even feature a piano, but it seemed galling to invest in a stage system we couldn't always use. We discussed not having a stage, but the audience is used to seeing the musicians at the front of the church, and honestly if you couldn't see them it wouldn't be as much fun, that one step further towards thinking you might as well simply buy the CD and listen at home as many times as you liked instead of going to see them live. We debated finding alternative venues, but the church is very beautiful and atmospheric and there wasn't anything else quite like it.
Then somebody found that one of the temporary stages on the market could carry a piano, as long as additional boards were used under the legs to spread the weight. The stage, constructed of steel tube and ply, was certified to take a load of up to 750 kilos per square metre. A grand piano weighs between 600 and 1,200 pounds, according to Wikipedia. Provided we used the extra boards and didn't leave the entire weight of the piano bearing down on three small points then the modular stage should be fine with it. Or at least, that's what the stage manufacturer's brochure said.
Human nature, presented with a new idea, tends to look first for what is wrong with it, and there were a couple of people who did not really believe that the stage could support a piano, or that we would be able to manoeuvre the instrument on and off the stage without it collapsing, but in the end we agreed that we would in principle invest in some new staging, provided that our piano hire company was happy with the concept, and that other local customers would confirm the staging was robust and easy to use.
It was reading the small print of the quote that I realised that small charities were at a disadvantage compared to other kinds of customer. The cost of a stage large enough to accommodate a string quartet or piano trio was around three thousand pounds, plus VAT. The manufacturer's standard terms required payment in advance. If I were spending that much on a piece of equipment I'd put it on my credit card, then if the supplier went bust before I'd received my goods I would probably, after some negotiations with my bank, get my money back. Small registered charities don't have VISA cards. I pointed out the theoretical risk to the rest of the committee. It was probably very slight, but we ought to know that we were running it.
We couldn't see any way round it. The chairman thought the company had been in business for a long time, and the treasurer said that was the way of the world nowadays. I asked the Systems Administrator for advice when I got home, since the SA used to keep a beady eye on other people's money moving around for a living, and the SA said that the supplier would not have a client fund account, indeed could not, because they only existed in financial service companies while in an ordinary commercial business all money went into the same pot in the event of failure, to pay off the creditors in their legally specified order. Larger commercial companies paid to insure against the risk. Our best bet was to satisfy ourselves as best we could that the supplier was reputable and well established, and to pay as close to their required date as possible so that we were at risk for the shortest possible time.
It seems harsh, though. Bigger commercial customers can insure against the risk, private buyers can insure via their credit cards, but little charities are left exposed. I thought that wanting a one hundred per cent prepayment seemed greedy anyway when it was an off-the-shelf, modular system, not something bespoke. It wasn't as though we were going to have a massively expensive granite worktop cut to size and then say we didn't like the colour and didn't want it. The SA pointed out that the company was on risk otherwise of non-payment, and were probably dealing with some quite flaky and undercapitalised customers in the entertainment industry. I still think a fifty per cent deposit would be fairer.