Register Monday | January 27 | 2020

Dude, Where’s My Gear?

Don’t count on pawnshops to catch the thief who ripped off your band’s equipment

It was 4:30 AM when members of the Adam Brown realized they had been ripped off.

“It was pretty much like getting the wind knocked out of you and then being in panic mode,” said Shawn Petsche (guitar, keys, tambourine) of learning their stuff had been stolen. They had played a hastily arranged Pop Montreal gig with Japanese Jon Spencer-esque rockers Zoobombs at le Divan Orange around midnight that Sunday. The equipment was there before the show, and the other band had used it to play the gig. It was only after the second car load of gear got home that they realized that at some point someone had walked away with three easy-to-grab cases of their goods, including some irreplaceable drums and cymbals that had belonged to the drummer’s father in the sixties. Patch cords and pedals had been swiped too—it all amounted to just under $2,000 of equipment.

They quickly filed a police report and the following week the group made the rounds of local pawn shops. They got in touch with the members of Zoobombs to see if someone had accidentally picked up the missing items. No luck. All that remains of their goods are the fond memories, some money they drummed up at a fundraiser they threw two weeks before Halloween and pages of limp “Man, that sucks!” one-liners on the Stille Post “Montreal shows” message board.

In all likelihood the goods had been pawned later that Monday at a shop outside the radius of the band’s search. Pawnshops are the obvious go-to places for stolen gear as they buy on the “good faith” principle—that goods being hawked have not been procured via a five-finger discount. The consignment stores can afford to look the other way because once an item is in the store you have to buy it to get it back. Of the ten pawnshops I contacted to find out how they ensure their goods aren’t stolen, three gave me the good ol’ “no comment,” and seven said they ask for two pieces of ID. Of these seven, four said they fax reports of incoming goods, including serial numbers, to the police each night. One store owner said he even takes photos of people he buys from—though he admitted this on condition of anonymity.

Pawnshops piss off Scott Hamilton, who is the co-owner of Kostar, an equipment rental company. Because he physically hands over sound and lighting components to strangers, he is always taking a chance—in spite of checking renters' ID and having them sign a contract. A customer once rented gear and continued to renew the rental on it—through the grapevine Hamilton found out the client had hawked the goods to pay his bill at another rental company, juggling multiple rental renewals by renting and hawking. Another time, a pawnshop happened to call Kostar for a value-check on some new equipment—equipment that turned out to be Hamilton’s in the first place.

“The problem with the pawnshops is that they’re completely facilitating the stolen goods market,” said Hamilton. “It’s so easy for somebody to steal something and so convenient for them to go to the pawnshop.”

And the police? Not that interested. In one case someone shoplifted equipment from Hamilton’s store and then shuffled down the road to hawk the score. Hamilton called the police, who “didn’t care,” until learning the theft was caught on the store’s surveillance video. They then took the man away ... and not three hours later he was back at the pawnshop.

“The police have difficulty showing up at a traffic accident, so their time really isn’t spent on tracking equipment,” said John Young, an audio technician with the Kloda/Focus Group, a company that deals with large-scale and long-term sound and lighting installations. “The lighting console disappears and you get the police involved and there was no break-and-entry and it’s kind of like, what do you do? Somebody inside did it; the club owner is a client of yours. You just kind of suck it up at some point.”

A phone call to the Montreal police revealed they don’t keep statistics on how many instrument thefts are reported per year; they are lumped in with other stolen items costing either less or more than $5,000.

Insurance companies won’t save you, either. Due to the high number of thefts, insurance rates for gear are very high. If a rental company were to report a theft every time it happened, its insurance rates would soon usurp the cost of doing business. For musicians, Hamilton recommends that they find out what kind of insurance a venue has—if your gear goes walking, the venue may be able to cover the cost through its insurance. Unfortunately for the Adam Brown, le Divan Orange doesn’t have that kind of coverage.

“A little bit of prudence will save the grief,” said Alan Embury, manager of the rentals at Italmélodie on Jean-Talon. They have actually taken someone to court for large-scale gear theft, but he says the process took them months. “Be a little pessimistic, be a little bit the cynic. These things can be avoided.”

The moral of the story? Don’t get your stuff stolen. It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.

Melissa Wheeler is getting to know Montreal's culture creators. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Melissa Wheeler.