Free Car Audio
There are several different ways to get your stereo without going out of pocket. Each way will cost you something in terms of time. There's no free ride but if you're willing to do a little work you can have your dream system without dipping into your bank account.
Sponsorship is stereo equipment for free. Well, not quite. Each year car audio manufacturers spend thousands of dollars on sponsorships and they're not doing it for their health. They're in business to make money and you need to show them that giving you equipment is in their best interest. You need to convince them that you will give them more than they are giving you. They want exposure in the car audio scene and you will need to deliver on that. It's going to take a commitment from you to regularly attend shows and be a spokesman for their product. Be prepared to hand out their brochures and be knowledgeable enough about their product line so you can talk intelligently about it.
Keep in mind that by accepting their gear you will no longer be able to compete in the Novice/Amateur classes of the major car audio organizations (check the rule book of your organization). If you're not interested in competing in car audio competitions but would like to make your presence known on the show scene you may still be in luck. Many of the audio companies recognize the importance of the car show and tuner markets so you may be able to get your gear for those purposes as well. In either case you will need to have the product "featured" in your installation. This is not the time for a stealth install. Manufacturers giving you gear don't want their amp to be stuck under the front seat or hidden behind a panel where no one can see it.
The first step towards a sponsorship is a knock out proposal. It doesn't have to be a twenty page monster that would make your high school teacher teary-eyed but it needs to be complete. Start by writing a letter of introduction that describes you, your vehicle, your plans and why you're seeking sponsorship (to get free stuff isn't the right reason). List the products you're looking for, why you need them, and when you'll be able to start competing/showing off the product. Now the really important part. Explain what's in it for the manufacturer. Put yourself in their position.
Also include photos, proposed system sketches and more details on your planned system. Let them know what specific products you are looking for. Make sure you put your contact information in the package. Phone number, email and street address and let them know that they can contact you if they have any questions. Double check that everything makes sense. If you tell them you will compete in the 301-600 watt power class, don't ask for a 1,000 watt amp. That's a credibility killer. Do your homework and you'll greatly increase your chances of getting what you want.
You shouldn't judge a book by its cover but you can judge a proposal by its cover. Packaging is important so do it right. Print out your proposal on high quality paper and use one of those folders with the clear cover or have it bound at a quick print shop (Kinko's, etc.). Know who to address it to. Don't expect it to magically end up in the right hands. Call the company and find out who handles sponsorships and get their phone number too. You'll need it later. One other tip. Don't send it in a plain brown envelope. Everyone does that. Make yours stand out by using an overnight delivery such as FedEx. They get opened. At the very least use Priority Mail. The better your proposal, the better your chances of getting a sponsorship.
After you've sent the proposal the work is not over. You'll need to do some follow up by phone. Call the person you sent the proposal three business days after you've sent it. One week if you didn't use an overnight delivery service (which you should have). If you get their voicemail don't leave a message. Contact the operator and see if they are in the office. They may be out of town. If so ask who is covering for them. Call that person and ask if they are handling the sponsorships while the other person is gone. If they are in the office then keep calling until you get them. If you can't get them after two days of calling then you should leave a message. Remind them of who you are, that you sent them a proposal (the one in the FedEx envelope) and that you would like to speak to them about your proposal. Leave your number and let them know what hours you can best be reached. Be professional and courteous and you can expect the same in return. Keep calling until they return your call. Don't be afraid to have them paged if you don't have any success. Persistence is the key. If it really is in their best interest to sponsor you then you owe it to them to get in touch.
You might also consider a local shop sponsorship. Follow the same procedure as for the manufacturer sponsorship. They'll want to know what's in it for them too. Be prepared to meet with them if they like your proposal and treat it like a job interview, because it is. Your job is to make them look good and bring in more business and in return they will pay you in equipment. They'll want you to attend all of the local shows within a certain distance from their shop. They'll be at those shows so you'd better be too. If running the circuit doesn't get you excited then you should consider one of the other options.
Work it Off
Find a local shop that will trade equipment for your labor. It can be installing equipment in their bays (though they may have insurance that won't allow non-employees in the install area), sweeping and cleaning, building and maintaining their website or any other skill you have that they can use. If you trade your labor at $10/hr and put in 10 hours they will give you $100 of equipment (retail price). This is a good deal for them since they might only pay 50-70% of the retail price, giving them a real cost of $5-7/hr for your labor. Make sure you explain that to them if they seem hesitant. Business owners love a good deal and sometimes they're too busy thinking about their other problems to realize what you're offering. You'll probably have your best luck at the smaller shops than at the larger chains.
The American Dream
If that's not adventurous enough for you then you might consider starting a side business. You can buy equipment at wholesale and sell it to your friends and others for a profit. Use those profits to buy your own equipment at wholesale prices. Get your piece of the American dream and a great stereo system to boot. Be sure and check your local laws before starting this or any business. You may also want to consult an attorney and/or accountant to make sure you get set up properly.
Car Audio Planning and Buying
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