By Trent Rentsch
I truly love the family I’ve married into, but my father-in-law is suicidal. No, that’s not right…make it my father-in-law AND my brother-in-law. Something about turning 65 made Tom (dad-in-law) decide to jump out of a perfectly good airplane at about 72 million feet off the ground, and further prompted Jim (bro-in-law) to join him in this insane act. They even went so far as to offer me a space on the nutplane, but marrying my dream girl and turning 40 is all the excitement I can handle this year, thank you.
So, out they go; down they fall. Both chutes pop; both land safely. Whew! Everyone back down on terra firma, and after a change of underwear (that would be me), everyone lives happily ever after. Oh, if things really wrapped up so nice and tidy!
You see, they had also hired a cameraman to record the event (perhaps in case there were questions of insanity at the reading of the will…). Said cameraman jumps out ahead of them, gets video and stills of them bailing out and falling, then hurdles downward ahead of them (do the bad choices ever end here?!) and records them landing. The young lunatic that accomplished this feat then took the raw video and edited down the event into a five-minute production that turned out to be possibly the scariest part of the whole ordeal.
Tom mentioned before we saw the tape for the first time that he wasn’t all that happy with it, but wasn’t specific. Several seconds into the debut, I understood why. It seems that Lars (the young videographer/unwell person from Denmark) had decided that the perfect background music for a video chronicling a 65-year-old man’s decent of insanity was the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Californication.” Okay…
Obviously, Tom did not like it. Neither did the rest of us; it just didn’t fit. It bothered me so much that I pulled up the lyrics to the song on the Net to see if there was any good reasoning. I suppose there are a FEW lines that MIGHT apply: “Destruction leads to a very rough road, but it also breeds creation…”, or “Space may be the final frontier, but it’s made in a Hollywood basement...” or even, “Sicker than the rest, there is no test, but this is what you’re craving…”
Eventually I had to admit that I was on a fruitless search for meaning and/or understanding. What WAS he thinking?! I even considered that in Lar’s language the word Californication might mean “65-year-old-man-with-death-wish-perferably-by-diving-out-of-a-perfectly-good-airplane,” but without a Danish dictionary handy, I finally faced what had to be the sad truth. Lars liked the Chili Peppers, digs the song, and thought it would be “cool.” No consideration of the audience, the setting, the situation—probably just grabbed the handiest CD out of his ’72 Land Rover and slapped his favorite cut under the video. You’d think someone who does this for a living would understand the danger of jumping without a parachute.
Underscore without a point may not be a life or death situation, unless we’re discussing production careers. To my mind, it’s one of the 7 deadly sins of production, right after number 2 (“puking” an entire voice-over), and just before number 4 (caving in to a client insisting that the music must be nearly non-existent under the voice-over). “But Trent, look at this stack of production orders! Everything is an ASAP! I don’t have the time!” I know, I’ve been there. I also learned early on that taking the few extra moments to find the right music meant that I wasn’t going to waste the time I didn’t have re-cutting the thing later.
So, how to find the right music? Let’s consider why it’s there in the first place. At its most basic level, music should set the mood, pace, and target audience of the commercial, not necessarily in that order. Grab the nearest piece of copy and consider those points. Is it funny, serious, “bank-like,” “bar-like?” Should it be slow and deliberate, or frantic and up-tempo? Are you talking to tattooed and pierced and angst-ridden teens or Sansabelted and polyestered and over-worked 50-somethings? These are the signs you are looking for, the ones that will lead you down the road to the best choices for music underscore.
So, the path is now clear to the right music… “But Trent, there are still speed bumps! You should hear the lousy music library my station has!” Sigh. Don’t make me go “Dr. Laura” on you. While I’ve worked with many libraries, some better, some worse, I have ALWAYS found acceptable music for my needs, if I TOOK THE TIME TO FIND IT.
There was a time when I was doing production for a five-station facility that I found my time became impossibly limited, and I needed a shortcut. After banging my head against the wall for a few weeks (most days literally), I decided that I needed to be more familiar with my tools. I began to devote 15 minutes of my day to listening to our Production Music library—not looking for anything specific, simply listening. It paid off. I found that the better I knew the library, the quicker I could find the right music. There were other side benefits. I found that I was starting to write scripts based on the music available, the music sparking new ideas for copy. The marriage between the copy and the music became stronger too, simply because I began to think of them as soul mates rather than reluctant partners.
Stephen King in his book On Writing suggests that anyone who is serious about writing should construct a “toolbox” of composition devices needed to do the job. I believe that Creative Audio Producers need a similar toolbox, and among most important tools to pack is knowledge and understanding of the real world tools available. Memorizing every shortcut in Cool Edit Pro doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have the vaguest idea of where to find a peaceful summer evening at the lakeshore musically. Know your music library, and choose your music carefully. Even the craziest skydiver knows every stitch of their chute and pulls the right ripcord at the right time.