JV: Are all the voices you use on staff?
Ken: Most are actually staff announcers. One of them, David Kaye, is not on staff, but he might as well be, as much as we use him.
JV: What’s a typical day on the job like?
Ken: There’s plenty of stress, a lot of deadlines. Really, it’s not that much different from radio. I thought I’d get away from that, but not really. Promoters place their orders, usually at the last minute because they’re waiting for sponsors. So it’s pretty common to get 20 orders at 4:00 for shows that go on sale tomorrow.
We do primarily two things: we do demos on a pretty regular basis to try to win a tour, and then when we do win the tour, we spend a lot of time actually doing the markets, which is basically updating the demo for individual markets. On a good day we’ll do 30 or 40 markets each. There’s a lot of people out there touring. It keeps you busy.
JV: What’s your approach to creating great concert spots?
Ken: Well that’s our bread and butter. We do lots of other things, but that’s what we specialize in. There are a lot of ways you can approach producing a good concert spot, but my fundamental approach starts with the writing. The production elements are basically just music and your voice. So if you want to set your spot apart, the real key is the writing. An example of that is a spot I recently produced for the PBS special, Celtic Women. I begin by doing a little research on the artist if I’m not familiar with them; the Internet is good for that. It’s always good to know your product, and information you glean from a bio can be very valuable. You can find some good critic comments or other possible angles from what you read in the bio. The whole idea is simple: what you want to do is get the listener to be interested in going to the show. The hardcore fans, they’re going to go to the show even if your spot sounds bad. So your goal is to reach that undecided crowd. You’ve got to speak to that crowd and use as much of that spot as necessary to sell the event.
So for this show, I decided to present the individual talents. There are five women in this show singing, and one plays the violin. It’s a spectacular show. It feels like Riverdance a little bit. They perform individually throughout the show with beautiful haunting voices, as well as together on a few songs with a powerful chorus of their voices. So in the voiceover I basically say something like, “Each voice enchanting,” followed by some of their individual song hooks, and it builds to kind of an emotional climax saying, “Together angelic.” Then the powerful chorus of the women all together kicks in. It’s not my best spot and probably wouldn’t win an award by any stretch, but it’s a simple way to help people understand what the show is about, and it builds an excitement about it. It’s a good spot, and I’m proud of its effectiveness.
I also tell people to remember that the voice is just narration; it’s clearly in a support role to the artist in the show. So I try to make an attempt not to show them up and resist the urge to overdo the drama in the voiceover. I try to avoid cliché, which is not always easy. Many clients still demand a cliché: “Live in concert… The biggest show of the year… You don’t want to miss this show…” and so forth. It’s not terribly effective because they’re so overused; they tend to lose their meaning when every concert is the “show of the year.”
Then there are some basic fundamentals. Remember to keep the call-to-action information — such as the date, venue, and ticket information — at the end of the spot. You want to use the first 45 seconds to convince people to go, and then you finish by telling them the where, when and how. As far as editing music – and this is important – I always tell people to try to use the recognizable portions of the song, which is not always the actual title. It might be a guitar riff or part of a verse. The idea though is to make sure the audience connects with and identifies with the artist, so playing the parts that are recognizable is a good idea. Also avoid the temptation to play a long hook – I hear this a lot. It’s important to the success of most concert spots to keep the forward momentum going. Sometimes if you have a song with a 12-second hook, it can slow down the energy of the composition. It doesn’t have to be rapid-fire, but often times the more music you put into a spot can help remind the listener that the artist has more than one or two songs. And you’ve got to be careful about mixing ballads in with up-tempo songs. When possible, keep it up-tempo. If ballads are a huge hit and therefore necessary, what you want to do is try to put them toward the end before the date, venue, ticket read. It’s just a psychological roller coaster ride. You want to keep the listener breathless and captivated with a forward-moving composition. These are not hard rules, just guidelines. I tell people not to be afraid to break the rules if a creative idea requires it. Ultimately the client and hopefully the audience will judge if it works or not.
JV: Your bio on your website talks about a record 13 nominations you had one year in the Chicago AIR Awards. What’s the story there?
Ken: Well, as far as awards, you think they’re a big deal until you win one and you realize how much they do for you — it’s not necessarily that much. But it was cool to win the awards in Chicago. Actually, out of those 13 nominations, I only won one AIR award. I had nominations in three or four different categories. In each category they have five finalists. I submitted a lot of stuff. In the “Best Commercial” category, I ended up having all five finalist slots, so I was the only person at the awards ceremony that knew I was going to win an award. It was kind of funny because as they were getting ready to announce the winner, I was already walking to the podium. It was kind of fun. Awards are neat and they look nice on your wall, but at the end of the day it really is “what have you done for me lately?”
JV: Were you doing a lot of voice work back then as well?
Ken: Yeah. I was doing lots of freelance stuff. I still do. I do work for Cub Foods, the grocery store chain. They may be my biggest client, I suppose. I’ve done work for Visa, Disney of course – I worked there, so that was an easy in to get with Disney. I got to do a lot of their network stuff. I seem to have kind of a knack for the Disney style. As a matter of fact, I still do Disney stuff with TourDesign. We do a lot of their album spots now.
JV: It doesn’t sound like you have the typical concert spot voice.
Ken: No, that’s true. And what was the typical concert voice — which is more like the John Shults’s or Steve Kellys of the world — is not quite so much the case today. You are seeing concerts being a lot more diversified. Every voice on our staff sounds different. But in my case, I would have never thought that concert spots would be where I would end up. Like a lot of radio guys, out of necessity, I had to learn to do a lot of different styles. So I was doing the really hyped car ads, and then the really down and dramatic ads for the funeral homes. I can do it all, but my particular style is a little more laid back and relaxed and dramatic, so as a result I end up doing a lot of the classic rock tours, and even the adult contemporary and jazz tours. I don’t do that many pop or even hard rock tours. I can occasionally do it, but by and large I don’t touch those.