By Dave Foxx
Some of you will feel like you’re not being served well by this column this month. For that I apologize. Those of you who work with someone else’s script or VO or both might feel like this won’t work for you at all. Hopefully, you’ve established your creds with whoever is in charge well enough, that they’ll at least give you the chance to work your magic on your own. The real hope is that whoever is pulling your strings isn’t so “my way or the highway” about things and allow you a little time for some good experimentation. This method of production can produce amazing results. Just remember the first, last and only rule is that it must communicate the message clearly.
This month’s column is about serendipity: ser·en·dip·i·ty – noun - the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also: an instance of this. The word comes from a 1754 Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip.
In the world of radio production, it’s those “happy accidents” that sometimes lead to the absolute best promos and/or commercials. I’ve recently had a string of serendipitous promo experiences and would really like to help you create the situations that lead to creative production that is more “self-directed.” I know, I know… this column is supposed to make you more creative, but trust me… your creativity is a crucial part of this kind of production.
I’ve probably preached more than once that you need a plan when you sit down to produce a promo or commercial. I’ve spoken at length about taking more control of the process by doing your own writing, directing the talent and generally controlling every aspect of the project from start to finish. I stand by all of that, so what I’m going to offer here might seem to run counter to that mode of thinking. In the end though, this is a plan to not have so much of your plan in your head or on paper when you first sit down. Let’s just say you know where you want to end up. You want the project to be a little more “self-aware.”
There comes a point in any production where the project begins to take a life of its own and will press you to go places you might not have conceived when you first sat down to work on it. You begin by pulling in the diverse elements you think will work best to effectively communicate your message to the listener. Over time, as you build it, you will start to hear things that work and some that don’t. You use some of the material you’ve gathered and ignore some of the rest. It’s at that point that the project is talking to you. Listen. Let it take a little more control while you ensure that it’s staying true to your message.
I have learned to trust my production when it starts to talk to me, and I really think that’s one reason why I’ve had as much success as I have. As an example, I present part one of my audio this month on track 1 of the CD. It’s a promo for an upcoming Black Eyed Peas concert, that is chock full of things that magically came together in one session. As I started pulling the music into the session, I noticed that they all had a similar feel, so I started mixing and matching lyrics and rhythms. I Gotta Feeling, Boom Boom Pow and Imma Be all started to meld into one song. I started carving out the lyrics I wanted and dropping them onto instrumental versions to make all the natural donut holes for the VO. (The promo had not even been fully written at this point.) Then I reached back a bit and grabbed the lyric from Pump It for the finishing refrain. Once I had the music track mostly finished, I sat down and started writing the script, based on the little donut holes I’d left. The rest, as they say… is history.
Example number 2 (cut 2 on the CD) is similar to the BEP promo in that I began by pulling in materials, but in this case, since Lady Gaga’s music is so fresh with one number 1 after another, I pretty much knew where I was headed. I didn’t bother building the vocals I wanted into instrumental versions, leaving holes for the copy because her musical pauses did most of the magic for me. By the time I recorded the VO track, it had literally started building itself. I just provided the drag and drop.
I don’t usually use 3 examples of production with my articles, but the last one (cut 3 on the CD) just screamed serendipity. The problem I was faced with was promoting a concert that frankly, I wasn’t sure would sell out. Rihanna has had a LOT of hits over the last few years that really lend themselves to exciting, upbeat promos, but her most recent efforts are darker, have not sold as well and make really depressing promos, which is why I doubted her ability to sell out major arenas. The one bright note was that her opening act (should be co-star) is Ke$ha who hits home runs with every hit from a production point of view. The fact that Ke$ha is absolutely white-hot right now tells me that Rihanna’s marketing people are pretty smart and that I can make a smokin’ promo out of it all. Again, I let the music take over the promo, opening with Rihanna’s best hit of late Rude Boy, dropping into the opening guitar riff of Shut Up and Drive and sliding into Don’t Stop The Music. Then I let Ke$ha take over… well, you can hear how it turned out. The hardest part was making it sound like Rihanna and Ke$ha were in the same room when they did their ID at the end. I had to pull the word “and” from “Elvis Duran and the Z100 Morning Show” and cut the “the” into her “this” from her regular, “Hi! This is Ke$ha.”
Perhaps one of the reasons I’m going with three examples is the lack of precise directions of how to make a serendipitous event come together. It’s not exactly like saying, “Add +12db of compression to the voice track,” or “duck the music track +6db.” It’s something you have to learn to feel. You need to let the music talk to you so the promo can begin breathing with the excitement every promo needs. If two of the songs have a really natural “fit-together” feel… that is where you start.
One last thing: Not every promo (or even commercial) can be self-directing, particularly if it’s one of those pesky “mechanical” contests that explain how the listener can win. The more complicated the contest, the more likely you’re going to spend all your time just going through the how of the contest. But when it’s a simple “call in and win” promo, you can pretty much sum up the copy in two, or maybe three sentences, and serendipity can play a major role in the creation.
Self-aware production doesn’t always have to be about the music. Good comedic production, of necessity is self-aware. The situational funny piece will always depend on timing, self-deprecation or even verbal alliteration, each of which requires a careful consideration of the circumstances to be funny. By definition, circumstances means there is serendipity at play, whether you’re doing the writing or pure production.
This entire article will make some of you wonder what kind of mushrooms I’ve been eating, because until you’ve experienced a project that takes a life of its own, none of it will make much sense. To some of you, this will sound a little like I’m advocating for an abdicating of creative responsibility. The exact opposite is true. The real creativity is in spotting and using what the promo or commercial offers.
I am really hopeful that at least a few of you will begin to sense where my head is when I’m making radio magic. This goes beyond any kind of simple recipe for success. Once you truly experience serendipity like this, you’ll begin to see a much larger picture of what we do and be able to hit those “grand-slam” pieces on a more regular basis. Just about every other column I’ve ever written will make more sense as well because you will see how the mechanics of what we do work to support communication. Blending effects to give more flow instead of including them for the sake of including them, mixing and matching the music to give your work the heartbeat it needs, and paring down the verbiage to simplify the path between your brain and the listeners brain all work together to make better, more powerful radio.
That’s what this column is really about.