By Dave Foxx
I have to say up front that this particular issue of RAP Magazine is my favorite of the year, every year. Most folks who are willing to put their best work up against all comers rate a special tip of the ‘prod hat’ for being willing to let it all hang out in front of their peers. It takes a special kind of daring to do that. I salute ALL who submitted work for this year’s awards. If you’re one of them, thank you for letting us all learn how it should be done. For the many of you who meant to make a submission, but never got around to it, really try to make it a point to do it next year. I’ve been a judge in the past and I have to admit, I learned a lot. If you take the time to really dig into this year’s crop of contestants, I can guarantee you will too.
I wanted to mention that before I got into this month’s column because my topic this month is a little… sad. (Perhaps.) Over the last several months, even years, I’d say that about 90% of the time, I get demos that are frankly, really good – sometimes downright inspirational. The other 10% are usually from people who are either new to the business and just need a bit of seasoning or got some bad advice (often from their PD) about how it should be done. A few quick changes and even those are generally very good. Over the last several weeks/months, that ratio has changed… for the worse. If you’ve recently sent me a demo, don’t panic. I’m only speaking about demos that I’ve already reviewed and given feedback on. If you haven’t gotten any feedback yet, I haven’t heard yours, as I never listen without having an email already open, ready to write.
What is sad about this, is the reason these demos are, let’s say… less than stellar. Many of these (mostly) young producer wannabes are not prepared, at all to do this kind of work. When you read the emails they come with, it becomes obvious that if you asked them to parse a sentence, they’d look at you as if you had two heads. Parsing is not a vegetable. It’s a skill that is rapidly disappearing from our world. Some knucklehead school administrator or teacher decided that parsing is too hard for their young students, so they don’t teach it any more. Of course, in this age of texting IMNSHO, using complete words seems to be a stretch for some, let alone building complete sentences.
If their English skills are OK, very often their musical skills are suspect. They’ll match any beat to any other beat and wonder why it doesn’t just work. When I explain their rhythm is off, they’ll ask how I know. I usually stop laughing when they clearly don’t know why it’s funny. When I tell them I can’t dance to their music, they ask why not. That’s about the time I quit trying to explain and ask, “How ‘bout that Superbowl?”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a little light in one of these skills. Not everyone can be a Renaissance man or woman. Knowing that you’re light and need to work on it is all I ask of any would-be producer.
Some would argue that having impeccable English skills is not particularly important to a non-writing producer, but I would counter that the producer is the final arbiter of what goes on the air. If there’s a grammatical error in the session, a good producer will work his or her way around it, IF he or she spots it. A not-so-good producer will let it fly and any listener with half a brain will think the client or even the whole radio station is either stupid or uneducated, or both. That’s the kind of image your station or client doesn’t need. Sadly, a lot of the audience will never catch it or even care, but I submit that enough people will tune out to make a tangible difference. I don’t know about you or your Program Director, but I don’t want to give up even one listener… ever.
Musical skills on the other hand are a little tougher to be tough about. Frankly, some people have absolutely NO sense of rhythm. All you have to do is watch American Idol sometime to know this is certifiable. However, in spite of what some stereotypes would have you believe, one can learn rhythm. If it’s not an innate ability, it’ll never be a strong suit, but just understanding how music is built can be incredibly instructive. In a case like that, I would suggest one should set some pretty hard and fast rules about how to cut music, rather than being inventive.
Well, I don’t want to just point out problems without giving some solutions. This month’s column will be part one of two, directed at our language skills. Next month, I’ll tackle music skills, which I consider to be the more difficult tool to sharpen. In what follows, I talk about English a lot, but exactly the same things work in any language. If your first language is Spanish (I know there are a lot of Spanish speaking readers), you need to do the same things.
Regardless of your mother tongue, if your language skills are a bit shy of genius, you need to write… a lot. I can promise you that my writing skills have improved about 100% since I started writing this column. I’m not a genius, by any test, but I’ve gone back and re-read some of my early columns and been embarrassed, to the point of blushing. OK, not everyone gets to write a column for RAP Magazine, so I suggest you talk to one of the smartest people you know. Let them know you want to improve your skills. Ask them if they’ll read a few letters you’ll write, not for specific help with English (or whatever language), but to offer some opinions about style and clarity. Then, assuming they say yes, it’s all on you. Write a few long, chatty letters. Tell stories about things that happen to you. Don’t bother if they’re not at least a couple of pages long (typewritten) so you really get into the meat of whatever topic you write about.
At the same time, start writing letters to family and friends. Let’s not write to your roommate or spouse, OK? Make it someone you don’t see every day, or even week. You don’t have to ask about style or clarity. Just write.
Then, as a final step, start writing a journal. The only person who’ll see it is you, so you can say whatever you want. After a couple of months, you will see an improvement.
There’s no magic formula here. You learn it by doing it… over and over again. It’s very similar to sports, like say, gymnastics. If you go into the gym and start doing tumbling routines, chances are you’ll pretty much suck at it the first several times. After you’ve been at it a few months, you’ll get better. If you keep it up for a couple of years, you’ll look back at your first efforts and laugh. You have to train your body to make the twists and turns smoothly, without pulling a face-plant. You might never try out for the US Olympic team, but you will improve… a lot.
Good writers have to train their minds the same way. Exercising your writing skill is how you do that. I daresay most of us had little training beyond that remedial English class we had to take in our freshman year at college. The only way we ever get better is to keep at it. You keep your mind lean and nimble by writing… often.
I know that right about now, most of you are saying, “My writing is fine. I don’t need to write all that stuff. What a waste of time!” Like many people are with going to the gym (not gonna happen anytime soon), we tend to not want to write any more than we absolutely have to and that is our downfall. But remember this: as radio/advertising producers, our language is our single most important tool. It’s what we use to get ideas across. It’s what we use to create brands and help our agencies and radio stations grow. It’s how we communicate.
So ask yourself this. “Do I want to be some third-rate hack, or do I want to be a champ?” Don’t for one second think you can’t be. Your vocabulary will grow, your copy will shrink and your spots and promos will improve immensely. Your comprehension of other people’s writing will explode. You’ll be able to go toe-to-toe with any writer out there. You’ll probably end up writing all your own spots/promos, just because you’re that good.
I don’t often say this, but trust me. It’s something everyone can do, if they only take the time to just train for it.
The words you use can impact your production in ways you might not even see or think about. Using the right words, in the correct order and with the proper emphasis will change just about everything about your production, from the music to the effects to the compression and EQ. More importantly, the quality and quantity of words you use can make or break the effectiveness of all your work.
I know this is something most of you already natively understand, but my hope is that when you see this concept laid out for what it is, you’ll realize how terribly important it is to your success… or failure.
As my best example of how writing can alter what you’re doing, I’m presenting a promo I did for a client station in Philadelphia. I did not write this one. Mike Kannon (“Kannon with a K”) wrote it for a weekend promotion wrapped around an upcoming Rihanna concert. When I saw what it was about, I pulled out an old Rihanna concert promo, thinking I would modify it a bit. However, the line “you’ll know every word to every song” made me throw that out the window and start from scratch. I had to rebuild the music track to make at least the first few hooks extremely memorable so that, indeed, the listener would know every word. I’m pretty happy with the results. The music tells the same story as the words and in my world, that’s a huge win.