By Dave Foxx
I got an amazing question from a friend of mine in Brazil a few weeks ago. What he was asking wasn’t extraordinary, but the way he phrased it made me think a bit more than usual and actually prompted me to see things in a different light.
The USUAL question goes something like, “What skills do I need to become a successful producer?” I usually give a short list of 5 things that I consider essential to good production and call it good. But, what my friend asked was more pointed: “What one skill can make the difference between a regular career in production and a stellar career?”
It took a few seconds for my brain to go through the usual 5 steps one by one and discard each as being the most important. They’re each important to being a competent producer, but most people come to the party with those skills to a greater or lesser degree. The single skill that differentiates a major market superstar from a small market producer is something less tangible, probably something that can’t be taught in a book or classroom. The answer I finally came up with was, “The ability to hear the finished product in your head before you make the first edit.”
Let me give you a little personal history to explain what I mean.
1. My Six Ton Namesake
Michelangelo’s David is regarded by art aficionados as being sublime. The statue that stands today in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy was actually what (not who) I was named after by my mother. That might seem kind of strange -- I know it did for me until I saw it in person several years ago. Every person I’ve known who has experienced David in person has had the same reaction. There is a magical, spiritual quality to this statue of the young man who faced and felled Goliath with a sling in the epic biblical battle.
To the point, is the story of how it was created. The Catholic Church was building a Cathedral in Florence and the design called for 12 statues of prominent biblical characters to be placed around the top. Two different artists were commissioned to create David, but one quit and the other disappeared and the partially carved slab of marble sat around for 25 years until a very young Michelangelo picked up the project. He put up a curtain around the marble and spent more than TWO YEARS behind that curtain, chiseling, carving and polishing. There was no model. It was all done in his head. Some have claimed that Michelangelo responded to a question of the difficulties he must have had carving David by saying, “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” While it’s doubtful he actually said that, it certainly describes the process in any artistic endeavor.
2. In The Wilds Of Pennsylvania
More recently, though still many moons ago, I was working on the air at WPGC doing mid-days, producing the station imaging AND working some 40+ nights at the now defunct Capital Center in Landover, Maryland. I was in-house VOG arena announcer for the local NHL franchise, The Washington Capitals. The pay was abysmal and the hours were lousy, but the beer before and after the game was free. During the game, I sat just off the red line with my feet actually ON the ice behind the fiberglass barrier. On my right was the visitor’s penalty box which allowed me to get to know some of the players a little. (Behn Wilson and I used to exchange jokes every time the Flyers were in town.) I sincerely doubt that there is a better seat in the house for a hockey fan like me. The job itself was a bit dull as everything was pretty much scripted out by the league, and while I could vary things a little, according to the official NHL rules I could in NO way root for the home team.
Doing evenings at WPGC at that time was Don Geronimo (this was long before his infamous ‘Don and Mike’ days) who was also a big hockey fan. You could pretty much count on him to be at every weekend home game. One fall, Don and his future bride, Frida joined my then wife (Patty) and me for a road trip up to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a pre-season Caps game. On the road, we were listening to all the radio stations in the little markets we drove through. When a break was on, we’d turn it up and listen to the DJ patter, imaging and commercials. Once the music came on, we’d change stations and continue whatever conversation we were having. After a few rounds of this, Frida and Patty both complained, “Hey, we LIKE that song! Every time a good song comes on, you change the channel.”
Guilty as charged. We were simply cutting away the unimportant stuff and thinking about how we could USE the material we heard.
3. The Case For NOT Muting
Today, my wife Jan and I have a funny/weird relationship. We constantly joke around and goof on each other. Neither one of us knows when a joke is coming, because we both go out of our way to blend the story into our conversation and situation. I guess most observers would conclude that we’re growing old together with a lot of humor and love, until they see us watching TV. We fight over the remote, almost constantly. Oh, it’s not about what we’re watching because we have very similar tastes in TV fare. It’s all about the MUTE button. We watch programs On-Demand quite a bit, which means we can’t fast forward through commercial content. As soon as a commercial comes on, she wants to hit MUTE immediately. Being the production junkie that I am, I want to HEAR what I’m watching.
I am constantly figuring out the pitch technique the producer is attempting to use and then grade the spot on its effectiveness. If you’re not familiar with the techniques, here are a few that you see all the time:
- Safety for your family: Donald Sutherland’s voice gently tells you about the amazing engineering, sleek styling and ultimate comfort of the Volvo, but his biggest point is always about safety.
- Bandwagon: Everybody is doing it, buying it, using it, loving it…you get the idea. Basically it’s FOMO. You’ve probably used this one for concert spots or promos. “Get yours now before they’re sold out!”
- Neighbor Envy: Be the first on your block to own a…whatever. I usually have a good laugh when I see one of these because there is some…no, let’s say a LOT of doubt as to whether there would be any envy on your neighbor’s part. Typically, clients who use this technique believe in their product’s salability far more than what is warranted.
- Sex Appeal: Last century, car manufacturers would drape the hood of their vehicle with a sultry vixen to grab the men by their libido. Then studies showed that women are the ones who actually have the final say when purchasing a big ticket item like a car. Today, manufacturers show Matthew McConaughey getting dressed in a tux for a night out, getting in the Lincoln and driving into the night. Subtle as a brick through a window, eh?
- Good Health: Whether you’re suffering from dry mouth, dry eye, diabetic nerve pain or need a little erectile help with your winkie, someone has the sure-fire cure for you! The unnerving part is the list of possible side-effects. When I hear death in that litany, I’m thinking I won’t be trying that one any time soon.
In essence, I am critiquing the ads I see and hear. This is exactly the same process I use when someone sends me their work and asks for tips for improvement, I first listen all the way through and determine what their goal was when they made it. In my head, I then create my own ‘perfect’ version of what I heard, again in my head, then listen again and compare the two. I base my remarks on the differences.
4. In The Playground Of My Mind
When I sit down to make a promo for Most Requested Live, I start with a few bullet points, supplied to me by Romeo’s producer, Colleen Shea. I make a few decisions on my “pitch” and start to ‘hear’ the final product in my mind’s ear. I compare what I’m hearing to any outstanding work I’ve heard as I drove through all the small markets of my life. I follow up with comparisons to any impactful work I’ve seen/heard more recently on TV (when the MUTE is not on) and solidify what I’ve created in my head into a plan. Then, as I write, record and start editing, I cut away everything that doesn’t sound like that promo in my head.
The bonus to this ‘visualization’ of the final product is, I know when I’m done. Think about the last time you finished a spot or promo and then had a client or AE come in and say something truly stupid like, “There aren’t enough phone numbers in it.” What is even worse is when I watch someone produce a spot, hear them get to that sweet spot of completion and then keep going, thinking that they’re ‘fixing’ the spot! There’s not much you can do about the idiotic client, but don’t BE the idiotic client. If you hear the finished product before you start producing, you’ll know exactly when it is perfect.
For my Soundstage sample this month, a Z100 promo I did about this time 5 years ago. I was really tired of doing the standard ‘beat-match’ music image promo every couple of weeks, so I decided to make it about the artists, rather than their music. Yes, I mos def heard it in my head before I started. BONUS: It took me all of 15 minutes to produce it, start to finish. I hope you like it. It’s one of my favorites.
Dave welcomes your correspondence at Dave@DaveFoxx.com.