By Dave Foxx
Well, 2016 is officially behind us. It was certainly a tumultuous year full of shocks and high drama. Brexit and the US presidential election both shocked many, especially the press, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series (shocking me, at least) and sadly, we lost one each of the most famous TV moms and TV dads with the passing of Florence Henderson and Alan Thicke. We also lost several iconic music stars like David Bowie and Prince, Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, Glen Frey and Merle Haggard, Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire) and Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane/Starship), plus two of the biggest producers/managers of the pop music era, George Martin (The Beatles) and Robert Stigwood (The Bee Gees and Cream). In contrast, The Rolling Stones just released a new album a few weeks ago debuting in the top five, 54 years after the band’s start in 1962! Color me shocked again!
Whether you are celebrating the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017, the new year always brings a long pause for reflection on where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s a time for resolutions to do better, reach farther, be more of one thing or another. My big resolution for 2016 was to lose 30 pounds by year’s end. As I write this, I only have 40 pounds to go! I am making a new resolution this year. (Last year’s resolution was too hard now that I’m living in BBQ heaven.) I would like to suggest that you make the same resolution: to improve your talent in a very tangible way. Is that even possible? You bet it is, but you have to kind of sneak up behind it to do it, and that is my topic for this month’s column. My goal is to explain how you can grow your talent.
Let’s start with three words that are important to this discussion: 1. Skill - having the technical proficiency to complete a given task efficiently. 2. Persistence - the ability to continue working at something to completion, even when that task might seem daunting or, more importantly, boring. 3. Bravery - being willing to take a new course when the outcome might be detrimental to you or your career. I will touch on each of these and how they directly impact your level of talent to a positive OR negative degree.
Whether or not you were a big fan of Glen Frey or Prince, I think there isn’t a soul on this planet who could deny that they had talent…a LOT of talent. If you study real music history, something beyond the pop era…all the way back to the beginning, one name will consistently be near the top of everyone’s list for ‘most talented’: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was a true child prodigy, someone whose talent is so profound at an early age, it defies reason. At age five, he wrote his first piece of music. By the time he was 6 he had pretty much mastered the piano and violin. At age 8, he wrote his first symphony.
You might recall that a couple of months ago, I spoke at two different imaging workshops in Miami and Amsterdam within days of each other. The absolute best part of doing that is getting to see some extremely skilled and talented people make production magic, LIVE. People like Christian Troitzsch (89.0 RTL), Dave Konsky (2DayFM), Chris Ward (Bauer City Network) and Jason Garte (Mix Group) dazzled with their virtuosity, inspiring every attendee, including me, to new heights in imaging excellence. While creativity certainly plays a huge role in all their work, it’s the talent that blows away most folks. The process on display as they go from idea to finished product is breathtaking. I am pretty sure there is no “Mozart” in radio production. I sincerely doubt that Christian, Dave, Chris or Jason could create a decent beatmix by age 5. (Well, OK maybe Konsky.)
Making production magic is just like riding a bicycle. The first time you try, you end up with a lot of bumps and bruises, and more than one scab your mother will repeatedly tell you to stop picking at. For most people, it takes several attempts before you can successfully wobble down the sidewalk on your own. Within a few days, you start zooming around the neighborhood like a hummingbird darting from flower to flower. Within a couple of weeks, the neighbors start complaining about your supersonic near misses. It is undeniable that each of those producers possesses gobs of talent, but here’s the thing: As you gain the skills, like riding a bike, you get more efficient, more polished and ever more complex. As the skills grow, it deepens your understanding of how all this works and the talent starts to shape your work, smoothing the rough edges and polishing the finish.
What IS talent? For radio production it is having the gift of rhythm, an innate understanding of harmony and an ability to hear the finished product long before it’s finished. However, without the requisite skills to maximize your performance, your talent will remain buried in your head.
During the first ever iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, I sat backstage at the production table as the VOG. One of the perks in that gig is getting to sit in front of gigantic video monitors and watching the show as if I am in the front row, while the sound thunders all around me from just the other side of the stage backdrop. Every couple of minutes, one artist or another would come stand next to me to watch whoever was performing at the moment. Sting showed up several times. I finally asked him why and he looked at me like I had two heads. “The talent on display here is simply amazing. Can you even begin to imagine the hours, days, weeks and years of practice coming to display here?”
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in Madison Square Garden doing exactly the same thing. One desk over from the production desk was the “Teleprompter” desk where presenting personalities/artists would show up about 15 minutes before they were to go on stage to introduce the next act. Rita Ora, who was there to present The Chainsmokers, showed up early and just stood, mesmerized by Charlie Puth on the big screen. We spoke briefly (I am such a fanboy) and then she said pretty much the same thing: “My God, this guy must practice 12 hours a day every day!”
Practice indeed. Practice is the ONLY way you can work on your skills. I always laugh when someone talks about an artist achieving “overnight success” because I know that from the performer’s point of view, there was nothing “overnight” about it. Many of today’s top names in music literally spent years learning how to play/sing/dance before they ever felt the burn of the limelight.
When you practice your art, whatever it is, your key word must always be persistence. If you want to make your talent shine brighter than anyone else’s, you cannot allow yourself to be distracted by all the things so many people do that are NOT helping your skill set. How often do you get bored doing a project and decide to check Facebook for a few minutes? Then, an hour or three later you remember that you have work to do? I won’t lie, I’ve succumbed to the temptation from time to time. (My wife says more often than that, but I digress.) The internet can be such a HUGE time-suck. Try not to give in to boredom. Just work on the work because every edit you make, every beatmix you shape, every time you try a new plug-in, you are practicing your skills. Those skills will make it easier and easier to really let your talent shine. When you next work on your ‘masterpiece-of-the-year’ you will be directly rewarded. You’ll start hearing that promo or commercial in your head, long before you make the first edit, and you’ll cruise through the project with scarcely a hiccup because your skills are allowing your talent to bubble up and dominate your work, instead of the work dominating you.
So, I’ve covered skills and persistence. Let’s chat for a minute about bravery. Once you’ve really started to get your skill levels up, it’s tempting to set yourself in concrete and count on your skill-set to be there on every project that comes along. Oh, they’ll be there for sure, and as long as you continue to work, they will serve you well, but you will be doing yourself a big disservice.
Remember the example I gave earlier of Mozart? Here’s the rest of that story: By the time Wolfi, as his family called him, reached age 20, he had accomplished what many who lived to the ripe age of 60 had done in their entire lifetimes. He was certainly still a bit of a star, but the world began to view him as just another composer. He wasn’t a child prodigy anymore. He really had a difficult time finding work. Most composers at that time were in the employ of one royal court or another…that’s how they fed themselves. He found work from time to time and he never stopped composing, but he stopped pushing his own boundaries. He became distracted by alcohol (he had a fondness for Absinthe, an anise flavored super alcohol) and merely composed what he was commissioned to write. The work he did was quite good by most standards, but he stopped being quite so inventive. He was content to write what was needed/called for by his employers. He stopped being brave. He died at age 35, forgotten by most of his peers, alone and reeking of licorice. His true fame didn’t come until long after he was gone.
Be brave in your production. Try new plug-ins, new ideas, new combinations of old ideas. Don’t be afraid to step outside the box you built yourself and grow. Don’t be a Mozart. Be the best you that you can be TODAY. Then tomorrow, push to be the best that you can be tomorrow. Be a Ludwig Van Beethoven who composed what I consider to be his absolute masterpiece, The Ninth Symphony, when he was in his late years and stone-deaf by laying his head on the piano to feel the vibrations of the Ode To Joy. He never stopped trying to be something bigger every day of his life. His talent grew constantly.
Yours can too. Someday, it’ll be YOU speaking to producers in Miami and Amsterdam. It’ll be YOU writing this column. It’ll be you getting fat on BBQ. It’s entirely up to you.
For my sound this month, a trip back to 2011. Britney Spears was on her Femme Fatale tour and Nicki Minaj was opening. I was trying out a new plug-in for my voice, the Meta-Flange. As often happens when a new plug-in is involved, I overdid it a bit. I corrected within a couple of weeks, but as I’m hearing this now, I’m kinda diggin’ the sound. Hmmm.
Dave welcomes your correspondence at