Production 512: “Hobson’s Choice”

Prod512 Logo 2016By Dave Foxx 

Some writers today refer to it as “Hobbes Choice,” but I’m fairly certain they are confusing this old phrase with Calvin’s furry little friend in the comics. The phrase is said to have originated with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England, who offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in his stall nearest the door or taking none at all. The choice is basically pre-made. When people complained to Henry Ford about the poor selections of color on his Model T Ford, he replied, “You can have any color you like, as long as it is black.”

There are some people in the world who view creativity in the same light. Either you are creative, or you’re not. If it is in your genetic makeup, you are creative! If not…well, enjoy your life as, ‘something not creative.’ Great, another way to divide everyone, as if politics, wealth and race weren’t enough. The truth is, everybody is creative. Some just don’t recognize it for what it is.

The snobbery I’ve encountered over creativity honestly takes my breath away. I know one fellow working in a large market who is convinced that one day he will be recognized as the most creative producer in the world. (It’s never gonna happen, believe me, but I’m certainly not gonna tell him.) He is, in fact, pretty creative, but I know producers in really tiny markets who make much better candidates for the world title. Sadly, there is also a reverse kind of snobbery in which people actually heap praise on my idiot acquaintance, turning themselves into a blubbering heap, chanting the mantra, “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy.”

First off, it’s not a contest…not really. I’m not gonna lie. It feels terrific when you win a RAP Award or a Marconi. Getting a Worldwide Radio Summit trophy will make you beam for a month, but if that is your goal, you’ll never achieve it. The goal HAS to be successfully communicating with your audience, making them feel an emotional response to your work, every time you sit down and fire up your DAW. When you accomplish THAT, the door is opened to the little trophies most people covet.

I have probably devoted more time to the topic of creativity in these pages than any other TEN people writing in every publication, online and off. That’s not a source of pride…that’s an indication of the importance I place on creativity. And the thing most of the “you-are-or-you’re-not” crowd misses constantly is that creativity is not restricted to the arts. 

Ever heard the phrase “creative accounting?” It usually means somebody is doing something that, strictly speaking, is illegal in bookkeeping. In sports, “Creative coaching” is another I’ve heard that describes a coach who isn’t afraid to mix things up and do things in a non-traditional way. I’ve come across a new way to use the word recently in some of the news reporting on politics. A pundit was commenting on the way a certain piece of legislation had been written when she said, “Well that’s…creative.”

Why am I talking about this again? 

As you may know, a lot of people send me their production demos or sample production pieces, looking for some tips/pointers for improvement. Over the last several weeks I’ve noticed the accompanying email/letter will say something like, “I’m really not very creative and…blah, blah, blah.” Seriously? Clearly, a lot of people do not understand what the word means or describes.

Steve Jobs said it best: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” (Aug 11, 2015)

Creativity cuts across all aspects of life, not just radio production or sculpting, painting, and composing. The only difference between a “creative” person and one who supposedly isn’t is mental acuity; being able to close the eyes and dig around in the brain to find two disparate ideas that will play nice together.

One of my favorite experiences in LIFE happened when I had an epiphany about the source of creativity several years ago. Back in the day, when I had interns come in to learn how to produce great imaging, I would listen to their ideas and think to myself, “Great, here’s another creative dud.” One intern named Irene that I had judged to be particularly dull proved me wrong. Quite accidentally, I showed her how to be creative. From one week to the next, she went from being one of the most obtuse, dumb-as-a-post people I’d ever met, to being one of the absolute brightest and most creative people I’ve ever known.

When I looked back on what we’d been discussing in the previous session, it dawned on me and I suddenly knew where “creative” comes from in an individual. And for just 495 dollars, I’ll send you my 5–DVD package that will explain my secret! Wait. I forgot. That’s why I write this column. {sigh} Besides, it’s not my secret.

Your creativity comes from your past, from every experience you’ve had in real life and by extension, things you’ve read, watched or heard. Think about that for a minute while I zone out on some history.

When Michelangelo was draped under the scaffolding in the square there in Florence, feverishly carving his statue of David from his bit of marble from the Cathedral, he didn’t use a model. He did the entire thing from memory. There was no model, per se. Every detail, every nuanced curve and mass, came directly from his brain. However he attained his knowledge of anatomy (some scholars believe he was gay and thus understood the male anatomy better than most), he pieced it together in his mind’s eye before he ever touched chisel to stone.

When Dan Brown created The Da Vinci Code, he did a ton of research, reading every book he could get his hands on about the ancient church, its rites and dogma, but when he sat at his laptop, pecking out the story, line by line, he didn’t have those old texts sitting open by his side. He wrote the story directly from the brain.

When Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe were signed to do Hidden Figures, you can bet the farm that they each embarked on a month’s long study of the 1960s. Each of them had to have an instinctive understanding of the politics of that era, not just Republican/Democrat politics, or just the patriarchal structure of NASA during that time, but how black women in that decade reacted to the world around them. When the cameras were rolling, they had to instinctively understand all of that to give a true performance without tainting it with the reality of today. All of the attitudes, science and politics of that era were a soup their brains had to swim in constantly.

Each of these men and women are (or were) unbelievably creative. Where does all that creativity come from? From their past! In each of these examples, they studied the topic they would be dealing with intensively, integrating it into their minds, so that when it came time to chisel or write or act, it was second nature. It came from their past, studied or real.

Draw a direct line from your past to the present. Think about situations you’ve seen or heard that resonate with the subject, they can be funny or serious it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they be true to life! The only way you can gauge that is to know that the situation really exists.

So, when I hear or read someone saying, “I’m not very creative,” I think to myself, did you just pop into existence 10 minutes ago?

And like the examples I cited above, you need to do a certain amount of research to really open the floodgates and be truly creative. If you’re producing for a CHR station, you’d better make sure you read every issue of any magazine that claims an overall topic of pop-culture. You’d better watch any and all TV shows like TMZ that deliver pop-culture news. You need to see a movie every week, read at least one book every month and you positively have to read a newspaper every day. You have to integrate this stuff into your brain because this is where pop–culture lives. Pop–culture is the life-blood of CHR radio. And if you work at an all talk outlet, don’t think you’re off the hook. While the reading/viewing list might be different, it’s every bit as long. Same deal for every format. Country? Of course! AC? You bet! Oldies? WOW, do you have a long list. Rock? It’s all the same.

The things you read, watch and listen to become part of you and it’s ALL fodder for your creativity. 

Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life son.” Many of you know that quote and can say exactly where it originated. As I am creating this column, I can simply reach back into my brain and pull it out, usually word-for-word. (I checked, it is accurate.) It makes an excellent quote for this article, even though I don’t know that you are fat, drunk or…well, I’m pretty sure you’re not stupid. For those who know the quote, it probably generated a small smile. For those who don’t, it still works. To dance through this career of creative work, you really need to fully educate yourself.

Here’s another one: Creativity, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” You’ve probably seen the meme on social media dozens of times. Again, I suspect most of you know the origin, but it really does speak to the theme of this column. If you’re a “creative-or-not-creative” person, it’s just for you. Don’t be Thomas Hobson…please.

For my audio this month, a little ditty from May 2011 that features some seriously cool beat-matching, promoting an All Summer Hits Weekend. To my way of thinking, beat-matching or beat-mixing is one of the ultimate creative power trips. In this example, it required a knowledge of what was a hit when and then finding a way to make them flow together. I hope you enjoy listening and feel inspired to do something similar soon. 

Oh, and I’m not gonna tell you the sources for the three movie quotes in this column. Figure it out. When you do, watch the movies. They’re all pretty old and ALL truly funny. They are full of quotes you will use someday…trust me.

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