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Don’t Be A Tool

As a producer of organized noise, you have a big toolbox, filled with implements like copy, voice, music, sound effects, humor, drama, prose, poetry, volume, mass and innuendo. (Innuendo is not an Italian suppository.) I think it’s time we double-check music and while we’re at it, check comedy. (Based on the above, I think I’m a quart low.)

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog called The Zen Of Production in which I suggested that producers put music down first and have talent read to the music. Almost immediately, I received a DM suggesting that this was bad advice.

Having the reading match the music might make for a better-sounding spot, but not necessarily a better-selling one. IMHO it makes more sense to develop a perfect read, often editing multiple takes and always tweaking the pacing or taking out big breaths. Then, since it's so easy to cut music on a workstation anyway, you can tweak the song to match the sell. Point taken…it’s subtle, but true enough…IF the producer is adept with the manipulation of music. However, this is making an unwarranted assumption. While it’s true that the words probably matter the most in any production we attempt, the context matters almost as much. Assuming that any producer can craft the score perfectly is a stretch, even for me.

It’s been my experience that the vast majority of radio producers in this world know next to nothing about how music works. Ask them to differentiate between rhythm and tempo and they get panicky and mumble something about ‘beats per minute.’ Ask them about harmony and counterpoint and they look at you like you’ve got three eyes. Telling them to “tweak the music” is like handing a loaded handgun to a 6-year-old. Far too often you’ll end up with a backbeat on the down or some other musical hiccup that will destroy an otherwise perfectly good spot or promo. Ever find yourself dancing to the music and suddenly you’re off? Instead of just enjoying the dance, you internally wonder what you, as the listener, did wrong.

If you accept that many producers are next to clueless when it comes to music construction, finding the right music first and playing it in the cans during the read will insure the spoken word and music will be in total harmony. It might not give us the perfect read sans music, but it will give the best result for most producers. My other observation about how many producers deal with music structure is that they are better at it when the VO doesn’t get in the way.

The DM is otherwise correct. IF the producer understands music construction and isn’t going to put a train wreck behind the voice, adjusting the music to fit the best possible read is absolutely the most preferred scenario. But if the beat is wrong or the key modulation doesn’t make sense because someone cut out the fifth, the producer will be forever scratching his/her head, trying to understand why it didn’t work.

This is why my number one piece of advice to production wannabes is to take music lessons. You don’t have to become a new Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton, but you need to grasp the fundamentals of how music works. Otherwise, you are constantly shooting in the dark, hoping that you can hit the target.

This skill becomes doubly valuable when your PD comes to you and asks for a song “edit.” This knowledge is critical if you’re going to do it right. You have to understand the musical intent of the writer/performer so you can remain true to that intent. Lyrics do NOT always give you the right insight to the writer/performer’s mind. You have to find the larger structure within the song and insure that the structure is intact when you’re finished. Simply cutting out a phrase is just wrong on so many levels. While it’s true that most people in your audience will not hear the edit itself, they will instinctively know that something is wrong and the emotions the music was designed to evince will simply not be there. The music will fail to satisfy emotionally.

When you’re using music in a commercial (please tell me you’ll always use an instrumental under the VO) the need for structural integrity is equally important. Otherwise, it will cease to flow and the message will get caught in the listener’s mental whirlpool and be sucked away. That might be overstating it a bit, but it will definitely detract from the message. As much as music has the power to add or detract from a spot or promo, comedy can play the same role. Comedy is one of the most powerful appliances in your toolbox, but like any power tool of consequence, it can also be the most dangerous. I once had a professor in advertising even suggest that comedy is as likely to kill a spot as it is to help and that we should avoid it like the plague. Looking back, I think it was really good advice for young people just learning to make powerful spots or promos. There are a lot of considerations to make before you opt for comedy, but the number one thought in your mind has to be “Is it funny to my audience?” I have a producer friend who has complained to me on a number of occasions about having a PD who comes up with riotous (his word) comedy ideas for his promos. The audience is young female. The comedy was strictly older male. Bathroom humor, boob jokes and playing with words to give them raunchy overtones are this guy’s main staple. What’s wrong with this picture? The humor invariably makes all the guys in the station fall down laughing, but the promotions most often fail to move the needle, getting little or no response. The acid test should be playing it for someone who fits the demographic target. If they don’t laugh, or worse, are offended, you’d better start thinking in a different direction. Believe it or not, laughter is a response to fear. It’s not a learned response. This is how the primitive human mind reacts when released from whatever caused the fear. During the setup of the joke, the listener relates to the victim of the joke and actually feels their fear. Once the punchline is delivered, the reason for fear is suddenly taken away, and the listener laughs. For the joke to be truly funny, the listener has to empathize with the victim of the joke, or they never feel the fear. If the audience is young female, they will most often never feel the fear presented in raunchy, male-oriented humor, so it’s just not funny to them. The second thought you should have when considering comedy should be “Does it drive the USP?” (Unique Selling Proposition.) Some would argue this should be the first thought and they might be right. If it’s not germane to the subject at hand, why is it there? Speechwriters always seem to try to start things off with a laugh to put their audience at ease, but there’s a big difference between giving a speech that might take an hour, in front of an audience that is there specifically to hear the speech, and selling a product or service on the radio or television to random listeners/viewers in 30 seconds. The speaker can get feedback to their comments, mainly via body language they can see in their audience.. You, as a producer, don’t have that to rely on, so the “hilarious” sketch you dream up for the beginning of your spot better have something to do with driving the USP. Otherwise, you’re committing a grievous error that will ultimately cause the entire piece to fail. The other comedic crutch I hear people use all the time is the drop. Dropping in a clip from a current box-office comedy might seem funny to you, but will the audience understand why it’s funny? Too often, drops are awkward because there is no setup. The audience doesn’t have the chance to empathize, so they don’t think the drop is funny at all. Chances are, you got to hear the original context of the drop, so you know why it’s funny, but it’s really only funny to you. If it’s something your audience is totally familiar with, it might be funny to them. Homer saying, “Doh!” might work for that reason, but that can be pretty iffy. If the drop works because it fits the context of your promo or spot, it can really work because once again, it’s driving the USP. I’m not going to say don’t use music or comedy in your production. Far from it, I recommend them both highly. Just be aware that these items are power tools. Wear your safety goggles. Follow manufacturer’s instructions carefully. And don’t use a screwdriver when the situation calls for a chisel.

Don't BE a tool. Be a MASTER of your tools.

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