The Filler Between Jingles

Last week, I attended the third annual ASCAP I Create Music Expo in Hollywood, California. As usual, I had a fabulous time although it was a bit of a whirlwind getting there—I miraculously made it onto a direct 9:15 a.m. flight out of Newark after waking up at 7:30 and learning that the first of two scheduled flights I was booked on to get there, the 11:20 American Airlines flight from LaGuardia to Dallas, was cancelled.

That sudden change of plans and its positive end result—I made it into L.A. four hours earlier and avoided switching planes—proved to be a very telling metaphor for lessons I gleaned from sessions I attended at the Expo. Whether it was a session on writing music for short films, getting a work done on Broadway or in an opera house, big band arranging, or plugging a song in Nashville, the message seemed to be the same: Your biggest calling card is not having a finished composition to hawk to people, but rather an ability to work with people in a situation and be able to be quick-footed enough to change course on a project if necessary.

Michael Korie, librettist for the opera Harvey Milk and lyricist for the Broadway musical Grey Gardens, spelled it out in the opera/musical theatre panel: “A completed opera is not your friend; companies want to collaborate.” He later opined that he’s come to prefer the Broadway process because it allows more opportunities to rethink and revise. “I can’t deal with having no previews in opera. You always get reviewed on opening night. It’s like a battle; you only get one chance to invade.”

Similarly, the legendary arranger Bill Holman admitted that the secret to his success was how to work with the people he was creating music for: “Peggy Lee liked me for what I didn’t write.” And yet, during another session in which a series of scores for two-minute films were critiqued by a panel of film industry professionals, the overly defensive reaction of one of the featured composers, whose music was otherwise quite good, was a sad prediction on how his efforts will probably fare in this highly competitive collaborative idiom if he continues to resist feedback.

Perhaps the most mind opening of all the sessions I attended was a session called “Nashville Reality Check” in which a group of songs were evaluated by Nashville hit brokers Ralph Murphy and Dennis Matkosky. Basically the session was designed to give aspiring songwriters the inside scoop on how to create chart toppers. The secret is realizing that when your song is played on the radio, it’s merely “the filler between jingles.” If what you wrote doesn’t keep them listening from one commercial to the next, it’s off the air. Plain and simple. Or as Jackson Browne put it during an interview with Variety‘s associate editor Phil Gallo: “Music is supposed to sound good. If you’re punishing people for paying attention that’s not gonna work.”

This is all a bit 180 degrees away from the mindset of many folks in the new music community where we tend to value what we create so highly and expect the audience to come to terms with it. Everybody at the Expo projected an alternative musical universe where creators have to come to terms with their potential audience in order to survive. But that’s not to imply that it’s any less sincere. In fact, it’s a constant dialogue between your own muse and a firm understanding of who your audience is; as the Nashville guys put it: it’s about “finding little things that no one shares but that everybody gets.” If not, you’re out of luck since, to quote the words of Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora, “you can’t polish bullshit.”

18 thoughts on “The Filler Between Jingles

  1. William Osborne

    Thanks for this comment. Very interesting.

    Polished bullshit. Isn’t that a pretty good description of most of the music we hear “connecting the jingles.” Take a trite, mediocre little song about adolescent love and so thoroughly pump it up with post-production techniques that it begins to sound like something. This explains why so many pop performers lip sync during live performance. Aside from a possible lack of musical skills, they can’t provide all the post production techniques to live performance, so the fans would hear the raw, humiliating truth: unpolished bullshit.

    By contrast, I listen to my 1950s recording of Frank Sinatra singing with the Hollywood String Quartet (wonderfully natural and elegant with fabulous arrangements by the great Nelson Riddle); or a couple CDs I have of Doc Serverinsen with his big band (a little doo-whacka-doo at times but still a glorious wall of sound, harmony, and rhythmic dynamism with a kind of mind-boggling big band playing only Americans seem to achieve); or my recording of a world-weary Joni Mitchell in her old-age singing full orchestral arrangements of her songs (with all the top LA studio players); or my recordings of Jimmy Scott singing ballads (almost trying to hide a life of true suffering that is not some mindless honky affectation.)

    Of course, you don’t hear any of this on the radio, and that is indeed bullshit. If we’re going to talk about pop, let’s at least talk about the good stuff

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

    Reply
  2. rtanaka

    Nice column, Frank. I’m largely in agreement with the last quote that you posted — for the most part, I think that all an artist needs to do is say the things which people are already thinking anyway. Easier said than done of course…does anybody really know what people want?

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  3. William Osborne

    …all an artist needs to do is say the things which people are already thinking anyway.

    Is that all? I knew I was missing something.

    The comment by the Nashville bigwig is actually a paraphrase from Emerson’s essay about genius. It seems country folk embroidery Emerson’s quotables on framed pieces of old cloth flour sacks and hang them on their parlor walls. Needle point is another favorite format. Here are a couple examples:

    “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in
    your private heart is true for all men–that is genius.”

    “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they
    come back to us with a sort of alienated majesty.”

    Whatever Ralph Waldo says. I’m more of a Thoreau type, myself. His sayings decorate the walls of my old wood shack in the woods.

    Just as in commercial music, the most successful classical composers are those who are good at working with people, who correctly analyze power structures, and who adapt their music and other professional activities accordingly. People skills and flexibility are essential. Should these skills be taught in music schools? Can they be taught?

    There are a lot of composers that do not have these social abilities, and I think a lot of talent is lost as a result. It seems unfortunate that geography, cronyism, and opportunism play such a significant role in who gets heard. At what point does “flexibility” become duplicitous?

    As a general principle, I do not think we should feel we are doing something wrong if we write non-commercial music. Even if the idea might seem “Un-American,” capitalism is not an all-encompassing paradigm. Do you ever wonder why the marketplace is so strongly stressed in these pages? It’s probably just me, but sometimes it seems to come across as vaguely rightwing.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

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  4. Chris Becker

    “Perhaps the most mind opening of all the sessions I attended was a session called “Nashville Reality Check” in which a group of songs were evaluated by Nashville hit brokers Ralph Murphy and Dennis Matkosky.”

    But keep in mind, there are many artists creating music inspired by the great legacy of “country music” who have absolutely no interest in the marketplace as it is defined by the hit brokers. Open up an issue of No Depression magazine and this kind of music has almost become a genre of its own. “Alt country” or whatever.

    I am not knocking the craft of pop songwriting, but I wanted to offer a little perspective on this much maligned “genre” of “country music.” Nashville doesn’t necessarily equal a mindset…although maybe Steve Earle would disagree with me :)

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  5. philmusic

    There can be a difference between a composer’s vision and what they have to do to reach the mass “audience”.

    Viva la difference!

    Phil Fried

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  6. Chris Becker

    Argh! I didn’t know about this. Thanks, Steve. No Depression’s coverage has helped out so many bands – including my friends The Doc Marshalls and the issue they put out shortly after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast was amazing. I still have it on my bookshelf.

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  7. rtanaka

    The comment by the Nashville bigwig is actually a paraphrase from Emerson’s essay about genius.

    Oh, thanks for the heads up about the quote.

    Emerson and Thoreau’s ideas on Transcendentalism (lately I’ve been reading them a lot through my reasearch) seems to be a double-edged sword. Their heavy emphasis on individuality and personal subjectivity is largely seems to be what shapes American culture today, for better or worse. On one hand, the movement inspired various civil rights movements (Martin Luther King Jr. cites Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience as an inspiration while he was in school), but on the other hand, the ironic thing is that people who would be labelled as neo-conservatives right now also tend to echo similar ideas. (Neo-conservatism is sometimes called neo-liberalism because the movement emerged as a sect of former liberals who felt disillusioned with the cultural movements of the 60s and 70s.) The difference between the two? Power. Blacks and other oppressed minorities (women, gays, immigrants) had/have a legitimate cause of complaint, while the rich and powerful do not. But if you’re rich and powerful and take the ideas of Transcendentalism to heart, then it gives you the justification needed to be greedy and self-centered in the name of individualism. Then the ideals of equality becomes propaganda when it attempts to be in denial of the unequal realities that exist — and unfortunately, this is something that both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of…waging ideological battles while ignoring the practical plights of the common folk. It’s really of no suprise that voter participation is so low now.

    If you’ve been following the news recently, the “outrage” about Obama’s comments about the working poor is a perfect example of this. The media has been exaggerating the scandalousness of his comments quite a bit, but in job-less, money-less areas, of course people are bitter. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to say unpopular things that everybody knows to be true but most people lack the courage to be vocal about. I think that in some cases, commercial art have managed to over-step these lines.

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  8. maestro58

    Quotes from Frank’s Article:

    This is all a bit 180 degrees away from the mindset of many folks in the new music community where we tend to value what we create so highly and expect the audience to come to terms with it.

    Perhaps the most mind opening of all the sessions I attended was a session called “Nashville Reality Check” in which a group of songs were evaluated by Nashville hit brokers Ralph Murphy and Dennis Matkosky. Basically the session was designed to give aspiring songwriters the inside scoop on how to create chart toppers. The secret is realizing that when your song is played on the radio, it’s merely “the filler between jingles.”

    Does this mean a) all composers of orchestral music need to collaborate with the orchestras they hope to receive performances from — in that case, do well all need Composer-In Residence positions before we write a note? b) Are we all supposed to be writing the filler between the Beethoven & Brahms?

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  9. Kyle Gann

    But if you’re rich and powerful and take the ideas of Transcendentalism to heart, then it gives you the justification needed to be greedy and self-centered in the name of individualism.

    Lord almighty, I hate seeing Transcendentalism ignorantly parodied and insulted like this, and it happens a lot. The writings of Thoreau and Emerson put tremendous emphasis on subjective perception and staying true to one’s own inner principles, none whatever, none whatever, none whatever on greed and self-centeredness. None whatever. Did Thoreau die wealthy? What was Emerson, a hedge fund manager? Try reading them before spouting off like this.

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  10. rtanaka

    Kyle, I respect a lot of the things you write, but I would suggest that you read Emerson’s essay, Self-Reliance.

    Here’s a juicy quote:

    Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

    It’s amazing how often Emerson sounds like a die-hard capitalist in his essays. Basically the message is: “the poor and uneducated ain’t my problem”. Emerson hated collectivism so much that he was willing to forsake the poor to fulfill that type of individualist ideology. This basically gives people the justification to absolve all responsibility toward the lesser fortunate, and has followed suite in practice through American political practice. The result is that we now have the massive income gap that exists between the rich and the poor which becoming even wider.

    Now how about a few quotes by Thoreau:

    Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.

    Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

    This might sound appealing at first glance, but if you imagine hearing these quotes from say, a CEO of a big corporation’s point of view, it gives them the right to work their employees into the ground without any compensation. (Which happens all the time.) If they’re doing it for the love of it, why should they be paid? Why should artists be compensated for doing art, really? Isn’t it just supposed to be fun? Why should they be paid for having fun?

    I think that people are finally starting to see the BS behind these types of justifications and things may be finally swinging in another direction. If you need more quotes, I have more, including one where Emerson argues against contributions to social causes. Transcendentalism was an important movement in American history, but it has probably contributed as much problems as it has done good — hence it needs to be looked critically.

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  11. William Osborne

    When I was in 9th grade I was rummaging around in an old closet at my grandparents house and found an ancient volume of Emerson’s essays that had belonged to my great grandparents. I took the volume home and it changed my life – especially the essay “Self-Reliance.” I come from a virtually illiterate rural family. Reading those essays were probably the turning point that awakened my desire for a life of the mind, and why I am not now working the family farm, or some related job pertaining to agriculture.

    I think I know what both Kyle and Ryan are trying to say. The transcendentalists are often misappropriated. They combined individualism with strong conceptions of personal moral responsibility. Somehow this has been subverted in today’s society to a grotesque and deeply ironic alliance between neo-con libertarians and bigoted Christian fundamentalists. Why have superficial notions of individualism and ignorant fundamentalism merged to become such a strong part of the American mindset? Put more simply, what brought together Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell?

    There is a real art to combining individuality with moral responsibility. To better understand that art, we would do well to re-visit Emerson and Thoreau. I’m glad to know that people like Kyle are immersed in Emerson, and that Ryan (who is quite a bit younger) is still wrestling with their concepts.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

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  12. Kyle Gann

    You can cherry-pick quotations from Emerson and Thoreau to prove anything you want, just as the Christian Right cherry-picks the biblical quotations that provide support for them hating all the people they were inclined to hate anyway, and conveniently ignores all the passages about helping the poor and not throwing the first stone. I’m not impressed by any quotation taken out of context. Emerson was an intentionally contradictory and dialectical writer, who could range through several points of view in one essay. There’s never any point in isolating a paragraph from one of his essays to “prove” anything. Thoreau perfected the modern pencil, and probably could have become rich manufacturing them, but he refused to make another, saying, “Why should I repeat what I’ve done before?” He threw away the three rocks that were the only ornaments in his cabin when he realized they entailed a commitment to dust them. You can find sentences in Thoreau that give permission to flout society, and you might twist those to justify greed, but you’ll have to strenuously ignore all of Walden’s overriding themes.

    Greed: excessive or rapacious desire, esp. for wealth or possessions

    Individualism: Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

    Transcendentalism: a philosophy based on the idea that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, asserting the existence of an ideal spiritual reality that transcends the empirical and scientific and is knowable through intuition.

    If the point you’re making is that people whose reading comprehension is crippled by rapacious self-interest shouldn’t read Emerson or Thoreau (or the Bible, or Lao-Tzu, or Confucius, or Plato, or Nietzsche, or Tolstoy) because they’ll be able to find plenty of material to misconstrue and twist around to justify whatever course of behavior they were intent upon following anyway, that’s possibly true. But to blame the author for saying things that can be so cherry-picked is to indirectly advocate censorship on greatness.

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  13. rtanaka

    Kyle, I’ll remind you that Transcendentalism is and has been a strong influence on the current neoconservative political landscape. Many them were, after all, former liberals, and may of them actually supported the civil rights movement at one point in time. While the current administration’s economic and foreign policies are abhorrent, the one thing I can give them is that at least they are not racists — they’ve hired people like Rice and Gonzales, and Bush has actually been pretty favorable toward the left in immigration issues. Personally I don’t think that “liberal” and “conservative” really are meaningful terms anymore.

    The point I wanted to make was that the words of Emerson and Thoreau can very easily construed into a self-serving, greedy policy, and this needs to be acknowledged because I think that it has been used as a form of psychological propaganda as of the late. The two thinkers say these kinds of things all the time, so it’s not like you have to “cherry pick” very hard in order to find statements like the above. It’s a theme, not a hiccup, and I don’t thing it’s really all that unreasonable to argue that excessive individualism might lead to one being self-serving because it’s a result that naturally follows from its conception. Here is another quote, and I have lots more if you really want them:

    The poor and the low have their way of expressing the last facts of philosophy as well as you. “Blessed be nothing,” and “The worse things are, the better they are,” are proverbs which express the transcendentalism of common life.

    See, the poor are happy, why should we help them? Isn’t it wonderful that they’re poor? What’s missing in a lot of Emerson’s writings is the idea of self-sacrifice in the name of helping others. It’s about the individual Will to overcome all materialistic obstacles and the celebration of the individual creative spirit. Good for the ego maybe, but bad for the body. The idea of “mind over body” also comes from them — very Platonic, and his preferences for the rationalist philosophers are also reflective of this. The drawback is that it allows people to ignore history and circumstance, which I would argue has had disastrous consequences when put into the wrong hands. These things need to be looked at very critically, and it’s especially we important that we do it now.

    I’m not sure if I buy your theory that he was “deliberately contradictory”, because if he was like most human beings, it’s more likely that he was simply unable to resolve the self-contradictions that he set up for himself. (I know I have a few myself as well, although it’s not something I take comfort in.) It may also be interesting to note that many of the basic tenants of Transcendentalism was inspired, but misinterpreted version of Kant’s “Transcendental Idealism”, which Emerson added moral imperatives in ways that Kant specifically denied as being possible. Even while showering praises to the German philosopher, Emerson probably didn’t even read his works and likely got their ideas from second-hand sources.

    If you need any more elaboration or evidence on any part of my post, please do ask. This topic has been the focus of my research for the last year or so, so I have plenty of evidence if needed. Although the biggest evidence, really, is the reality that we’re living in right now. The path to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. I don’t doubt that people have good intentions, but…

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  14. Kyle Gann

    Game point
    I see: Thoreau said “Any fool can make a rule and every fool will mind it,” and as a consequence, 150 years later, George Bush shreds the Constitution and approves torture. I can’t argue with that. I cede the field.

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  15. William Osborne

    Ryan, the transcendentalists extolled self-reliance, but also stressed the need for compassion for those truly in need. It is very likely, for example, they would have supported issues like national health insurance. They also rejected greed, exploitation, and totalizing social structures like corporatism and imperialism. Thoreau, for example, went to jail for refusing to pay his taxes during the Mexican-American war. He found it appallingly unjust. How many neo-cons can you say that about today and the Iraq War? Moral stances like these would seem to completely separate the transcendentalists from today’s political atmosphere.

    You have made a good argument about their belief in the importance of self-reliance, but you have not shown how that view, in itself, can be generalized as immoral, especially since their “Christian sensibilities” also inevitably led them to stress the value of compassion for those truly in need. Their moral sensibilities also gave them a keen sense for injustice. I am curious to see how you might specifically address these dual standpoints in your argument.

    In any case, it is good to see someone trying to sort out the confused notions of individuality that seem to plague the American mindset. You might be sitting on your horse backwards, but at least you are one of the few trying to go somewhere.

    William Osborne

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  16. rtanaka

    I’m not against the movement itself — it has lead to the creation of the Unitarian church which has stressed religious tolerance and diversity, and I do think that many of the ideas from Emerson and Theodore Parker have greatly influenced portions of the Christian left. It’s obviously very important and it has left its positive impacts. In a lot of ways modern American politics is about arguing over interpretations from the same ideas.

    I think in a lot of ways Transcendentalism represents the best and the worst of American society, because it has the potential to go in either direction depending on how its applied. We should really learn to tread carefully, however…

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  17. rtanaka

    There’s the phrase, “God helps those who helps themselves”, which gets thrown out a lot, especially in the States. It’s total BS though, because that’s not found anywhere in the Bible and in fact the book teaches just the opposite — the rich have an obligation toward the poor. A critique of Transcendentalism on religious grounds often point this out as a contradiction and a problem.

    I’m pretty sure that people like Cheney and Rove doesn’t give two shits about religion. They see it as a political tool for making ends meet, and their actions are pretty blatant about this. The recent visit by the Pope is ineresting, and although I don’t agree with him on a lot of things he was always opposed to the war and explicitly said that Americans have a responsibility toward the rest of the word because we are the most wealthy. In a lot of ways I think Emerson’s faith saved him from going down too far into the pit of an existential crisis — it’s hard to say the same for its secular variants during the 20th century onward.

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