“Picture this, if you will…”
To me, this remains one of the most unforgettable opening lines I have ever heard. It’s not from a movie, a book or a song, but was delivered by an advertising copywriter in a creative pitch to a new client. Without a storyboard, a sketch or any visual aid – in the mid-70s we were good with that – the writer began to describe a creative concept for a new TV commercial. He simply opened his mouth and let the story flow. In turn, he opened up the visual minds of all those around the table. We all left that meeting with pictures in our heads of how that TV ad would go.
The ad got made.
I was the rookie art director in that meeting but the lessons learned that day are forever etched in my brain: there is power in words, and they are visually potent when delivered that clearly.
Admissions – this way
That story has come into my head many times over the years working in the graphics and design business. I admit to often using it, in particular when I meet young musicians starting out on their own artistic journey.
I also have a couple of other admissions to make. Admission One: I love music. Lots of different genres. Admission Two: I can neither play a note on a musical instrument nor hold one vocally for that matter. I am convinced the ‘music gene’ skipped me and landed on everyone else in my family, so graphics and design became my bag of tricks instead.
Being in and around the promotional and creative side of the music industry has allowed me zig-zag in and out of some really interesting musical creative spaces, and meet some serious young (and not so young) musical talent.
Listening attentively to what a band or artist is about allows you get a grasp of where they are creatively, and how to pull the strands of their project together into a shape. As another wise copywriter ‘head’ advised me: “Remember, that you have two eyes, two ears and one mouth, so the best advice I can give you is to use them in those proportions when taking a brief.” Her piece of advice has always stuck with me and is more valid today that ever before. Always listen carefully to the words, the words, the words.
Most creatives are wired to the moon
Thankfully, each one of us is different. Musicians and songwriters, be they solo artists, musical collaborators or in a band, definitely have very different circuitry and wiring going on inside their heads. It allows them to survive the chaos of their normality. I know when I hear a piece of music or vocal that hooks me in, that sound could remain swimming around my head for days.
Having threads of a new song or musical ideas in their brains for weeks or months must be really frustrating and rewarding in equal measure. Any creative idea can come like a bolt out of the blue but it can also smoulder on for days, weeks, months – even years – before it eventually ignites again; or takes a new shape, form or texture that makes it work better.
Paul McCartney’s story about how he came up with Yesterday is well documented in this respect. He said that he woke up one morning and had these chords and a melody in his head but thought he was plagiarising someone else’s song. To make sure he remembered the structure, he mentally hooked himself into the opening line of ‘his’ song by singing it as: “Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs/Not as much as I love scrambled eggs….”). It took over 18 months – and two albums later – before that song worked its way onto the Help Album in 1965.
Scrambled eggs, scrambled brains, hatching a good idea (insert your own one-liner here) proves that music requires patience. Not every musician has that particular quality in them, but it’s what sets many musicians and songwriters apart from the rest.
Performance & Art
It’s not a coincidence that many well-known musicians have come through art schools and creative-based education environments. A novelist once told me that she always had to play out her ideas as little movie scenes, working out the pictures in her head before she could attempt to write them into words. She had to have a vision of her creative piece. And while it may sound crazy, writers are often more visual than designers – and musicians can be far more visual than they sometimes give themselves credit for.
However, there is one big difference. Musicians or songwriters invariably have to perform their art, to entertain and engage an audience into listening and liking their work. The ability to perform consistently to an audience calls on a further set of cranial circuit board wizardry.
Very few other creative disciplines require this. Rarely do painters have to paint a canvas ‘live’ every night or playwrights perform their own work on stage to make a living. Music is certainly a tough business, and musicians and performers put themselves out there for their art every night of the week.
Form, Shape, Colour, Texture, Balance and Physical Execution
There are basic principles and similarities in the way that music and songs are conceived, composed and produced, and the way that the art design, promotional and social media material is produced around a project. This is probably why artists and musicians regularly find common ground and a synergy in each other’s work.
Many of the same rules and principles prevail in music as they do in art and design.
Form: This can be the musical genre – everything from sean nós to classical to heavy metal.
Shape: Everything from 3-minute pop song to a 10-minute orchestral score.
Colour: The emotional mood of the music – a palette stretching from high-octane energy to sombre, melodic tones.
Texture: Think of the difference between a live recording, a simple stripped down acoustic version, or a high-end studio production of the same song.
Balance: Consider production choices that leave space in a recording and avoid overcooking the piece.
Physical Execution: The studio production and how it gets delivered, packaged and out into a live environment.
In the music business there is still no substitute for passion and enthusiasm. The young, talented musicians who day on day continue to hone their creative skills and polish their performance skills to be the best they can, are the lifeblood of the Irish music industry. High on my personal list of credits are all of those groundbreaking Irish musicians, songwriters and performers who pushed the original boundaries in the 60s, 70s and through to today, making it possible for the current and next generations to push on even further.
Keep the creative flame burning. Hats off to you all!