Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issue #11-12, January 1996
Television may be the most difficult medium we performers face. Note that I did not say "MTV may be the most difficult", or "videos may be the most difficult". Most of us will never get a crack at either. I'm speaking of television, everything from late-night shows (audience of millions) to Mandy and Mack's Morning Madness (seen by their families).
To the lay person, "talk TV" is a magic world of huge sound stages and glittering performers, where cheerful audience members laugh and applaud the moderator, who knows every guest personally. For the performer, television is a nightmare of tiny, freezing studios with cables the size of tree trunks, disappointed audiences who were expecting Britney Spears, and moderators who haven't heard your album and couldn't care less.
Lesson number one: They don't care, and you look awful anyway.
Why don't they care? Because tomorrow, you'll be gone, and they won't - that's lesson number one. Only you care that much about you. Everyone else has another day job to deal with, and you're only a blip on the radar screen.
Remember the first time you heard yourself on tape and said "Whose voice is that?!" Multiply by ten, and you get the first look at yourself on TV. That outfit that looked good in the mirror? erinkles are magnified; it looks like you slept in it. That makeup you depend on to look fresh after an eighteen hour day photographs on television as yellow and grey; you look like Frankenstein after a bad night. Worst of all, that weight you've successfully kept off during three months of touring is back on with a vengeance -- you weren't that heavy ten minutes ago! And why didn't anyone warn you they were going to ask your opinion of the local football team? Sheesh, you're not even sure how to pronounce the name of the town, let alone who their tight end is!
Lesson number two: Nothing is as it seems it will be and that holds true for television and life.
This article is intended to be a survival guide through the electronic jungle called "promotional TV". It's being written by someone who needs contact lenses in order to locate her glasses, and therefore has real trouble orienting to a visual medium. It's based on hard-won experience, and hopefully it will help you to avoid some of my mistakes. Because although this medium is draining and difficult to work well, it is the single most powerful advertising tool we currently have, and one of the few free ones left. The only thing doing television costs you is getting there.
Television is a great thing. When Columbia Records released the single of my song "At Seventeen" in 1975, we all knew it didn't stand a chance at Top Forty radio; the song was "too long, too sad, too female". But we were determined to fight that. Part of the promotion plan was to put me on as many local television and radio shows as possible. For me, this meant grueling months of arriving in town after midnight, then rising at five am to face a smiling host at six-thirty and continue my rounds until three pm, when I had to leave for the venue and sound check. The theory was twofold: first, I'd be reaching enormous amounts of women, who watched daytime TV and might respond to the song (remember, this is the 70's). Second, all the local shows in the "secondary markets" (anything not a major metropolis like Chicago or New York) would be grateful for my efforts, and give me good plugs in future.
It worked beautifully; to this day I get people telling me they saw me at 7 am, bought the record, and came to the show. Many towns put me on their evening news as well, which almost always rates the highest local audience numbers. It also took a toll on me; I quickly reached a point where the only way anyone could rouse me was to throw a soaking wet washcloth in my face. But it was worth it; all the people in those small towns and cities felt they'd "discovered me first", and we were somehow all in it together; that formed a very loyal fan base I still count on.
And the record? A top ten single.
So let's begin at the beginning, before you even get to the station. What can you do to prepare? You or (preferably) your representative should be in direct contact with the show well before your appearance, in order to find out everything possible. Do not trust your record company to do this! The person designated needs to find out the format (is it current affairs, lifestyle, news?), the time of day it will air (which will help dictate your choice of song, clothing, and anecdotes. Suicide songs are best left for late afternoon or evening slots; funny goes well anytime, and smut only works at night), whether there'll be a place for you to change, whether there's an iron and ironing board, and if someone experienced with the show will be doing your makeup.
What's the demographic? Why would you want to know the demographic? Remember this advice when you arrive at the studio and face an audience in their mid-60's, all wearing floral print dresses and house slippers, while you're in full punk regalia ready to bash away - the more you know about what you're going to face, the better prepared you'll be! You can go two ways with a television audience; play to the live audience, and not worry about what the folks watching at home think, or play to the folks watching at home, and not worry about what the live audience thinks. In an ideal world, you do both. Mostly, though, you have to pick one or the other.
Figure there are between 50-200 people in a live studio audience. Now, figure there are between five hundred and twenty million people watching. What's the smart choice here?
If the watcher demographic of the show is 15-25 years old, as opposed to the studio audience, gear your material toward the demographic, and ignore the house. The point of this exercise is to make the home audience remember you, purchase your record, and come to the show. Those folks in the bleachers got free tickets and a chance to wave at Aunt Hilda on camera; they're not your real audience.
What surprises lurk beyond? Does every singer use the house band (fraught with danger), participate in extra-curricular activities (I've done everything from reading bedtime stories to throwing pies), bring a funny story to tell? Watch out, because you can create a lot of bad feeling here; if you flatly refuse to do anything but sing, make sure that refusal comes from a third party like your manager. Otherwise, you'll walk onto the set with everyone already thinking you're a troublemaker. Remember, those people control how you will look and sound. Bad lighting, shortened mic stands, accidental mute buttons... a lot can "go wrong" if you've got a bad attitude.
How will this work musically? If you can perform with your own band, or solo, great, but make sure you clear a band with the show. Union rules are sometimes impossible to bypass, and the show may be required to pay your band full union scale. That's a good reason for them to prefer you show up solo.
Quite often, the shows expect you to bring a tape of your backing track - do they want DAT, quarter-inch, CD? Are you supposed to lip-synch, sing live to track, or perform live? Is there a house band that "everyone uses, don't worry, they'll know the songs"? NEVER believe that!! There are only three house bands in the world that will actually write your chart for you and play it well, and two of them are overseas. Imagine striking the first chord and discovering that a) the band's in the wrong key, b) the guitarist switched from acoustic to a Strat with a Marshall stack and levels to match, or c) the drummer forgot there's no second chorus and played right through your tenderest moment. Every one of the above has happened to me after rehearsal went fine.
To be sure, I've also had wonderful moments with house bands, getting to play with people like Branford Marsalis and looking on in awe as they transformed my arrangement into something better than I'd dreamed. Unfortunately, this is not the norm.
Be clear on what you'll need from the station's audio people in terms of equipment, and let them know up front. For instance, I know my solo TV requirements are one boom stand with a tripod base; one vocal microphone, preferably Shure Beta 58; one guitar cable with minimum 6' length; one direct box; one monitor with both vocal and guitar playing back to me. These are very simple requirements that almost every TV studio has on hand. We tell them up front, we fax them a list, we try to connect directly with the audio people and tell them again, and then I just hope for the best. What they don't have, I work around. I'd strongly suggest using a direct box rather than miking the guitar if you're using the instrument only as accompaniment; a DI is much easier to control, and it's harder to misplace than a microphone, stand, and cord.
Will they be providing makeup and hair? Years ago everyone traveled with two sets of makeup - stage and television. That's all changed now; the lighting and tape formats are too different for anyone who's not a professional in the field to juggle. If stylists are going to be provided, make sure you allow enough time to use them. If makeup isn't provided, bring your own and try to convince someone to give you a look at yourself on a monitor in time to fix anything wrong. We'll go into makeup later, but the sad truth is this: No one will remember how you sounded; everyone will remember how you looked. If you learn nothing else from this article, learn that! Television is a visual medium; I can't stress it enough.
(By the way, some men feel it isn't macho to use makeup or hair styling, but it beats looking like a hung-over heroin addict with stringy, unwashed hair.)
What time do they want you there? And when you ask this, ask them what time they want you there, what time you'll be on, and what time they really need you there. A lot of shows are used to performers being real slackers in the timing department; they get us to the studio three hours earlier than necessary just to make sure we show up. Tell them you're not like that. They won't believe you, but it can't hurt.
Make sure they understand that you will need a run-through with audio, or at least a line check (sixty seconds of plugging in and making sure guitar and vocal can be heard through the monitor). If you're singing to tape, insist on a run-through "for everyone's sake". Usually they'll allow the extra ten minutes, if you promise not to take up a lot of time rehearsing. (Yes, people actually go on television not knowing the words to their songs, and have to rehearse them just before airtime -- it drives the staff crazy.)
Ask them what kind of clothing everyone normally wears to do the show. I showed up once for an evening show in Japan wearing a silk stage getup, only to discover all the other participants were in jeans and T-shirts. If you have an outfit that you always wear, fine; otherwise, be forewarned.
And a few quick rules about clothing on television: do not wear white if you can avoid it, since they'll have to gear all the lighting toward compensating for you. If you wear a white shirt, try to make it light beige or light blue instead, or break it up with a tie, a jacket, a scarf.
Also, peoples' eyes will automatically jump to red, or red with white, before any other colors; watch "Myra Breckenridge" sometime and notice that when Raquel Welch had her contract guarantee her the exclusive right to wear all-red, Mae West (an old hand at those tricks) had her wardrobe done in red-and-white, and stole the show.
And for God's sake, wear something you like -- you might be in reruns twenty years from now and have to live with it then!
Speaking of clothing, as my old manager Simon was fond of saying, "If you have no image, show more skin". We are all loathe to think of ourselves as product, but that's what we are, and in order for us to have careers we have to sell the product. Find who you are to yourself, then build up around it. Dylan saw himself as an outlaw, and wore blue jeans and work shirts when restaurants wouldn't seat you without a necktie and jacket. The Beatles wanted commercial success first and foremost; Brian Epstein took them out of leather jackets and made them look cute and wholesome, with constant smiles and matching collarless suits. Locate your niche and try to stay with it. (Remember, it's a visual medium.)
Are you going to talk? Is someone going to let you know the topic? They usually ask you for funny anecdotes; if you have nothing available, make something up. Keep it short, direct, and funny if you can, because even if your songs are serious, people remember funny. You'll look even more interesting if you sing such thoughtful songs and can then "lighten up" on the couch.
Is it taped or is it live? Most American shows go "live to tape", meaning they run through the show as if it were live; in the event of a really big mess, they can redo the segment. If it's true live TV, everyone will be semi-hysterical at air time, and you'd better be prepared for that. The down side of live TV is that it's scary; you suddenly realize that all those people on the other side of the tube are watching you Right Now, and anything stupid you may do is irretrievable. The up side is that it's like one of your regular gigs, and you do that all the time, so why sweat it?
Last but not least, do your packing early. That means you've packed your instrument, spare strings, picks, capos, tuner, cord, and a copy of your record (yes, they may have lost the one you sent). Maybe thrown in some publicity photos you can sign for the staff if they ask.
Of course you've thought ahead, and are carrying two typed copies of the lyric, double-spaced if possible, with every single word typed out. (This means you can't just write "CHORUS" between verses; you have to write the chorus out again each time.) Believe me, it's worth it; the director will use your sheets to write out camera blocking, audio will refer to them for cues, and you'll look like you've done this a million times.
You have clothing and some extra makeup items packed (I always carry lipstick, which doubles as rouge, along with mascara, some light brown shading, brush and hairspray -- even if they're providing makeup and hair, I want the option of "fixing" things on my own). For long days I usually carry a Power Bar or some fruit, just in case there's nothing else to eat. In the summer I'll carry a bottle of water if I'm going to be there a few hours. You might bring a jacket or sweater, since studios are always cold.
Here we are on the Day Of The Show. If it's a major show, they'll send a limousine for you; this is always big fun and it's okay to stare, play with the skylight, ask the driver questions. It is not okay to ask the driver to make stops at food marts or pick up your friends; have anyone going with you meet you at your place, unless it's been cleared beforehand. Otherwise the driver is put in a very awkward position; they have to log the extra stop, they're not allowed to do it, but they don't want to annoy you. Don't do it.
Whether you have a limo or are driving yourself, big shows have parking lots with gatekeepers who'll demand your name; don't be offended if you have to spell it, say it three or four times, show multiple IDs, or wait for someone to call and verify. Security is there to protect you as well; no one wants to clear a studio during taping because of a bomb threat. Have the name of your contact with you and accessible, just in case.
Bigger shows will have a "point person" who may meet you at the gate, someone who makes it their business to look after you. This is not out of kindness; this is because singers are notorious for being undisciplined and late - your point person's job is to keep you on time and in one piece. They'll probably take you to the Green Room (hospitality) first; hopefully there's coffee, water, doughnuts. If not, ask for something to drink; studio air is drier than it feels and mid-show is no time for a tight throat. Introduce yourself to everyone politely; we know you're nervous, but that can easily come across as stuck-up or rude. Better to err on the side of caution.
Someone will take you onto the set eventually. Until then, stay where you were put, or check on whether it's okay to wander. Always let your point person, the floor manager, or someone else in charge know where you'll be! It drives them crazy to have to search for you, and it will only end up eating into your run-through time.
I like to go onto the set as soon as possible, even if the lights and sound aren't functional yet. Actors call it "walking the stage"; I stand where I'll be singing, walk over to the talk area and check the chairs (more on this later). That way I have a "feel" for the room, and when it's time for rehearsal all I have to worry about is sound, lights, camera. Remember that time is a big factor here; you know how television shows always come on when they're supposed to, not a few minutes early or late? That's because they live by the stopwatch. The less of their time you waste, the happier they are with you, the more time left to fix your lights, check your audio, run your camera angles.
Remember also that this is their space, and you're just a guest. It never hurts to be humble and grateful. We could all be pumping gas or waiting tables next year, and today's go-fer may be tomorrow's director, so be cognizant of everyone else's ego along with your own.
At some point you'll go into makeup. Watch it! The walls have ears. Makeup folks have seen it all, they're not impressed, and they can make you look great or awful, depending on their mood. They are not above gossiping, and you will be included in that. Makeup people know where all the bodies are buried; if they like you and want to be helpful, they can guide you through everything from lighting problems to whether the canteen has a decent salad. They do this every day, and they know their own set better than you ever will, so try to use their knowledge instead of alienating them.
The first time I did The Tonight Show I was sixteen years old, Johnny Carson was hosting, and I was really, really excited. Shelley Winters was guesting; I had visions of telling her how much I admired her work, having a nice backstage chat, becoming friends. My naiveté was not to be believed.
There was a loud, raucous noise coming from Makeup when I walked in; it took about five minutes to figure out that the screaming harpy down at the other end of the room was Ms. Winters. I crept into the chair across the room when my time came, and spent half an hour getting my makeup done, during which she barely drew breath. Her "regular" makeup man wasn't available (cause for much cursing), the fill-in was unacceptable ("You dumb #$%@! idiot!"), the wardrobe people weren't fast enough ("Stupid cows"), and on and on. It was quite a shock to me, who'd thought all stars were as they appeared on screen.
During my next appearance on the show the "unacceptable fill-in" told me that Ms. Winters was famed for abusing those around her, and pulling stunts like showing up with four gowns because she couldn't decide which one to wear - coincidentally enough, they all needed alterations. She was just using the wardrobe people to save money on her tailoring! Now, it's always great when a television show has a staff of wardrobe people who will hem, press, even spot clean, but she pushed it by demanding that all four gowns be altered before she could make up her mind.
Do you get the point? If you behave badly, the better makeup people (not to mention directors) will try not to work with you, and artists like me will be talking about your boorish behavior decades later.
I try to start my makeup sojourn by introducing myself, sitting where I'm told, then waiting for someone to ask if I have any preferences. If they begin makeup without asking, I try to tactfully lead into my requests. Hopefully, well before this date you've examined your face and figured out what works for you and what doesn't. For example:
-- Everyone's face is longer on one side than the other, and everyone has a "delicate" side and a "rough" side. The delicate side usually photographs better. You can take Polaroid's of yourself from the left and from the right, then from three-quarter left and right, and determine which you like best. Learn to cheat toward that side on television, forcing the cameras to shoot it rather than the other. For a good example of someone in love with only one side of their face, check out Barbra Streisand in Prince of Tides; as director, she had her choice of angles.
-- Most singers have "singer's chin"; the area of our necks just below the chin tends to be over-developed. This can be de-emphasized with shading and lighting.
-- If your jaw line is too firm, you can apply lighter makeup just underneath it in a half-inch swath and that will soften it. Ditto if it's not firm enough and you want more punch; apply darker makeup underneath and it will jut out more.
Television tends to flatten the face, requiring more shading than you would think, but it can also emphasize color, requiring more subtlety. When makeup people ask me what I want, my standard response is "Big eyes, high cheekbones, lots of shading around the chin. I should warn you that I eat red" (meaning my skin absorbs the color red, so rouge and lipstick have to be touched up frequently), "and I'd like to look pretty natural".
I always follow this with something like "You know your lights better than I do, so I'll follow your advice". Not only is that polite, it's true. But don't be afraid to say "I'd like darker lips, unless your show photographs dark" or "A little more mascara, please". Any good makeup person wants you to look and feel comfortable. The goal here is, again, that those folks at home remember you and buy you!
Don't let someone rush you into going on TV with a face you hate. If things get tense you can always make a joke like "Oh, could you make me (taller/thinner/blue-eyed) while you're at it?" to defuse the situation.
Remember also that if your makeup's been "set" well (meaning a large powder puff with a moderate amount of loose powder pressed into your skin with a rolling motion so it doesn't cake or matte, but continues to look firm), the makeup should last two or three hours without touchup. Don't powder it if it looks shiny, just blot gently with Kleenex or toilet tissue, and refresh the lipstick.
Hair is problematic; we all have Bad Hair Days. A good hair person can fix almost anything, and my suggestion is to then spackle that sucker so it never moves again. It's awful to have makeup, clothing, voice all perfect, and watch the show later only to find that your cowlick went limp, or you've got a big bald spot right in the middle of your scalp.
Okay, you've been in makeup for what seems like a hundred years, and you haven't even gotten to the music yet! Next issue, we'll deal with the rest of your television adventure: The Rehearsal, The Show, and After the Show.
You're finished in Makeup (probably with your point person tapping their foot and pointing at their watch the entire time), and you're ready for rehearsal. You're going onto the set at last. Again, introduce yourself; I usually walk into the room and cheerfully nod to all the camera and lighting people, saying "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Please let me know if there's anything I can do to make your lives easier." These people do not know you, and chances are they've had at least one really rude singer on recently, so try to let them know from square one that you don't bite. If you're comfortable with it, make a point of being on first-name basis; there are a number of stars who insist on being called "Miss Ross" by everyone on the set, while blithely addressing all the working stiffs by their first names. It makes for an uncomfortable work situation at best.
You'll be meeting camera people (who will sometimes let you look through the lens at your set, and it's amazing how different it looks from that perspective), AD's (assistant directors), lighting people, audio people, floor manager (this is like a stage manager, in charge of all confusion), and sometimes the director. I try to do the following:
Have a quick word with the lighting person about what you want, and be as specific as you can; for instance, I look horrible in yellow light, so I ask for soft pinks "if possible". They love backlighting curly hair like mine, but I also ask for the back light to be soft, since otherwise it's easy for that curly hair to look semi-bald.
Ask if they're planning to use any effects. I'm allergic to smoke machines; there are three types, and everyone's always sure they have the only one in the world that won't bother me. I now simply say that I'll have an asthma attack and require hospitalization; I may appear uncooperative, but they stop insisting. I knew an epileptic singer who had to be careful about lighting effects like strobes. If it makes you dizzy when they use a go-bo (those whirling patterns on the floor and walls), warn them.
Ask the audio people (there will usually be a "floor person" doing your microphones and monitors, and a "house person" doing audience and TV mix) where you should stand. Tell them what you're going to need - I always say "I work at rock and roll sound levels, so please give me a ton of voice and guitar in the monitors". You may have to ask them to shorten the echo; floor people seem to like long wispy trails that tend to confuse intonation. Don't bother asking for no limiting or compression; they'll do it anyway, and most of the time that's already set to where audio people have no control over it.
See if it's possible to "preset" you physically; in other words, just before your entrance they'll cut to a commercial, during which someone will place you in position. That way you can quickly check audio, re-set your microphone height if it's been changed, and look beautifully ready come camera time.
If there are going to be set changes, ask that your monitor and mike stand be "spotted" or "spiked" after sound check. That way there'll be small pieces of tape indicating exactly where the monitor and stand should go during your segment. Again, do not believe anyone who says "I know exactly where it goes, I'll remember". They don't, they won't, and you'll end up with the monitor pointed at your toes and the microphone three inches too short.
Some shows have one camera, some have three, some even have five. It's easy to just look straight ahead or into the live audience and sing, ignoring the cameras, but it's more effective if you learn how to "work" them. I'd strongly suggest that anyone doing TV try to spend a little time in the director's booth (you can always say you've never seen one before) watching them select camera angles and shots. It's a real education.
Once you're on the set floor, remember that the camera with the red light on is the one everyone at home is seeing. The floor manager will often wave from one to the next as they're changing cameras; if you keep his/her hands in your peripheral vision, you can orient and play to the correct camera. Lots of times you have to request this; for some reason floor managers think singers are easily confused....
If you look straight into the lens it comes across as looking below the camera (no, I don't understand why), so try to look next to or just above it. Don't do that too often, you'll look like a bad soap opera actor. Gazing directly into camera is very direct, much more so than normal eye-to-eye contact; that intimacy can work for laughter or tears, but it's like a very intimate lyric - it doesn't work for long, sustained periods without a break.
Camera rehearsal and "blocking" (the director deciding which cameras will shoot which lines of your song, where to place them on the floor, etc.) can be very confusing. Directors like movement (remember, this is a visual medium), and most songwriters stand still while singing, so often a director will compensate by zooming all over the place to keep up the visual interest for the audience back home. For this reason, any movement is good, even if it's just toe-tapping, hip-swaying, or head-bobbing. Dwight Yoakam's made a career of toe-tapping; with those long legs of his, just tapping his foot is like watching someone else dance.
Don't be ashamed to put your own music on at home and practice singing to it in front of a mirror, watching yourself from about 15 feet away (a "long shot") and 6 to 8 feet away (a "medium shot"). There's no shame in knowing what works, and being able to use it!
Find out whether they'll be doing more than one run-through, and ignore the first one if they are; just concentrate on getting comfortable. The first run-through is almost always for audio, so no one cares how you look.
Try to smile whenever it's appropriate; goofy as it sounds, smiles come over wonderfully on TV, and they make an audience like you even when they don't care about your music.
Also, "work the crew". This sounds cold and calculated, but it's really just another part of being polite and leaving a good taste in their mouths for when you meet them again. Don't be afraid to joke around, or ask questions about their jobs. Try to remember names for more than half a minute. Last year I did The Tonight Show and ran into four people who'd worked with me when I was sixteen; it didn't hurt that they remembered me fondly.
Don't be afraid to ask for what you need. If you normally stand and they have a stool for you to sit on while you perform, don't hesitate to tell them that you prefer to stand.
I know that my guitar sounds better on TV with the midrange pulled out, and sound people are always grateful for the information. I also know that I'm very short, and if it's a talk show chances are the chairs will be too tall for me to look comfortable. I make sure that I can either sit forward on the edge of my seat for the chat section, or that they provide a pillow for my back so I can look relaxed but still have my feet reach the floor. Otherwise my feet are left dangling in mid-air and I feel (and look) ridiculous. I've even sat cross-legged in yoga position when pillows weren't available and sitting forward wasn't an option.
When they're finished with your rehearsal, ask if it's possible to see "just a few seconds" on the monitor or in the booth. Quite often they're glad to do this, and it's a good way to check everything from makeup and hair to "Gosh, I ought to lower the guitar an inch". Be careful about checking makeup in monitors, though, since they're often not color-corrected; ask a makeup or camera person if you're unsure.
When you think they're done with you, do not leave until dismissed by someone in charge! At that point, find out where you're supposed to be when, and make sure you're there as requested. This is not a good time to check out the neighborhood, do last minute shopping, or otherwise get flakey. Stick close by in case one of the other guests doesn't show and they need you earlier. It happens.
Obviously, live television is a little different from pre-taped TV; for one thing, they get you to the studio anywhere from eight hours to three days before air-time, and most of it then becomes "hurry-up-and-wait" time. Particularly in Europe, they'll usually do three or four audio rehearsals when you're going to be live-on-the-air, then three camera rehearsals, then a full makeup rehearsal and a full dress rehearsal - all before going to air. Tedious as that may sound, just think about the amount of things that could go wrong on a live television show.
In the United States, as in the rest of the world, all the shows used to be broadcast live, even if they were taped for posterity. Those tapes provided material for the original "blooper" shows, where cast members would suddenly start cracking up and be unable to go on with their lines, or babies would refuse to cry/laugh/sleep on cue, or animals would race around the stage after one another rather than behaving according to script. The Ed Sullivan show was, to my knowledge, the last of the big prime-time entertainment/variety shows to go live until Saturday Night Live premiered in the mid-70's. I remember it well because I did their first show, complete with strep throat and a fever of 103 degrees. Live TV is tremendously exciting, particularly when you're doing improvisational comedy, because you really never know what will happen.
Live or taped, you go on and sing your song the best you can. With any luck, you'll also be in a talk segment - that's good, because the more air time you can eat up, the more impact you'll have. We've all heard the phrase "she stole the show"; this had a very literal meaning in vaudeville, when they'd pass the hat for money and the performer who'd made the most impact would get all the tips! You literally stole the living out from under everyone else. In that sense, for many of the old-school performers a show is nothing short of war, and no holds are barred.
There are dozens of ways to steal camera time from another performer, from the obvious (you're a duo, and while your partner is sitting and quietly singing his solo verse you casually rise and walk around the stage with your instrument), to the not-so-obvious (you know it drives him to distraction when you tap along to the music, and you make sure to do it during his solo spots). Most of them are pretty dirty tricks, and bad etiquette to boot, but you should be aware of them. For instance:
I was sixteen and appearing on a major talk show with legendary performer and scene-stealer Gypsy Rose Lee. She was already seated when I sang, and as I walked over to the chat area she stood and gave me an enormous hug (completely blocking my body from the camera shot), then told me for a good 30 seconds how much she'd enjoyed me (still blocking my body from the audience, while twisting hers sideways so her face could be seen). She took over the moderator's job and began asking about my family -- were they proud, did I have brothers or sisters, how about grandparents? I cheerfully answered everything, delighted at her interest, and then watched her pull an album of pictures of her grandchildren out of her handbag.
I politely looked through them with her for the next segment while she rattled on, then I exited at the commercial. My manager said "Well, she did a great job stealing the segment!" as I protested that Gypsy Rose had merely been trying to make me comfortable. I lost my naiveté that night, watching the show from my motel room.
She-Who-Is-Talking is always going to be She-Who-Is-On-Camera; my "Uh-huhs" and "Oh, how lovelies" were relegated to background noise, as I watched Gypsy Rose Lee eat up not only her five minute segment, but mine as well.
Now, older and wiser, I'd have maneuvered myself to the side when she first greeted me, immediately launched into some sort of anecdote, and effectively cut her out of the picture -- and she'd have enjoyed the fight!
Mind you, I've also learned a tremendous amount from other artists about doing television, particularly from artists who learned in the heydays of vaudeville and of the Hollywood studio system. Nanette Fabray explained to me once during a Tonight Show interval that the studio had trained her in everything from how to glide across a dance floor to getting up from a couch without looking awkward. Try that sometime while looking in a mirror -- we normally bend far forward, shove from the rear, and come to a teetering stand, all of which looks awful on camera! Ms. Fabray taught me to press my feet flat to the floor at right angles to my thighs, sit straight up, rise slowly and come to a graceful vertical stop.
Watch actors on talk shows who have been around a while, and notice how they manage to look relaxed and elegant every moment, while still looking natural. And remember that whether it's changing chords or telling anecdotes, the only time things look effortless is when they're over-rehearsed.
The moderator probably hasn't had time to listen to your record; if you're lucky, there's a good staff researcher who's turned in a capsule biography of you (five or six lines) and pulled together some intelligent questions. It is not at all unusual to sit down during the chat section and have the host say "So... how's it going? Mmm-hmm. Well, tell us about the album/show/tour." Try to make the host look good; don't say things like "God, what a dumb question". People get irritated when local heroes look like fools, and unfair as it may seem, you're the one they'll blame for it.
First, Do Not Confuse the Audience. That's a Golden Rule in all entertainment and art, whether it's songwriting or theater. Even Picasso didn't confuse; he irritated, angered, saddened, but he didn't confuse.
Second, avoid dead air (silence), because that's when people use the channel-clicker to turn you off.
Third, when in doubt, do as politicians do: lead off with "Well, I'd just like to say three things about that". It's always impressive, it makes you look prepared, and surely you can come up with two off-the-cuff comments! By the time you get around to the third, everyone's forgotten the first two and you can either repeat one of those, or say something totally unrelated that you needed to get in there. For instance:
Host: What do you think about the upcoming elections?
You: You know, I'd just like to say three things about that. First of all, it's really important for everyone to get out there and vote. Concerned citizens make for a strong country. Second, I've done a little touring overseas in places where not everyone can vote and let me tell you, it's a privilege, not a right, so don't take it for granted. Third, well gosh, you know my overseas tour was really just a rehearsal for the U.S. tour I'm doing right now -- in fact, I'll be at the Blah Blah Coffeehouse tonight, if you'd like to come.
There you go. Not a lot of finesse, but you managed to say the same thing twice without anyone noticing, avoided insulting any local politicians (or audience members), plugged your show including date and place, graciously invited the host (so the audience thinks there might be a chance to meet him or her at the show, added incentive to go), and casually mentioned that you've been touring overseas (which lay people assume means you're pretty famous and they just haven't heard of you yet). Pretty good for a 30 second sound bite!
Last but again not least, try to get the host to hold up a copy of your album (and make sure the shrink-wrap is off and it's tilted so the lights show the cover, not a blur of plastic). If it's a home-grown CD you're only selling at your shows, it still looks impressive to an audience that's grown up firmly believing only stars get to make records. And it's one more visual thing to remind them of you.
Your segment's over, you've been told by the floor manager or producer that it's okay to leave the building. Check all your equipment, make sure you haven't left any clothing in the bathroom or dressing room. If you've had a reasonably good time, it doesn't hurt to ask for a mailing address for the show and get business cards or the names of the producer, director, and anyone else who was helpful. Remember that it's usually the booker or producer who put you on the show; moderators normally have veto and request power ("I want her; I won't work with him"), but they don't get overly involved. A single postcard or short note thanking someone will come back years later - when you're trying to get on a show one of them is booking, or when you arrive at a new show and meet an old friend with your little note still tacked up above their desk. It is amazing how little it takes to make people feel appreciated!
To be truthful, I don't particularly enjoy this part of my work; it's very time-consuming (especially when you do a long promotional tour and end up with fifty notes to write on your one day off), and it's hard to keep honest with your comments when the whole thing has become one big blur, but it's really worth it. I recently toured Australia after many years away, and industry people were amazed at how many major television news and current affairs shows featured me in their interview slots, even though I didn't have a hit record going. Well, many of the bookers, moderators, producers and directors were people I'd worked with in different capacities during my last tour of Australia fourteen years before. They remembered that I "gave good interview" and was easy to work with, and their rise to power in the intervening years only helped me this time around.
I am not suggesting that you send out typewritten letters with different names and the same message in each; that looks cheap and will make people angry. Don't think these people won't compare notes if they get something from you! It's a very small business.
Nor am I suggesting you suck up to people just to get a gig next time. Don't do this unless you really did enjoy the show and/or the person you're writing to; they'll smell the lie a mile away.
Try to stop and thank the makeup and hair people when you leave; hardly anyone does this, and they always appreciate it. If you've been sent flowers by the station or your record company, and you're not going to take them, you might give them to the receptionist -- they don't get many perks, and it'll brighten their day.
Make sure you've signed off on any union forms necessary, as well as song clearance (someone should have come around to get those and your publishing information). Remember that even though you may not have been paid for appearing on the show, you still get paid through the performing rights societies when your song is performed, and that includes when you sing it.
If they're sending you home in a limousine and the driver does something special (giving you a half-hour tour of the Hollywood hills would fall in this category, or running out during the show to get you food and forgotten makeup items), it's hip to tip. Don't let a driver embarrass you into tipping, though! This disgusting practice has been happening a lot in Los Angeles lately; sometimes they'll even complain about how badly the show pays. I think it's bad practice to pay someone extra for doing their job and then whining about it, and I'd discourage you from falling for it.
If the show was live and you got someone to tape it for you, great! If it's on later and you can tape it yourself, do so, and save the tape. Sometimes the show will provide you with a clip of your segment, often without a fee, but be careful to check up front; some of them want as much as $10,000 (yes, ten thousand dollars) for a clip! You can't use the tape for business of any kind without permission, and that includes playing it at record stores and gigs. You can use the tapes for your own education.
Don't be discouraged if you look awkward and sound stupid; you'll be a harsher critic than anyone else will be. There is nothing "natural" about appearing on television; everyone looks foolish the first couple of times.
Learn from all your mistakes, and eventually you'll do an entire show that you'll not only enjoy doing, but will enjoy watching later. Your record company, management, agency will all take note of your improvement, and it can only get better from there. Nothing is ever as bad as that very first show, so take it like you eventually take everything else in our business -- with a shrug, and a grin, and a big grain of salt.
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