How not to fail

bailey elgarHow I ended my last post, about a terrible CD cover from Telarc, on a recording of Zuill Bailey playing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony:

To erase the big fail here, Telarc, Bailey, and the Indianapolis Symphony should take one of my branding workshops. Seriously! I don’t say that just to toot my horn, but because the kind of exercise we do in these workshops would really have helped. I’ll explain that in my next post.

So now it’s the next post, and here’s what I mean. In my branding workshops, we try to connect how we feel and what we think about what we do to what we want others to think and feel about it. So if I had the privilege of working with anyone responsible for this CD, that’s how I’d  have started. What do you feel about this recording? What do you love about it? What would you want others to think about it? If there’s one thing — one sentence — that you could communicate to anyone who might remotely be interested in the record, what would it be?

And similar questions. There’s no one way — and certainly no one right way — to put all this. But the conversation, however the questions are phrased, just about always gets people talking from their hearts. If I could do this work with Telarc, Bailey, and the orchestra, we’d surely come up with quite a few statements from the heart, quite a few things about the CD that very likely would make it seem like a highly individual thing, a very personal musical expression, which I hope it is.

The next step, in the workshops, is for participants to look at the material they already have. Typically, we’re dealing with websites. So someone will have spoken from the heart about what they’re about, and what they’d like to communicate. We then — as a group — look at the website. Or whatever other material the person has offered us. Does the website (or whatever) express what’s just been said?

Almost always the answer is no. Which I assume is what would happen if I were working with this CD project. Would the cover they used express what they thought and felt about the musical work they’d done. Surely not.

So then would come the next step, in which we’d look for words and images that really would communicate what the people involved had in their minds and hearts. Of course, they would have found a lot of words already, so what we’d want to do would be to refine those words, to come up with short sentences or phrases that begin to touch the heart of what we’d want to communicate.

The images could come from anywhere — photos, the Internet, quick drawings, whatever. We’d just want to take a few steps forward, to get into the ballpark of what the visual expression of our thoughts and feelings might be.

Workshop participants mostly do wonderfully with this. They really start getting at the heart of who they are, and of what they’re trying to do. Group discussion helps. If someone, for example, describes herself (this happened) in terms that don’t rule out sensuality and drama, but comes up with images that mostly are discreetly feminine, I might point out the contrast, and say which of the feminine images most suggests to be the possibility of drama and sensuality.

With a professional recording project, most likely I’d work differently. There would be professional designers involved, so they might come up with images, rough mockups of what a cover design might look like. Though when my wife and I built our house in Warwick, NY, we found it helpful to prime out architect with photos of houses we found on the web and in magazines. The idea wasn’t to tell him exactly how our house should look — we trusted that he’d come up with better ideas than we ever could — but to show him things we liked. That, he said, helped him quite a bit, moving him in directions he hadn’t thought to take.

So the same might happen with recording art. A designer might be inspired by images her clients bring her. And in my branding workshop — if I were lucky enough to work with these people — that might be a step we’d take.

I’m saying all this, again, not just to toot my horn. But I think the people involved with this recording never went through a process anything like this. They never stopped to think what important things about the recording the cover should communicate. Instead, they just designed a CD cover. By the book, more or less. Cellist, check. Conductor, check. OK, let’s gray out the orchestra, to focus on the key people here. Never asking whether the image they came up with said anything about this record in particular, about the music, about what this performance does with the music.

Which is one of many reasons why the cover is so bad.

One more thing I might have done: Ask them, if only as an experiment, to take away the words Elgar Cello Concerto. Why? you might ask. Isn’t that the piece they’re recording? Well, of course it is, but the words don’t tell us anything but that. They don’t say anything compelling about the piece or the recording, or the people involved. I’ve asked two of my workshop clients to try this experiment, removing in one case the word “mezzo-soprano,” and in the other the word “composer.” These labels can restrict people more than they describe them. So what would be less restrictive? What would tell us what kind of mezzo-soprano, what kind of composer these people are?

Maybe the recording should have another title. Something that said something more compelling than just, “Oh, look, another recording of the Elgar.”

I’m ready to teach another branding workshop. If you’d be interested, contact me. I still charge just $200 for three 90-minute sessions, for a group of four or more.

And if Telarc or Zuill Bailey or the Indianapolis Symphony want to hire me to help them with their next project, I’d be happy to talk to them.

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  1. Marc says

    Clearly, you have become the single biggest self righteous shill in the business. Whoring yourself out like you know what you’re talkign about with regard to branding is akin to a modern day snake oil salesman. If you knew what the hell you were talking about, you’re compositions would ahve actually sold but guess what, they don’t And neither have your string of failed artisitc planning and consulting efforts. you’re a failure and a plague and it is time someone called you out for what you are: a miserable and bitter failure.

    Anyone foolish enough to pay for one of your seminars deserves your advice.

    • says

      Hi, Marc,

      I’d love to know who you are. Not your name, or other personal details, but what you’ve done in classical music, and what your ideas are for what people in our field should do. I’m not saying this to challenge you or fight with you. I’d just rather put this in a positive key. Since you’re so passionate in what you say here, you must have ideas that others (including me) might get something from. Feel free to share them! I’ll welcome anything you’d like to say.