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July, 2008

"Writing For the Future"

by Webmaster

"When I was working at MTV during its first few formative years, I remember attending a focus group in which a 15-year-old was asked about videos as compared to songs on the radio. His reply was, 'A song only becomes real to me when I see it.'" — Steve Schnur, "No Shame in this Game," American Songwriter, July / August 2008

Oh, I'm showing my age. I've seen music videos. I've fallen in love with songs while watching movie videos. But ... (you knew that was coming, didn't you?)

... I'm a songwriter. And I believe strongly that a good song should be able to stand on its own, without needing an introduction to explain it or video to illustrate it. I paint pictures with words. Even though I am a visually-oriented person, I still believe that a song should be heard and should be written well enough to convey pictures with words.

I also believe in the power of the imagination. Once you film a song, and watch the video, you take something away from the listener. You give the listener-viewer a picture, and take away the freedom to picture it in the viewer's mind.

The listener brings a range of experiences and emotional reactions to any story. The more detailed the process of conveying that story to a listener, the process of turning a listener into a watcher, the less the listener can put his own experiences into the song.

I want people who listen to my songs to put themselves into my song. I want to engage the listener and I'm fascinated when I hear people put meaning into my songs that I didn't intend. It's still a valid interpretation, and I think I've done my job by allowing my listeners the freedom to do that.

For songwriters who want to be sure that there is no mistaking the meaning in a song, a video is probably the way to go.

Reflection tells me that this is probably not a new observation. I'm sure when books were first printed and replaced storytelling, there were those who worried about the loss of freedom in the listener-turned-reader. The same thing must have happenened in the transition from radio to television, and from books to movies.

But, I was raised with books, TV and movies. I'm comfortable with them.

I wasn't raised with music videos. I saw my first music video while sitting in a bar having lunch, almost 20 years ago. It was the Indigo Girls singing "Closer to Fine." I fell in love with the song and bought the LP.

I've watched music videos from time to time since then, and I'm distracted by them for various reasons: arbitrary scene changes that have nothing to do with the story in the song but cater to people with short-attention spans, mis-cast performers who don't fit my internal picture of a character, scenes that don't seem to match the story but have been put in to make the video more commercial. Obviously, I'm not part of the target market for music videos.

Just as I'm comfortable watching live performers, I'm more comfortable with videos that show the performer or band performing the song live. I like to see the emotion on the singer's face and hear the emotion in the singer's voice. I like to watch the musicians play. I like to steal licks from the bass player.

And, I'm comfortable with the well-chosen song illustrating and enhancing a TV show or movie. I think the show "Without a Trace" stands out in that regard, using songs that were not written for the show to enhance the emotional feel at the end of the show. The key here is that the music enhances the visual conveyance of the story, and both the song and the show can stand alone.

Music videos are here to stay. I can be an old curmudgeon and watch them or not, depending on the video, the song and my mood. Sometimes I might even need the visual stimulation to keep my attention focused on the song. It's my choice.

I feel sorry for the 15-year-old who has to see a video before the song is "real" to him. He doesn't have that choice. He seems to have lost the power to let words and music paint pictures in his mind.

"There are generations raised on video games as a major entertainment source in their lives. These are generations who will be raised on discovering music through these games. For these generations, the song may only become real to them when they 'play it.'" — Steve Schnur, "No Shame in this Game," American Songwriter, July / August 2008

That totally boggles my mind. What a way to put a song into muscle memory—not by playing it on an instrument but by playing in a video game.

Smells strongly evoke memories and the emotions connected with those memories. So do songs. Remember where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, when you heard a favorite song for the first time? "Runaway" by Del Shannon still takes me back to one night washing dishes after dinner in the yellow and green kitchen in the house where I grew up. For video gamers, the memories that are invoked will be the game they were playing at the time they first heard the song.

Since I don't play video games, I can't imagine writing a song for a video game.

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