The Art of Not Creating

The best crab cakes I’ve ever had were prepared by one of the chef instructors from the Culinary Institute of America. Made, I think, to prove a point, the recipe called for equal parts crab meat, saltines and mayonnaise. That was it. And they were spectacular. Never had a better one since then, regardless of the genius level of the chef.

The greatest jazz musicians all agree on one thing: What separates the giants from the wannabes are the notes you don’t play.

Baseball players who really understand the game will tell you that sometimes, the pitches you don’t swing at are the ones that win championships.

As creators, the temptation is always there to show off your skill set and dazzle the crowd with your abilities. And there are plenty of times where that’s warranted. After all, who got through their teens and twenties without looking forward to the part of the concert when the rest of the band walked off stage and left the drummer there for an eleven-minute solo? Some baseball fans love the Home Run Derby. Puzzlingly, there are people who tell you that they love their chicken wings so spicy that the roof of their mouth blisters. They don’t seem to care that you can’t taste the chicken, bring on the pain.

I remember this cover band I had back in the 90s – I was doing the morning show at a rock station, and I was the lead singer for a band that would open the big-venue concerts the station presented. I assembled this insane group of session musicians, and the first song of every show was “Foreplay / Long Time” by Boston. If you know the song, you know that you don’t even try to play it unless you can nail it. And these guys did, note for note. It was a deliberate move on my part to let the crowd know, right off the bat, that they weren’t going to see a bunch of randos just goofing around.

But just because you can do a thing doesn’t always mean you should.

Staying with music for a second, here’s what might be a controversial opinion: To me, the definitive version of the song “I Will Always Love You” was sung by the person who wrote it – Dolly Parton. There have been other versions that were even bigger hits. One I can think of in particular seems to me to just be a chance for the singer to show off. There’s almost no attempt to convey the heartbreak that Dolly’s version does, the bigger hit version is just about “how loud can you belt it out”, or “how impressive is your range”, or “how many runs can you do”. And you go from a touching tear-jerker of a song about love and sacrifice to yet another four-minute demo piece meant to blow you away with the skill of the singer.

For another example of that, just watch any episode of America’s Got Talent or American Idol and you’ll see that Dolly Parton wouldn’t have done well on those shows, because the screaming, often misplaced high notes and dreadful, pointless multi-note runs are the only things that get the crowd’s attention.

When everyone else was losing their minds over the George Michael cover of Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, I was thinking about how cringe-inducing it was when George threw in the word “BABY” at the end after his final “I’d just allow a fragment of your life to wander free.” The word “baby” has no place in that song. But George was overcome by the need to fill the space with something, so there it was. Ruins the whole song for me.

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said something that became a mantra, especially in the entrepreneur community, when he told an interviewer “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” In sports parlance, that means if you want to score a goal, at some point you have to shoot the puck. For a baseball player, you don’t hit a home run unless you swing the bat. Works outside of sports, too. You could say to a comedian, “You don’t get the laugh unless you tell the joke.”

With all due respect and deference to Number 99, I’d say Wayne Gretzky was wrong.

Even Gretzky will tell you that sometimes in hockey, the smartest thing you can do is pass the puck to somebody else, and let them shoot it. In baseball, sometimes taking the base on balls works better for the needs of the team than having you swing for the fences.

If the person that’s designing your outdoor advertising doesn’t have a healthy reverence for the use of white space, fire them and get someone who knows what they’re doing.

Sometimes, minimalism is what works best.

Think about one of the most legendary print ads of all time, this 1959 gem for Volkswagen:

Holy white space, Batman.

Someone who didn’t really understand advertising or design could look at that ad and think of how much more copy could have been put in all that empty space.

Yup. Then it could have had the distinction of having no real distinction at all, because it would look like every other ad that was jammed full of too much selling and not enough art. Like radio advertisers who insist on trying to cram 35 seconds worth of copy into a 30-second commercial. Like singers who make sure that every song has so many vocal runs and belted out choruses that seven of their biggest hits sound exactly the same.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy said, “Any fool can write a bad advertisement, but it takes a genius to keep his hands off a good one.”

The urge to edit, to tweak, to “improve” something, can end up ruining it. Like crab cakes that have seventeen different spices in them.

Among my all-time favorite podcasts is Tom Webster‘s I Hear Things. Not just because Tom is a genius, we both married up, and we both appear to have virtually identical senses of humor. One of the things I love – and Tom reiterated this in a tweet to me the other day – is that Tom doesn’t edit. Like this show, I Hear Things is what Evo Terra refers to in his show as “written to be read” but, like me and like Evo, Tom writes in his speaking voice. So when it comes time to record the newsletter article that serves as his script, the words Tom would naturally say are right there in front of him. So his editing is all done in advance of the recording, instead of afterward.

But it goes even further than that – Tom has pointed out in his show things that others would likely edit out, and says things like, “No, we’re gonna leave that in.”

Why? Because real people stumble. Real people say “umm”. Real people take deep breaths sometimes that help convey the emotion of something they’re about to say.

It was about 25 years ago now when radio producers had a brief flirtation with the idea of editing everything out of a radio commercial that didn’t belong there. That included every mouth click, breath sound and sometimes even shortening the spaces between words and sentences. In part this was necessitated by clients and copywriters who were trying to jam nine ounces of sardines into an eight-ounce can, but it became “the hot thing”… like jump cuts in a YouTube video. Ask anyone who’s an actual filmmaker or TV director, and they’ll roll their eyes at the whole jump cuts thing. Thankfully, radio producers started getting away from the over-editing practice once sensible people started pointing out how distractingly unnatural it sounded. I can only hope the YouTubers learn a similar lesson sometime soon about jump cuts.

If I can tell you’ve edited something out, then it’s a bad edit. Simple as that. Same way that sports fans will tell you that if after the game, people are talking about the umpires and the referees, then the referees failed.

This week I was reminded by Claude Coll, host of the How Good It Is podcast, that in the classic rock anthem “Sweet Home Alabama”, the first words out of the singer’s mouth are “Turn it up.” That’s accidental. It’s Ronnie Van Zant asking the producer to give him more volume in his headset. And before you think that’s a throwback to the olden days of music production, remember that the first words in the 2007 monster hit, “Bubbly” by Colbie Calliat are, “Will you count me in?” Again – that’s asking the engineer on the other side of the glass to cue her when it was time to start singing.

95% of the people I’ve seen who describe themselves as audio producers would chop those parts out. But sometimes, the art is in what you don’t do.

I’ll wrap this thought with a story of one of my favorite moments from a 40-year career in broadcasting. It’s the early 2000s, and I’m working with a gifted team of personalities at WWYZ in Hartford, Connecticut. We’re doing what at the time was called a “Country Cares Radiothon”, where we donated 40 hours of airtime to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for a live fundraiser. Now I was the new guy at the station, and the team around me were used to dealing with the ebb and flow that was the emotional rollercoaster of talking for 40 hours about pediatric cancer. I wasn’t. And there was a moment, about six hours before the scheduled end, where the emotion got the better of me and, in the middle of talking about my own child and the horrors of imagining a cancer diagnosis, I just started weeping. Live. On the air.

Now let me paint the scene for you so you get an idea of how this worked: We had a stage set up in the Center Court area of a mall. Beside the stage where the DJs were doing the shows along with doctors, celebrities and the families of patients past and present, there was a second stage that looked kind of like every phone bank you’ve ever seen on any TV telethon: About 15 or 20 volunteers taking calls from people pledging money.

So there we are, breaking every record the station had ever set for this particular fundraiser, with a crowd of hundreds in the mall gathered around watching us. And every single one of the station’s DJs was there, each one holding a wireless microphone, and every single microphone was on. And there I am, crying so hard that I’m struggling to breathe, let alone find the words I wanted to say next. But other than the sound of me crying, you know what you heard? Nothing. My on-air brothers and sisters from Country 92.5 just left me hangin’. And it was perfect. Because the only thing you heard was the crying. And then more crying. They ALL had microphones. All the mics were hot. Any one of them could have jumped in to fill the silence by giving the phone number, talking about how important it is to help the kids, or a million other things. But they were geniuses. Every single one of them. Because they stood there and let me cry. So you heard still more crying. And even more crying. And then… in the background… there was another sound. A phone was ringing. Then another. And then another. Then a few more. Soon, the sound of the volunteers talking to people who heard me crying and ran to their phones to pledge money became the dominant sound of the moment as every… single… phone lit up.

Someone less obsessed with having everything polished and pretty would have jumped in a lot sooner. And completely ruined a moment that, for all we know, might have helped save a kid’s life.

I assume you’re not making life-or-death decisions with your editing on a day-to-day basis. At least, I hope you’re not. But before you hand the editing duties over to your favorite AI and tell it to take a chainsaw to your audio, ask the AI how it feels about jazz, or if it has a good recipe for crab cakes.

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