R.A.P. Interview: Nick Sommers

Nick Sommers, Creative Director, TourDesign, Inc., Indianapolis, IN

nick-sommers-apr93by Jerry Vigil

Back in October of 1991 we interviewed Bill Young of Bill Young Productions, a company most of us are familiar with because we've dubbed their concert spots at one time or another. This month, we check out the other major production house in the U.S. that exists solely to produce concert spots, TourDesign. If a concert spot comes across your desk to be dubbed, chances are it comes from one of these companies. Join us as we visit with TourDesign Creative Director Nick Sommers, a former disk jockey and Production Director who left radio several years ago to join the TourDesign team. Nick gives us some insight into the high volume business of producing concert spots for a living and reminds us that there is life after radio, though it might not be any easier.

R.A.P.: You had quite a lengthy radio career. How did it begin, where did it take you, and how did you find your way into TourDesign?
Nick: It all started when I was a kid in school. I just fell in love with the radio. Radio was always magic to me, and I always wanted to be on the radio. This was quite a few years ago back when AM radio was big. When I got into junior high school, I immediately signed up for an electronics class. Eventually, I got hold of a few turntables, an old mixer, and an old microphone and put together a little radio station in the bedroom. I must have been twelve or thirteen years old. I had a little FM wireless microphone that I converted into my transmitter. So, I had a little radio station in the neighborhood, and all my friends listened.

This was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the family decided to move up to northern Florida when I was about fifteen years old. We moved to a little town called Ocala, and I went to work at the age of sixteen. I BS'd my way into my first job. I told them I had done a little radio work down in South Florida. With south Florida being Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, they were, of course, impressed and hired me. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I got the seven to midnight shift on WTMC in Ocala, Florida, and I remember my first night on the air there. I about shit my pants. The first time I opened the microphone, I think I stuttered about seventeen different times in a four-word sentence, and that's how it all started.

About a year later, I think I ran up a long distance phone bill or something, and they let me go. Jacksonville, Florida was probably about an hour away from Ocala, and there was a new radio station going on the air there, a new FM. That's when FM was really starting to come on, in early '74 or late '73. I got a part-time job at WIVY-FM in Jacksonville. I would go to school during the week in Ocala -- I was still in high school - and would commute back and forth on the weekends to Jacksonville for this weekend shift. It was the thrill of my life. One night, about three weeks into this job, I heard a knock on the door at about two in the morning. There were four guys at the door, and they were feeling no pain. They had just done the bars. They introduced themselves as "a few guys from across the street," and across the street was our competition. The radio station was the famous WAPE, and the four guys who happened to knock on the door that night were King Kong Kirby, the great Tom Murphy, a guy by the name of Don Gatlin, and I don't remember who the other guy was. I was impressed by that radio station, so I let 'em in. We hung out and talked. They came down to bust my balls, and we ended up liking each other so much that I went to work for the Ape the next weekend. I think I ended up doing just about every shift on the Ape part-time for awhile and then eventually moved into an overnight shift.

I learned a lot at WAPE and stayed there for a year and a half doing some part time work. Then I got a call from a guy in Miami by the name of Jerry Clifton at WMYQ. I grew up down there, so I was real familiar with WMYQ and, of course, I took the job. I stayed there for about a year.

Then I came up here to Indianapolis for a brief stay with one of those guys that knocked on the door that night, King Kong Kirby, who got a programming job at WIFE. I went to help program the station, and I think I did the mid-day show. I'm not sure exactly what shift I did there; it was so brief. It was only for about three or four months. He ended up having a falling out with the GM, and, being the faithful friend I was, I went ahead and gave my resignation, too. He moved back to Denver where he had come from. So, I decided to load up the car after a three month stay here and head out to Denver, too. About six months earlier I had gotten friendly with a guy by the name of C. C. McCartney, who was with KTLK in Denver. That's where I took a job.

I stayed at KTLK for a year or two. Then I put KOAQ on the air along with a guy by the name of Jack Reagan. We took it from automated to live FM. We were very successful there. We had some of the best numbers the station ever saw, even to this day. I had a good three year run there at KOAQ in Denver. In 1981, I left Denver. They went through a programming change and let a few of the guys go. So, I went back to live with my folks in Orlando and did a little part-time work down there. This went on for probably about six months, doing a little work in some clubs spinning records while I looked for a job. After about six months, I finally nailed a job in Phoenix at KZZP and went there in '82. I stayed at KZZP for about three years and did the midday show. I also did part of the morning show. Then I left and went across the street to the AOR, KDKB, which is one of the worst experiences in my life. They were going to take a heritage AOR station and try to turn it into a CHR. Before the switch, it was one of the few radio stations where, when you would take the station van out, people would go "yeah, alright!" After the switch, we'd take the KDKB van out on the street, and people would actually throw shit at us. It was just a terrible experience, and I just couldn't handle it any more. We parted ways after about a year.

Then I went down to Tucson to KZZP's sister station, KRQQ and spent about two and a half years there. I went from Phoenix to Tucson for about half the money and went down there with the intention of leaving right away when that big job that paid the right money came up. I ended up falling in love with Tucson. It's one of the places still special to me. I ended up staying for three years and finally got to a point where I decided I had to do something to make a little more than twenty grand a year, so I got a production job.

Let me just stop for a minute here and tell you that during my time at KRQQ, I was really finding myself being very bored with being a disk jockey. As much love as I had for radio, I just figured that being a disk jockey was not the way for me to get ahead in this business. I wasn't one of the gifted few that could do the morning shows and pull down the big six figures. I realized that I would have to do something else in this business because I sure didn't know how to put a roof on a house. So I started to concentrate on doing production. I'd always had an interest in it and always had a good time in the production room, but I really started to take it very seriously when I was in Tucson. I started doing sweepers and liners for a few stations, even back then, and I even did some concert spots. As a matter of fact, when I was in Tucson, TourDesign approached me to come to work for them, and I turned it down to take this production gig. I had interviewed for a job in Houston at KKBQ. I wanted to stay in radio, and this would have been my first Production Director's job. I worked at KKBQ for about eight months when the station went through some changes. They hired a new Program Director, and he and I just didn't get along from the beginning. We parted ways, and I decided to take the TourDesign job. This was in the summer of '87.

R.A.P.: So the position at TourDesign was still open?
Nick: The position was never filled. They had somebody in there that they weren't real happy with. He had been there for about five years, and they had actually been searching for a replacement for a few years. I guess they never found anybody. Anyway, I called John up and said, "Hey, let's talk." In the interim, I went back down to Florida to stay with my folks for a little while. When I accepted the job, I was out on Biscayne Bay in a Cigarette boat on a cellular phone talking to this guy in Indianapolis going, "Hmmm, do I really want to come up to Indianapolis?" It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.

R.A.P.: You had eight months as a Production Director. How did you like the position?
Nick: I really liked it. I liked the idea of just doing production as opposed to just being on the air and doing the disk jockey thing. I learned a lot, and I worked with a lot of good people for the short time I was there. I learned how to really get down on an 8-track.

R.A.P.: While in Houston, did you develop your concert spot production by doing freelance work?
Nick: No, I was not doing any concert spots. However, I was doing a lot of IDs for radio stations.

R.A.P.: Does TourDesign only produce concert spots?
Nick: TourDesign does nothing but spots for concerts and motor events.

R.A.P.: What do you think TourDesign saw in you that made them bring you on board?
Nick: Well, I had sent them a demo that had a lot of station promos on it that had to do with concerts coming to town, ticket giveaways and things like that. I guess they heard between the lines and thought I might be good at putting concert spots together. I never thought I'd ever end up doing concert spots for a living, but they saw something that they thought could work out. It's worked out wonderfully.

R.A.P.: How long has TourDesign been around?
Nick: TourDesign has been around for about ten years, and I've been there for a little over half of that.

R.A.P.: What's your position with the company?
Nick: I'm Creative Director, and I have stock in the company now. I've got an equity deal.

R.A.P.: How many studios are there at TourDesign?
Nick: We have four studios. As a matter of fact, we just had our Pro Tools system installed. We've got the 8-track Pro Tools system to do all our music beds with. That was just installed yesterday and today, and there's going to be about a week of training for everyone involved. We are going to adapt the other three remaining studios to the Pro Tools system eventually in the next year or so. We'll probably buy a total of four systems.

We're 8-track now in all four rooms. We actually started out with one studio five years ago, and business has gotten so good that we've added studios and hired other people to do voice work. We just hired a kid from Decatur, Alabama who is very talented, and we hope to bring him along and get him up to speed very soon. We've also just hired John Chapman. John is with Rock 99 down in Birmingham. John had been with us a few years back before he got back into radio, and he also worked for our competition, Bill Young, for a few years. So, he's very good at putting concert spots together. In a month or so, we'll have a total of three people voicing and producing spots.

R.A.P.: Are there other voices you hire on a freelance basis?
Nick: Yes, but it's usually when we have a need for a female voice.

R.A.P.: You said you'll soon have three producers, and you've got four rooms. Sounds like you have a spare room.
Nick: We have three voice studios and a fourth room which is used for assembly and music beds only. We have three analog 8-track studios and one digital 8-track studio. We currently have three rooms that voice work is being done out of, and we have a fourth room that all of the post-production, the music beds and things like that, are produced in. To do a concert spot or a motor event spot, you first have to have a music bed. The music beds are produced in one room and then handed off to the voice talents that are going to produce those particular spots.

R.A.P.: How is the commercial copy handled? Who's writing the copy?
Nick: Well, we don't really stick to any type of copy procedures. It's basically gut instinct. We get a lot of direction from managers, agents, and band members themselves. They have a pretty good idea of what they want in the way of music cuts, the name of the tour, and things along those lines. Then it's really up to your own imagination to come up with the best way to sell a ticket for whomever you're making the spot for. I guess the copy is actually written as you're putting the spot together. It seems to be the best way to do it.

R.A.P.: Give us a tip on putting together beds for concert spots.
Nick: You strive for a music bed that, from start to finish, flows as nicely as a song. And that thirty or sixty second music bed could have anywhere from eight to fifteen cuts of music in it. I think flow is really important.

R.A.P.: What processing, if any, do you guys put on the music bed?
Nick: We don't process the bed at all. Everything is flat with the bed. We don't process anything other than the mixdown when we add some limiting to the overall mix. We might add some reverb on the voice tracks, and, depending on what type of a spot we're doing, we may use some out-board equipment like the SPX-900 or an H3000 for an effect. But, other than that, it's just a good, clean chain.

R.A.P.: What equipment are you using for limiting on the mix?
Nick: We use an Aphex Compellor. It's a very quiet, very silent limiter.

R.A.P.: What equipment is in the microphone chain?
Nick: Each voice talent has a different microphone chain that they like, and that's a very personal thing. I have a specific microphone that I use. I have a specific limiter that I use, and I have a specific microphone preamp that I use. Without giving out any names for the competition, I'm kind of partial to tube gear.

R.A.P.: It's interesting that each of the voice talents there gets to design their own mike chain. That's something you don't find in radio very often, if at all.
Nick: Well, it's a home. I mean, you're there at work as long as you are at home every day. You're in that room for eight to twelve hours a day, and sometimes more, doing nothing but producing spots. I'm a very firm believer in the idea that somebody should have the equipment they need to feel comfortable. I do everything I can to make sure that everybody else that voices stuff there has what they want to make them feel comfortable. Some people don't sound good on a U87. Some people sound better on a 414. I personally like tube mikes. One guy may sound good on one mike, and another guy may sound good on another. I've been doing this long enough to know what I sound good on, and I like tube mikes. However, I'm thinking about experimenting a bit. There's a guy somewhere in Oregon, I believe, who takes the Neumann U87s, reworks them, and turns them into a pretty spectacular microphone, from what I understand. So, I'm going to experiment with one of my U87s and see what that comes back like. I may end up using that exclusively. I think the stock U87 is a very good microphone, but I understand it has room to be better with just a little bit of work.

R.A.P.: You mentioned how you prefer tube mikes and preamps. What is it about them that you like?
Nick: I think tube gear just adds a warmth and cleanliness that you can't get out of the other gear.

R.A.P.: That sounds like the reason a lot of people say they prefer analog over digital, because it's warmer.
Nick: Being here in Indiana, I know for a fact that John Mellencamp won't touch digital. He threw his DAT away. There's a certain warmth that analog has. I think digital will have it eventually some day, and there's definitely a place for digital right now and more and more every day. Everything is going digital, and it's getting better and better every day; but there are certain things that you want to keep in an analog mode. I think amplifiers and processing gear are a couple of those things that have not yet been perfected digitally to emulate that good, old analog sound.

R.A.P.: You mentioned Bill Young Productions earlier. Are there any other companies as large as TourDesign and Bill Young Productions that are doing concert spots?
Nick: I think we're about it right now. There are a few other companies; Bill Moffitt Productions down in Houston is one. He was doing a lot of concert spots, but I don't think he's doing as many as he was. I think he's concentrating more on motor sports. They're doing a very good job on that.

R.A.P.: What percentage of the concert spot business would you say TourDesign and Bill Young Productions handle?
Nick: Let me back up and tell you that about five or six years ago, we probably had about twelve to fifteen percent of the business that was out there. I'll bet you that we now have about forty to forty-five percent of it. He's got a little bit more than we do right now. He's got a bigger operation, but we're growing. There was a time when we couldn't see his boot heels, and now we've just about got his boots off.

Between Bill Young and ourselves, we pretty much have most of the business that's out there. It's a very tough business. A lot of people have tried to do concert spots, to get into that type of exclusive production, but you really have to have the connections in the business. It's not just having a good product. Your support staff is real important. I mean, we have people that are just so in tune with the business, and they know everybody, every manager and every agent that's out there. That's part of the game. Your product, of course, is very important, or you wouldn't get certain tours over your competition; but it's also very, very important that you have the people who are able to go out and aggressively look for tours. I'm not a salesman, so I don't do that. But we have people that do that. Once our salespeople have their attention, that's when I come in and build a spot and, hopefully, make the client happy.

R.A.P.: What kind of turnaround time does TourDesign offer?
Nick: Everything that we receive via fax today will be there tomorrow. We have a 24-hour turnaround.

R.A.P.: How late can you receive a fax?
Nick: We're working until the Fed Ex truck leaves. When the Fed Ex truck is gone, we're done. We've taken orders when Fed Ex is in there entering all the packages. It has come down to the wire quite a few times, especially during the summer season because just about everybody's on tour in the summer. That's when we're at our peak.

R.A.P.: Do you ever have to bring in part-time producers during this peak period?
Nick: No, we just basically work about fifteen hours a day through the summer. It's awful hard. There are some days when I'll do a hundred and fifty to a hundred and seventy-five spots a day.

R.A.P.: Are you speaking about you personally?
Nick: Oh, yeah. One guy, and you gotta be quick, too.

R.A.P.: How can you possibly do that many spots in a day? What shortcuts are you taking?
Nick: Well, the majority of the time on a tour spot is spent in the beginning. It can take two or three weeks to get a tour spot the way the managers and agents and the group want the tour spot to sound. But once you have the spot built, it's just a matter of going in and updating. You update the date, you obviously update the venue, and you update any corporate sponsors that are involved. You drop in ticket information and who the promotor happens to be around the country. Once you have the spot done, updating the spot is pretty simple. I mean, I can update a four-spot package in about three minutes. And that doesn't include mixdown time because your mixdown time is real time. I can walk in with an order and pretty much have it on the dubbing shelf in less than eight minutes.

R.A.P.: Wow! That's lightning quick!
Nick: Well, there are days when you have twenty to thirty of these a day, and you've got to be quick. And then half of them are going to have welcoming stations, and you have to mix out four additional spots for a welcoming station.

R.A.P.: Well, it never occurred to me until now, but I can see why it might take weeks to get the bed right for all the parties involved, because this is a bed that is going to get used for the entire tour.
Nick: Exactly. And they may use that for a hundred and fifty cities over a course of eighteen months, so it has to be right. But once it's right, it's right. And it very rarely changes unless there's a new single released that needs to be added to the music bed, or there's a change in a special guest. It's pretty much the same music bed from the start to the finish of the tour. And you use the same generic information, too. I mean, "The night comes alive" is gonna apply to Montreal just like it is anywhere in Montana.

R.A.P.: So, when you're updating, you don't update the entire voice track.
Nick: Absolutely not. You couldn't do it. I mean, there's no time. And once it's right, why would you want to? That's not to say that if it runs by you and you're going, "Jeez, I could read that a lot better...." If we hear a read we think we can do better, we'll pop it into record and read it over. We always try to better the spot.

R.A.P.: Is there any one day during the week that's busier than the rest?
Nick: I would say earlier in the week are the busier days in the business only because most promoters will have the tickets go on sale on a Saturday which means they have to start their advertising sometime earlier in the week. So, we get most of our orders on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

R.A.P.: Is TourDesign a seven day a week operation?
Nick: It's five days a week, but it's seven in the summer. When you try to do demos, it's a seven-day job, and it's a night job for me. I have a studio in the house that I use to do a lot of demos on weekends and at night. Sometimes, when you have twenty to thirty orders a day to get out the door, you don't have time to sit down and put a lot of time, with no interruptions, into a demo. So, I take it home with me.

R.A.P.: What are these demos you're talking about?
Nick: Demos for managers and agents that we produce to get new tours. We put together a spot for that actual group, for whatever event it happens to be.

R.A.P.: That sounds like a spec spot.
Nick: A spec spot, exactly. But, they are very time consuming because they go through a number of changes. There are times when you'll knock them over the head with the first shot, and there are other times when it takes two to three weeks just to get the spot right.

R.A.P.: Do you ever get tired of doing what sounds like the same old thing every day?
Nick: Yeah, I guess you could say I do, but about the time I do that is the time I try to make the next one sound better or different, you know? There's a constant drive to do that.

R.A.P.: You must really enjoy producing and voicing these spots.
Nick: Sure, I have a ball doing it. I mean, where else can a radio jockey like myself be on every radio station in North America and everywhere in between all at the same time? It's like working for every radio station you ever wanted to work for, but you don't have to put up with the bullshit.

R.A.P.: And, concert spots are one of the few commercials that jocks will turn up to hear, like they'll turn up to hear a good promo.
Nick: Yeah, I used to do that. If I saw a Def Leppard spot coming up, I'd crank it. I hope people feel that way about our stuff. It makes me feel good to know that people enjoy my work. Really, you're playing for your peers. You're hoping somebody out there is cranking it up and getting off on it, and if they are, that can make your day. A guy called just the other day and said, "Man, I heard your Bon Jovi spot, and I got off!" For a guy to pick up the telephone, find the phone number on the box, and call me and tell me that.... When you hang up the phone you go, "Wow!" It's not like being on the radio where you have instant response to what you've just said. You're not talking into a live mike. It's a great feeling when somebody calls and says, "Man, I really enjoyed what you did on that spot."

R.A.P.: Was it easy for you to leave radio, leave the disk jockey's chair?
Nick: Well, no it wasn't, not at first. I spent close to sixteen years on the air, and I think when you spend half your life doing a certain thing, that fear of the unknown always scares you. It was very hard to make the transition from being on the air every day.

R.A.P.: You have a sweeper/ID business as well. How many stations do you have right now?
Nick: Not as many as I would like to have, only because of the time restraints. I would say probably thirty stations. I do some television stations as well. I have agency work that I do, too; I do a grocery store chain here in the Midwest called Kroger. So, I do a lot of freelance work as well, and I'm starting to do some stuff overseas. I just picked up an agency in Italy. This agency works with a few radio stations, and I do some of the voice work for one of the networks over in Italy. It's kind of a kick to know you're over in some foreign country.

R.A.P.: Is this what the home studio is for?
Nick: Eventually, yes, because it's gotten to a point where I'm so busy at work, I really don't have time for my outside stuff there. I really had no choice but to have a facility at home to be able to work out of. It's almost a necessity more than a luxury.

R.A.P.: Why do you suppose there aren't some large production houses out there producing just grocery store ads or car dealer spots, just like TourDesign has capitalized on concert spots?
Nick: Well, I think if anybody came up with the answer for that, they'd be awful rich. I think it's probably going to come down to that. I think one thing that clients enjoy, at least in the tour spot business, is knowing that from city to city, it's going to be consistent. It may not be the best thing in the world, it may not be something that an agency could produce out of New York, but it's consistent. It's a good product, and it's reasonably priced. And it's on time.

R.A.P.: Any parting words or advice for our readers?
Nick: I would like to say something to all the guys out there that want to get into production. Just follow your instinct in this business and be versatile. I think that's probably the most important thing. If you're one-dimensional, you're going to limit yourself. I think that's probably the most important advice I could give to anybody young who's getting into this business.