The electric bass is less than 70 years old. Leo Fender invented the instrument in 1951, which he brought to market as the Precision Bass. It was named that way because, unlike standup basses, the now iconic P-bass had metal frets. Finally it was possible to play notes on a bass with pristine accuracy and speed.
Electric bass quickly became identified with bebop jazz and then rock n’ roll. In my opinion, it reached near perfection with the funk genre, where bass lines defined both the groove and the rhythm, and deserved to raise musicians like Bootsy Collins, James Jamerson and Stanley Clarke into a Mount Olympus of immortality.
Similarly, the speechwriting profession is a relatively new invention. While aides have helped leaders craft remarks for centuries — Stoic philosopher Seneca could accurately be called a speechwriter for Roman emperor Nero — having a person on staff who worked primarily to compose speeches for a leader began in the 20th century. Most believe that Judson Welliver in the Warren Harding Administration was the first of its kind.
But speechwriting, as it exists today, really didn’t come into its own as a profession until the Kennedy administration and Theodore Sorenson. It was in the 1960s when the confluence of speeches and the writers who assisted in drafting them became acknowledged and broadly understood by the public. Tell someone today that you are a speechwriter and most people will have a broad understanding of what you do for a living.
Do they really get it, though? Maybe not, and I’m going to use some similarities between bass playing and speechwriting to illustrate my thoughts. So, forget about the world of William Safire, James Fallows, Peggy Noonan and Jon Favreau for a bit and enter into the domain of Jaco Pastorius, Paul McCartney, Flea and Sting.
As a bassist and music enthusiast, I’ve observed that there are generally two types of “low-end musicians.” The first I’ll call Omnimusical. These are people who do or can play a broad range of instruments, probably sing at least a little — in some cases are even lead singers — and who are major composers of music. They gravitated to the bass for a variety of reasons, very often because no one else in the band could or wanted to play the instrument.
Sir Paul McCartney is the patron saint of the Omnimusical bassist. McCartney can probably play instruments that haven’t even been invented yet. And he was also the bassist in the most famous rock band in history. But if asked the first thing to come to mind about McCartney, almost no one will say bassist. Most will think of him as a singer or songwriter. The vast majority of his songs were composed on a piano — I can’t think of a single McCartney song that built off a bass line.
Junior members of this club include Sting, the bass player for The Police, but better known as their front man and lead songwriter; Geddy Lee, who introduced lots of complicated (I’d argue overcomplicated) bass solos into rock, but was also better known as Rush’s lead singer; and Roger Waters, the bassist and lead singer for Pink Floyd.
The second, more familiar, group of bassists are the instrument specialists. These are players who focus almost exclusively on the bass and who rarely step out front to sing or solo. These musicians are often treated like session musicians by the public at large. While most fans of The Who can name John Entwistle as the band’s bassist and all Red Hot Chili Peppers fans know Flea, how many people know who was the bassist on Peter Gabriel’s recording and touring band in the 1980s? (The answer is Tony Levin and the more you learn about one of the most under appreciated musicians and musical instrument inventors of the past 50 years, the better.)
Similarly, there are two types of speechwriters. Novelists John Irving described writers this way, but I think it applies to speechwriters equally well: “There are two kinds of writers. Those who would be good at whatever they did and decided to be writers; and those who had no other options. I’m in the second category. I would either be a writer or I would do something else not very well.”
I’ve known a reasonable number of speechwriters in that first group. My friend Max Rovner is a Harvard, Harvard Law School and University of Chicago Med School grad. In between careers in public policy and now psychiatry, Max tried his hand at speechwriting. And, of course, he was good at it. Max would be good at anything. Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire and Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau are similar people — they did their time as speechwriters and then moved on to brighter pastures.
The jack-of-all trades speechwriters are generally the best known people in our profession, but they make up a tiny percentage of people in the field and they get out fast. Everyone else who calls him or her self a speechwriter is like a session musician. So let’s observe for a bit what the life of a session bassist is like.
These are the kinds of cats who find gigs with bands on message boards, often desperate to fill a newly empty position. Or they hear about it from a friend of a friend — or they have the kind of reputation that people reach out for them out of the blue to join and help.
When they first rehearse with the band, other members are incredibly grateful that they can step in and get to work right away, creating fresh bass lines, serving as the glue between the drummer and the rhythm guitarist. They’re seen almost immediately as lifesavers, who helped them avoid a sure short-term calamity.
But after a short time, the band gets down to the tricky business of assimilating the bassist into the band long term. Bands, in my observation, take one of three approaches of what to do with these bassist. Six times out of ten, they want the bassist to just keep holding down the low end … and oh by the way, could you do a little light roadie work and maybe pitch in some sound board assistance when needed? In other words, bassists are seen as junior partners in the band with a junior role. Sure, pitch in on some harmonies, but don’t ask to sing lead. Yeah, fill out a song through the bass line, but you don’t need to write your own stuff. Just hang out near the drummer and try not to get in the way.
This approach is unfortunate, because bassists are natural collaborators who very rarely want to hog the spotlight but can make everyone else in the band sound better if given the chance. Bassist tend to have an excellent grasp of music theory and, because they devote themselves to a song’s groove, they know how to build in hooks and to make tunes danceable. Bassists are a band’s best friend in reaching the next level, but many bands simply aren’t interested in making the most of them.
I said that 60% of bands are like this … that might be a little too high, but I’ll stick with the light hyperbole for now to help make my point. Out of the remaining 40%, half are in the very strange category of hoping the new bassist fills a highly idiosyncratic role taken by the previous bassist. So while you may have been hired to play bass and your first experiences are doing just that, you soon learn that the band doesn’t need a full time bassist for all their songs, that sometimes the bassist is expected to play a range of percussion instruments, or maybe a little drums or guitar. And you’re expected to have the same level of competence at these other instruments as you do on the bass because, well, the last guy did it and we liked playing with him.
These are the types of bands that tend to cycle through a half dozen new bassists until it finally occurs to them that they have silly expectations for the role. Either that or the band breaks up and it’s members form new bands hoping to find that same weird chemistry as before. Most bassists can sniff out this nightmare scenario early and bail as quickly as possible.
The final group — the sweet spot — is the type of band that understands and desires true collaboration. They love what you’re doing and are interested in finding out exactly what you want to contribute to the band long term. If you just want to continue holding up the bass lines, great. But if you want to contribute vocals, write songs or play other instruments, that’s terrific too. These are the types of gigs you wish could last forever.
Of course they don’t. Bands break up or members move on. Maybe the lead guitarist moves to California and his replacement changes the group chemistry. Professional speechwriters who’ve hit the jackpot and found an ideal relationship know this feeling very well. Political terms end, CEOs retire, that amazing career-supporting middle manager you’d walk on hot coals for gets promoted, and the replacement is a nightmare (which, sadly, happens nearly every time a great middle manager is promoted.)
So speechwriters, like bassists, lose the dream gig and return to perusing the bulletin boards. Most times, they land in scenario one and end up having one too many levels of supervision between them and the principal they serve. They spend way too much time on tasks completely unrelated to what they do best and are evaluated not primarily via the effectiveness of their speeches, but by other bizarre quantitative measures that cascade down from company goals, which are completely irrelevant to their jobs.
And then there are the speechwriters who have the horrible misfortune to replace an ideosyncratic predecessor with an outsized reputation and an incomprehensible work portfolio. These speechwriters soon lament that they’re spending all of their time in communications meetings and drafting newsletters, and haven’t seen the executive they write for in months.
If all of this comes across as a lament of bass playing or speechwriting, it’s not intended that way. I find great joy in both activities, especially when they reach their full potential. When fellow musicians and colleagues share a love of collaboration and don’t obsess about who’s getting the spotlight, these can be incredibly rewarding ways to earn a living and play.
Communications managers always want a call to action at the end of any message these days — it’s something speechwriters have learned to work in over the course of the past decade. We adjust, it’s fine. So here’s my call to action (which picky middle managers will probably find too long — but it’s my blog, so too bad) to anyone who manages a speechwriting function and wants to get the most out of that speechwriting hire, either as a staffer or freelancer.
First, appreciate that the person you are hiring probably fits John Irving’s second definition of a writer — this is their specialty. Hold them to high standards when it comes to executive support, but don’t expect them to be great communications generalists, because in all likelihood, they won’t be. If they can’t turn out a decent newsletter or project manage your video production team, it shouldn’t be a black mark on their core skillset.
Second, just because they aren’t great communications generalists, that doesn’t mean they aren’t strong collaborators or team players. In fact, just the opposite is true. Just like bassists tend to have music theory down pat, speechwriters have a great intuitive grasp of communications strategy and they love to share it. Most of us love to help other team members find the right phrasing or to fill their communications deliverables with transitions so aerodyne you don’t even notice them. Mentoring junior communications teams members is also something we tend to like.
Third, be flexible in how you fill out the role and define it, and include the speechwriter in the process. Just because a job description worked for the last person in the role doesn’t mean it will work for the next one. And if you must pigeonhole a speechwriter into an idiosyncratic role, for the love of God, don’t pull a bait and switch during the interview process. Be completely upfront about what the job is and how he or she will be evaluated if hired.
A great bass line and a memorable speech are beautiful things. They both bring joy to my life, and I hope for others who share these vocations and avocations. We artisans of these faiths want nothing more than to create beautiful music and cadences. With the right spirit of cooperation and teamwork, we can be your best friends. Let us try.