When I learned from Elmore Magazine I would be covering this year’s progressive rock cruise, Cruise to the Edge, I knew the term “DIY” would become my mantra for its duration.
DIY of course means “do it yourself.” It’s also the name of a song by legendary prog artist Peter Gabriel. In journeying back to reporter status, I knew it wouldn’t be enough to just write about this cruise. I would have to become an all-encompassing media entity – what headliner band Yes would call a “big generator” – taking photographs, setting up interviews with bands/artists, tracking down said bands/artists, and keeping the social media train rolling. Essentially all on my own.
Well I did have some help. There were PR agencies helping me with my requests in the weeks before the cruise. However, there were definite kinks in the system. A Skype interview with John Lodge of the Moody Blues almost didn’t happen as miscommunication led to rescheduling. A phone interview with an incoming Rock and Roll Hall of Famer took place in Logan Airport and was delayed 20 minutes because of bad cell phone reception. It all worked out, but it’s always better for PR agencies to leave multiple options on the table to ensure greater efficiency and cut down on the media curveballs.
I don’t want to necessarily say I could’ve done things better because really, we are always at the mercy of our clients. We adapt to reporters’ needs to better suit the organizations and individuals we represent daily. Having been on both sides of the media fence as reporter and PR executive, I know the one thing that doesn’t change for either is time. Everything happens by a deadline, or it doesn’t happen. As I flew down to Tampa I tried to remind myself of this; there was a chance I wouldn’t achieve all I wanted on the cruise. Then my inner reporter voice spoke up – I wasn’t to quit at any opportunity. The last thing I’d want from this once-in-a-lifetime experience was a swarm of “What ifs” buzzing around my head.
Any reporter rust I accumulated over the past few years I hope has been scraped away. Over five days, I tried to follow a self-devised DIY code seemingly applicable to any media scenario. I now share it with you. Adhering to these steps resulted in more than 8,500 collective words of coverage spread out over eight (hopefully nine) individual columns, and some of the greatest photographs I’ve ever taken.
1. Research, research, research [a.k.a. “He knew, knew more than me and you” – Kansas, “Portrait (He Knew)”]
As a true prog rock fan, I climbed aboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas with an in-depth knowledge of several headlining bands playing on the ship throughout the week. Ask me anything about Yes, Kansas or Steve Hackett (Genesis) and I should have an answer within three seconds.
That said, I knew I could always learn more. I scoured Wikipedia pages, racked up Amazon CD purchases, viewed YouTube videos, and even had friends burn necessary material onto blank CDs. I also took it upon myself to memorize names and faces, for bands both old and new. Having the sense my time would be my own in-between planned shows and Q&As, I could walk throughout the ship with my backpack of equipment and hone in when I found a potential source.
A key advantage in doing your research beforehand is increasing your ability to ask questions outside the box. In differentiating yourself from others, especially in media, always avoid the obvious question wherever possible. For example, while everybody asked guitarist Steve Hackett (one of my musical heroes) about his time with Genesis, I asked about his professional relationship with folk singer Richie Havens. This led to Hackett diving deep in his memory banks to recall times, places, ambiances, and events that made for a phenomenal story stretched out over five minutes.
Most cruisers also asked noted progressive artist Roger Dean about the motivations behind his album cover designs for Yes. I opted instead to ask about his art for lesser-known bands like Budgie and Osibisa. He responded with the best opening line any source can give you: “I have a story about that…” If this statement is uttered, have a tape recorder handy because you’re in for a quotable treat.
2. Politeness is next to godliness [a.k.a. “Only the fool learns to get through” – Steve Hackett, “Camino Royale”]
Most bands/artists on the cruise walked freely about the ship and obliged their fans with photos and signings if asked. However, the cruise makes clear that outside of pre-determined events, any other outside requests made of the musicians are handled at their discretion. My main mission while on board was going after interviews and colorful anecdotes. However, as a fan, I was also after photos and vinyl album signatures. When approaching celebrities of any caliber it’s always best to be polite. A calm, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you…” can go a long way.
Bear in mind, being polite has the potential to yield curtness in return. You must remember not to be discouraged by that; it’s nothing against you personally. I felt horrible for interrupting Yes guitarist Steve Howe during his breakfast to have him sign an album for me. He didn’t even shake my hand. In time though, he came to my table and signed it. This wasn’t the easiest exchange, but I know had I prodded Howe further and ignored his request to let him finish eating, things could’ve been much worse.
I’m sure there were moments when I sounded like a blubbering fool in front of these megastars. Guilt did creep up over catching them at inopportune moments. However, in following the code of courtesy, I am currently awaiting frames for signed albums from members of Yes and Kansas, as well as Steve Hackett and Patrick Moraz.
3. Make pals whenever/wherever you can [a.k.a. “Lovely to see you again, my friend” – The Moody Blues, “Lovely to See You”]
While waiting to see Yes perform on the first night of the cruise, my wife Jen and I met the Wolds, a lovely couple from Hickory, North Carolina who happened to be personal friends with members of the band Kansas, best known for their classic hits “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry On Wayward Son.”
Considering I never heard back from Kansas’ PR team prior to our Tampa departure, I now had a prime moment to tell the Wolds about myself, what I was doing, and my particular level of Kansas fandom. This kind of openness resulted in their telling me Kansas founding member/guitarist Rich Williams was right outside the theater if I wanted to say hello. I met him, made my pitch, and snagged a quick photo (and eventually an album signature). The next day, I was sitting at band’s table during lunch asking questions about their Power album from 1986. Front-man Ronnie Scott even obliged me with a selfie.
I know these moments would’ve lacked the same potency had we not met the Wolds.
While waiting to see Steve Hackett perform the next night, I met Shawn, the founder of a classic rock website. Because he didn’t have a camera, I offered to provide him with extra photographs in exchange for credit on his website. He accepted and I now can add another outlet credit to my resume. Plus, it also didn’t hurt that upon tweeting photos of Kansas’ own ship concert to the band’s official Twitter page, they retweeted me. Suddenly, the new followers came pouring in.
The biggest highlight though came when I formally met and interviewed Hackett on day three of the cruise. I took a chance and went directly to his American PR agency with a request for a 10-minute interview. I had a response back within a couple of hours – the interview was confirmed and could I by any chance mention Hackett’s new album in my writing? No problem. I owe Hackett’s PR man a lunch, considering that the 10-minute interview ultimately stretched to 40 minutes. I’m still coming to terms with that fact it actually took place.
4. A picture is worth a thousand tries [a.k.a. “I am a camera” – Yes, “Into the Lens”]
It had been more than a year since I handled a camera for media purposes. In fact, I had to borrow an actual camera and equipment from a former colleague since I knew an iPhone wouldn’t make the cut for this trip. While I didn’t particularly enjoy lugging around lenses all day, this tool was crucial to making our cruise experience one for the ages. Sure, I could easily write about what I saw on-board and how great it was. It’s quite a different animal to see it colorfully come alive through a camera lens.
My camera and I logged tens of thousands of steps on the Fitbit together as we captured bands of all statures on different stages. Most times I’d be 50 feet away from them but the combination of a long lens and a lot of patience yielded, in my mind, fantastic results. And don’t worry, unless you are a master photographer, you will likely produce 30 blurry or bad shots for every terrific one.
Like my line of interview questioning, I wanted to be out of the box with my photography. I wanted to capture bands emoting in action. Nobody wants photos of subjects standing still looking bored. I wanted laughs, grimaces, exhaustion; anything to make the shot original and individual.
While I’m sure I’m not the first to capture these Nikon moments, I’m extremely proud of the following photos (showcased with this blog):
Normally stoic Steve Hackett laughing and clapping his hands instead of playing guitar
Focus frontman/flautist Thijs van Leer whistling while playing the piano
Kansas drummer Phil Ehart throwing his arms up at the end of the band’s concert
These are only three of the roughly 115 shots I’m keeping. I know I deleted at least 200 more due to poor quality.
5. If at first you don’t succeed, keep going! [a.k.a. “You’re every move you make, so the story goes” – Yes, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”]
An unfortunate yet surprisingly motivating factor in journalism is frustration. A reporter, for example, may spend all day outside someone’s home trying to get a two-line quote and come back empty-handed, to their editor’s disappointment.
Even while frustrated, PR specialists and reporters alike must remain persistent in their media efforts. In my case, a substantial portion of my time on the cruise was spent scoping out select areas of the ship to hopefully connect with bands and artists, and keep my content exciting in real time. Over four days, I must have walked the entirety of The Windjammer Café on floor 11 at least 37 times. There was also theCentrum area on floor 4, a great spot to watch a radio interview and grab a quick signature as an artist headed for the elevators. Kudos to Alan White of Yes and guitarist Steve Morse for being good sports in this department!
My collective actions during this cruise could be considered foolish given that I probably should’ve just basked in the sun day after day, not letting thoughts like “What if this interview doesn’t happen?” control my brain. Yet I have no regrets. I accomplished everything I set out to do and came back home feeling inspired and at my most creative.
I also know that navigating the world of media isn’t always smooth sailing. However, I can assure you that in the case of covering something of this magnitude, the ride is always memorable, no matter how choppy things get at times.
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