"The power of image and especially music videos is so strong that it can totally enhance, alter, alienate, contextualize, and recontextualize the way we perceive music, to the point where sometimes you don’t even realize what you’re really listening to."
March 7th, 2012

Shirley Braha Television Producer

Shirley Braha is the one-woman powerhouse behind MTV's indie video series Weird Vibes. Before that, she made her name with the NYC public access classic New York Noise. She's funny, smart, totally go-getting, and, duh, has good taste in music. Here she tells us about the power of images, learning on the fly, and why working from your bed can be very productive.

One of the best things about your shows is how they humanize people in these hip bands, which is something the internet usually does the exact opposite of, with 140-character missives and blog gossip. What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned about musicians since you started doing this?

I’m glad that comes through. There might be this idea that “successful” musicians have big egos or “have it all,” but usually they are just as insecure as anyone else. Actually, they are often more insecure, because as a popular indie band you have more people watching you and judging you, and you read what all these losers on Twitter who don’t know anything have to say about you. And even when you’re at the top of your game, you’re worried your days of relevancy are numbered, that a bad review will ruin your career, that your manager/label/agent/publicist doesn’t think of you as a priority, and that a year from now no one will care, and you’ll never find a good job after the band is over because you’ve been out of the workforce for too long, that you’ll be poor for the rest of your life, and you won’t be able to afford to have a kid, and you’re going to die alone with nothing but some faded memories of your 3pm slot at Coachella. Alternative Stars–they’re just like us!

Do you feel like you have an obligation to your audience in terms of band coverage?

If I made a show called “Shirl’s Fave New Indie Music Vidz” it probably wouldn’t be so different from “Weird Vibes” or “New York Noise,” but I like to consider an imaginary viewer’s hypothetical emotional needs, i.e. most people need at least some sense of familiarity, so I try to mix more popular indie artists in with more obscure ones. I try to avoid jumping on a buzz-bandwagon if I don’t genuinely like the music though.  I want to try to make a show that I’m not embarrassed about now or a year from now after the buzz dies.

What draws you to the visual aspect of a band’s music?

I think I’m probably not interested in a band’s visual representation in a sincere way, but it’s fun to observe and analyze how visual elements can shift your feelings and your perceptions of a band or artist. I try to keep music and image mentally separated as much as possible, because the power of image and especially music videos is so strong that it can totally enhance, alter, alienate, contextualize, and recontextualize the way we perceive music, to the point where sometimes you don’t even realize what you’re really listening to. It’s probably a band’s most powerful branding tool, but also dangerous when done wrong. I respect the medium because its obviously a really effective way to get people interested in new music. I also like that videos require more attention than an mp3 playing in the background while you multitask etc. A lot of videos do suck, but the great ones really stick with you.

What makes for a good video?

One of the best things about music videos is its a really open format where you can do just about anything, so I don’t think there is a checklist for what qualifies as a good video other than something that keeps you engaged. Once you can codify a “good music video” into things like “has grainy super-8 footage” and “lots of nautical themes,” it’s probably a sign to move on.

Did you look towards certain TV shows as inspiration before starting to produce your own stuff? I ask because so much of your work harkens back to the zaniness that were shows like “Yo! MTV Raps,” with bands goofily “interviewing” other bands, bulky mic labels and all.

There wasn’t really any inspiration for “New York Noise” other than the general idea of “a cool music video show.” I had a good grasp on the music side of things, but in terms of TV production, I had no idea what I was doing at first and wasn’t entirely cognizant of the show’s production style until I read what people were writing about it. About the microphone cubes/logos – NYC TV was crazy about them! We had mic cubes for everything at the station. As for having bands host, it was mainly a result of being self-aware enough to accept that I would be a terrible VJ. I also didn’t want some random scenester bro dominating the show either, so I had to figure out other ways to make it work. With “Weird Vibes,” the biggest inspiration is, of course, “New York Noise.” This time around though I looked at a lot of other stuff, both old and new. I finally watched a bunch of “YO!” clips on YouTube, and they’re really awesome. My favorite old MTV show is “The Cutting Edge”–a monthly show from the mid-80s produced by IRS records–totally indie and wacky. But the things that I drew from for “Weird Vibes” are mainly visual–opening credits to late-80s Mickey Mouse Club, Saved by the Bell, a Yo-Yo ball commercial, NERF logo colors. I just think those graphics were awesome, and I wanted to play around with some of those ideas. So if I’m pandering to nostalgia, at least it’s my own.

In terms of making the show–writing, directing, editing–that’s a lot of time and technology. Did you go to school for that?

I took a handful of video production classes at Smith College, but it wasn’t my major or anything. Mostly I just learned on the clock. It’s relatively intuitive stuff. NYC TV was a good place to start producing in 2003 because the channel was kind of a mess at first, and it wasn’t a nightmare if one of my early episodes had 10-second gaps of black, or if they aired the segments of my show in the wrong order. Plus I was basically just a glorified intern at first anyway. Then when I realized this was a real thing, I picked up Final Cut Pro for Dummies, and I memorized some different types of microphones and probably Googled “tv lingo,” and the rest I’ve probably just learned through trial and error over the course of about a hundred episodes, between “New York Noise” and “Weird Vibes.” I do all the graphics too!

Do you have a staff? Is there such thing as an average day?

There’s no staff specifically for “Weird Vibes” other than myself. But I work with the MTV online video production team, and I have an excellent little camera crew whenever there’s a shoot. My average work day usually turns into an average work night, and I also work a lot on the weekends. I don’t have much distinction between work and not-work. I probably do 30 percent of the show from my bed. Basically “Weird Vibes” is my boyfriend. Editing takes up the most time, but it’s also my favorite part. I like all the parts actually. The other main things are coming up with episode ideas, planning for the shoot, producing and directing the actual shoot, watching every video on the entire internet to find a few to include in the show, getting some paperwork from the labels for those videos, and then some other odds and ends like graphics and delivering assets and trying to do dumb social media stuff. I don’t really like the social media/promotion part of it. (Does anyone? I don’t know.)

Despite how buzz-worthy “indie” has become, it used to be a small, DIY scene. Did you come up in that milleau?

When I was fourteen, someone on AOL Instant Messenger tipped me off to the “indiepop mailing list” and that was it–I had totally “found my scene.” It sounds corny, but it’s true.  It was a pretty active, supportive international community. We all had our little DIY projects–bands, radio shows, zines, popfests, etc., and I was into a lot of the labels-  Kindercore Records, Shelflife, March, Le Grand Magistery, Darla, Matinee, Omnibus, Magic Marker, Labrador, etc.  I took to it hard and fast. I started a small record label when I was sixteen, and there was this whole DIY infrastructure that I was able to be part of.  My parents were totally freaked out, so my IRL indie interactions were pretty limited until I graduated high school, but there’s a lot you can do behind a computer.