The trailer for Episode 9 of Weird Vibes, a web-based indie music television show masterminded by New York producer Shirley Braha, takes the form of an advertisement within an advertisement. A very American-looking, middle aged blonde hosts a mock infomercial for “Weird Vibes Warehouse,” a fictitious company specializing in music memorabilia. Chances are, those of us already well acquainted with the ins and outs of indie hype will chuckle at the sight of products like “Grimes All Purpose Cleaner,” “Lana Del Raisin Bran,” and a John Maus-themed, “inspirational” mouse pad; likely, we’ll also experience a twinge of discomfort. An MTV-sponsored project dedicated to “bands who are self-released or on indie labels,” Braha’s labor-of-love inhabits an awkward and frequently hilarious middle-ground between music enthusiasm and self-critique, eager to point out the very processes of commodification in which it willingly participates.
With a backlog of artist appearances that includes the likes Best Coast, Neon Indian, Twin Shadow, and Real Estate, there is no arguing that Weird Vibes tends toward the more above-ground side of contemporary “indie music”; at the same time, it’s hard to not to admire her conviction that a mass medium like music television can be a powerful entry point to artists from all over the visibility spectrum. A graduate of Smith College, Shirley founded the long-running New York Noise music television show while working as an intern for the city government-sponsored station NYCTV. Though she’s since switched over to a multi-platform media corporation, Shirley insists on handling pretty much every single aspect of the show herself, from treatments and shooting to the Saved By The Bell-reminiscent animations that pepper every episode. I met up with her at the cafeteria of the MTV building in Times Square last week to discuss how she taught herself the nitty gritty of TV production, the challenges of presenting niche music to a mass audience, and her advice for getting by doing what you love.
Ad Hoc: Can you tell me what your job as creator/producer consists of?
Shirley: Basically, I oversee the show from start to finish; it’s pretty much a one-woman operation. I have a camera crew that I work with, and I have an Executive Producer, and a Supervising Producer, and a lot of people take care of more of the administrative and logistical stuff, but for the most part, the show is kind of me and a MacBook. I do all the editing myself, all the graphics, all the production. I come up with the ideas for each episode-- what bands to feature, what videos to include. And then I deliver it and they I try to get it out there a little. This show exists because of me and its demise will probably be because of me too.
Ad Hoc: How would you say that Weird Vibes differs from NY Noise?
Shirley: It’s actually really similar to New York Noise, but I guess the primary difference is that I can be a little more fun and silly with Weird Vibes, because it’s not a city government project. MTV allows a lot more flexibility in terms of content. Also, now the show has a budget. It’s not a huge budget, but the budget for New York Noise was essentially zero. I had cameramen who worked at the station, but as far as money to embellish the episodes, there was really nothing there. But that was fun. I didn’t know anything different.
Ad Hoc: Your background was mostly in college and Internet radio. How did you get into TV production?
Shirley: I think I realized that it would be probably good to have some kind of practical skill as an adult-- like being able to say, “I know how to do this,” as opposed to just being like, “I like music.” I was never a big TV watcher, but sometimes I’d come across something really cool, and I’d be like, “Wow, that seems like really crazy that you could make something kinda weird and get it exposed to this mass audience.” So I think that that’s what appealed to me. Not so much television in general but the idea of making something weird and being able to expose it on television, which is such a mass medium.
Ad Hoc: So how did you actually get into music television?
Shirley: I did an internship in my sophomore year with one of the earliest web video production companies. It was called Spin The Bottle, and it was with the guy who started Pop Up Video, Tad Low. Did you ever see that show, Subway Q & A? It was on one of the Metro Channels, which don’t even exist any more. Anyway, I saw this show, and he would just go up to strangers in the subway and do wacky stunts with them. So I thought that was so cool, and was like, I want to intern with this guy. I didn’t really get that much hands on experience there but at least I was exposed to the television world, and he was a really creative and independent thinker, so it was really exciting to be around him.
The following summer, I interned at MTV for like six weeks, then I switched to NYC TV. They were just at the beginning of a new managerial change, and they were really trying to [improve] the channel and make it more lively and interesting, and create new cultural programming. So they wanted a music show, and I was interning there. I was like, “Well, you know, that’s kind of my thing. I think I used those exact words. Next thing you know, they put me on the music show, so over that Summer, I came up with the name New York Noise. Of course, I wanted it to be indie-leaning; I had no interest in playing pop videos. So I made it into a show that I would want to watch. I didn’t have that much experience in actual production, but I did the best I could.
Ad Hoc: Did you pick up most of the more technical skills just on the job?
Shirley: Yeah, mostly. I took two video production classes in college, which is something, but mostly I just learned by doing.[...] When New York Noise started, Youtube wasn’t around. It’s not like I could research old music video shows and see how they did it. It was just me like winging it-- doing things on the skill level I was capable of. Each episode of had a different theme, and a different production style. So pretty much with every episode I got to learn something a little different about video production, and now I have the production skills to create things how I envision them.
Ad Hoc: Weird Vibes, in many ways, is still a do-it-yourself operation. Would you say you prefer working on a one-woman team?
Shirley: There’s benefits and disadvantages to working alone. You can probably only grow so large without collaborating with other people, but I think for New York Noise and for Weird Vibes right now, doing it alone is definitely beneficial because it’s more efficient. Also, the fewer people that you have working on the show, the lower the show costs, and the more likely it is for the show to continue. And let’s be real. Indie music television is not going to be a big money-maker around here, and the more I’m able to do myself, the better it is for everyone.
Ad Hoc: Do you think the fact that MTV would host a show like Weird Vibes shows that there’s a wider audience for indie music nowadays than there was in the past?
Shirley: I do agree that there’s probably more people into indie music now than there was maybe ten years ago, but I think there could potentially be a lot more if mainstream media made it easily available to people who don’t even know that this sort of music exists. [...] I think I just really appreciate the concept of MTV and of music videos in general, and the idea that you can just be a kid channel surfing, and not even know that there are all these cool bands that exist. You can just find out by living your normal life that there’s cool music out there. Growing up, I was raised in a very sheltered way-- and I’m sure a lot of people in America are-- and they don’t know that there’s an alternative way to live. Having that exposure is invaluable. I think that’s why a lot of people were really attached to MTV’s music video days.
Ad Hoc: How do you balance the goal of supporting lesser-known artists with the need to sustain a wider viewership?
Shirley: I think sometimes you can have a wider audience by catering to a smaller group. Because, if you try to put too much mainstream stuff in a show that’s meant to be an indie show, you’re going to lose your core audience, and who’s to say that mainstream people are going to watch your show? They probably wont. I think my show is produced in a style that maybe wouldn’t appeal to a super wide audience... nor would I want it to. The whole reason why I’m involved in music videos and music television is to expose smaller bands that I like, and that I think other people will like, so I do everything I can to not have to go that route, because that wouldn’t be a very satisfying career for me. It’s like, why am i doing this? What’s the point? At that point it’s just a paycheck.
Ad Hoc: On the level of each individual show, do you try to create a balance between some slightly better known artists and so more obscure ones?
Shirley: Definitely. I was going to say that actually. I think most people-- not matter how into obscure music they are-- on some level, want a sense of familiarity and context. I feel like if I’m exposed to a string of things I’ve never heard of, it’s exciting, but it can also be a little disorienting. People want to hear new things-- you have to give them new things, otherwise it’s just boring. So yeah, I think it’s important to mix it up a little bit.
Ad Hoc: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to someone starting out in your field and looking to support themselves doing it?
Shirley: Things are really different now than they were ten years ago. Ten years ago, you sorta needed to work in TV proper to really be involved in video, but now, anyone can start a video project. [And] it’s really smart for anyone to be able to have those skills. If you want to have an advantage, learn Photoshop, learn Final Cut. It’s like episode one of Girls, where the boss is like, “She knows Photoshop, so she got the job.” If you want to work in video, and you can’t edit your own stuff, it puts you at a disadvantage. There’s a little bit of a learning curve but it’s not so hard.
And it’s cliché, but you have to be passionate about what you do. And do it for a while before you even expect to get paid. If your work is good, eventually someone will probably notice and be like, “Hey, we need to hire someone who is good at producing video. And then you’ll have this whole body of work behind you to show. It’s like building up a resume, basically.
Ad Hoc: Any advice specifically for females looking to navigate the music industry, which is still overwhelmingly male-dominated?
Shirley: I think about this a lot-- like, “How does my gender affect my life?”-- and it’s almost impossible to say, because I don’t know how my life would be if I were a man. There’s so many varying factors. Maybe I’ve had had a lot of really weird but good advantages by being a woman. I don’t really know, so it’s hard to say. But at the end of the day I feel like I managed to get to where I want to be doing what I love. I think that the product you create speaks more than the gender you have. So I think that’s ultimately what you should be focusing on.