Alumni Profile: Robert Wood, Copywriter at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Music PhD, 2014)

In this interview we speak with Robert Wood, Graduate Center alumnus and currently copywriter at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). Wood is one of more than twenty GC alumni who spoke at our inaugural Post-Grad (Center) conference on Friday, December 4, 2015. In this interview, Wood discusses his work at BAM, how his Graduate Center training helped prepare him for his career, and what skills he has had to acquire on the job.

In what field is your degree, and what was your dissertation subject?

My PhD was in musicology, and my dissertation was on composer Edgard Varèse, modernism, and the experience of modernity.

What are your RobertWood-banjojob responsibilities at BAM?

My responsibility is to serve the BAM brand (for lack of a better term; we are a non-profit, after all) through writing. As such, most of my time is spent writing show descriptions that capture the spirit of our artists’ and performers’ work in as accurate and exciting, or at least compelling, a way as possible. Descriptions for our brochures and website, promotional emails, and tag lines are just a few things that fall into that category. Email subject lines also consume quite a bit of time; unopened emails aren’t nearly as effective as opened ones, it turns out.

Other less common projects might include video scripts for trailers or promotional videos, snail-mail letters sent to audience members describing new institutional initiatives, and, when there’s a free moment, blog posts, articles, and interviews for the BAM blog and BAMbill.

How did you get your job?

The door was opened by an internship I had in 2006 in the BAM marketing department while studying for my comprehensive exams at CUNY. Once the internship ended, the marketing department called me back the following season to help them copyedit a brochure. They discovered I was a decent writer and eventually hired me as a part-time employee. Luckily, this was all during a period of expansion for BAM, and it quickly became clear that they needed someone to work full-time to help solve the problem of maintaining a single brand voice for so many new programs and initiatives.

Had you initially set your course on an academic job or a non-academic job?

“Course” is a generous way of describing what I was on during grad school. “Dazed meander” would be more accurate. Like many pursuing PhDs, I went to grad school because I needed a socially acceptable way to spend my days beating my head against big ideas. The future existed but only as a kind of horizon related to those ideas. Or rather, the future wasn’t so much manifested in this or that possible career path as it was by that constantly deferred utopian place on the other side of this or that intellectual puzzle. But despite that very genuine obsession with the abstract, I was still always intrigued by the non-academic world, largely as it concerned writing. At some point, and possibly out of some degree of insecurity and defensiveness, I started identifying more as a writer who dealt with scholarly ideas than as a scholar proper. My academic heroes were often those with the most seductive prose styles, and I started seeing my papers less as public contributions to some sort of scholarly dialogue and more as private projects where I could bring order to my intellectual universe with narrative as a kind of guarantor. In short, I was intellectually disposed toward academia, but sublimation-fueled self-absorption got in the way. 

What skills and knowledge that you gained in graduate school have been most useful in your job?

Copywriting clearly doesn’t require a knowledge of Foucault or 15th-century mensuration notation. Butat BAM at least, due to the relatively progressive programming—it does require copywriters to be comfortable with a wide range of aesthetic and intellectual ideas. Sometimes, it simply helps with speed; if you know Antigone or Einstein on the Beach or George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, then it takes much less time and effort to write a description of them. But often times, it helps with grasping the sometimes-buried intellectual threads in an artist’s work so that they can be clearly teased out and explained to the general public. I’m frequently asked to write show descriptions for shows that haven’t been created yet. BAM commissions often fall into this category. I might have nothing to go on but five minutes of grainy rehearsal footage and a skeletal artist description translated badly from Dutch. The PhD has helped me to quickly parse those materials and make good guesses as to what it is an artist might be getting at. It’s funny because the artists themselves are often appreciative of this. It’s often a dialectic, to use a big PhD word.

What skills have you had to learn on the job? Are there skills you wish you had been taught in graduate school?

There are a few, but most involved simply improving my writing. When I first started, it was hard for me to part with the long and (what I thought to be) luxuriant sentences that had become my habit while in school. Marketing copy has to be extremely concise and clear, of course, and, probably to the benefit of my writing in general, I had to adopt a punchier, clearer style. Relatedly, I had to learn to prioritize information in order to meet strict word counts—do we mention the Pulitzer Prize? is this composer enough of a draw to include? is there room to mention the spinning mirrored ceiling and on-stage donkey?—while satisfying colleagues and the artists themselves and also maintaining something resembling a voice. That was really the biggest challenge: learning how to fit everything into 100-word blurbs while really grabbing people without the use of marketing clichés. There was also a certain amount of post-PhD ego-swallowing that had to happen in order to better work with my editor and team, who are all terrific. And those Microsoft Outlook auto-reply out-of-office emails that I always forget to create—what a shame my PhD didn’t better prepare me for those.