Whenever I have a release on the horizon, it’s a lengthy process to get across the finish line. First, there’s the initial listening process to make sure mixing/mastering went well enough. Then I have to upload the music – typically to Apple Music / iTunes so it will sync to my devices and I can listen wherever. When I’m satisfied, I move to the naming process.
I find that the process of naming music can be difficult. When you’ve spent months upon months creating the music, listening to it over and over, it kind of loses meaning at some point. I mostly file it into three categories: 1) Good, 2) Could be good, or 3) Needs to go to the trash bin. The main issue, really, is that through this process I have to set aside my feelings about the music and approach it in a more analytical approach.
There’s a problem though. All of this happens before the song gets named or before a theme becomes clear. By setting aside those feelings about the music, I kind of lose the ability to envision the story being told by the music. So enter the naming party!
The naming party is essentially a set amount of time where I get to force my loving partner into listening to the music and then leech out her creative force. It can be a collaborative process but mostly, I have to rely on her initial reactions and emotions to set the theme for the music. The theme leads to song naming and song order. She also largely decides on the naming of the songs based on those feelings and reactions.
It’s definitely one of the more important parts of creating an album and I can’t do it alone. If it had been left to me alone, most of my albums would consist of songs like: “House Music – C Major – Song 1” or “Ambient Piano – G Minor – Song 3”. Possible album titles: “Album 1”, “Album 2”, and so on.
The released album is made better thanks to this collaboration and it’s an important part of my whole process. A piece of the process I couldn’t do without a trusted partner.
P.S. In case you were worried that it’s a one-sided arrangement, I am occasionally involved in story ideas/editing/proof-reading for her… which I do with minimal complaint…
I was recently at a local outdoor music event, eating very interesting (also very good) Moroccan red quinoa tacos and listening to live music. After a while, I realized I wasn’t hearing the whole music anymore – instead, I was trying to find the song structure and the chord changes. Was that a 12-bar blues I heard? Was that a major turnaround? What was that drum pattern? So this is where I am at now – finding enjoyment in deconstructing other music to see what I’ve learned or what I can learn from it.
Song structure is important when you’re working with lyrics and vocals. The reading I’ve done on this seems to reinforce the idea as almost all the descriptions revolve around the lyrical portion of the song. All examples provided are lyrical songs – no instrumentals. It leaves me wondering how important having a formal song structure is to my own music.
I mean, in the strictest sense of the thing, any song I create will have structure. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. There will be volume changes and instrument drones that fade in-and-out. There will be chord progressions and multiple instruments, but many of the songs I’m working on don’t follow standard structures (12-bar, ABABCB, verse-chorus, etc.). Does it matter?
Well, what I’ve found recently is that songs following a defined structure definitely stick around in my head longer. I’ll walk away from working on the piece and still be humming a catchy part of the song later in the day because there’s some repetition in the music and using a common structure leads to having certain expectations. It’s like watching a movie – once you’ve seen enough in a single genre, you know what’s coming next.
The music I’m creating that is free-flowing and doesn’t focus on structure? Mostly, I walk away from these songs with just a feeling. The melody is forgettable, nothing more than a snapshot in time from the day I originally played the part.
I call it forgettable but that’s not the most apt description. The goal of the music isn’t to have a melody that sticks out or be distracting in any way. It’s music that goes in the background. It fills the void of silence, but it doesn’t have to draw you in. When done right, you will enjoy the music enough to remember the artist name but forget all the song titles.
Hopefully, you’ll be left with a good feeling and forget all the rest.
In my day job, we frequently talk about the “sunk cost” problem in technology deployments. The idea basically goes like this: a company will invest a million dollars into a technology based on the sales pitch. Then they invest thousands of hours into deploying and adopting the technology across numerous personnel. After some time, though, the company realizes they are millions of dollars into a project and have zero returns to show for it because the product didn’t work as advertised. Yet, they continue to push the product because, “We’ve already invested so much…”
If you want to read more about that, do an internet search for the “sunk cost fallacy” and I’m sure you’ll find plenty. However, if you don’t want to read up on it, just keep this in mind. The more you invest in a thing, the harder it becomes to walk away from it.
This applies to artists of all types. Maybe you have a painting or an unreleased song that you keep returning to in the hopes you can finally finish it off. I have a few of these too. I have songs, I have paintings, I have drawings – things that I return to but am never able to finish. One song was added to a previous blog post a couple months ago that I’ve invested so much time in, yet, it remains unreleased. No matter how much I’ve changed it or worked on it, it’s just not right.
I’ve modified the song multiple times including replaying parts, changing the lead instrument, adding new instruments to the mix, completely reprogramming the drum track, and so on. Despite all that work and effort, I can’t release it because it isn’t right and I haven’t been able to fully delete it yet either. I’ve just spent so much time on it.
With paintings, I have this problem less because I’m working completely in a physical medium. Paint is mixed with mediums and applied to a support suitable for the type of paint I’m working with. When you add too much, everything becomes a muddy brown and there’s no real way to back out of it. Sure, sometimes you can just go over the top with an opaque medium and essentially reset back to stage one. But depending on your support, you might hit weight limitations.
Point is, I’ve hit those physical limitations many times with paintings and that led to a very natural end point. “This painting is not done and there’s nothing I can do to change it or make it better.” It gets thrown out.
Working with the music I create is similar to digital painting. Every component exists on a separate layer and it becomes incredibly easy to remove a layer or add new layers. So it’s easy to keep going ad infinitum…
So how do we know it’s time to walk away? You have to take a break from it. When you return to it again, if you feel inspired, keep working on it! But if you don’t feel inspired and you just want to work on it because you’ve already invested so much… walk away.
Your best work will come when you feel inspired and that inspiration will lead to a finished product. It’s not likely that you’ll produce your best work when your goal is to simply finish.
If you have some unfinished projects you want to tell me about, feel free to hit me via email or at Twitter.
P.S. Hey, don’t forget – walking away from something that isn’t working isn’t a sign of failure. Getting fixated, stuck, and frustrated leading to you being unable to get your whole creation out into the world because you didn’t walk away? That seems more like failure to me.
I’ve said it on this blog in the past and I’ve seen it written in a lot of places, “Art is subjective.” It’s typically added on as this reminder that when your art is rejected by someone, for whatever the reason, it’s a subjective opinion. Unfortunately, this is only part of the truth. Sometimes, art is just not good.
The hardest part is putting your finger on specific things that make art bad. Is it bad music if the vocals aren’t in tune? A bad singer is a bad singer, right? Is it a bad movie if the acting is terrible? Is it a bad drawing if the shading is inconsistent? What if these things were done intentionally as a statement within the art?
Two paragraphs into writing this and I’m already losing track of my original thought that some art is just bad because every single example that comes to mind really is just my subjective view. What I consider bad, someone else might really enjoy – something that is very easy to spot by visiting your nearest art museum and keeping track of just how much of that art you don’t like. So now where do I take this entry?
I’ll detour. One thing that stands out to me, as an artist, is that mediocrity in art is a harder place to be than in the bad art section. People appreciate really bad art – either because it was intentionally bad to be funny or because the creator thought it was the greatest thing ever but it really, really wasn’t. In both cases, those of us on the outside are getting a laugh – and people like to laugh.
People also appreciate great art. You know, the kind of art that was obviously created by someone who is a master of their craft. The kind of art that when I say “great art”, some image or song just pops into mind and you smile. The best of the best.
You know what people really don’t appreciate? Mediocre art. Any art that’s between really bad and really good falls into a tough spot because it’s not at the extremes that people go out of their way to promote/share/whatever.
I feel a lot of my artistic efforts fall into this category as well. It’s most often not bad enough to make someone laugh at the effort but it’s not good enough to make people need to have more of it. Or more specifically, most of it is not bad enough or good enough to compel people to share it with their friends.
There’s a lot of mediocre art filling the world. There’s plenty of music you’ve enjoyed but don’t know who performed it because you weren’t motivated enough to look it up. There are a lot of paintings that fill walls around us which you appreciated but didn’t think to invest in any of them. This is all around us thanks to people showing up every day, putting forth effort, and producing something decent.
Coming back to this whole “art is subjective” thing, when you submit a piece somewhere what you are really asking is: “Is my work commercially viable enough that you are willing to support it?” That is a hugely different question compared to, “Is my art bad?”, but it’s still a pretty subjective thing. How many stories do you know of artists being rejected only to have them move on to be famous for that same work of art later? (Living with a writer, I know a few.)
So, how do you know if your art is bad art? Honestly, you have to soul search and figure that out for yourself. For me, I know it’s bad if I don’t love it. Beyond that single qualification, there are questions I ask of myself depending on what type of art I’m producing – but mostly, I just accept my art as mediocre and that’s a great place for me to be. There will be a small audience that likes what I offer and I never wanted anything more than that.
Feel free to send me your take via Twitter or email! Until next time, take care of yourself and keep creating.
P.S. I should say that I don’t use the term mediocre here to mean anything negative. Some people won’t rise to the level of superstardom because there’s a finite number of positions at the top. Others probably don’t want to be there and are content with just steadily working in the field they love. You know those actors that are in a billion movies but you still don’t know their name? They aren’t superstars but they show up, put in a good day’s worth of work, and have success. And, frankly, we wouldn’t have superstars without them.
It sounds old to say things like, “Well, in my day, we didn’t do …” but that’s often how I feel about social media. I did not grow up with the idea that we should spew every waking thought into the void in the hopes that someone out there would like it. I’ve never been in a place where I thought what I had to say was of interest enough to clutter up the internet. Yet, here I am: writing this blog. It will go off into the void and I’ll be disappointed if I don’t gain a follower or like from it.
Honestly, every time I sit down to write an entry or post to Twitter, I have this internal conflict. Why am I writing this? Is it unique? Does it have purpose? Should I post personal feelings? Stories about my life? Take a political stand? My initial reaction is, no. No, I should not do any of this.
Unfortunately, I’ve read that social media is a necessity for artists of all types now if you want to be successful. I’ve read it in guides for visual artists. I’ve read it in guides for musicians. It’s just accepted now and here are some “tips” that I’ve read in my brief research:
You should post frequently, but not too frequently. Maybe three to five times daily.
You should time your posts to coincide with peak viewing times.
Share across multiple platforms to increase your potential audience size.
You get the idea. If you don’t, just search up “how to social media” and you’ll find plenty of guides, videos, and words of advice.
Anyway, why am I writing this? It is a business decision. Being an independent artist means you have also chosen to be an independent business owner. As a business, I have to market my goods and services to consumers and social media is a good way to connect to potential consumers. That means, I have to market my brand which is me. Therefore, I have to do this, in the hopes that you’ll find it, like it, and want to support my work.
If you struggle with social media the way I do, I’m truly sorry. I have no advice to help you with that. Every post is hard for me – every single tweet is an hour long struggle of “now I’ve written it, should I post it”? I’ve deleted more drafts than I’ve actually posted. Every blog entry I put together is a week long struggle of editing and wondering how it could be perceived by readers. Often times, I go through this struggle only to hit “publish” and then get informed by some English major I know that I messed up a word!
But hey, I manage to get through it, so I’m sure you can too!
P.S. I had a thought writing this entry: If you’re an open book to the world, how do you differentiate between the world and your closest friends?
Patience is a hard thing to learn and practice that mostly just comes with time. I won’t say it’s universally true, but with age comes patience. There’s a willingness to sit back and just accept things as they come – to sit back and listen. I think you can practice patience by doing things that require you to just be still and in the moment but mostly, I think it just comes with time.
Perhaps it’s less about age and more about acceptance that there are things you can’t control in life. When you are younger, so much of life is out of your personal control and you don’t really accept that thinking, “Hey, I’ll get out of this house someday and do whatever I want!” You eventually get some freedom but then the reality of life steps in – turns out, you can’t do just do anything you want without consequence. It also turns out that there are just some things in life, these days, that you can’t change.
My life experience was exactly that.
As a teen, I had about zero patience but I was also willing to walk away from something when it wasn’t going my way. In other words, my teenage version of patience was apathy and the ability to walk away from anything not specifically going my way. In my early 20s, it was much the same except I wasn’t able to walk away so apathy turned to anger – anger at bosses for being so slow to take my suggestions; anger at co-workers for being so dumb as to not know the basics of our job; anger at the parents that took days off because their kids were sick. Misguided anger, everywhere and for everyone.
Mid-to-late 20s? I had kids. I can honestly tell you that nothing changes your outlook on life quite as much as having kids but it can take some time to fully set in. In terms of patience? I gained some, sure, but probably not as much as you would think. In fact, having children really pushed me to change my life and left me feeling like I had wasted the first 20-some years of my life. (Which is a broad, incorrect generalization, but I’m sure you understand.) Feeling that way spurred me to change a lot, mostly for the better, but was a source of anxiety and stress for a long time.
It still is in some ways. I was an avid video game player – it consumed my life for many years – but when I had kids, I walked away from the worst of that. As my kids get older, though, they play video games now and I struggle every day with my own past – I want them to have fun with their friends while also ensuring they don’t waste years like I did. But hey, this isn’t a parenting blog, so moving on…
Getting to 30s, well, I finally found more patience. I think it was the cross-section of a lot of things in my life. I’ve achieved some goals and as my children get older – I have more free time to get back to pursuing dreams. Also, there are some fundamental differences between me now and the person that existed 10 and 20 years ago – differences rooted heavily in those life changes I alluded to but continue to provide zero details. The main point is that I finally found something.
Maybe it’s better to just say that I found some peace. For a lot of my earlier years, there was a sense of urgency tied to every pursuit: “If I do this, I need to be amazing so I can make a bazillion dollars and never work again.” Even in more recent years, I stressed about my paintings and how I needed to produce something that would get me known. The goal was less about adding something positive to the world and more about how I can walk away from my current career.
Reality hurts. As it turns out, all of these pursuits are extremely hard work and require a lot of effort and first attempts are rarely as good as we’d like to think. Even when you do turn out something great, you’re unknown so money doesn’t just pour in through some funnel without stopping. Even with my career – the reason why I’m good at what I do in my day job is because I now have years of experience and accumulated knowledge behind me that puts me above a lot of the competition. I haven’t crossed the peak into a place where new technologies are completely foreign to me and the younger generation is taking my place. That’ll come in the next decade, I’m sure.
These days? I have enough patience to understand that it’s a long game I’m playing. I might have little successes along the way but I expect to be struggling to get this off the ground for a long time, depending on the amount of effort I can realistically put into it.
So that brings me back around to our core topic. Looking back, there are a few things that I wish I had known which contribute heavily to my ability to be patient. Those items, in no particular order:
Don’t put off doing the thing you love thinking that life will somehow afford you an opportunity later. Life will never work out that way. You have to make time and chase those things.
You’re never as good as you think you are at first. That first album? Not the best. That first painting? Not the best. BUT, that’s okay.
When you suffer a setback, don’t give up. Just keep working at it.
Define what your version of success looks like in realistic terms. “Being rich and famous” is not a realistic goal when you are starting out, so don’t make it your measure of success from the start.
If I had practiced these things from the start, my anxiety would have been reduced and perhaps I could have been more patient, stuck with something for longer, and found modest success earlier in life while following my dreams.
If you have some secrets for staying patient, send them my way via email or twitter, I’d love to hear it!
P.S. Patience also comes from acceptance that failure is a potential outcome and accepting that it is better to have tried than to have done nothing at all.
I love technology, generally, and the things it has done for us. But technology has created an interesting problem as it relates to cheating. Some of us are old enough to remember when calculators were forbidden from math class because you needed to know the steps instead of just getting to the answer, right? Now, computers are so ubiquitous in our lives that *not* using a calculator seems like the poor choice. Are we cheating somehow when we use the calculator?
If the calculator example doesn’t hit home for you, how about the last time you went to a music concert? (You know, back when we could still do that.) Or, honestly, to any event. Were you one of the people recording it on your phone to never watch it again? Were you one of the people silently hating the people with their phones out recording this once-in-a-lifetime event?
That is technology enabling people to experience an event in two different ways and we are left wondering if one of those people is cheating themselves. Either they didn’t record the event and can’t relive the moment later or they didn’t pay enough attention to the current moment and missed out on some emotion. I certainly can’t say which approach is right. Having grown up in a different time, I don’t record these events because I just want to be in the moment and know that I’ll never watch the recording anyways.
So what does this have to do with art? Well, technology has enabled artists in the same way and I’m left wondering – what is cheating anyways?
For a very long time, I subscribed to a purist attitude on this. Consider photobashing – or the concept of taking a photograph and blending it into your digital artwork in order to add textures or specific elements to your final art. I hated this concept. I felt like, “Are you an artist if you didn’t really draw the thing yourself?” It felt like cheating because it seemed like it removed the necessity of traditional art skills.
Fast forward many years and here’s a layout in one of my Logic Pro projects:
What you are seeing here is three different piano instruments overlaid in order to produce the song that I was going for. You can see my sections that I’ve labeled with specific chord progressions (3->5->6 or 1->1->5->1->1->6) that I reused. You can see where I loop parts and so on. This is very much a work-in-progress so it’s rough, but as shown above it sounds like this:
This is my cheating.
This is me taking shortcuts to achieve the desired end-goal because I finally came around to a different view which you can look at in one of a couple ways:
Technology enables me to compensate for my otherwise mediocre skills; or
Technology enables me to take shortcuts to get to my end goal and thereby saves time.
If I had to follow a more traditional route, I would have to pound out each of these parts on a proper piano and when I landed on something I liked – write it out in note form. Then I’d have to add in each part I wanted to play to those sheets of music. Eventually, I’d land on the same composition and then I’d have to play it and practice until I was adept enough at playing it error free – I could record it. (To be fair, the recording process could have multiple takes with a sound engineer taking the best parts of each take in order to produce the final recording. So, still kind of cheating!)
Past me, from so many years ago, would have considered this cheating and said: “How dare you call yourself a musician or artist!” Today?
Well, today, I see it as a more efficient workflow that helps compensate for areas where I’m not so great but most importantly, allows me to land on a final composition faster. I hit the record button multiple times and capture my notes in MIDI form. I listen through it, pick out the parts I like the most for the feel I’m going for, and I create a composition. I’m still doing the work to create a finished product.
I also get to take advantage of the process. Accidentally hit an E note when I meant E flat? Fix in post processing. Accidentally get off beat when you didn’t mean to? Quantize it in post processing. Having troubles playing left and right hand pieces at the same time? Play them separate and combine them in post processing.
Quite honestly, I’m not sure it’s much different than using samples and loops in music which happens plenty. But taking these shortcuts, cheating, leaves me with an important question. If you can cheat your way to a finished product, what makes you an artist?
Really, we have to answer that for ourselves.
I think it’s different for everyone. For me, I consider myself an artist because I practice hard and work at it every day. When I’m not producing something of my own, I am reading about other works or researching information that might make me better. One of the most telling things is that when you look at my desk, you won’t see a single book related to my day job but you will see lots of instruction books and printouts related to drawing, painting, and music.
Feel free to tell me what makes you an artist via email or at Twitter!
P.S. Another way to think about whether or not you are an artist is simply this: are you creating art? My partner once relayed a quote to me that went something like, “You are a writer as long as you are writing every day.” If you are doing the art you enjoy, actively pursuing it in your life, then you get to call yourself an artist regardless of your commercial success status.