© 2018 All Rights Reserved Great News! Musician’s Survival Guide is complete and paperback copies will begin to ship soon. The following is an excerpt from The Music chapter. Preorder the book at Indiegogo for $25 (to take advantage of free shipping). Or if you like eBooks then preorder from the Kindle store for just $9.99 (for a limited time!).
The Arts require discipline. There’s no way around that. If you have none, then you either need a partner to keep you on track, or you’re going to have to derive some discipline from deep within. Perhaps set restrictions as an exercise, so as to train yourself to work from start to finish of a record. You already know how to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. That’s what monkeys do. Now it’s time to approach your record with intent.
That’s not to say you can’t wing it. Building a record with intent isn’t so much about a plan as it is about trusting early decisions. You can and should experiment to your heart’s content as you create an arrangement, but when you come upon a part that works—when you find a part that makes you feel the right way—you need to trust yourself and stick with it. Make the record from top to bottom, and finish it. Whether it’s great or whether it’s shit, finish the record. Then move on to the next record. And the next. And rather than put overt importance on any particular record, just keep making them one after another.
The worst is when someone on the team proclaims the song a single. I go out of my way to avoid calling out any song as a potential single, and ask my Artists to do the same. It puts way too much pressure on the track. Performances crumble because everyone overthinks everything. Marketing decisions come into play before there’s even a vocal. Guitar tones are chosen based on target audiences. It’s a shit show every time. You can’t determine a “single” until the record is complete. Don’t think. Do.
I assure you that my suggestion that you build your record from top to bottom with intent is not made out of some misplaced dogma. Just look at the longer game here. If great songs are a numbers game—and they are—then it makes sense to treat it as such.
But it’s my Art!
That’s okay. If you want to create great Art, that’s a numbers game too. Why wouldn’t it be? We’ve already established that I don’t really distinguish between a hit and a great song, so why would calling it Art change the equation? All I ever care about is a reaction. Everything else is for suckers.
There’s just no way around it. Success in the music business is a numbers game and always has been. Super-producer Max Martin and his songwriting team spit out songs by committee on a daily basis. Those completed tracks are then heavily focus-grouped in order to find songs that get the most reaction. There’s no best song. The goal is not to evaluate quality, because personal feeling isn’t quantifiable. The goal is sales, streams, and spins, and those are based on reaction and the personal feelings of many. And if you write enough songs, you start to figure out what gets a reaction. I’d be willing to bet even a computer could do that.
Surely, a supercomputer given enough data and time could learn what humans react to musically. We’re probably only a decade or two away from a fully computer generated hit song. It might be sooner than that, even. The good news is, a computer won’t be able to perform the song, at least not in the foreseeable future. And as important as the song is to your success, ultimately, it’s the Artist who creates the connection with the fan. There’s no getting around it. The song must be performed. And people will come to see you perform it.
And here we come full circle back to the crux of the matter—confidence. Performance is about confidence. And if you want to come off confident, then you must approach the making of your record with confidence. Which as I’ve already pointed out, is a completely safe prospect, because you don’t have to release the track if it doesn’t come out great.
Let me just pause for a moment, for should I ever say aloud “you don’t have to release the track if it doesn’t come out great,” in a room full of young pie-in-the-sky-eyed musicians and would-be produsahs, the sheer volume of blank stares would be deafening.
What do you mean you don’t have to release the track? Why would I spend all that time to make the track and not release it?
I understand that people want to share their growth, and it’s exciting to post up a song and get a reaction. But you would do well to limit your earliest works, or at the very least reserve them, because you won’t be able to evaluate your first records without some distance from them. Even just a few months can be the difference between believing you’re genius and deciding you’re shit.
Any of you who has more than a few recordings under your belt recognizes the nearly schizophrenic relationship we all tend to have with those early songs and productions. This is normal, and if you find that your first recordings can withstand the aging process, then you’re either a total natural or you’re completely delusional. Either way, you need some reps to figure out which. And more than just reps, you need to make records without pressure. When you put your early work up on the Internet, you put pressure on yourself. This is a mistake. You want to remove all pressure at the early stages. Then by the time the pressure comes, you’re ready for it.
Look, I wrote an entire book, one chapter per day, and posted it online at a time when I’d never written a book before. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s called The Daily Adventures of Mixerman, and an initial audience of 200 visitors per day had blossomed to 150,000 per day by the time I was done writing it many weeks later. The story went viral in the music business before viral was really a thing. So, I certainly get why you might want to put up your early work. I also understand pressure, and the building of that pressure to the point that it becomes difficult to perform.
For me the pressure came from success. Which has its own pitfalls. But what happens when you put up your first track and someone tells you it’s shit? Can you take that? Because if you can’t—and be honest with yourself—then you need to take some time in the early stages to build your confidence. If you’re the type of person that has trouble with criticism, particularly harsh criticism, then you need to at least protect yourself until you’re able to take it.
When you learned your instrument, you didn’t go out and play a recital without practicing for it first. Did you? Ah, well maybe you did. But you shouldn’t have! The point is, you practice, then you perform, and the recital amounts to practice performing. It’s also a progress report for parents, which allows them to measure their children to others. Talk about pressure. As if any of those parents would ever want their child to be a musician.
Tell me this. What would happen if you reserved every record that you made over the course of your first year and you released none of them on the Internet? Clearly, if you’re a working musician or band and you’re in the process of building an audience for yourself, that would be death. Don’t do that! But if no one has ever heard of you? And you have no audience? Wouldn’t it make more sense to put yourself in a position to attract an audience first?
Feedback is an important part of any creative process, and if the whole goal is to cause a reaction to our music, then it would make sense to test for a reaction. But to the whole world? Do we not understand the operative word focusas it relates to the term Focus Group? As in a small group that you can interact with, which will give you an idea as to what you can expect when you release it to the world? The world isn’t the focus group. You’re friends and family are. And if they aren’t tough enough on you (and they likely aren’t), then find fellow musicians at a similar stage of development nearby and online. Create a Group specifically for sharing with musicians who take their craft seriously.
Just to say, if you go onto one of these all-call Groups for producers and musicians, don’t count on your track ever being heard. No one listens to anything on those Groups, which means you’ll get no reaction at all. They’re a waste bin. You don’t even have a chance at a reaction, because no one is even listening.
In order to get some useful feedback, you need to create a small Group of fellow recording musicians who you’ve gotten to know, and who are actively recording themselves and willing to exchange feedback. Take control of your personal Board of Advisors. This way, you get positive feedback for your confidence, and targeted criticism for your education from people who can expect the same from you in return.
Some of you are going to totally ignore my advice and post every early brain fart you come up with in a public place. Clearly, that’s your prerogative. At least take down the carcasses of your early recordings the moment you realize they suck. It makes no sense to leave up something that even you think is shit. Trust me, every band and Artist has many songs that no one heard before their first official release. There’s a reason you never heard them. They suck! And no one in their right mind should leave up something that sucks.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but the world is a mean place. Most of us sensitive types go through self-doubt in the early stages of record-making. Shit. Forever. But as you prove yourself—not to the world but to yourself—you can combat the self-doubt with the empirical evidence of incremental improvement. You’ll get better every record that you make. And you will fall in love with each new song and record. But as time passes, those positive feelings will likely fade. A song that was brilliant just a few months ago, could very well prove an embarrassment today. Which is why I suggest you reserve your productions until you have some distance. When you finally make a track that you still adore three months after completing it? You may very well have produced your first Killer Record.