Let me lay out a couple of things I’ve learned in the past almost decade of producing free music. They would probably apply to any aspiring musician. Many of them may be obvious and intuitive, but it’s always helpful to take stock.
No one cares about my music the way I do. There’s no reason for them to – for me its a primary extension of self. It’s what I pour myself into, laboring, debating, molding, and refining everything for a ridiculous number of hours. Then, after all this toil and triumph, I release an album, where all my pride and insecurities are balled up in an explosive state of nervous excitement. My friends and fans will support and celebrate with me, which is truly amazing, but it’s important to recognize that most people don’t care about it, nor understand the effort it takes. It’s important (though almost impossible) not to have expectations of how my music will be received. What’s most important is how I feel about my music. You’ll hear this again and again when you’re an artist – it just took experience for me to internalize it.
This is so true for so many things in life. I watch a movie, and when the credits are rolling I start thinking about what to do next. Only when I start watching the “making of” on the DVD do I begin to appreciate how amazing the process of creating the movie was. I created an interactive “making of” page for one my previous albums to give a listener some insight to the creation process. Hopefully it made the music more interesting to listen to.
It’s always a good idea to talk to people about the process of creating something, be it an event, a piece of art, a cake, or whatever. I’m often oblivious of the extraordinary effort it takes to accomplish a task.
When I released my first two albums, I really pushed my music on my friends, family, and peers, since, well, there’s already an established relationship. What I didn’t recognize is that many people I know don’t really care about music. Then there’s those who do, but don’t really dig my downtempo stylings. While of course there are exceptions, I finally recognized this isn’t really my target audience. My target audience are folks who dig downtempo melodic electronica, which is a certainly a niche category.
Why was no one coming to my website to download my free music for the first few years? Because no one knew about it. I had to learn the art of promotion. Since I’m not trying to sell my music, the traditional channels – i.e. labels – are not available. I must contact the radio stations, magazines, websites, blogs, and forums myself. Occasionally a fan will help spread the word – and to those people I am incredibly grateful.
Successful promotion turns out to be cast a wide a net as possible, putting a lot of effort in spreading the word, sending out cds, and getting very little back. You have to accept a lot of rejection. I’ve learned to be happy if 5% of my emails or mailings gets a response – that is, not even a positive response, but a message indicating that the party will or did check out my music. It’s not really something that I enjoy.
Just because people know about something, doesn’t mean they’ll care. When I hand someone a business card, realistically, there’s a minuscule chance they’ll go check out my website. When I hand someone a cd, there’s maybe a 50% chance they’ll listen to it. The best time to hand someone a cd is when they’re about to go their car, and I can suggest they check it out on their journey. We now live in an era where data is free, and people collect it without using it. Humans like to have stuff. If they do end up on my website and download an album or track, it may get lost in the shuffle of other downloads.
Unless your music is simple and poppy, or incredibly accessible, most people won’t be able to make sense of it on first listen, and consequently not return for a second listen. I can not approach my own music with fresh ears – I’m intimate with every second of it. It’s great to have someone who’s not a huge music fan listen to my music before I release it to gauge how most people will receive it. It has previously helped shape the ordering of tracks on an album. Accessible music will always be more popular than complex music.
I’ve learned that it often takes many listens for people to start really enjoying my music. My favorite story is of a co-worker who’s cd player broke with my cd in it, so they had to listen to it all day on repeat. The next day he told me never to stop writing music.
My next album will not be very accessible. At least I now know what to expect. The advantage of being totally independent is that I can choose to make musical decisions like this. I’m writing more complicated music because that’s what I want to do.
This is the most important thing I’ve learned – the small percentage that do care and listen to my music, don’t think how important it is for me to get feedback from them. This is completely normal. How often to do you appreciate something and think “I should tell the artist (or whatever) how much I enjoy their art?” Not often. Since the process of acquiring my music is completely devoid of personal interaction (click on a link on a website), there’s nothing bonding the downloader to me. They download the music, and perhaps listen to it sometime down the line. Maybe they like it – maybe the don’t. I will most likely never get feedback. The thing I’ve taken away from this is to always contact artists when I enjoy their work. It’s a great habit. Or if an artist is serious about soliciting feedback, both negative and positive, I try to do so. They always really appreciate it.
I don’t mean to sound like it’s a negative experience to create and release music – it’s not. There’s simply a lot of challenges I never imagined. I absolutely celebrate the tools, ability, and lifestyle that allows me to craft the music that I want to. I’m still in awe that there’s a distribution method that allows me to share my music at almost no cost to the entire world.
We are still very much at the beginning of the musical explosion that’s about to take place. The tools that are available completely eliminate the cost barrier to create music. As this generation learns those tools, the variety and quantity of output will be staggering.
Good times ahead. And good times right now.
I would love to hear what other lessons musicians have learned, or your experiences with anything I mentioned.
A while back I wrote a blog post describing 6 lessons I learned about creating and distributing music on the internet. More than one person wrote me to say they were disappointed that the lessons didn’t touch upon the process for actually creating electronic music. So now that I’m back on vacation and had some time to ruminate, I’m going to try to jot down a few things I’ve learned about creating computer music. Please bear in mind these lessons are deeply rooted in personal opinion.
1. Pick a Tool and learn it.
All music creation software is going to have strengths and weaknesses. All the major sequencers – Live, Cubase, Sonar, Fruityloops, Reason, etc – have a huge group of loyalists and detractors. The reality, especially when you are just getting started, is that it doesn’t matter much which tool you pick. They all provide the basic functionality required to create music. What really matters is that you spend a lot of time learning the software inside out. They are all extremely powerful and versatile tools, full of innovation and nuances. It will take a lot of work to understand how to bend a sequencer to your will. Discover its limitations, and learn how to work around them. Amazing music has been created on all of them, so you know that it’s possible for you to do it too.
2. Don’t become a collector of software
I’ve discovered that I’m much more productive when I have limited resources. Don’t become a collector of sequencers and synth plugins. It’s so easy in this day and age to either download tons of freeware software or steal commercial software. Buy a sequencer, and play with the built in synths for a while. There are “lite” versions of all major software, and if you are just getting started with computer music the “lite” version will provide you with ample functionality. If you spend your hard earned cash on software, you’ll be more inclined to use it to its maximum potential.
Try not to go on a buying spree of synth plugins, because you’ll never dive deep into the potential of the plugins. It takes time to just become familiar with the presets of a synth. I’ve definitely gone on some synth buying benders, and became much less productive as a result. It’s great to have powerful tools at your disposal, but you need to be familiar enough with your tools to know when to actually use it.
3. Learn the foundations of electronic music
I think it’s extremely important to understand the basics of analog and digital synthesis. Even if you are planning on just using synth presets (as I do for the most part), you’ll want to know how to tweak a patch so it sounds just the way you want them to. I was lucky enough to attend Oberlin college where they offered advanced curriculum in electronic music. Everything essential I learned in the first semester: How to construct sounds on a analog synth, how to build patches on a sampler, how to route and modulate the sound signal, etc.
I think Reason is the perfect software to learn all these concepts on. The software is built just like a giant modular studio, where all the components and the way your tie them together mirror their real life equivalents.
4. Finish a Song
Not long after you get started, you’ll start creating little song snippets that you enjoy playing with. Eventually you’ll flush some of them out so that you have really awesome little song snippets. The real challenge is to create a full song from a song snippet. This is a daunting and often elusive task. So my advice is make a full song out of that snippet, even if it’s crappy and super repetitive. It just needs to have a beginning and an end.
The sooner you are confident that you can create a whole song, the sooner you’ll build the confidence that you can do it again. Otherwise you’ll be spinning your wheels indefinitely on lots of little song snippets. Once you have a complete song, you can always improve it. So . . .
5. Improve your songs
Find a good set of critics. People who you can listen to and take criticism from. It’s important to learn how to take negative feedback. You don’t always have to agree, but an objective set of ears often has a lot of value. Learn to differentiate from constructive criticism and mean spirited bashing. Its much easier to be a critic than a creator. All artists must learn to grow a thick skin, because almost everyone who is not you doesn’t appreciate your art.
Most listeners attention span is very short, so learn to trim the fat from your music. I’m always going back through completed tracks and finding measures which I can delete. It can be difficult to throw away some of your brilliant output, but songs are usually stronger when there’s less filler and more substance.
I personally can’t stand repetition in electronic music. I’m always looking to make variations in tracks so that it never feels like its constructed on repeated loops. I like to either create slight variations in note patterns or automate filters to keep repetitive parts interesting to my ears.
On the flip side, I’ve also learned to not over obsess over the details in a song. I self master all my own music, which is a huge, painstaking effort. I know a professional would do a much better job than I do, but the process of mastering a song usually reveals mistakes in the mix. At some undefinable point during this process the returns from tweaking a song starts diminishing. When a song sounds pretty much the way I want it to, it’s time to move on.
I’ve discovered that I work best by iterating through songs. After finishing an album, I’ll start from scratch. First I’ll create a new song. I’ll work on it a little bit. As soon as I start to become frustrated with it, I’ll create a new one. When the second song becomes less fun, I’ll go back to the first song. If no inspiration hits, I’ll return the second song. If nothing there, I’ll start a third song. And so forth. Always iterating through the songs, starting from the first one. I’m not super strict about this, but generally adhere to it.
After I have four or five songs that I’m working on, I’ll start filtering the tracks. I’ll listen to each one and put them in one of three folders – “likely”, “maybe”, “unlikely”. I’ll inevitable only work on the songs in the “likely” folder. And I’ll iterate through those tracks, creating new ones when I’m frustrated with the ones I’m working on, and when I have enough tracks I’ll filter them again. And so forth.
I used to not do this. I’d bang my head against a song until I couldn’t take it anymore, and would often be in a dark mood until I’ll could push through. I’ve learned that if I’m working on a bunch of songs simultaneously, I’m much fresher to the material when I revisit it. I know this advice seems to contradict with the “finish a song” statement – but there’s a big difference to having a whole song mapped out and from it being done. I also have the confidence that I’ll finish a song cause I’ve done it almost a hundred times. It took a long time to build that confidence.
Since it doesn’t cost anything to keep the songs from the other folders around, you don’t have to throw them away. One day they may become handy where you need a section for a song that you are working on. I often construct songs by taking two song snippets and figuring out how to seamlessly meld them together. I enjoy the challenge by taking two unrelated songs and figuring out how to blend them together. A good example of this is “starry” – the A and B sections were two unrelated song snippets. I massaged the B snippet to be in a related key to the A snippet, and eventually fused them together. Booyeah.
7. Frustration is part of the process
Great art always takes great amounts of work. I’ve now finished five albums, and what I’ve learned is that the pain and suffering you endure to create your music is what makes it so good. It’s the curse of having high standards.
I’m always working so hard to finish an album, but after it done, I become a little lost. If you are playing lots of gigs to support your music there’s lots to look forward to, but if you are mostly a composer like myself, it can be a big letdown. I’m starting to appreciate the process more than the end product. As I’ve gotten older I’m starting to grasp that life is about the journey, not the destination. Don’t rush the process. Without frustration there would be no fulfillment.
The advantages of computer music over a band is that you are in complete control of everything. The disadvantage is that you often get so stuck inside your own head that the music never evolves. To grow as a musician, you have to play with other musicians. Computer music is often a solitary art form. I think its important to find some other people that you can collaborate on tracks with. To work with a someone who has a different perspective or skill set is always a learning opportunity. I believe if you find the right musical partner(s), 1 + 1 = 3. As soon as I started using Live (instead of Reason), I started working with other musicians, and it propelled my music way farther than I could have taken it alone.
9. Dissect music that inspires you
Start picking apart the songs that you love. Learn how to play their melodies. Figure out what the chords progressions are, which can often be derived from the bass lines. Count out the rhythms. Make a .wav file of the song so that you can import the song in your sequencer. Then you can loop parts, even slow them down, until you understand how they are constructed.
First focus your attention on all the sounds that are at the front of the mix. After a while, tune those sounds out and listen to all the subtle sounds in the back of the mix. You want to learn to be able to focus on song and hear individual tracks in a mix. It takes lots of practice and concentration.
When I run across music that truly inspires me, I usually go through a couple phases. Soon after the joy of discovering such amazing art wears off, I’ll get depressed, because I’ll never be that talented. This is closely followed by jealousy. Eventually, maybe a couple days later, I’ll be able to celebrate it again. Ok, so I’m moody. Be glad we’re not married.
There are always going to be people who are more talented than you are. That doesn’t mean that your art has no value. Use the people who inspire you as teachers. Or break into their house and set their couch on fire. Your choice.
My approach to composition
I’m an improviser at heart. I’ll just hit the record button and jam with myself on a piano or rhodes until I hit upon an idea that might be worth revisiting. Then I’ll play around with the idea until its time to re-record it with a metronome to determine its actual rhythm and tempo. This will be the starting point for my new song. Then I’ll start flushing out this idea a little bit. Sometimes this initial idea, which is the launching point for my new song, will be removed along the way.
The way I compose music is akin to chipping away at a block of stone to create a statue. I tend to mold rough ideas into fully fleshed out song segments. I go over parts endlessly, tweaking this and that until it achieves the sheen that I want. I don’t often know what the end goal is, but I have the confidence that a good idea will eventually blossom into it’s potential. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but I can usually tell when an idea is worth pursuing.
I like pudding. One day I’d like to bathe in it. What a glorious day that will be.
I also like comments. Feel free to leave me feedback so I can learn how you resonate with my perspectives.
Unlike the last two “lessons” post, there is no unifying theme to these ideas. These are just random thoughts that I jotted down over the last year while I was working on tunes. Hopefully you can find something useful in one of these savory thought nuggets.
1. Instant inspiration
When I need to work on something fresh, I’ll take a song that has already been somewhat fleshed out and start a new unrelated song section using the same set of plugins. I might keep a drum part or bass line from the original song to use as an anchor, and I’ll try and build something new in one or two sittings. Since I’m “restricted” to the plugins already in the track, I’ll spend no time patch/plugin hunting. The entire time I’ll just be writing music. It’s most often a cathartic exercise, and occasionally I’ll write something worth keeping. I could either fold this new part back into the original song, or use it independently.
2. Focused song writing
When I’m trying to write a new melody line for a tune, I’ll create a loop in a song section and start jamming. As soon as I play something interesting I’ll stop recording and drop whatever I just played in the section. I’ll tidy up the bad notes and off rhythm, and then play around with the notes in the midi editor. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m an abuser of quantize. I used to just jam on the loop for like 20 minutes and then scrub through the entire recording until I found the interesting ideas. This new approach is way more efficient way to make progress on a song (though maybe not as fun as the endless jam approach). I may do several passes in a section to see if I can create a few different melodies, but I often stick with my first idea and move on.
As of late, I’m letting finished songs sit idle for long periods of time – like 6 months to a year – before revisiting them. Then I’ll have fresh ears, and am much more willing to modify (and hopefully improve) the song. Similarly, it’s fun to go through unfinished songs that I haven’t looked at in a while and re-evaluate then. Often I find a single section in one of these songs that I think is strong, and throw the rest of it away. I might try to meld this section with other cannibalized song sections. I love the challenge of trying to connect two unrelated song sections together – transposing sections to related keys and trying to find a way to make interesting transitions from one section to another.
4. The hustle
The vast majority of opportunities for your art are not handed to you on a silver platter. When there’s a musician I want to rope into playing on a track, a producer that I really want to meet, or whatever – I find a way to make the connection happen. It’s showing up to gigs early or staying late after a show to make an introduction. It’s knowing when a person of interest is going to be at a place and finding them. It requires good timing, confidence, humility, and friendliness. Like anything important, there’s the risk of failure. In the long run, you rarely regret trying, where you will almost always regret not trying.
5. The whole story behind the music
I recently had a recording session with a violin player that I thought went really well. Upon reviewing the material, I found that I wasn’t happy with the way things were recorded – the phrasing and dynamics of the recorded parts didn’t sit well with me. I initially got depressed since I thought I had wasted my time. Later, I remembered that the recording session was necessary to clarify what I wanted the violin parts to sound like. I’m confident that during subsequent sessions, I’ll record the parts the way I want them. I’ve been through this experience many times. It just takes a lot of time and patience. Listeners to my music have no idea how many failures and changes I made to these songs before they hear them. Moreover, they don’t care (and I don’t blame them), much like you don’t care about the many edits I made to this post. Looking back, I don’t remember the painstaking hours I spent obsessively tweaking my tracks.
6. Letting tunes ferment
When I released my last album (Soulful Filling), it was the first time I had no lingering doubts about a release. Almost two years later, I still feel the same way, which is sort of astonishing. I know I’m not going to be able to do it with every release going forward, but I now know it’s a goal worth pursuing. Currently I have a dozen or so tracks taking shape with a similar enough vibe, so I started mentally assembling the track order of a new album. When I looked at what would comprise the next album, I knew that I wasn’t going to feel as good about it as I had about Soulful Filling. So I removed any tracks that I had doubts about from the track list. I can always release them as bonus tracks. Of course this advice could easily be taken too far. There’s no need to be paralyzed by quest for perfection. The goal of an artist is to constantly grow and improve – so I’m not hoping that this next album is the best album I’ll ever release. My goal is to release something that I believe I will have few regrets about a couple years later. Set your bar high, but not out of reach.
7. Making progress
Previously, I mentioned that I always iterate through tracks to reduce frustration. Another thing to add to that is that when I open a track, I always try to either add or modify something before closing it. This helps me feel like I’m moving it forward, even if I abandon it later. Unless I’m really in the zone working on a song, a music session will last about 20-60 minutes (my free time is pretty limited these days anyways). I’m pecking away at these tunes, but I don’t care. I used to get so lost in my obsession to produce music that I forget I make music because its fun and emotionally fulfilling. Its important to not to lose sight of this.
8. Self mastering
I’ve self mastered all 5 of my albums. I am by no means a mastering jedi – infact, I’m quite an amateur, with almost zero training in the subject. I sent out my second album to get mastered and was totally unsatisfied with the result, so I figured it would be better if I just did it myself. Its a terribly painful and tedious process, and I’m not very good at it either. The best thing about mastering your own tunes is that I inevitably always find mistakes in the mix along the way. This is invaluable. So even if I send out my next album to get mastered by someone who knows what they’re doing, I will always do a first pass so that I can hopefully identify all the mistakes in the mix.
9. Ableton Live
Little magical musical accidents sometimes occur in Ableton Live. As soon as I have a set of clips that are working well together, I lay them out in the arrangement view. I’ll create a loop for this section in the arrangement view, and then add new parts back in the session view. By default, the last clip recorded in live will playback when I hit play in the arrangement view. When I move to a different section of a song, the last thing I recorded will automatically (and non-intentionally) play in the new section. Occasionally it will sound inspiring (though never spot on). So I’ll investigate, reorganize the melody and rhythm of the clip so it works in the new section, and BAM, new unintentional part to the song that may even help connect two sections together.
Please let me know if you found any of these useful, or if this post reminded you of other lessons you’ve learned along the way. . .
1. It’s crazy challenging to be a professional creator
I know a few professional electronic music producers. These are people who have more talent, attention to detail, knowledge, and discipline than I do. They all have multiple jobs and hustle to make money. Its crazy challenging to have a creative pursuit be a source of income. You will mix a ton of stress in with your passion. I made a choice to make music a hobby instead of my profession about a decade ago. That was one of the best decisions I ever made.
2. Facebook likes does not equal happiness
In the last few years I’ve discovered the joy of not caring if more people discover my music. While I would be unsatisfied if I didn’t have an audience at all, I do not believe I would be happier with twice as many facebook likes. I just feel grateful that there are people out there who care about my music. That is sustaining enough. This is another advantage of not requiring music to be a source of income.
3. Hating your newest release
I usually feel lousy about my latest album by the time I release it (though I may not admit it publicly). I am totally burnt out on it, and all I hear are the flaws. I’ve talked with other producers who have experienced the same thing. So if you go through this, then you might be doing it right.
4. Making music is a lot of detail work
The emotional component that I’m capturing when I compose a track happens during a handful of hours. It probably takes a hundred hours to complete a track. When people react emotionally to my music, they figure that I was feeling deeply when creating it. The reality is that the majority of the time is it more like a puzzle that I am trying to put together. I’ve learned to enjoy a puzzle though.
5. Find a mentor
A high level goal for the past 5 or so years is to find a mentor. I feel so incredibly lucky to have found one. It is a paid mentorship, and it is the best investment I could have possibly made. To have someone your respect listen closely to your music and provide concrete feedback is amazing. You need to be at a place in your life where you want to hear criticism and things you should change though. You need to disable your defense mechanism and then sort through all the feedback at a later time.
6. Shortcuts are important
Even though I spend far less time working on music then I used to, I’m far more productive with that time. I learned lots of shortcuts. I’m not afraid to use tools like quantize and doing lots of note manipulation after playing something that felt like there was some juice in it. I usually limit a music session to moving some aspect of a song forward. It makes me feel like I’m always making progress.
7. Find the silver lining
Due to life circumstances, I took a 9 month break from music. It has been awesome to re-discover songs that I haven’t listened to from 9 – 15 months. There’s a gift there. Making an album is really hard. It was like someone handed me a bunch of mature ideas on a platter. This makes it simply joyous to work on these songs.
8. Bad ideas are part of the process
Remind yourself that trying things that don’t work out is not a waste of time. When you find yourself frustrated about a project, put it away and do something else creative.
9. See the forest
Don’t get so lost in the minutia in the track that you forget the feeling you are trying to capture. Most people won’t care about the minutia.
10. Lighting is important
It’s really important to be able to adjust the lighting in your studio. You want to set the right mood for music time.