Categories: music lessons, personal projects, reflection

Lessons I've learned making music in the past decade

May 6, 2008

1. You Care the Most

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.

2. Friends are Not Your Fans

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.

3. Promotion is Key

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.

4. Humans Collect Stuff

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.

5. Attention Spans are Low

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.

6. Feedback is Rare

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.

In Conclusion

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.

More lessons I've learned in past two decades

February 12, 2012

1. Pick a Tool and learn it.

All music creation software is going to have strengths and weaknesses. All the major sequencers – Live, Cubase, 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. Tighten up your songs

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 hard earned 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.

6. Cultivate a sense of what is “good enough”

I’ve 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 the idea of a song comes across clearly, and nothing I hear makes me feel uncomfertable, it’s time to move on.

7. Iteration

I’ve discovered that I work best by iterating through songs. 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.

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.

8. Frustration is part of the process

Great art always takes great amounts of work. I’ve now finished eight albums. The suffering you endure to create your music is what makes it so good.

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.

Even more things I've learned creating music in past two decades

April 6, 2014

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. Social media 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. 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.

6. Making progress / using time effectivly

I usually limit a music session to moving some aspect of a song forward. It makes me feel like I’m always making progress.

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.

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.

7. 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.

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.

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