If You Want To Make Better Music, Get A Life!
"Put the hours in" "Work hard"
In and of themselves, good pieces of advice. You don't get anywhere without practice, dedication, a work ethic, discipline, and a desire to improve yourself.
However, what happens when we allow these concepts to reach an extreme? What are the consequences on our creativity, inspiration, quality, productivity and enjoyment of our art form?
You might be aware of the concept of yin and yang, the interconnecting opposites that sums up the balance of life.
You may also be aware of its symbolism: Simply put, things become their opposite at their extremes.
In a production context, spending too many hours in the studio can leave you dry, devoid of creativity, energy and interest.
Trust me, I know. I estimate in the last 7 year's I've logged easily more than 10,000 studio hours. Considering there's 8760 hours in a whole year, that gives you a sense of scale.
In 2013, I began to feel burnt out. Staring at an empty screen every time I went into the studio. Between 1-2-1 teaching, lecturing, engineering for others, mixing, mastering, preparing tutorials for Mixmag & ModernBeats, and trying to have a life outside of music, I was getting to the end of the line.
I had nothing left to give. I was beginning to hate the thing I love doing most in life, the thing that I'm extremely grateful to do for a living.
That's when you know something is wrong, when you resent writing. You'd rather do your ironing than fire up Logic.
This experience made me realise certain things. I want to pass these lessons onto you now, so you can hopefully learn from them, avoid burn out, stay inspired, energised and able to do your best work all of the time.
Balance is key
Sounds simple, but the best advice usually is. We all have lives to lead, we all have friends and family we'd like see, experiences we desire. To those just getting into music production, the thought of spending endless days in the studio doing nothing but writing sounds like heaven. However, do anything long enough without a break and it'll start to feel like hard work you just don't want to do.
If you want to do your best work, make sure everything else in your life is in balance too.
Take regular breaks
I normally work in bursts of 20 - 30mins. In that time I'm incredibly productive, but once I 'hit the wall' there's no point banging my head against the wall. So, whilst I am working on a session over a number of hours, I normally take a couple of small breaks per hour to keep things interesting and make it not feel too much like a grind.
Sessions don't have to be long
In fact, the best sessions I've ever worked on have been short, sharp, focused sessions lasting 3-4 hours at the most. It's very rare that I've worked a session over this time that has been any more productive than a shorter one.
If you're finding yourself working endlessly in the studio over some menial tasks, you're falling victim to Parkinson's Law, the first of which states that:
"work expands to fill the time available for its completion"
Which, is to say, that if you have a month to complete a task, you'll take a month to complete it, as you'll succeed in psychologically blowing up the task to be more complex and difficult to do than it really is. Very rarely do we complete a task or project ahead of time.
If you do this in the studio, then it's time to rethink how you work. As Ed Norton's character in Fight Club once said:
"This is your life, and it's ending one second at a time"
I'd rather be spending that time with the people I love and having enriching experiences I can put back into my music, not being a slave to my art.
When it's not working, walk away
If you're getting nowhere, getting frustrated, the best thing to do is walk away. Go make yourself a green tea, go to the gym, go for a run...leave it for a few hours, a day or two even, and go back to it. Frustration only turns to anger, which only serves to further block your creativity.
If in doubt, DELETE
This is a hard one. But hugely necessary. Your time is precious, and so are your creative energies. If the track you are creating isn't catching a vibe, doesn't excite you or generally doesn't have the right fit after about 30mins, then get rid! Delete it from your hard drive. Kill it, stone dead.
Why? Because your time is better served by working only on tracks that do inspire and excite you. Plus, what you have learnt in your aborted previous attempt(s) will teach you what not to do the next time, getting you closer to the sound and feeling in your music that you DO want.
If you are low on inspiration, go do something else with your life!
If you're doing nothing but sitting in front of a computer all day every day writing music, chances are your music will end up sounding the same. If you don't expose yourself to other stimulus in your environment, you're going to end up going around in circles.
I have other outlets: recently I started to draw again. I'm also love running and I'm a Bikram Yoga student. I write this blog :)
These experiences, alongside my travels around the world, meeting amazing people and learning about the world, have given me inspiration that I put into my music. This ensures that I always feel fresh in the studio.
Make it fun!
Don't put so much pressure on yourself. If you aren't having fun making music, then why are you doing it? Life should be fun, and it's way too short to be living with stress.
Especially, the type of self inflicted stress, summed up in thought processes such as 'my tracks aren't good enough', 'I'm not good enough' or 'it's not what I want it to be'.
Relax, it's only music production! The fate of the world is not sitting on your shoulders, dependent on if you pick the right kick drum or not.
Figure out a way of working which makes the process enjoyable, inspiring and fun for you.