First Do It Badly

Lots of people are afraid to start something on the grounds they won’t be any good.  I’m that way.  We’re usually right about it too, but the problem is that if you don’t start you won’t get any better.  There’s a quote attributed to Carl Jung (I couldn’t find the source), “The fool is the precursor to the savior.” If you’re not willing to be bad, you’ll never be great.

You have to be willing to fail until you succeed.  That’s all that practice really is.  I’m taking piano lessons right now, and when I’m learning a new piece, it can be excruciating.  Before I can play the song well, I have to sit there for hours and play it terribly.  I fumble over rhythms, hit the wrong notes, forget to take my foot off the pedal, and lose my place in the music.  That’s after practicing both hands separately.  I trip, stumble, and fail my way through.  And then I do it again, but this time it’s a tiny bit better.  I continue that process 20 or 30 times, and eventually, I can play it.

When talking to students hesitant to begin writing, Jordan Peterson tells them to “Write a really bad first draft.”  That gives them something to edit.  Once it’s out in the world, the problems are no longer theoretical.  They learn exactly what they are, and that makes them easier to fix.  Keeping ideas inside and worrying about them is death.  I’ve wasted a ton of time worrying about how I’m going to write songs, rather than just writing songs.  Once I’m doing the work, my objectives are clear.

I’m trying to have a healthier relationship with failure; by all accounts the arts involve a lot of rejection.  My teachers have been recently pushing the importance of content creation, even if it’s bad.  That’s harder than it sounds.  You think it’d be easy to just write something and not care too much, but it takes practice.  The issue is that once you have an inkling of interest in what you’re doing, it becomes a little bit precious, and that impedes the finishing process.  At any given time, I have two or three ideas that I really like, that I want to flesh out and perfect.  I’ll start a new song from scratch, a project with less at stake, but pretty soon that becomes precious, too.

Allowing ourselves the practice we need will help.  That’s why I’m learning to create on a schedule.  I’ve been been trying to release a video every week.  My first video took me the longest.  I had to decide where best to shoot it, how to get the lighting right, where to place my mic, and how to edit the video and audio together.  It’s been getting easier and faster every time.  It’s helped me realize how I look while performing, which isn’t something I normally think about.

Adventure Time’s Jake the Dog, puts it like this, “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”  Getting over the initial cringe of sucking is paramount, because it comes up again and again.  Every new piece of music, technique, or exercise, if it’s helpful, will have growing pains.  I remember taking guitar lessons at McNally Smith and my teacher gave me a difficult exercise saying, “This is going to make you feel like you can’t play guitar.” Eventually I want to get into making more elaborate videos; I can tell you right now that my first few aren’t going to be great, but they will give me an education I can’t get anywhere else.  Don’t be afraid to suck!

 

Works Cited

Peterson, Jordan B. “YouTube.” Biblical Series IX: The Call to Abraham, 2017, 58:30, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmuzUZTJ0GA.

“His Hero.”  Adventure Time, season 1.  Written and story boarded by Adam Muto, Kent Osborne & Niki Yang.  Directed by Larry Leichliter and Patrick McHale.  Cartoon Network, 2010.

Book Review: How To Make It in the New Music Business – Ari Herstand.

Ari Herstand is an LA-based singer-songwriter, blogger, and actor.  He graduated with a degree in music business from McNally Smith College of Music in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  After conquering the Twin Cities scene, Herstand moved to California and made his name there.  In this book, Ari shares his first-hand experience. He breaks down booking, touring, planning a release, recording, crowdfunding, and just about anything else you’d want to know.  He also demystifies Performance Rights Organizations, sponsorships, and placements.  If it’s music related, Ari has done it.  I found it incredibly helpful and enlightening, a must read for serious musicians.  Here are three lessons I learned from this book.

You need to hustle.  According to Ari, “Building a music career requires working at it for twelve hours a day.  Every single day” (17).  He writes that you should “split your time equally between the music and the business” (32).   That’s six hours on music and six hours on business.  If you’re not sure how you would even use all that time, this book will give you some ideas.  Ari says, “If you’re ever bored as a musician, you aren’t doing it right” (32).

Music is a marathon, not a sprint.  Not only do you have to work your ass off, you have to be working your ass off for years.  In chapter 1, Ari makes you write out a spreadsheet and title it “My Music Marathon.”  You divide it into four sections: 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, and 26 years.  In each section, you write out where you want to be in your career.  Doing this kind of long-term planning really helps you clarify what you want in life.  It’s hard not to think 26 years in the future without gaining clarity about what’s really important.

You must have a story.  “Whether you like it or not, your story is just as important as your music” (24).  Ben Weaver toured on his bicycle, Bon Iver recorded in a Wisconsin cabin, Porter Robinson did the whole anime thing, and Daft Punk were robots.  You need something other than “Singer-songwriter from _________.  Sounds like _________.”  It doesn’t have to be as extensive as the Gorillaz virtual band, but it has to be something.  What makes you special?

The advice in this book focuses on making it professionally as an artist or  band.  If you’re someone less serious about music, it’s still worthwhile.  Plenty of these tips are helpful for hobbyists and artists alike, and the portions that aren’t relevant are still interesting to read.  For instance, I’m not going to be doing a lot of college gigging, but there’s a detailed account of how to get into it that’s fascinating.  I will definitely be referencing this book during my musical adventures.

Rating: 8/10.

How Do You Define Success?

When I tell people I’m going to school for music, they often assume I want be a rock star, or at the very least a full-time musician.  For a lot of students that’s the case and that’s fine, but it’s not what I want.  In his book, How to Make It in the New Music Business, Ari Herstand writes, “It all depends on what your idea of success is.  And no one can define what success is but you.  Remember that.”  (Herstand 29).

Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, puts it like this: “We all grade ourselves by different measures.”  For some people, success is making a lot of money.  For others, it’s about changing lives.  According to Sivers, “It’s important to know in advance, to make sure you’re staying focused on what’s honestly important to you, instead of doing what others think you should” (Sivers 37).

For me, success is finding work I value and consider meaningful, making a positive impact in my community, and raising a family.  I feel strongly that creativity is for everyone, and I want to do my best to encourage it in the people around me.  I’m still deciding what I want to do with my life, but these are my guidelines.

When I’m looking at a long-term career, there are some jobs I simply would not take.  They may be great, well-paid, amazing experiences, but if they don’t align with my goals, I’m out.  If my ultimate goal is to have a family, I don’t want a job where I’m constantly away from them.  If I want work that’s meaningful, I’m not going to take a job just because it pays well.  For other people, it might fit perfectly, but it all depends on what they value.

Rockstar, hobbyist, what-have-you, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as you’re honest about it.  Speaking for myself, I want to create work seriously, whether or not it’s a source of income.  But however you define success, it’s important to follow your values and not someone else’s.  What’s most important to you?

 

Works Cited

HERSTAND, ARI. HOW TO MAKE IT IN THE NEW MUSIC BUSINESS: Practical Tips on Building a Loyal Following… and Making a Living as a Musician. LIVERIGHT PUBLISHING CORP, 2019.

Sivers, Derek. Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. Portfolio Penguin, 2015.

You Don’t Have to Be First

Eddie Van Halen is famous for his tapping technique, but he wasn’t the first to do it.  In fact, hundreds of years before “Eruption,” Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) used a similar technique on his violin.  Jazz guitarists in the 50s and 60s did it, and Italian musician, Victorio Camadese, tapped extensively on his classical.  Van Halen changed the game by applying it to distorted, electric guitar.

Skrillex is often called the inventor of dubstep, but the genre originated in London in the 90s.   Although the style drastically changed later, the characteristic sounds of wobble bass, subs, syncopated rhythms, and drops all pre-date Skrillex.  Skrillex’s flavor of dubstep (sometimes refered to as brostep) favors mid-range frequencies and aggressive rhythms.  This was hugely popular in 2011 and Skrillex’s interpretation of dubstep soon became the standard.

YouTuber, Andrew Huang, is known for found sound sampling.  He records sounds from random objects, processes them in his computer, and uses them to compose music.  He’s made songs from pineapples, Legos, radiators, candy, and lights bulbs.  As you’ve probably guessed, he wasn’t the first to do this.* What made Andrew special was the sheer amount of sampling he did and the absurdity of challenges (my favorite is carrots).

Facebook came after Myspace, the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, and Spotify wasn’t the first streaming service.  We get so hung up on the idea that we need to be innovators but the truth is that most of our ideas are not original, and that’s okay.  Working is 95% of it.  Don’t think you need to change the game to win at it.  Sometimes putting your own spin on a great idea is all that’s needed.

 

*I couldn’t find who originated the technique, but I remember seeing it on videos before Andrew Huang’s time.

Finish Your Songs

A few years back, I had a ton of musical ideas floating around my head.  I wanted to write it all: hip-hop, EDM, singer-songwriter, lo-fi, dubstep.  I wanted to release albums in every genre I loved, multiple albums.  I wanted to be as prolific as Andrew Huang and Steve Aoki.  Songs for days.

This, of course, takes a lot of work, and I used to be pretty ADHD when it came to writing.  I’d finish a singer-songwriter track one day and be working on a house song the next.  I’d think, “I’m so versatile!”  Before that next song was finished, I’d be messing around on another beat, and after that a third one.  Eventually, none of these got finished and I’d start something else.

It’s pretty easy to get side-tracked if you don’t have a focus.  I’ve found it helps to have a goal.  For instance, over the Summer I made “Lo-Fi July.”  During the month of July, I had to write three lo-fi songs.  Having this clear objective helped me focus my time and actually get it done.  For the next month, I had a new genre to write in.

Whenever I was writing and came up with something cool that wasn’t in the genre, I would shelf it for later.  It did wonders for my productivity.

It’s great to be prolific, to write a lot and make a lot.  Just don’t fall into the trap of being a kid in the candy store when it comes to writing.  There’s a lot of great sounds, ideas, and styles to pick from, but don’t jump around so much that nothing gets done.  Be disciplined enough to finish.  One completed song will teach you more than 10 unfinished beats.

Show Your Work! – Austin Kleon. The Importance of Community.

I recently read Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon.  Austin is a writer who uses drawings, photos, and blackout poetry to illustrate his points.  Each chapter is a lesson on self-promotion.  Not only are the tips good, but it’s stuffed with helpful images.  I recommend it for creatives with no idea what to do after hitting “Publish.”

My big take away is the importance of community and relationships.  The obvious but not so obvious fact is that we’re dealing with people when we sell, individuals with interests and passions.  How we relate to our audience is very important.

I don’t usually post to social media, but when I do it’s to promote something.  Other than that, I’m silent.  I used to be proud of that fact.  Kleon, on the other hand, recommends sending out a “daily dispatch” (47).  Share your rough drafts, your current inspirations, what music you’re listening to, and what you’re working on.  Documenting your creative process allows followers to have “an ongoing connection with us and our work” (38).  He talks a lot about connecting with your audience, telling good stories, and being part of a community.

There’s a chapter called Teach What You Know.  “The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others” (117).  This ties into documenting your process: share your secrets and fans feel closer to what you do.  Another plus, they will want to pass on what they know as well.  I’ve heard of this “teaching as you learn” principle before, and it’s one of the reasons I started my blog.

IMG_20190129_205810500.jpg
Pg. 118.

This is a coffee table book: short, fun, and insightful.  There are a lot of great lessons and it’s a very easy read.  I’ve shared only a few here, but if you’re a note-taker like me, you’ll constantly be jotting down ideas as you read.

Rating: 7/10.

Being Your Best Self

I’m not the best guitar player, the best songwriter, or the best anything, really.  This is hardly news, but I bring it up because in the arts there’s a lot of sizing up that goes on.  People get their sense of self worth in how they compare to others and music is no exception.  Whether it’s shredding ability, writing chops, or local clout, we’re always comparing ourselves to our peers.

When I was at McNally Smith College of Music, I quickly realized how many guitar players are better than me.  Around this time, I started singing my songs for people.  You could get away with simple guitar parts if you sang, and although I couldn’t sing well enough to be a singer, I could sing well enough to be a singer-songwriter.  I could write and perform my own stuff and no one would think I was faking it.  This was perfect because at the time I just wanted to see if I could cut it as a music major.  As a guitarist, I could not.  As a singer, I definitely could not.  As a singer-songwriter, sure.

All too often, we quit because we think we aren’t good enough.  We see guys who have been practicing five hours a day since they were three and think, “Whoa, I could never do that.”  And while it’s true that if you strive for that level of musicianship, you do need to practice five hours a day, that level of dedication isn’t for everyone.  For myself, I never wanted to be a virtuoso; I wanted to write songs that meant something.  What I found at McNally Smith is that I didn’t need to be the best; I had to be my best.  What that means is different for everyone, but articulating what you want is the first step.  If you’re not sure what that is, pick something and run with it.  Action is at the heart of discernment.

Whatever kind of music you make, you’ll be tempted to compare yourself to others, but art isn’t a competition.  Nobody listens to music because they want to hear the best in the world (unless they Googled them for that explicit reason); we listen to music because we enjoy it and feel connected to it.  Keep moving forward, and don’t be afraid to share your art.