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.

Planting a Tree

My original plan was to release a singer-songwriter EP every year.  I succeeded in 2015 and 2016, but in 2017 I procrastinated.  I kept giving myself excuses and putting it off.  Other projects took priority and after missing my self imposed deadline, I lost motivation.  I’m just releasing it now in 2019, and although that makes me happy, I wish I had done it earlier.

I was trying to think of a better way to phrase this without using the old cliche, but better late than never.  This phrase applies to many things in my life: quitting a bad job, losing weight, going back to school, and learning piano.  These are all things I could have done a long time ago.  Once I finally took action, that was clear, but just because you didn’t start when you should have is no excuse not to start at all.

Take it from me.  If you sit around thinking about something you wish you had done, and every year is another year you wish you had already done it, do it.  Don’t give into the lie that there was a perfect time to do something and now it’s too late.  The only cure to the regret you feel is to do what you should have been doing all along.  As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I’ll leave you with the long-awaited EP.

Releasing Original Music: My History

My first EP was released in 2015.  I recorded it in my parents’ basement with affordable equipment and my own limited tracking skills.  It’s not great, but I have a fondness for it.  It’s a timestamp of my skill level at the time, both in writing and producing.  The album art is a shot of me playing at the Contented Cow, a bar in Northfield I frequented.  It’s a perfect cover because back then I was playing at the Cow about twice a month and the regulars were constantly subjected to my originals.

My second singer-songwriter release was in 2016.  I wanted to expand on the sounds of the original so I added MIDI piano and strings.  I also layered in electric guitar and harmonica.  I was happy with the outcome and decided the artwork should be more professional.  I got in touch with an artist I know and gave him a picture to work off.

infamous dog pic
Performing at the Contented Cow with Cody (2015).

I was very pleased with the outcome.  High & Dry was sold on homemade CDs, but for Fade Away I got them professionally printed.  I used CopyCats, a CD and DVD duplication company in Minneapolis.  I opted for the cheaper, paper sleeves rather than jewel cases.

fade away print
Original paper sleeve for Fade Away (2016).

The sales have not been great.  It took over a year for me to break even on the cost of printing and artwork, but I think it was worth it.  The important part for me is that I created a piece of art I’m proud of and have a tangible way of sharing with others.

I’m currently working on a new EP and will be releasing it in two parts.  Part one will be available digitally on January 18th, and part two later in March.  It’s being recorded in my home studio, and I’m utilizing musical skills and production techniques I learned in school.  Here is the first single:

If you’re looking to record and release your own music, I highly encourage you to do so.  It’s incredibly gratifying, and it doesn’t matter if your first recordings aren’t great.  You’ll get better as you practice, just like with your instrument.  And it’s okay if the first song you publish song doesn’t get a lot of traction.  Take it from someone who’s released albums on Facebook with only two likes, the joy is in the making.

 

Creating When You’re Not Inspired

This is the perfect topic for today because right now I don’t feel like writing.  I’m in the school library sipping a La Croix, trying to get some work done, and no topic is calling out to me.  It’s not that I don’t want to write; it’s that I don’t have anything to say.  I’m uninspired.  This happens in music too.  I’ll be trying to write and nothing seems to flow, my progressions feel as bland and stale as every song I’ve ever heard.  It’s like I’m writing the same tune over again, repeating myself.  It’s all very deflating.

A common misconception is that creativity occurs only when you’re inspired.  If you’re not feeling it you have writer’s block or something and shouldn’t even try.  In his book, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”  There’s a lot of great quotes on the topic, but rather than just share what others have said, let me offer my own experience.

What we call “writer’s block” isn’t the failure to create; it’s the failure to create something you like.  Under that definition, you can always write.  There’s no reason not to.  You don’t need to share everything you try, and you don’t need to like everything you finish, but you always need to be trying.

If you’re in a rut listen to some great music, try something you’ve never done (new synth sound or chord progression), or approach the song in a new way (starting with melody instead of chords or vice versa).  There’s a lot of techniques you can do to shake things up, and pretty soon you’ll be inspiring yourself.

That being said, every song you finish isn’t going to be great.

Earlier this year, I was attempting to write three songs a month.  I put my best effort into them: writing, mixing, and mastering.  I wanted a solid product.  I was hoping to release an EP every month, focusing on different genres.  What I found is that for every three songs or so, I only really liked one.  You don’t realize that at the time, of course.  You don’t think, “Man, this song I’m writing sucks,” but looking back it’s easier to be critical.  What I’m getting at is you need to keep writing so you have songs to pick from.  Otherwise you release an EP of two songs you like and three others that are there just because it’s all you have.

I’m not advocating you write songs you don’t like.  Just write the best songs you can and when it comes time to share them, be picky.

KING, STEPHEN. ON WRITING. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2000.