Making music is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling ways I can imagine spending my time. And although not necessary by any means, some of us find making music to be even more rewarding when it’s done in some sort of professional capacity. The following 6 tips are things I’ve been doing, or have come to understand, which have really enriched my development of music into a profession. Some have to do with habits and attitudes, others are more concrete strategies and things to do. It would be amazing if you were able to incorporate all of them, but I hope that even just 1 or 2 really stick, and you are able to make some meaningful improvements in your musical life.
DEDICATION > TALENT
There are many studies across many branches of sociology and psychology that prove this concept, and artists are no exception. Those who are persistent and consistent at putting forth effort will eventually and always surpass those who are merely talented, or have natural raw ability but no work ethic. To put it simply, having talent means having the natural-born ability to achieve a desirable outcome somewhat quicker than those without the talent. Pay attention to the key words here: “arrive at outcome”. This may seem almost trivial to mention, but is incredibly important to really understand and accept. I regularly see talented people sitting in their studio checking Facebook, and far less talented people putting music out and building success.
Also take this into consideration when it comes to clients who are in the position of hiring you - they don’t care what you’re potentially capable of, they care about what you’ve done. A candidate with a decent portfolio will always get chosen over someone who is capable of reaching the stars, but just hasn’t done so yet for whatever reason or good excuse. And always remember - finishing music is the #1 goal, because only finished music is ultimately useful.
I’d also like to reiterate something I wrote about in a previous article, which involves doing the work even when you’re not necessarily inspired. Here’s the excerpt:
Musicians are not known for enjoying schedules. Despite our best intentions and efforts, we repeatedly find ourselves being reminded by the rising sun that we should’ve gone to bed hours ago. Nevertheless, a structure is very helpful for achieving a flow, and making a habit out of it. Creativity is a muscle, and exercising it regularly yields the best results. This brings us to one of my absolute favorite quotes, by William Faulkner: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.” By getting ourselves on a regular schedule, we train our minds to cooperate by doing what we want, when we want it. This particular technique won’t be an immediate solution, but will surely pay off over time.
I’d like you to take a second right now and do this exercise: imagine if I asked you to recommend a female soprano, who comes to mind? How about a jazz drummer I need for a gig? What if I asked you to recommend a keyboard player for a wedding band? The specifics don’t matter - just think about who you would recommend for various positions, and why. The answer, upon some reflection and inspection, is that this person comes to mind for very specific and important reasons - perhaps they’re your friend, or you just really like them as a person.
Perhaps you owe them a favor. More than likely, you’ve had a prior experience with them based on which you’re now recommending them. Maybe they have a really superb online presence, and have effectively branded themselves such that they are the first to come to your mind. All of these reasons are fantastic. Now think about what it is that you do, and ask yourself: How many people out there in the big world would recommend me, and why? How many people out there would think of me for the same reasons that I just thought of the recommendations I provided a minute ago? Now go out and fix this.
Go to events, participate in communities (both online and IRL), give feedback, interact, collaborate, hang out, ask questions, give advice, do favors, make friends, show up on time (early) and most importantly - always be a kind, cool, fun person to be around. A fun person will always get chosen over the better player. I’ve seen it many times. Make yourself the person that first comes to mind when someone out there is asked for a recommendation.
You know what that stands for, right? Read. The. #$!@&. Manual. Would you pursue a job without any training? Would you do anything of any importance at all without first understanding the how’s and why’s? Of course music is different - it’s creative, and subjective, and therefore there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. But beyond this philosophical perspective, I can tell you that I’ve been hired for jobs solely because the client saw how fast I was in Logic, and needed to know nothing more.
Reading The Manual isn’t just good for periodically consulting to learn how to execute a particular function. It actually helps to reveal the extent of the gear’s / software’s sometimes hidden capabilities. Many incredibly useful functions are uncovered when you peruse the table of contents, or the features outlined in a manual. You’ll be struck with the ever useful realization: “oh wow, I didn’t know it could do that!”
Another related and important bit of advice: learn the key commands. There’s a saying - the more someone reaches for the mouse, the less of a pro they are. True masters have their hands on the keyboard 95-100% of the time. Sure there’s a short learning curve at first, which takes a bit of time spent, but it’s more than made up for with time saved. Consider how many micro tasks are done throughout the course of music production. Even though we’re talking about fractions of a second, I’d argue that using the mouse takes at a minimum of 2-3x longer than a keyboard shortcut. Over the course of producing an entire song, we’re talking about a difference of hours.
Like a savings account, your future self with thank you. Sure you’re just starting, and you know what and where everything is. But chances are that the production could potentially span days, or even weeks (and longer). Are you going to remember what Aux 16 is? No, guaranteed. Similarly to why learning key commands is so important, every little bit of time spent on menial tasks like labeling (and color coding, and vertically organizing) your tracks add up to colossal amounts of saved time and energy.
Treat your DAW’s screen the way you would treat a real physical space in which you were expected to be productive at a high quality level. The next time you find yourself inside any craft-person’s shop (mechanic, woodworker, repair person, etc), take a look around. The way the tools are organized are a direct reflection of the quality of work they will do. Are hammers and wrenches laying around all over the place, oil spilled on the floor, garbage everywhere? Go somewhere else. Is everything hanging on the walls, in organized sections? Is the floor clean? You can expect to be satisfied with the results.
The same goes for your session. Labeling is important not only for individual tracks, but all additional channels, aux tracks, busses, etc. We can even extend the methods to your computer’s hard drive and file system. I spent 12 hours with a very talented, very disorganized friend of mine sorting all his sessions, and by the time we were done, he had a system that lasted for the next 5+ years (and if he had maintained it just a bit better, it would’ve lasted forever). I have folders named by the artist / project, and within each are the relevant sessions. I give every idea a name (even a nonsensical one), and include a bounce (even if it’s 15 seconds long) so that when I go back and listen to ideas from the past, I don’t have to waste time opening sessions to be reminded of what the idea sounded like. And finally, I have all artist & idea folders organized into folders by year. That way, the most recent, pertinent stuff is right at the top, and the past projects are neatly tucked away.
Lastly, if you ever have to collaborate with someone, you will make their life much easier, and therefore get faster and better work from them. If someone hands me a session that reflects a complete lack of care, then why should I invest myself? Whenever I record vocals for other producers, they call to thank me for the beautiful, organized session I send over. Trust me, the effort goes a long way.
STAR YOUR FAVES
There’s nothing worse than hunting for sounds when the artist is in the room, the moment is ripe, the vibe is going strong, and all you need is just a sec to find that one clap you know would be so dope right now. So you start leafing through all your samples, and 20 minutes later the magic is gone, the artist is bored, and you’re pissed because you still can’t find that clap you know is here somewhere. Or perhaps you’re starting up a track and just need a temporary piano, but the only ones you can find is the honky-tonk one with way too much ping-pong delay. So you embarrassingly ask the artist to please ignore the piano while they record their scratch vocals…
The cure is simple - make a folder of favorites. Organize the sounds by category - KICKS, SNARES, TOMS, LOOPS, PERCUSSION, TOPS, HIGH HATS, FX, etc. Name each sound something meaningful to you, so you can grab exactly what you need, when you need it. Keep a simple text document with directions on how to find your favorite patches for creating. Not only will this method of organization save you time, and make you look lots more professional, it will also, over time, develop into part of your signature sound. The way you curate and combine sounds is unique to you, and will become part of your sonic signature as a producer.
And just like anything else worthwhile, maintenance is key. Be diligent about building a sensible, hierarchical structure which can grow as needed. Commit to the maintenance (and inevitable cleanup) of your structure. Carve out small slots in your schedule for adding to your collection. A session is not the time to be hunting for sounds - perhaps find some time every morning dedicated solely to curating and organizing your favorites.
BACK UP, THEN BACK UP THE BACK UP, THEN BACK UP THAT
Seriously, this is not a joke. I can’t sufficiently express the importance of back ups. Hard drives will fail. They are faulty, spinning mechanisms that will wear out over time, and eventually, the day will come that you plug the drive in, and nothing will be there. This is 100% guaranteed. Protect yourself. Information does not exist unless it’s in 3 separate places. Just do it. Hard drives are cheap now, and the depression and nausea alone from your data being taken from you, never to be seen again, is well worth the price. There are lots of automated backup systems that will keep everything up to date. Please do yourself a favor, and treat your data the way it deserves to be treated - like gold in a safe. Otherwise, why spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on equipment, and countless precious hours of your life, just to leave the end result hanging by a thread over a rocky cliff? Because that’s what a hard drive is - a frayed thread dangling over a cliff.
Do you have any advice on how to treat being a musician like it’s your job? What success stories can you share? Please let us know!