work the mic

How to Finish Your Album,
Part I


January 24th, 2015

We all know those guys who are "working" on an album, and have been "working" on said album for a year, two years... the last decade.

You bump into him at a Summer party. He says he's gotten half of it done, and should have the rest ready in another month or two. You see him again at a New Year's Eve party. "Gosh, I've been trying to put in the time, but, I'm just so busy. It's almost there. Just a couple more finishing touches, and it'll be ready!" By the following Summer, you decide to stop asking.

Maybe you are that guy.

I have run into a lot of these people over the years. At times, I have been that guy myself. However, because I have met so many people in that situation, and because I have been stuck in the thick gray mud that is a stalled project, I have worked 3.6 times as hard to finish the various projects that I have been involved in, which to date, includes 7 albums, give or take.

Because I have been stuck in my own stalled projects, I have worked that much harder to finish others

Why are stalled projects such a common story? Why do so many people decide to go on this journey, start their engines, and only get a few miles down the road before they run out of gas?

I think a large aspect of this problem has to do with making decisions, some big and many small. Do I spend the money on groceries, or on a sound card? Am I afraid of finishing? Do I record the album on my own, or go to a studio? Should I hire a band, or play the parts myself? Do I really want this badly enough?

There are no wrong or right answers. There are only choices. How you look at these decisions in hindsight is a decision in and of itself. There are many things I wish I had done differently, but, doing them the way I did gave me experience I may not have gotten otherwise, so there's value in my failure.

Hey, finishing a project may not be right for you at the present moment. Having your student loans paid off might be more important in your world. Going to Disney might be a better call for you and your family. Only you can decide that for you.

With this two-part post, I want to see if I can help jump-start your car/project as far as I'm able. This week we'll cover the bigger picture aspects, including excuses, motivations, and fears. Next time, we'll deal with some more practical elements, like setting deadlines, getting help, and being your own producer. Now, if you don't feel like reading two whole articles, there is a much simpler and shorter answer to the problem, which is:

If your project has stalled, it's no one else's fault but yours. If you want to finish that album badly enough, you will - at any cost. That may be enough of a kick in the ass to get some of you moving. For the rest of you who need a bit more help, let's dig a little deeper.

EXCUSES

Excuses kill projects. People who finish projects refuse to accept them.

Excuses kill projects, and people who finish albums refuse to accept them. "But, I accidentally erased my hard drive, and all my work is lost!" Oh well. Tough nuts. Start again. You probably wanted to change half of the parts you recorded anyway. You're not the first or last guy whose dog ate your homework. Quit whining and get to work.

"But, I don't have enough money! Recording is so expensive." It sure is, which is why I had to borrow money, load up credit cards, and cut back on all but the most critical spending in order to afford my projects. The only savings accounts I have ever had have been to save for recording. It's unwise, foolish even. I am always a few small steps away from bankruptcy. That's how important my music is to me.

"I don't know enough musicians" or, "I can't play all the parts by myself!" Then you have to go out and find them. Pay them. Bribe them with intoxicants. Barter with them. There are plenty of musicians out there who will work for way less than they deserve.

You could come up with a million different reasons why your project is sitting on the back burner. The reality is, there is always a solution. You may not like the answers. They may be uncomfortable, painful even. But, if you want to hold a finished album in your hands, you will find the solution. If you don't want it badly enough, you will simply come up with more excuses, and your project will wither and die.

You have to find the solutions for your excuses. No one else will do it for you.

The other side of excuses is that if you voice them to your friends and family, most people, whether driven by empathy or social grace, will accept and confirm them. "Big projects are so hard," or "That sounds tough," they'll say. They'll push you further into your stall. You have to stop yourself from making excuses, and find the right solutions. 99 out of 100 people will not do it for you.

IT'S NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT

I've been reading a lot of posts from this alternative-self-help-type guy named Mark Manson this week. In a great post on getting what you want out of life, he discusses the idea that some people want magnificent end results (great career, perfect relationship, lots of money) without being willing to put in the hard work to attain them.

In Mr. Manson's case, he dreamed of being a rock star. He imagined himself up on a stage, wailing out a badass guitar solo for thousands of screaming fans. The only problem was, he didn't want to do the work to become a rock star. He didn't want to practice guitar, or put in any other work to learn how to be a musician. He wanted to stand on top of the mountain without climbing it.

Does that describe you and your situation? Did you think that you could just decide to make a record, and a magical fairy princess with the skills, experience, and money would fly into your life to lead you down the yellow brick road?

Becoming a musician requires significant investment. I'm not just referring to money, though that is definitely part of it. However, you could be flat broke, and still be an amazing musician with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, or even just your voice. Your skill and drive could inspire others to invest their finances in your work. You just have to invest the time, and the experience.

"Experience" is a nice word for "failure pile."

Let's talk about experience for a second. Do you know what that term means? It's a nice word for "failure pile." Experience means you have messed up, stumbled, faceplanted, and as a result, can walk a little steadier and safer than those who have not had the benefit of your failures.

Failure is inevitable. Success is much less common, depending on how you define it. The more experience/failure you have in your pile, the better your music will be in the future, as long as you leverage it and learn from it.

If starting a band, or managing a recording project, or fill in the blank isn't what you thought, then maybe you should consider the following option: quit. There's nothing wrong with it. You saw the mountain from a distance, and on a whim thought you'd climb it, but once you got to the base of it, you realized all the work and risk that went into it, and you decided against it. That's okay! Changing your mind when you receive new information is not a bad thing.

WANTING ISN'T ENOUGH. YOU GOTTA NEED IT

I listen to a lot of interviews and speeches from people at the top of their fields through TED talks, Big Think videos, NPR, etc., and one phrase that I hear many of them say over and over is, "If you can do anything else, you should do it." Scientists, filmmakers, musicians, athletes all say this. It's a very simple way to weed out the fakers. The people who do what they do because they can't imagine doing anything else are the ones who make it. The people who "want" it give up when they hit obstacles.

Completing a project on the magnitude of an EP or full-length record requires prioritizing, and sacrifice. As I've said before, I have missed family events in favor of my music. I have given up quality time with people I love because of it. I have forsaken other interests and passions so I could commit more time and energy to this work. You have to decide if you want to do the same, or if it just doesn't mean that much to you.

You have to realize that most people who finished albums did not go through the immense, seemingly unending hassle of writing songs, recruiting a band, raising funds, booking a studio, negotiating with a producer, and all the other BS that goes into this kind of thing because they wanted to. They did it because they had to.

That unrelenting need is what drives those of us who finish. If it doesn't drive you, drop what you're doing, and go find the thing that does drive you. Stop wasting your valuable time chasing an old and dead dream. When you do find your passion, you will likely also discover the blind motivation that I keep referring to.

FEAR

Warning: you may see my social work training seep through in this section.

We've got to talk about it, uncomfortable as it is. Maybe you're not finishing your work because you're afraid. ...afraid that the finished project won't sound exactly like you imagined (it probably won't - humans are terrible at predicting the future). You could be worried that your loved ones won't like it (they might not...). You might be anxious about what you'll do once you have the album in your hands.

These are legitimate concerns.

What's more important? Putting your art out there and risking failure? Or, keeping it to yourself, safely wondering what might have been?

Guess what? It takes balls to write music, perform it, make a hard copy of it, and hand it to someone. It takes giant brass cannonballs to ask them for money in exchange. You have to decide what's more important to you: putting your art out there and risking failure - or - keeping it to yourself, safely wondering what might have been.

There is no wrong answer here. Some people like to stay safe and insulated from failure. That's fine. Others have chosen to take the pain and discomfort of mockery, embarrassment, and rejection along with the reward of applause, personal satisfaction, and engagement with an audience.

You might fail. The question is what you will do with the failure. Some will incorporate the knowledge and experience the failure gave them and choose to improve. Some will just fail and then fail some more. There are no guarantees when it comes to making art, and there are a lot of risks when it comes to making art that is challenging and provocative.

Your significant other might hate what you come up with. That is a reality for a lot of musicians. She/he might not support your passion. Maybe that means she's not worthy of you, maybe it means you need to improve. Maybe it doesn't mean anything at all. It just is.

You never know though, she might love what you do. She might find you more attractive every time you pick up your guitar. She might love that you have a passion that drives you, even if the music itself isn't for her. She might appreciate that it helps you blow off steam. It might improve your relationship.

You could very well finish an album and then not have a single clue as to how to proceed. Play shows? Make another record? Print copies? Busk on a streetcorner? There are a dozen ways to go, and this kind of decision really warrants its own post, so we'll come back to that another time.

There could be 100 or 1,000 other things you're afraid of. Here are a few methods that may or may not help you deal with your fear:

1) Go to a friend. However, don't go to just any friend. This has to be either a) your most upbeat, positive friend, b) your most successful, independent friend, or c) both. Ask them to give you their full attention. Tell them you're worried about something, and you need to have a serious talk about it. If they accept, and they're willing to give you their full attention, lay out your issues, one by one.

"I'm worried that I suck." See what they say. They may give you advice. They may ask you questions. They may confirm your fear. On some level, it doesn't matter what they say. It's the fact that you're externalizing and concretizing your fears.

By identifying and externalizing your fears, you can create a concrete plan to deal with it.

Once you've identified the problem, you can create a plan to solve it. By conversing about it in a safe, comfortable environment with someone you trust, you may discover that the fear was actually connected to something else entirely. Any number of things could happen in these conversations, most of them good -- as long as you chose the right person.

If you don't have a positive and/or successful friend/mentor, consider talking to a therapist. I know a lot of people have a stigma about therapy and counseling, but guess what? You're not the first or the last artist to need someone to talk to. Counselors don't always give you answers, they often guide you toward making your own decisions, and accepting the consequences. Sometimes we just need that push. If you don't want to tell anyone that you went to a "shrink," fine, don't tell them. It's just for you anyways.

Warning: don't go to your negative friends, or your stoner friends. They will accept and confirm any excuses you throw at them, and they will help you muddle in your swamp of non-doing. That is counter-productive.

2) Write your fears down. Open up a Word doc, an Evernote, or Google Doc, and start writing. Don't address your fears, qualify them, or make excuses. Just write them down. That's it. "I am afraid that I am not talented." "I am worried that my wife will hate my work." Done. Save the doc, and close it.

Take a couple days to distance yourself from the situation, then come back and read over what you wrote. Make a plan as to how you're going to address these concerns, and write it down. Check back whenever the fears resurface.

"If my wife hates my music, I will keep writing until I can get her to like something I've created." Or, "I realize that not everyone is going to like what I do. But, I like what I do, so I'm going to keep doing it until I decide to stop." This is your Declaration of Independence. You're laying out your issues, and you're laying out your solutions.

If we keep our fears in our head, we give them validity... we confirm them to ourselves.

3) Help someone else solve a problem. This might sound a little wacky, but, I've seen it work several times. Quite often, the best way to talk yourself out of jumping off of a bridge is to help someone else with their issue, even if it's totally unrelated. If you can help them see that their problem isn't as big a deal as they might think it is, or if you can help them find a practical solution, (for example, their toilet is leaking and you're a plumber), you might get yourself into the right frame of mind to start addressing your own issues.

The point here is to get your fears out of you and into the open. If we keep the fears in our heads, we give them validity - we confirm them to ourselves. Airing out the fear is a way to deflate it, even if it doesn't destroy it.

These approaches are also geared to helping you reorient yourself into a problem-solving mentality, instead of a problem-accepting one. The fears and obstacles never go away. It's how you deal with them that decides whether you sit on the couch playing video games, or get shit done.

Next time, we'll get into some more practical ideas of how to kickstart your project. Now get up and go practice.

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