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Does Your Music Always Come Out the Way You Want It To?

Creativity is as much a sickness as it is a gift.

On the one hand, creators are blessed with a lifetime of opportunities to bring their visions into the real world. On the other, most of them are tormented by insecurity, doubts, and the never-ending struggle of trying to create the ideal things their imaginations conjure up. The latter is one of the subjects in an editorial, “Found in Translation,” that the Pulitzer Prize (and PEN/Faulkner Award)-winning author Michael Cunningham published in this past Sunday’s New York Times.

“Found in Translation” begins by discussing the mechanics and challenges of translating a novel from one language to another, before moving on to the more personal challenge of turning one’s vision into a piece of art. The transfer of instincts, ideas, images, and emotions to words on a page or computer screen is, after all, basically just several layers of translation, and midway through Cunningham’s editorial, an unusually honest passage can be found:

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire… But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire… It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

As someone who writes professionally and attempts to make music in many different ways, I was floored by how much I identified with this characterization. I am never happy with what I’ve written, especially once it’s done, and normally a very narrow range of the ideas and emotions I began with have been successfully wrestled down onto the final pages.

It occurred to me, as well, that very few musicians will speak candidly about how satisfied they are with their work. They have the pressure of selling that work, after all, and nobody wants to buy a product whose creation left the artist drained, frustrated, and maybe even a little acquiescent to the reality of their limited gifts.

Or do they?

Many years after the fact, they may talk about how much they’ve grown artistically, how far they’ve come from earlier work (think of Radiohead’s long-time disavowal of Pablo Honey’s songs), but for whatever reason, most labels, managers, and artists seem to shy away from discussing how difficult it is to make the album they want to make. Doing so, the thinking goes, is bad for business.

But is it?

Now that a premium is placed on artists building relationships with fans, doesn’t that call for an increased amount of honesty? Shouldn’t artists, especially those who profess to put their hearts and souls into their music, be more honest about just how difficult that is? About what each release fails to capture as much as what it perfectly encapsulates?

Think of the artists you discovered when they were rising. When they were young, when they had no idea how to record, when they couldn’t quite sing in tune, when the songwriting was ragged or sloppy or weird. Did you start to like them more after they got signed, when they got ushered into a big studio with an assured engineer who scrubbed the dirt out of their sound, put them on top of a mountain of reverb and overdubs and compression? Or did your relationship to that artist, and their music, start to change?

I’m not suggesting that high-end production is a bad thing, or that there’s anything wrong with seeking out a team of experts to assist you in creating what you want to create. But as that team grows bigger and bigger, as the gloss gets thicker and shinier, fans may begin to wonder why that’s happening, whether it’s necessary, and whether they are still listening to the same artist they remember.

It’s possible that I’m talking about apples and oranges here, that a novel is different from an album. But do you always wind up with the music you set out to create? What are you looking for, when you hire someone to help record your music, or someone to master or mix what you’ve done? And isn’t it possible that some of your fans will care about those struggles just as much as you do?

This article was originally published on We All Make Music.

Reader Comments (14)

Lesson #1 of making music:

Something will almost NEVER come out as you hear it in your head and will RARELY be completed or promoted exactly as you thought.

Once you get this down, you'll live a lot less of a stressful life.

I have always had the opinion that with art and many things in life there are three stages:

What you think will happen
What will happen
What does happen

The last two are similar, I know. But it has to do with your perceived reality of the present vs what it actually is after you have time to reflect on it. For example:

How your record sounds the day its done VS how you hear it 3 years from now.

Essentialyl, nothing ever ends up the way its initially perceived. Its part of the beauty of life and certainly should not be hinderance to any creative endeavour.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterKirby

True, most of the time the end result is a more or less distant echo of the original idea, but if you've tried hard enough and worked on it for long enough, it's as beautiful as possible, and sometimes new things that you hadn't thought of crop up in the middle of the creative process, adding to your original vision and enhancing your idea. My two pence: keep working on it and experimenting with it until it's beautiful and likable, even if it's not exactly as you imagined it. It might just come out even better :)

October 13 | Unregistered CommenterCenestelle

I've always called it a blessing and a curse and always will!

October 13 | Unregistered CommenterJulian Moore

If you know what you're doing, if you're studied, and have an attention to detail, what you hear in your head will come out. If the first rehearsal doesn't come out the way you've imagined it, then keep tweaking until you get there. People used to get frustrated with Miles during rehearsal and would demand to know what he wanted. He would respond, "I'll let you know when we get there."

October 13 | Unregistered CommenterRVLouie

if you are looking for a straight answer: of course not.

but is it really that important? i believe we're getting better at translating our visions into final "artworks" the more we exercise it. and fans might love the outcome no matter how close it is to our original vision or how technically well it got produced.

and not only are fans being lost on the struggle to achieve "better" results from the artist's point of view - some fans might grow with the artist and some might just start to like what they're doing because of the changes and maturation.

i think consumers turn to fans, when they start to associate a feeling with the "product" they enjoy. and very often feelings are created by the gaps and "mistakes" left in the chain of production, empty spaces that are being filled by the imagination of the listener/reader...

a simple difference between plain media and art is the pure engagement of the creator. passion for an idea makes a difference on the perception of the outcome. and it will justify any deviation from the original skratch.


i want to feel something and believe it is real.

is the question you ask interesting enough to give fans an answer to it?

October 13 | Unregistered CommenterteraBel

I think it's easy to get a vague romantic picture of something in your head before you've sat down to work on it. You might have some idea of that perfect work, but it takes years of practice before ANY artist is skilled and learned enough to produce that "masterpiece."
And I mean, to that whole, "once it's been produced it's just a series of sentences" thing - if you imagine some perfect work, and you're not imagining a series of notes (or sentences), good effing luck producing that.

October 13 | Unregistered CommenterKyle

It has never come out the way I wanted it to, but there have been times when it's comes out better than I ever imagined.

The more I like it, the less my fans like it and vice versa. I've gotten over that sick feeling of an initial release by just having zero expectations so any positive response is gravy.

Unfortunately, I haven't gotten over the sick feeling of scoring a film where I have only a few days to get something to the director and I feel like my film career is over. I don't think I'll ever get over that one. I recently realized that my own ego is misinformed for films as people sink tons of money into these things and as a composer I'm only on it for a month or two. On top of that, no one even cares about the score unless it's bad or it's John Williams doing Star Wars. It's kind of like being a kicker in football.

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Schmoe

It seems you are suggesting that we should make the whole recording process more transparent as well?
I've long toyed with the idea of releasing demos (works in progress) on my band's website, so our fans can literally "hear" the process that a song goes through to become what it becomes. But in the end, my OCD takes over and I wait months and months to post new music when it is "finished."
I don't want to scare anybody off due to the roughness of a new demo. I also don't want my fans to get too attached to a partially formed idea. What if the finished product is really different? You don't want people to get used to something that was not your original intention. But what if the demo is actually CLOSER to your original intention (captures the energy of the song's creation)?
It is extremely hard for an artist to decide what and when to share with their fans. And who knows what people will like anyway!? I think that by sharing more, you risk showing a less professional, but more intimate, side of yourself. So the real question is what you want your image to be and how you want to be perceived.

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterTrevor

I release my albums as "versions" . . . ie like software, "Album" v. 1.0 . . . next upgrade "Album" v. 1.1 etc. I reserve the right to improve my recordings, even add or delete tracks as the albums grow into better and better realizations of my intended results.

Yes, I manufacture in extremely small numbers, making this more doable. And I delete and repost online content to match the updates.

I refuse to wait for an "investor" of any type (ie record company etc.) to "allow" me to produce my art. In this day and age, I can make my own albums at home. Yes, "lo-fi", but valid artistic statements.

BTW, my fans are more anxious for new material than "upgrades" of existing material . . . So, no, I'm not completely satisfied by any means . . . but still proud of what I've created.

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

To Trevor - what about posting/publishing the 'evolutional development' of the song AFTER you publish the final work. Establish the product in it's finished state, then allow fans to seethe journey of the song/idea to the point of completion. That way you establish the professional product AND allow more personal connection with your fans.

October 17 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Wood

Not a bad idea Linda.
And these days I don't have to wait 30 years to release my "Long Lost" demos. Although, thinking more long term, maybe its a good idea to hold onto your cool demos for when you're old, dead, or just not making music anymore, so your family can still make a buck on your songs....
Who am I kidding, get 'em out there now!
Also, thanks for the response! Yay for people who care about the music business interacting to make it better!

October 20 | Unregistered CommenterTrevor

I reckon there'll always be plenty of 'stuff in the closet' for next generation to exploit if they want to even if you DO put everything you can out there in the now. So yes Trevor, GET IT OUT THERE NOW! ;D

October 21 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Wood

Of course, the more people involved in the project the more fragmented the result becomes, until you find your true "team." Even then, the pie will not always be perfectly sliced and there will be compromises which result in changes in your original vision. The trick is to prepare, pre-produce, rehearse and review the pre-production with all of the team members; producer, engineer, mix engineer and musicians. I like the use of non-musical terms the way Springsteen or Joni are said to describe their intentions. Many times these "colors" and metaphors can break through and really assist in communicating with your team. Even so, unless you are completely proficient and can do it all yourself, there will be variations in the end result.

October 26 | Unregistered CommenterBob

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