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Want To Be A Great Musician? Act Like A Great Engineer

In his classic book Reality Check, Guy Kawasaki summarizes the advice of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on how to be a great engineer:

1. Don’t waver
2. See things in gray-scale
3. Work alone
4. Trust your instincts

When I read this the other week, my first thought was that this is also great advice for musicians as they navigate the creative process.

Don’t Waver
I know some very talented musicians who, despite writing and recording constantly, really struggle to complete any of the projects they start. They have a wealth of talent but little work to show for it.

The problem? They can’t commit to one artistic goal at a time.

Example: A singer-songwriter sets out to record an acoustic EP, just his voice and his guitar. After a few months of work, he decides that the record would actually be better with a full band. So he starts recording with a band, but after several more months he decides that he doesn’t like any of the material. So he chooses to scrap everything and start over from scratch, this time writing songs him and the piano instead…

I call this creative A.D.D., and artists need to be cautious about falling victim to it. Granted, the creative process isn’t linear. Some things you try musically won’t work, and it’s important to recognize when it’s time to take a fresh approach. But once you’ve settled on a creative direction and spent a bit of time pursuing it, see it through to the end. Push your doubts aside and finish that acoustic album before you start the full-band record. Chances are that it will turn out better than you thought it would.

See Things In Gray-Scale
While committing to an artistic direction is important, being open-minded about the shape your tracks will ultimately take is also critical. As I mentioned, the creative process is rarely linear. Letting your songs evolve as you work is necessary and often leads to good things.

When my brother and I work on a track, our strategy is always to take the path of least resistance without completely overhauling what we’re doing. For example, one song we produced last year began as a mid-tempo rock track. As we worked on it, we kept finding ourselves wanting to add more electronica elements to it. But in order to make those new elements feel right, we realized that we would have to cut the tempo in half. After initially resisting this change, we eventually decided to go for it. The end result was a downtempo electronica song that was quite different – and in my opinion, much better – than the track we thought we were going to make when we started.

Work Alone/Trust Your Instincts

Feedback is essential for all artists. But feedback needs to be sought at the right time from the right people.

I generally find it counterproductive to solicit any input on a song until it is near completion. In the early stages of track, when there are so many directions that it could go, outside advice just confuses things. They say that too many cooks in the kitchen ruins the meal. Similarly, too many opinions in the studio can be disastrous.

Once my brother and I have developed a song or idea more completely, we then get as much feedback as possible from peers, other producers, and our target audience. From there, we can go back and change things if we want to. Or we might decide to remix the track. But we always push our ideas as far as we can on our own first while trying to ignore outside influences as much as possible.

Reader Comments (4)

i feel like your second point of see things in greyscale condradicts your first point about not wavering. you said that the experimentation with your brother on the track led to a better result, but in don't waiver you said stick with what you started even if you're getting many doubts.

as for feedback and trusting your instincts, always such a tricky thing. what's to say that the feedback from the people you've chosen holds any weight against what your listeners might like? i guess that's the cool part about digital is you can make smaller releases and find out what tracks take off before committing them to a larger album. or the same thing goes with playing the songs live before committing them to an album.

December 24 | Unregistered Commentermr. tunes

Cheers! Best post I have ever read on Think Tank for the past few months Ive been reading. Why? Because I have always had creative A.D.D, and now I am fully aware of what I have been doing (exactly what you describe) Im recording my acoustic EP right now. 5 tracks, simple, get it done, and then the next; I refuse to succumb to doing nothing!

I have 46 songs written, and have been talking about an EP for 2 years. Cheers!

December 24 | Unregistered CommenterToby

@ mr. tunes - I don't think the first two points contradict eachother at all. "Don't Waiver" speaks to finishing what you've started and seeing projects through to the end. "See Things In Gray-Scale" speaks to taking that project that you're going to see through to the end from the first point, and being flexible enough with it to let it evolve naturally, without forcing it to be something it's not.

At least, that's my interpretation of it.

Great points and great insights!

December 26 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Rodela

Your point about not wavering is preaching to my choir. Just after releasing a record and playing a tour to support it, I started working on some acoustic songs that I thought I'd do separately from the band. I played a couple acoustic shows and then after a little break from the band, started salivating about writing music for the band again, a different process from how I right these acoustic songs.

We recently had an inter-band giant email thread about our goals in and approach to 2009, and as I was writing my thoughts, I realized that I was starting to spread myself thin. I had this acoustic material, which I wanted to record, and I wanted to throw together a "fun" band playing funk & reggae. It hit me that between my "day job" and a million other things, there's no way any of these projects would succeed on any scale.

I quickly looked over the acoustic songs and pirated them for material for the band and just last night, we already jammed on 3 of these ideas, taking one of the first steps in getting us towards one of our next goals, an EP by mid-2009. I decided that I won't waver in 2009 and I'll likely be more productive.

December 30 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Milk

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