A Music Production Paradox

Here is something that, at first, seems like contradictory advice, but which might actually help you, if you are a songwriter and/or music producer.  These days, it has become very easy (relative to how hard it used to be – it’s still hard) to write a song, record it, produce it, mix it and master it, then release it to the world, via the Internet.  People do it all the time.  The world is awash with the outpourings of the many bedroom producers that now release their musical works to the world.  Unfortunately, the average quality of all this work, taken as a whole, is markedly lower than when only a few selected artists got to release records.  There’s a lot more music available that isn’t quite up to scratch.  That makes the outstanding works harder to find, in the sea of ordinary songs.

To become a good songwriter or music producer, you must make a lot of songs and it’s important to finish them, because half-finished works don’t really exist.  They only count when they’re complete.  It’s tempting to lock yourself in your studio and crank stuff out, at a prodigious rate, in your journey toward becoming a master of your art.

They also tell you (and so do I) that exposing your work to an audience is very important, too.  Work that never reaches an audience doesn’t really exist either.  The purpose of art is to have an impact on somebody else.  Sure, you can make it just for yourself, but how will you know if it is good or bad, or whether or not it will be received well?  You don’t.  Consequently, you must not only make a lot of music, you must also finish it and release it.

So, here comes the paradox:  If you were able to select only your best works and widely release those, the net average quality of your released body of work would be perceived to be much higher than if you release everything, including your half-baked and not-really-ready-for-prime-time stuff.  In other words, and this applied in the past when record companies acted as artistic gatekeepers, if you edited your own output, on the basis of quality, as adjudicated by a small group of people whose taste you could trust, you would appear to be a better artist and only your really good stuff would get to be exposed to a wider audience.  Everyone would think that you’re a musical genius, if they could only hear your best work.

Some people get so hung up on only releasing their good stuff that they never release anything.  That means their body of work never gets to exist.  Bad reaction.

The other part of the paradox is that, if you can tell a song you’re working on is not going to finish up being your best work, then should you just abandon it, unfinished, in the interests of spending your limited time polishing your really good work?  Should you put the hours in, finishing and releasing doomed songs?

It’s easy to get hysterical about this, too, so that you spend all your time abandoning everything or worse, endlessly tweaking and never finishing.  That’s almost the worst of all worlds, because in trying to perfect something you think is a bad piece of music, instead of walking away and starting on something good, you waste a lot of time tweaking, for no good result.  Whether or not it turns out to be good or bad, as a track, you think it’s bad anyway, so you fail to release it.  Good tracks can be tweaked to death and ultimately abandoned, because they were believed to be bad, so never finished and not exposed to an audience that would have received the track well.

The problem is that it all comes down to judgement.  How can you tell which of your work is good enough for wide release?  If you’re just starting out, you probably have no idea.  Most seasoned pros are still amazed at which of their works finds an appreciative audience and which songs are roundly ignored and passed over.  You might not know anybody that can reliably tell you which of your songs are the good ones, either.  It’s possible that, at the beginning of your musical career, none of what you do is really good enough to meet general audience expectations.  How are you going to get to be good enough, unless you keep making mistakes and terrible songs?  The answer is, quite evidently, that you cannot.

There’s a lucky balance to be struck, I suspect.  The world would be less cluttered with under-produced, insufficiently-original music, if everybody only worked on, completed and released their really excellent works widely.  Unfortunately, there would be no way of knowing which works, out of all the work you make, would be the really excellent stuff.  You also need to spend the time making a lot of music to have a chance of making really good music.  Making music in a vacuum, without audience feedback, means you could spend all your time perfecting the art of making music nobody wants to listen to.  That would be bad.

In fact, songwriters will tell you that there is almost never a song you write that is so bad, something good cannot be made out of it.  I think that, with the music production tools available to us, we should be willing to rework songs we release that aren’t making the audience excited about our work.  We should take those underappreciated songs, mine the best parts out of them and reshape our work until it meets a higher quality standard, relative to the expectations of an audience.  In other words, I think you should be prepared to release bad songs, but then be honest enough to rework your worst work, until you discover how to make it good.  That’s learning worth accumulating.  The skill of being able to take a mediocre song, with average production and reliably turn it into listener gold is a skill that we would all love to develop.

So, I think the route to making sure your body of work is eventually perceived to be of overall high quality is to make a lot of songs, finish them, release them, but be prepared to rework the less well-received songs, until the average quality of everything you’ve released, bad versions of bad songs included, becomes better and better.  Yes, it means that the ocean of bad songs remains as vast and difficult to navigate as ever, but it also means that you, as an artist, are making genuine improvements to your art and your craft, in response to audience feedback.  I think that’s pretty empowering.  The better you get, the easier it will be for audiences to find and appreciate what you do.

There you have it.  The route to being known as a high quality music producer and songwriter is to rework your work, relentlessly improving it, until you find your sweet spot.  Sooner or later, audiences new to your work will gravitate to your best stuff first and there is going to be plenty of it, if you do this correctly.  That might not buy you a Ferrari and a luxury villa on the Mediterranean, but it will certainly mean you will leave a legacy of worthwhile work behind you.  As an artist, that’s a very important achievement.

The better you get, the better you become.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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8 Responses to A Music Production Paradox

  1. I’m finding it damn near impossible to get meaningful feedback. I think most people would honestly rather eat cardboard than tell someone they know personally that they don’t really like something they’ve made. Or if they do like it, it’s just a general confirmation that you basically already knew anyway. And if they say nothing, well, then that leaves you to assume that they don’t really care for it too much, but you really have no idea why. Do they not like the instruments? Is it not melodic enough? Did the lyrics or singing turn them off? What was it that ruined their enjoyment of the song? You have no idea.

    This problem is compounded if you’re trying to make music that doesn’t sound much like any other genre or artist. People have no basis of comparison. They’ll probably listen to it exactly once (if they even finish it). Some of my favorite music took me multiple listens to really “get.” Most people really have no reason to muddle through the work of an artist that they have no allegiance to if it isn’t gratifying in pretty short order. Radiohead had to make a bunch of fairly straight-forward guitar rack before they were “allowed” to make more experimental, challenging music. Same with The Beatles. If you’re trying to make music that is different at the beginning of your career, it’s a tough road.

    • Yes it is tough making signature music at the beginning of your career, but then being a derivative clone of somebody else ‘s music is a tough road, in the long run. I think it’s better to get good at who you are and let the audience that likes it find you. That might mean your friends and family never get it, or get it only when there is a massive audience that gets it way before they do. Brian May’s own father only finally understood Queen’s music when they were playing Madison Square Gardens. Had he asked for honest feedback from his dad earlier, what possible good would it have done him? In the end, you have to make music that sounds good to your own ear. The rest is somebody else’s journey of discovery. There is no good reason to be diverted from making music you like, because people you like and respect want it to sound different to what you made. That’s the road to constantly chasing your own tail. Trust in your own taste and musical judgement. It’s reliable.

      • I’m finding out you’re a big Queen fan. Good on ya, I like their stuff too, just never delved deeper than the radio hits.

        Ohh, man, I have basically zero expectation of my parents liking or understanding my music. And that’s fine. My dad saw Hendrix play in 68 or 69 and said he didn’t really like it: “too loud.” Ha.

        The thing is, I can make music that I like. I actually like the majority of what I make. And I don’t really want to necessarily change the direction I’m pursuing based on feedback. I’m not going to start making music that tells stories through lyrics, because I really don’t like that (with exceptions, of course) just because someone gives me feedback that they can’t connect to the words. I’m not going to stop using “odd” percussion instruments because someone tells me that it doesn’t sound “real.” It’s more the little things that I don’t necessarily feel super attached to one way or the other. This or that instrument is too loud in the mix, make that riff stick around longer, that transition is a bit clunky, stuff like that. Specific feedback about specific elements.

      • I think you’ll still run up against issues of taste, or of jealousy, or of people not really knowing what they’re talking about, but insisting they do. I hope you get the feedback you need, though.

  2. It’s funny you mention jealousy. I’ve been feeling lately that it could be at play. I got better reactions from some friends about some early songs that are just hands down inferior to what I’m doing now. Some people seem to have less and less to say as my music advances in sophistication and production value. I don’t know, maybe before it was easy to dismiss it as total amateur hour, but now they’re taking it more seriously, judging it on a different scale. Who knows?

    My fear is that one day they’ll hear something by me they like, and I’ll be too grudgy to accept their praise at that time. Like when everyone all of a sudden wants to reconnect with you when they hear you came into some money. Or when guys all of a sudden want to be “friends” with a girl they used to ignore after she loses a bunch of weight. It would be hard for me not to be resentful, honestly.

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