Tips and tricks to overcome writers block as a musician & producer
Making music in a digital form whilst sat at a computer is more often than not a very lonely and isolating occupation. Many people find this very much the norm such as myself who has for the last 20 plus years been more accustomed to this way of working than with other musicians, Don't get me wrong I enjoy working as part of a group or with a vocalist when the chance arrives and I have produced some very productive work in these areas, but mostly I have sat alone for years both day and night trying to find the inspiration to begin and finish tracks.
How many of you out there are like me where you have at least 100 or more unfinished tracks and ideas on your hard drive, sat there just wasting away? Yes I am sure that there are many of you who have the same problem. But how does one climb out of a creative slump? In this article I am going to give you ideas and tips on how to do just that, as it is something I have faced hundreds of times before whilst working alone and not having other musicians or creative minds around to revitalize my workflow. All record producers would love to be able to churn out a track every week, completely finished and ready to sell and play out. However this is just not possible. Yes you could turn out a track without a problem, but would it be true to you and your sound? and would it have any real quality about it? The answer more often than not would be a big fat NO!. It would more than likely end up sounding very much like your last one, and the whole point of creating music is to move forward with different styles, influences and to experiment with different sounds.
Making music is and should be treated like any other art form. You don't see Disney putting out a movie each week. So why should it be any different for musicians? Art takes time no matter what the medium, but when the art dries up just remember that it is only temporary and the way back to creativity is not to force it but try to embrace new ways of doing things. I have had many creative slumps over the years and some have been for months on end where I felt that I may never make another track again. But this suddenly ends when out of the blue comes a rush of enthusiasm and I am soon back to creating many tracks at the same time but out of those tracks only a couple will make it to a finished product.
I remember personally one of my most frustrating slumps ever was when I was signed to Universal Music back in 2000 and was under instructions to record a follow up guaranteed hit record. Now first and foremost hit records can not and have never been produced on demand, for every one hit that a person writes there have been many many more that ended up on the shelf.
But deep down I was not in the mind of wanting to do this kind of mechanized recording. The reason now in hindsight was that before I signed a major record deal, making music was extremely good fun and was something I did as a DJ to play new tunes in the club I worked at on a Saturday night.
The idea of it becoming a full time job and one in which so much pressure was applied was completely alien to me. It took six months before I was able to come up with a follow up for the label, which in turn ended up costing a small fortune in studio time at the now closed world famous Olympic Studios in London, and it left me feeling very deflated and utterly frustrated with the commercial recording industry. It did take a very long time for me to actually enjoy making music again after this rough slump.
But that was more of a pressure thing as opposed to the creative well drying up, but at the same time it deflated my creative flow which by when you look at the whole cycle of pressure, rejection from the label and the fact it became a full time job as opposed to a hobby certainly took its toll and went round and round for several months. So your creative well has dried up, the ideas are just not working out. You have decided to watch that box set on DVD instead as you know that sitting at the computer is not going to produce anything worthwhile as it hasn't done for the last few weeks or so. What do you do? How do you get that productive streak back?
You can either let it go for a while like I have done many times before and go and do something different. But if you are desperate to keep going then you can try a few of these methods below which I have done over the years when things start to dry up which have always served me well.
Below are some ideas for climbing over that brick wall. Don't Be a Sheep 1. Don't listen to the current top ten at your preferred digital mp3 store of your genre, Many producers possibly go through this field thinking that they will come up with something similar in the attempt to just produce a track and feel good about their work. Big mistake! You must bare in mind that those tracks were recorded months ago and are actually not as current as you think. Then by the time you have finished replicating that current sound it soon becomes dated and cliched, and you end up sounding like everyone else again. Listen To Your First Love 2. Following on from the first point, do the exact opposite. Think back to what got you into making your chosen music in the first place? Go and dig out the first five records or so that really inspired you to produce, the ones that you questioned about their production techniques. Those records that made you believe that yes you can do this and want to do this. For me I will always revert to the Detroit and Chicago styles from the late 80's he progressive house of the early 90's and the early Disco House from the mid 90's. For me those records were key moments in my youth that inspired me to produce. Find out those records again and take inspiration from them. "Sometimes its better to go backwards in order to move forwards"
Groundhog Synths 3. If you are consistently using the same plug ins and the same sounds, try and discover a new VST. You will find that many of the free VST plug ins have some amazing sounds on there which you can use and manipulate. Don't be afraid to experiment with a different sound and then mould your own trademark sound around that. Break your regular studio habits. If hardware is more your thing then perhaps trade in a piece of equipment you no longer use and get something else to find a new sound. Treat your Ears 4. If you produce Disco House music for example and you also listen to it in the car or at home etc whilst not producing, then its probably a good idea to take a clean break away from your genre and listen to something quite the opposite. For me its Ambient music, but for others it may be Rock or Folk? Its always a good idea to shut down your ears for a while from your style in order to consume something different. I get tired of listening to Disco from time to time, so its always better to retreat and then return instead of fighting a losing battle in the studio. Come back with fresh ears and a clear mind.
Develop Your Hidden Talent 5.Try a new sub genre of your style, for example if you produce Disco House that's in the re-edit style of simply sampling a track and adding only limited effects such as filters and the odd sweep fx. This would be a good time to then maybe stop that and record something that requires more in depth production such as the use of chords and bass lines and lead lines that you have to manually record in and work those around your sample perhaps? giving it a whole new freshness, and in turn gives you the creative fire which may have been lacking.
If you don't know how to play a certain style on the keyboard then go online and find a video of how to do that, There are many tutorials on how to play different styles of music. Use them to your advantage. Don't limit yourself to one way of working, this is not only boring but unproductive in the long run if you really want to remain in the game. Walk Away Quickly 6. If it doesn't come together within the first 30 minutes to an hour of starting, simply turn it off and go do something else. It has to click within that time otherwise it can become a chore and a bore, and music should never feel that way. Many times I have tried to beat the work out of myself and force it down and it simply does not work. If it doesn't happen quick then drop it quick. Going Live 7. If you use Ableton to produce your tracks then try and get together the stems and loops of your recent productions and turn them into a live performance set. This can more often than not lead to new material being created. I have done this a few times and it works, as you get to the end of a track being remixed live and you naturally add to it by layering it with some new beats and playing in new riffs etc. Take it out of the studio sequencer and play about with it in the session view until you find that you want to return it to the studio and make a new track out of your new live performance. Field Recordings Are So Much Fun 8. Get out of the studio altogether and create your own sounds. Whilst I was doing my music degree at University some years back, I had ran out of creative ideas for a project and so I took a zoom recorder and began collecting sounds around the house and in the garden, then onto the street. I hit bin lids, pots and pans, recorded the gas stove hiss to create an original hi hat sound. I even recorded the sound of hitting two snooker balls against each other to create that smacking sound as an effect. I literally recorded anything that could be generated into a new sound.
I then put them through a sampler and tidied them up and added various effects such as reverb and chorus delays etc. This then gave me a whole new pallet of sound to work with that no one else in the world had, and I made three tracks within a week, because I was so inspired by this fresh way of working. So think about how to create original sounds from around the house and outside. You'll be very surprised what you come up with.
So there you go, some of my tips that may be of use to you when you are struggling to find your way out of a hole within your chosen genre. Always remember that creative slumps don't last forever, and that making music can often be peaks and troughs. Enjoy the peaks and grin and bare the troughs. Its all part of the process.
I have broken down the above into a video also which you watch here.