Common mindsets of musicians who have writer’s block and how to solve them

We’ve recently restarted group coaching after a few month hiatus. The initial idea for group coaching is to explore the participant’s current intentions and obstacles in their work, including overcoming writer’s block in music-making. Passionate producers spend a lot of time music-making; it’s a central part of their lifestyle, which means that when things don’t go so well, it can be a very frustrating experience.

While many join the group coaching sessions to get technical tips, often we spend time discussing how we approach music-making and try to understand the mindset(s) that we have towards the craft. I can give you all the technical tips in the world, but if you approach music-making with a foggy mind, you might not be able to apply any of them. This is why music producers often have patterns of creativity that include peak highs and extreme lows. But what causes this pattern exactly? There are a few common cases of lows I’d like to share with you from what I hear and see most often in working with clients.

“I can’t finish projects.”

This is a pretty familiar theme I see on a daily basis. Sometimes people have no issue sitting in studio and are excited to start a new idea. They’ll build it up for a while, but after a few sessions the magic is gone and it feels more appealing to them to start all over with new, fresh ideas. If you recognize yourself here, realize that your brain is in search of a dose of dopamine and starting a new track is instant gratification. I can tell you that finishing a track will provide an even bigger dose of dopamine, but the anticipation of finishing something can kill your momentum and will make you lose focus. Some people also fear messing up the project or have the impression that the more they work on it, the less impressive the track becomes, which often results in feeling like they’re not in control of what they’re doing.

Solution: Under the influence of a big dose of dopamine from creating a new and exciting idea, you build up expectations in your head for your track to become your next masterpiece. Usually, when I notice I’m thinking this way I usually just stop everything and do something else for a moment. Building up expectations that you’re working on something grandiose is a way of setting up yourself for inaction and lack of drive down the road. Here are some music-making habits I have to help keep myself from falling into this trap:

  • In idea-creating sessions, I’ll focus on working on several different ideas and will not elaborate on any of them until a future session. This helps in not getting too excited about anything specific, and the break away from the idea(s) also helps me in understanding the real potential of the track.
  • I never, ever, think of a track as a potential hit. I’m more focused on finishing it and moving on. Finishing something gives the mind clarity, and will give you a sense of accomplishment and build self-confidence.
  • I never forget that because a track has been declared “done”, that this won’t stop me from reopening the project in a few months to change something. Many songs can have multiple versions, and sometimes you need to test it in a club or show it to others for feedback.

“I need perfect conditions to start working.”

This one is also pretty common and I’ve seen it in friends for years. Some people will always say that they can’t be making what they want because they’re either missing something in their setup or because something is stopping them. You often see this in people who constantly buy new gear or plugins but don’t spend much time exploring the real potential of any of their tools.

Solution: To make music, you don’t need much. You need a DAW such as Ableton Live, a computer, and a pair of headphones. That’s pretty much it. If you can’t make something using only this minimal setup, expect to be very frustrated down the road; the more options you have, the more you might become confused in how to use them all together. I often recommend for beginners to try to get the most out of their DAW alone using tutorials (you can learn basically everything on YouTube). You’ll be surprised with what you can create by limiting yourself. “Yeah, but it won’t sound the way I want“. This is what I call a brain distraction. It’s more important to get your skills together and to find ways to sound better later. There’s also nothing wrong with using or buying presets to see how things are made so you can get inspiration from various sources. Here’s how you can avoid getting caught up in waiting for the right conditions to work on music:

  • Realize that there will never be a perfect setup or time to make music. Great sounds and ideas are created while working and exploring, not while you’re imagining how you’d do if you had this or that.
  • How you use your time is up to you. When I had my son, I maximized the little time I had by squeezing in power sessions here and there, sometimes in a 5-minute spans. When you work within a limitation like that, you get crazy productive and don’t get stuck on time-sucking details. When someone tells me they “don’t have time”, I wonder how much time they’re actually setting aside for production.

“I need musical recognition from others.”

This is a complex one. Recognition is often something people chase for a big portion their time. They’ll try different things to get recognized such as releasing music by themselves, asking others for feedback, or sending music to blogs/magazines/etc. Whatever you’re chasing, there are good chances you might not get what you want anyways. Asking for approval is basically saying “I give X the power to decide if what I do is good.” Sometimes we place a lot of importance on one person to give feedback because of their reputation or talent. Even if someone you are pursuing for feedback listens and doesn’t like your work, they could be wrong because they might not be in the right state of mind or right person to listen.

Solution: Usually, the main piece of advice I give to a person who chases recognition is to be aware of their intentions. Sometimes there’s relationship between external feedback and internal feedback. “Are you making music for yourself?” This is the one thing I ask people in this mindset. Sometimes people are so lost in music-making that they forget the initial root of their relationship with music, which was often simply to have fun. If you’re not having fun making music, do you think other people will have fun listening to it? This is why I find it’s important to celebrate music we love in order to understand what we love and why we love it.

“I need to get to the next level of quality in my production skills.”

Very often, people will feel they’ve learned a lot with production – enough to make music – but that something is still lacking. This usually comes after some years of music-making; sometimes when you’ve had a few releases and you perhaps start repeating yourself multiple times in the genre of music you’re making.

Solution: Try to achieve specific goals for yourself. If you’re not reaching the level you’re aiming for, perhaps you’re not pulling your information from sources that actually solve your problems. But there could be nothing wrong with where you are at the moment. I have moments where I’m making music and notice that I’m repeating myself, feeling limited in what I do, but that’s just where I happen to be at that moment; I just continue doing it with what I have. Feeling like you’re stuck on a plateau in your musical or production development is not a problem, but making a big deal about it is, because it stops you from actually working.

I hope this was helpful!

SEE ALSO : Self-Sabotaging Your Music Career

Social Media for Musicians

I’d like to reiterate what many have been saying lately: social media for musicians can be a curse. Most people are aware that platforms like Facebook have become more controversial than ever before; Attack Magazine, for example, has written about how difficult it has been lately. I’ve been asked to comment on social media use for artists since many readers felt that I have been using these platforms “properly” (glad you think so by the way!), so let me share with you some of my views and observations on this topic.

For those of you who complain that it’s been difficult to build a following or audience on social media, it’s true that you’re up against a large number of other people who are trying to do the same thing. You’re basically fighting the whole wide world to be seen and heard. On top of that, people’s attention spans are limited, and being in the right place at the right time is challenging. Nils Frahm recently announced that he was deleting his artist page on Facebook and his online presence as well to be more present in the “real” world. It’s great that bigger artists can do this, but what about smaller artists? Is that doable?

I’ve been careful in coming up with my own theories, recipes, and routines that could make a difference with regards to how to approach social media. Things change quickly; what worked for years may at any time, fail. There are no consistent guarantees of anything.

This reminds me of an an old debate in the electronic music scene in which one side is represented by artists that want to play the “mysterious artist” card, and on the other, by artists who want to be visible everywhere. There are a number of people who’ve succeeded using both approaches and end up becoming an inspiration or norm for everyone trying to create a similar response. Is one approach better than the other? I honestly have no idea, but if you embrace either side, do it 100%.

What you want to do first as an artist is to figure out your initial “marketing” intentions: will you be low key, or accessible? The position you take has to be one that feels natural, and a good match with your personality and values. I’ve seen very social and outgoing people wanting to be mysterious, but then struggle in not being able to connect with people who want to get in touch. Honestly, with the way Facebook is running its algorithms, we’re all back to square one anyways and have fallen – without our consent – into the position of becoming more low key than ever. Just before writing this post, I spent a good hour on Facebook to see if any news from artists I follow would pop in my feed; no artists or labels I follow showed up. I needed to make a change in my following options to “put first” on music pages in order to get any news at all. So in a way, what’s the point?

The only platforms where I was actually fed some news from artists I follow automatically were Soundcloud, Spotify and Instagram.

Following an artist’s personal page on Facebook is a bit more useful; I see information as it’s posted. I’m just confused sometimes as to why people post a constant flux of self-promotional content – this is exactly why I will unfollow them. When someone is complaining that his or her online presence isn’t generating any traction, I often have the impression that there might be some online etiquette that hasn’t been respected and the person’s online behaviour might be characterized as annoying by other people.

Before social media, promoting your music was more confusing, but there were things you could still do. That said, it wasn’t easier than today (trust me), and the idea of reaching out the world was very daunting. Even still, there were ethics regarding promotion even back then; these rules seems still seem applicable to social media today. Here are a few pieces of advice about promoting yourself based on some of those rules:

Start small and go where it resonates. I frequently see people asking friends to listen to their music and then feel resentment because there’s no interest. The question is, why would friends bother? I know this sounds harsh but it’s true. It’s not because you make music that you’re entitled to attention. Making music is easier than ever, and many people are also DJing now. Even though this is good and can help artists meet many other producers, it still doesn’t make an artist special. Is that depressing to you? If yes, you’re in for a lot of frustration. Starting small is the best thing you can do. Back in the 90s, making a tape as a demo was a big deal and I’d make copies for friends who’d ask; no more. The great thing about tapes was that people would play them in their homes and cars. Other people would hear the tape and ask how they could get a copy for themselves. Things would flow organically to the right ears, and the people who would come to you would be the people you’d want to invest in; the same thing still applies today. Social media is an illusion that you can grow fast and with random people, but in reality the percentage of people that will really engage with you is still extremely small; your organic reach. Once in a while you’ll see someone do something brilliant and it will go viral, but this is usually the result of being in the right place at the right time. “Going viral” is similar to writing a hit song, as I explained in a past post. You can’t really control or predict hits, but if you focus on immediate, interested people, they might relay it to others, increasing your chances of success.

Social media is a distraction. If you spend a lot of time on social media to try to make an impact on your career, I’d encourage you to spend more time on Youtube instead, learning music production techniques. “Yeah, but that’s not going to get me bookings”, I hear you say. Of course it won’t, but maybe you need to focus on your craft first, and once it’s easy to sell, the bookings might be automatic. I’ve been working in one-on-one coaching with people, and we’ve been focusing and really nailing down all the important things one person needs to have top performances and solid productions. Afterwards, I often hear people say “I feel embarrassed I spent so much time wanting attention when I wasn’t ready for it at all.”

Forget people who are close with you as being reliable sources of support and understanding. This one was hard for me, but once I understood it, I felt way more at peace with my life. What this means to me is that I don’t ask people for anything. I don’t force-feed anyone about what I do, and I’m never pushy either. I tell people what I do, and if I have a gig, I’ll mention it. One thing I’ve learned over time is that most of the people who say they’ll come to see me play rarely do, and that the ones who show up are usually random people I don’t expect. Same goes for feedback about music I make that I share with my loved ones. I honestly appreciate their feedback, but also take it with a grain of salt.

Over the years, I’ve realized that what really made sense for me was to build a small circle of 5 reliable people. Not just for feedback but also for action. There are other people who could help but they are slow to reply or just ghost on me. I have no time or energy for these folks unfortunately. I focus on people who focus on me, and we all grow and get results, together.

Is there reliable advice then regarding how an artist should use social media?

Yes and no. I would say that maintaining a social media presence is important, but without making it an obsession or attaching too much importance to the numbers behind it. Yes, labels and promoters look at social media numbers and interactions, which could make a difference. But most people are looking for content, integrity, and originality. This is why I think Instagram and Soundcloud are important; they’re mostly to connect with others who share the same passion as opposed to trying to market to random people that you have some “unique talent”. Appreciation for your work will come from the music you put out, and if done right and with patience, your music will create its own results.

SEE ALSO : Choosing a genre for your music

Learning how to make melodies

One of most difficult things for a self-taught musician to get the hang of is writing melodies. Even for a trained musician I believe melody is still a challenge; using theoretical knowledge to come up with the right melodic vocabulary to really express what one wants to express can be difficult. When I started to make music more seriously, I was hanging out with a few friends like Mateo Murphy, Mitchel Akiyama, and Tim Hecker. At the time, Mitch taught music theory and piano. I once asked him if he could teach me as well, because I wasn’t feeling confident with melodies at that time. Learning more theory really felt it was the right thing to do; if I was going to write music, I thought more theory would be for sure be an essential part of improving.

Mitch loved my music and after thinking about it, said:

There’s nothing wrong with your melodies. I understand you might not like them, but learning more music theory doesn’t mean that you’ll like them more. I think [music] classes would pull you in the wrong direction and I’m more interested to hear what you’ll do on your own in the years to come.

This is one of the most surprising things I’ve probably been told, even in the time that’s passed since Mitch gave me this feedback. At first I was confused if Mitch’s answer meant that I already knew enough “naturally”, or that I had a “beginner’s mind” which was lucky or naively interesting to him. In art, having a naive approach can have certain charm but can also be awkwardly odd. I read a quote from Picasso during my studies in arts that has stayed with me (I did theater and stage comedy for years before making music). Picasso once said “it took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Children create and express themselves in a very spontaneous way, and I believe that Picasso was referring to their state of mind. Tim Hecker had the same kind of vision, and if you listen to his music, you’ll hear a lot of letting go in how things happen, but his approach is still controlled. While he was doing a lot of granular synthesis in metal music, I was dealing with melodies coming from a sound source or sample.

The beauty of electronic music is how we sample music to reinterpret it into a different form. Some will use a sample as-is, others prefer changing it a bit, and then there are the people who change it completely. In all cases, working from a source gives an artist healthy limitations in working with other tones and notes that must all work together.

One thing you can do is use Ableton’s Sampler and slice out parts from a musical loop you like, then with the MIDI notes you can change the order around and you’ll automatically have something new. If you don’t like the sound (say a piano) but you like the notes, then you can bounce the new melody and use Ableton’s melody extractor to have new MIDI to send to a synth or sampler using a different sound.

Next comes the need to add extra notes, but what if they’re off? What if they’re completely messing everything up? Again, what seems to most people like the best answer to this problem lies in learning more music theory.

There are multiple ways in which knowing more theory would potentially help, but let’s first consider some facts.

First off, if you like electronic music or more low key music, I’m sure you all know some songs that have very little musical content. Some songs are made on 2-3 notes/chords and can still pull it off. So why not try to see how far you can go with whatever material you already have before making it more complex? You’d be surprised sometimes that less might actually be better. The clearer the message, the more powerful the bond you can create with the listener, and sometimes this implies to reducing melodies to essentials.

However, some people think that if you stick with only simple content, you’ll never really evolve as a musician. I don’t believe this. I could say the same thing about sound design, synth design, mixing, and mastering. You can’t expect to know everything so fast and that you’ll instantly be great at it. But the more you work with one thing, the more comfortable you become. Once you have a good base skill set, you start to take risks that intuitively lead you to the results you are looking for. Same thing goes for percussion design. People often think that using a sample is not being creative, but it actually makes you study the best sample for a particular percussive element, and when you find great ones, then you’ll want to know how they’re made. If you start by designing sounds before sampling, you are venturing into territory where your references might be poor. And again, this also goes for melodies and production.

In other words, it’s more important to practice and actually finish songs; keep it low key and constantly be on the lookout to find inspiring references or source material.

Again, some will say that music theory would do no harm in helping. Of course it won’t, and if you dig, you can find multiple music theory classes or tutorials online. There are also plugins like Scaler that can help you with propositions. But for me, I find myself agreeing with Mitch and encourage people to try to approach melodies more personally.

One of my current musician buddies is Bryan Highbloom who is a jazz musician who I’ve collaborated with. With his 40+ years of playing, he’s seen a lot of shows and explored many different approaches [to music], so I often like to ask him questions to hear his views. Yesterday I asked him about the importance of progressions, theory, and such.

The most exciting time of my life when I started to learn to play was when guys like Coltrane came up with something that was completely different from anyone else. He had his own vocabulary. At the time, people were really fed up of doing the same progression, scales, and routines. It felt like we were making music for others to get, not music the way we want to make it. Coltrane was fresh. He knew what he was doing, but it was also because he wanted to break rules and get out of the cage. I’m a free jazz guy. I like to try new things all the time. I feel like I see more that way and then it gives me ideas for the next jam based on what was inspiring me. But the thing is to be in the moment and to record yourself, all the time.

Though he didn’t mention it specifically, listening to past sessions we’ve recorded, he liked to have a melody frozen in time, something you don’t catch and have to let go. But with MIDI, we usually trim out the parts we like less and move them around. So in a way, to get interesting content you need to spend a lot of time in the arranger and move things around. Trust your ears – they should know when something is off. If you’re unsure, use Ableton’s Scales and you know you’ll be in tune.

From my circle of friends, Mateo was on the other side of the spectrum with his approach to melody. His view was that it was important to have structured melodies and that it would have to “work” harmonically speaking. His background and main interest at that time was DJ’ing, so melodic and harmonic structures were essential to help him achieve his sets. I like to have one person I talk to that has a different view, because it keeps me structured in my work and stops it from being too all over the place. Mateo’s and my common interest for DJ-oriented music has always been there, and having that always in the back of my head made me think about pushing my boundaries somewhere between Mitch’s vision and something more accessible.

This is why I learned about progression and theory only when I felt I needed to have one point clarified when I really needed it. But not to create an entire melody, all at once.

I once had a contract where I was asked to finish a melodic song. The first thing that I noticed was that the melody was out of tune and sounded very off. But the client loved it as it was. I showed him that just by adding scales, we could “remove” off keys so he sees the real tones of his phrase. But of course, this would change the vibe completely, which was not what he wanted. We both asked a few people to validate the track, and while everyone pointed out that there was a problem, the client wanted to keep it the way it was.

The moral of this story is, if you’re in doubt about a melody, ask around. If you’re tone deaf, it’s important to learn this about yourself sooner rather than later, and work to improve it. But then again, if you actually love dissonance that’s all well and good, but be ready to face a lot of frowns. Not being good at writing melodies doesn’t mean you can’t get anything done, maybe you have other strengths that you can focus on!

SEE ALSO : A Guide to Percussion