What stops a lot of people from making music is chasing the perfect ideas. Often people think they need to make something groundbreaking for it to be worth working on. This is not true. There are plenty of songs that artists thought were mediocre, which ended up being hits for them. A good example of this is Deadmau5, who thought that his hit, “Strobe,” would only work as a B-Side. Turns out, it’s one of his most famous songs.
If you have a process and know how to create a mood board, it’s possible to turn average songs into great songs, or average songs into songs that people will appreciate for other reasons. That said, this post will be about the importance of working on average ideas.
Work On Things for the Sake of Working On Them
Sometimes the greatest surprises in music come from making it in the dark, oblivious if it’s going to be good or not. These moments involve tinkering away, creating loops, pulling sounds out of our sample bank, and fiddling around on synths just for the heck of it. However, sometimes we work on this for hours, don’t see any potential in it, and perhaps get frustrated. For instance, right now, I’m working on a new live techno set, and nothing sounds very inspiring to me. However, I realize that if I keep on working on it, and go through my checklist and process, eventually something interesting will happen. I understand that while it might not be the best composition, it could be a B-Side, which comes with its own set of benefits, which I’ll cover later in the article.
First, let’s cover going through my checklist and process. The first step in my process is what I call a “non-linear production.” Nonlinear production is a way of working where at first you, you sum up ideas, and you pile up a bunch of sounds that you like into the live view, instead of the arrangement. This allows you to essentially build a mood board of sounds that you can pull from and jam with. To build this, I force myself to record anything that just comes out, literally anything and everything. Then, I start activating and deactivating clips and see what happens. Quite often from doing this, I come up with way more than loops – I come up with entire phrases that become entire parts of the composition. And since I’m making techno, it’s loop-based and follows a predictable pattern, so things kind of just start happening.
Before I continue, I have a caveat: I never go to the studio with an aim to average music. People who insinuate that I do this after saying they should work on average music, are kind of insulting. I’m always trying to make something good.
However, I’m only human, and sometimes I have average ideas that I decide to work around and see what happens. Sometimes something fun happens, which allows me to make a ghost arrangement by going through my checklist. One part of my checklist is adding a groovy bassline. That’s fundamental to many of my tracks. Next, I figure out if it’s appropriate to respond to that call with a similar arrangement. For instance, does a lead respond well to the bassline?
Once I figure out that basic part of the structure, I think, “Can I make a complementary element, like a background sound?” So I start going through my mood board and picking out sounds that I think will fit nicely in the background – this could be noise, foley sounds, or even texture to add to the instrumentation.
Next, I start building outwards, since normally what I do in the sketch ends up being the middle part of the arrangement. So I add an outro and an intro. Once these are done, I start thinking of all of the ear candy elements – the bells and whistles. This usually includes an oddball element that makes the song crazy and unusual. Then once I get all these elements together, sometimes something that is average, can be pretty cool.
Time Heals All Wounds
So what happens when you do all of this, and somehow everything is kind of “meh?” Easy. Just chill for a minute. Quite often, students will record something that they think is mediocre at the moment, but when viewed in a different mindset, that changes. What you thought was boring a while ago, could sound exciting now, or at the very least, feel worth working on.
Perception will always be the enemy of progress. We all have to remember that some music sounds good at some points in time, and at others, it doesn’t. Also, sometimes you have a sound that you don’t particularly like in the context that it’s in, but when paired with another sketch, it could take on a life of its own. Or it could just be average, and that’s ok! As I said before, the average to you might be awesome to another listener.
The Benefits of B-Sides
The thing is ordinary tracks, in my opinion, stand the test of time longer than complicated arrangements. When I do mastering, many of the ideas I love are not that original, or groundbreaking – instead, they are efficient because they cover all the elements of a song that I find important. The over-the-top stuff? Not so much. Perhaps some Chemical Brothers or Plastikman compositions, but overall, no – at least in my opinion.
B-Sides are often some of the best music out there, especially from a DJ’s perspective. They’re typically functional and filled with fewer frills than the main single. This allows for them to be easily mixed and used as a tool, allowing for DJs to create unique moments on the fly during their sets. Due to this, they might not get as many streams on places like Spotify, but they could perform better on places like Beatport or Traxsource.
Once again, I have to mention the Deadmau5 “Strobe” situation. He thought it would be a B-side, submitted it as a B-side to the label, and it became one of his biggest songs. What you think is a B-Side could be your main track.
Turning the Ordinary, Experimental
One thing that people forget is that sometimes it’s also good to make experimental music out of ordinary music. Remember that average idea that you had before? You can make it extraordinary with some simple tricks. First, build a long chain of effects on one of your return channels. Then take channels and start sending them to the return. By doing this, you can end up with some really weird syncopated patterns and textures far removed from what you originally made. You can either leave these textures throughout the whole thing or use them for some surprise moments to throw the listener off guard. For instance, I recently went to see Chaos in the CBD and one of the strongest moments of their live set was right in the middle of the set where they had this wild, all over the place, sonic meltdown from an edit of a 90’s song. I thought it was brilliant because they took something old and made it new again – something that I touched on in the Murakami post.
Make Music For Yourself
So many people are concerned about making music for other people, whether that is a DJ or a label. However, most great music comes from people just making it for themselves. When you make music for a DJ or a label, often, you might find yourself trying to read their mind and overanalyzing their intentions. This results in label owners complaining that all the tracks they get sound exactly the same. While this is a product of their own doing, as they often only sign tracks that fit their meta, at the same time, they aren’t wrong. Memorable producers don’t try to imitate. Instead, they create something that others try to imitate. And in order to create something unique, it has to come from a place of genuineness. And sometimes, if you’re just sketching out ideas, forming a mood board, and working on some songs that don’t quite fit into a paradigm, this is where some truly fascinating stuff happens.
Greatness is the Sum of Averages
In other words, don’t worry about average – just start making stuff. After all, if you are trying to get noticed, algorithms favor frequency, so keep on putting things out. Most will miss, but if you keep doing it, occasionally, you may have a hit.