Creativity: A Guide for Electronic Music Producers

Every producer wants to be more creative.

It’s integral to what we do – making music.

Easier said than done though, especially when life gets in the way.

To be truly creative, we need to understand the essence of creativity, and how to use it to make us better producers.

Let’s go.

Note: this blog post is an excerpt from my book, The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. You can download the full PDF below:

What is Creativity?

To understand what creativity is, we first need to understand what creativity is not.

What creativity is not

Creativity is not innate

One common myth surrounding creativity is that it’s a gift given to a few lucky people. Something innate that cannot be learned, practised or developed.

Even if this myth was true, it wouldn’t change the fact that Thomas Edison went through 3,000 different ideas and iterations for lighting systems before coming across one that was practical and profitable. It wouldn’t change the fact that Mozart composed over six hundred pieces of music during his short life.

If creativity is innate, why did Edison and Mozart need to work so hard?

The origin for this myth comes from the left vs. right-brain myth, which states that one part of the brain is analytical and the other creative and free-roaming. The understanding was, and still is, that people are born more “right-brain” or “left-brain” and are more creative or less creative as a result.

But this is simply false, as psychologist and author Christian Jarrett points out:

“Creativity isn’t the preserve of one side of the brain, and it isn’t a talent confined to people with a special kind of brain. Real neuroscience says: if you’re human and you’ve got a brain, you’re capable of being creative.”

Creativity is not a Eureka moment

In 2014, a film called The Imitation Game was released.

It follows legendary mathematician Alan Turing as he attempts to crack the Enigma Code (The Enigma machine was a cypher machine used to protect military and diplomatic communication).

Like many films before it, the film features a memorable Eureka moment where Turing figures out how to crack the code.

The film is realistic because it’s based on a true story but also because it shows the intense struggle and effort that precedes such a moment.

Turing didn’t think of creativity as a passive process the way some people do. He didn’t go about his day waiting for the code to crack itself. He actively thought about it—actively tried and failed repeatedly.

It’s easy to think of creativity as just a Eureka moment. You’re driving some- where and that beautiful melodic idea starts playing in your head, or you’re having dinner with a friend and the solution for a problem in the project you’re working on falls down from the sky.

These moments do indeed happen. They happen due to the subconscious mind working on the problem in the background. But this can only take place after the initial, conscious work has been put in.

In other words, it’s not passive. You have to put in the work first and often continuously to experience such a moment.

For example, let’s say you’re facing a problem in your project: you can’t come up with a melody over the top of the chord progression you’ve made.

You have two options:

  1. Quit at the first sign of difficulty, take a break, and assume you’ll be able to work it out later.
  2. Take a break, come back at it soon after, and try again, and again until it works.

The second option is more effective. Sometimes you’ll find the solution while you’re working on it (consciously directing your attention and effort), and other times the solution will come out of nowhere, randomly.

You can hack this and make it work in your favor. Ernest Hemingway used to finish his writing for the day mid-way through a sentence or paragraph to let his brain work on the problem overnight. In the morning, he’d pick up where he left off with new ideas.

So, creativity can include Eureka moments, but they do not happen without hard work.

What creativity is

We know what creativity is not, but what is it?

The first thing to understand is that creativity is a skill like any other.

It’s a way of operating or thinking as opposed to talent, as John Cleese once said (more on that in a moment).

If this is true, and I believe it is, then it’s something we need to develop. Creativity is a habit. You can’t magically improve your thinking overnight, it takes time. It takes consistent hard work.

Take the trait of confidence for example. It’s extremely hard to build confidence overnight. You can’t just flick a switch and be confident all of a sudden.

Why? Because confidence is a way of operating and thinking. It’s something you consciously need to think about in hundreds of different situations—when you’re meeting someone new, attempting a challenge or starting a new routine.

Confidence begets confidence; creativity begets creativity.

Funnily enough, confidence actually plays a part in creativity. If you don’t believe you’re creative, it’s unlikely you will be. This introduces one of the many paradoxes in creativity: you have to pretend you’re creative in order to be creative at a given moment in order to develop the skill of creativity.

Michael Michalko explains:

“To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing as information incubates, must create many ideas yet most of them are useless, must look at the same thing as everyone else, yet see something different, must desire success but embrace failure, must be persistent but not stubborn, and must listen to experts but know how to disregard them.”

If you still think creativity is sexy and elusive, then read this next sentence carefully…

Creativity is HARD work.

If creating music was easy, everyone would be doing it, and that’s not happening.

Even successful creative people moan (and I understand why) about how hard it is to create. Steven Pressfield is one example. In his well-known book The War of Art, he talks about something he calls The Resistance: a force that tries to stop us from creating, that tells us to procrastinate, that we’re not good enough, and that failing is bad.

“People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming.”

— Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc

Please don’t get discouraged. Yes, creativity is a skill, and yes, it’s hard to develop. But it’s worth it.

In fact, one could argue that it’s more rewarding because of the fact that it’s hard. We wouldn’t treat it with as much respect if it was easy and freely given out to everyone.

In summary:

  • Everyone has the potential to be creative.
  • Creativity does not only consist of Eureka moments. It is not a passive process.
  • Creativity is a skill that needs to be developed.
  • Creativity is hard.

How to be Creative

During his famous talk on creativity, John Cleese compares what he calls the “closed” mode of working with the “open” mode of working.

The closed mode is what Cleese describes as a rational, logical state of mind where we feel there’s a lot to be done, we’re driven, somewhat anxious, impatient, and process-centric.

The closed mode is our default. It’s what we’re in most of the time—always thinking about the next thing “I have to pick the kids up from school and I have to get some milk on my way back home.”

While the closed mode is necessary for day-to-day living, it’s terrible for creativity. During the later stages of a project, it’s helpful (where you need to do a series of small things to finalize your song), but during the ideation stage, it’s far from conducive.

The open mode, on the other hand, is more relaxed. It’s expansive, less purposeful, and more contemplative. There’s little to no pressure, and we feel free to make mistakes.

To be creative and come up with ideas, we need to be in the open mode.

Ideally, we’d be able to switch, instantly, at will, between the two modes—to move from a logical, pressured frame of mind to an open, expansive frame of mind.

Unfortunately, for most of us, doing that is impossible. That doesn’t mean getting into the open mode is a function of luck, though. What it does mean is that getting into the open mode requires a few things to be set in place, which Cleese talks about.

How to get into the open mode

You need five things to get into the open mode:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Time
  4. Confidence
  5. Humor

Let’s look at each of them.

Step 1: Create space

Because we’re living in a digital age, we need to create space in the physical and digital dimension.

Creating space in the physical dimension

If you’re trying to make music in the open mode while located in an environment where you’re typically in the closed mode, then it’s difficult to be creative.

To get in the open mode, it’s important that you have a physical space where you won’t be disturbed or feel under pressure.

Many well-known writers have built their own “writing cabins” on their property (or, for the ultra-successful authors, properties) where they go to work without distraction. Obviously, that’s not feasible for everyone. It can be expensive, and, if you’re renting, you can end up with a potentially peeved landlord.

Fortunately, it’s not necessary.

What is necessary is that your workspace, your studio, whatever you want to call it—is a place where creativity can flourish. This doesn’t mean you need to have fancy interior and an amazing studio chair (though it does help), but rather, that you remove all potential distractions and do everything you can to make your environment comfortable.

If you have gadgets sitting on your desk that isn’t related to music production, it’s a good idea to move them out of sight. They’ll enter your field of view and become toyed with as soon as you reach a challenging point in your project.

Personally, I like to keep my environment as simple as possible. In the past year, I’ve done away with a second monitor, because I find it much easier to focus on one thing at once with a single screen. My monitors are on stands, my laptop and small MIDI keyboard sit on my desk with my interface, and aside from a cup of coffee sitting next to me, that’s it.

TAKE ACTION

What can you do right now to improve your workspace? Are there potentially distracting things you can remove from your desk? Do you have a secluded spare room in your house that could be used as a temporary studio?

Creating space in the digital dimension

Taking care of your physical environment is a good start, but it’s not enough. You can go as far as making your own production cabin out in the woods, alienate all your friends and family members, and become a hermit—but you’ll still be prone to distraction when using a computer to make music.

Desktop notifications, emails coming in, things popping up on your screen—all of these affect your ability to focus and be creative.

One solution is to have a dedicated production computer—a machine not connected to the internet that only contains production-related software. But this is an expensive solution, and it’s not easy to justify the cost.

The second best thing is to take measures to ensure you won’t be distracted:

  1. Turn off your internet connection. Ideally, your internet should be turned off or disconnected at the wall (so it’s not easy to turn back on.) This works great unless you live with other people (if you do live with other people and do this, you’ll welcome more distraction and it won’t be pleasant).
  2. Close all unrelated programs. That includes any internet browser you have open. Basically everything except your DAW.
  3. Make sure your DAW is in full-screen mode so you’re not tempted to open anything else.

To cover all bases, move your smartphone to a place (ideally another room) where you won’t be tempted to pick it up and start using it. Also, unless there’s a significant reason you need to receive calls, make sure it’s on airplane mode or Do Not Disturb mode.

By doing these things you essentially make yourself have to work to give in to distractions.

TAKE ACTION

Before moving on, set a timer on your phone in another room for 30 minutes. Do everything mentioned above, sit down, and work on music until the timer runs out. Notice how you feel afterwards and compare it to how you feel when you make music while distracted.

If you’ve always worked in a distracted state, this will be difficult, but push through it.

Step 2: Set a time

You’ll notice that there are two instances of “time” in Cleese’s five requirements. You’ll find out why in a moment, but for now—time limits.

It’s logical to think that setting a time limit on a production session inhibits creativity because it adds pressure, but this isn’t the case. In fact, if you don’t set some sort of time limit, you’re less likely to focus and work quickly because there’s no incentive to do so.

An example of this outside of music comes from my own life. When I started working on EDMProd full time, I didn’t have a fixed schedule or set hours. I didn’t see any issue with working for the whole day.

Because there were no set boundaries or time limits, it was easy for me to procrastinate in the afternoon and tell myself I’d work later that night.

It works the same way when you’re making music. If you don’t set a time limit and you’ve got a full day or night ahead of you, it’s easy to break your focus, head over to YouTube and watch a few videos while telling yourself you’ll make up for it later.

Another less obvious benefit of setting time limits is that it gives others clear boundaries. If you live by yourself, this isn’t as big of a deal. But when you live with roommates or have a wife and/or kids, it’s helpful to be able to say to them that you’re going to make music for 90 minutes and ask politely that they don’t disturb you for that time period (unless it’s urgent).

Note: if you want to learn more about why time limits are effective, look into Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

How long should your sessions be?

I used to think that the optimal time period depended on the person, but the more I do research on and read about focus and attention, it seems that 90-minute sessions are the most effective.

If you haven’t practised doing focused work, a 90-minute session will be difficult, but it won’t be near impossible like three to four hours of unrelenting concentration. They’re short enough to be achievable but long enough to make solid progress on a song.

In his book The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker recalls asking the president of a big bank why he had always scheduled 90-minute planning sessions with him:

“Why always an hour and a half?”

“That’s easy. I have found out that my attention span is about an hour and a half. If I work on one topic longer than this, I begin to repeat myself. At the same time, I have learned that nothing of importance can really be tackled in much less time. One does not get to the point where one understands what one is talking about.”

Of course, with practice, you can move from the closed to open mode more quickly and get more work done in less time. But 90 minutes still seems to be optimal.

Why not shorter sessions?

There isn’t any harm in shorter sessions, and let’s be honest, we don’t always have a spare hour and a half of free time.

You can still make progress on a track in a short 30-minute session, but they aren’t ideal for being highly creative and working on complex problems in a project because doing so requires intense focus. You can still move the needle, though, so don’t use the fact that you’ve only got 30 minutes free as an excuse not to produce.

Another issue with shorter sessions, which Cleese touches upon, is that when we decide to move into the open mode, there’s this residue that exists where your mind is adjusting for 15-30 minutes or so after the transition. You’re still thinking about irrelevant things. It’s only after this residue fades away that the real creative work begins.

So, if you were to schedule a 30-minute session to work on something that required focus, and it took you 15 minutes to truly get into the open mode, then you’re only getting 15 minutes of focused work in as opposed to 75 minutes during a 90-minute session.

Note: if you’re not used to focused production sessions, doing this will be hard- er than you think. A 90-minute session is long. If you find it to be impossible, start smaller and work your way up. Commit to 15-minute sessions, then 30 minutes, and work your way up to 90 minutes in 15-minute increments.

TAKE ACTION

Block out one 90-minute production session in your calendar as soon as your schedule allows. Make sure you keep your commitment!

Pro-tip: I find it much easier to get into the open mode and focus if I feel relaxed beforehand. If you’re busy running around and rushing to get things done, it’s difficult to switch into a creative state. Give yourself 30 minutes or so to sit back, relax, maybe read a book, and then start your session.

Step 3: Time (patience & persistence)

The third requirement (and the second instance of time) is better described as a willingness to sit for long periods of time without seeing any sign of success.

That sounds daunting and unpleasant, so let me remind you that creativity is not sexy. Even a highly-skilled producer can sit in their studio for hours on end, experiment, try a bunch of things, only to come up with nothing worthwhile.

It’s during these sessions, where persistence and patience are needed, that you grow the most as an artist.

Why? Because you’re operating at the edge of your ability. You’re trying new things and failing, A LOT, but rapid failure is a good thing. It shows you what you’re doing wrong, and what you need to do instead, and that’s how you learn.

If you don’t have a healthy attitude towards this kind of struggle (you don’t have patience and persistence), then getting into the open mode will be incredibly difficult.

Step 4: Have confidence

In the last section I touched upon the link between creativity and confidence: if you don’t think you’re creative, you won’t be.

You have to first be confident in your ability to be creative and make music.
If you’re a new producer and haven’t properly developed your skills yet, you should at least be confident in your ability to come up with ideas, or simply your ability to learn.

You also have to be confident in the fact that mistakes are a good thing, as Cleese explains:

“When in your space-time oasis, nothing will stop you becoming creative more effectively than the fear of making a mistake.”

Experimentation precedes originality. To experiment freely, you need to be curious, not worried about what’s right and what’s wrong. You need to have confidence in the fact that every mistake you make is an essential and beneficial part of the creative process.

Be confident in your ability to be creative.

Step 5: Don’t be too serious

Cleese calls this requirement “humor,” but I think it makes more sense to view it as “not taking things too seriously.”

If you’re too serious when you begin a production session, you’re not going to get into the open mode. Remember, creativity is the art of play.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your craft or your music seriously. You absolutely should. It just means during the ideation stage, you need to view your production sessions less as an obligation and more as a period of time where you’re allowed to try new things, experiment, and have fun. Play.

Consistency & Creativity

“…when you’re regularly working on things you enjoy, the walls come down and seemingly insignificant moments spark inspiration.”

— Gregory Ciotti

There’s a lot of talk about consistency, and some claim that it’s a requirement for anyone who wants to do great creative work and become good at their craft.

On the surface level, though, consistency and creativity seem to be at odds:

What if I don’t feel inspired? Surely if I force myself to make something every day I’ll lose interest and start to dislike the process, right?

These kind of questions are common, but they’re not excuses or good arguments. I haven’t heard of any producer who decided to start working consistently and ended up hating what they were doing. As for the inspiration thing, it’s beside the point—some days you don’t feel inspired, so do something that doesn’t require inspiration.

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this book, it’s to be consistent. Pulling an all-nighter once every two weeks to work on music is not sustainable and won’t help you as much as putting in one hour or so daily.

So why then is consistency so important?

Consistency makes creativity easier

One of the hardest parts of music production is… starting. For most of you, you’ve probably noticed that once you start and work for a while, you tend to get lost in the process and producing becomes easy and enjoyable.

Consistency makes creativity easier because it reduces the friction between starting and not starting.

You can’t remove that friction. It’s always there. It’s The Resistance as Pressfield describes. But you can reduce it significantly.

A relevant example: the first edition of the Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity, which was much different from this edition, took a long, long time to write.

Now, books naturally take a long time to write, but the first edition took too long because I failed to be consistent.

When I decided to start the project, I spent a few days on it over the first week, but then stopped for 5 months. My excuse for stopping was that I didn’t have the time due to a new part-time job I was working in addition to running EDMProd (I did, of course, have the time, but the excuse had been made).

It went on and on. I kept telling myself that I’d finish it by the end of that month, but then “that month” kept changing and being pushed back.

The issue? I was too focused on the goal rather than the process. I was not being consistent.

With the second edition, I’m writing for 2-3 hours every day. It’s still hard—I didn’t feel like writing today—but it’s a lot easier than being sporadic and working on the project out of urgency or pressure.

What’s my point? When you’re working day in and day out on music, something interesting happens. You build confidence. You know that because you spent 2-3 hours making music yesterday, you can do the same today, tomorrow, and the next day.

Consistency keeps ideas flowing

The flow of great musical ideas will stagnate if you don’t work on your craft consistently. Your brain isn’t being forced to think about music—consciously and subconsciously.

Consistent work puts you in a place where good ideas can find you. When you’re working on music every day, even if it’s just for an hour or so, your brain ends up mulling over ideas and things you’ve learned during that hour, even when you’re relaxing or doing something else outside of music.

It’s the least appealing yet most helpful advice for creativity: create more and you’ll be more creative.

Consistency begets consistency; creativity begets creativity.

Consistency helps you create more

One reason producers avoid consistency is that they feel it’s not enough.

I used to feel this way. I felt that if I only put in 60-90 minutes a day I wasn’t spending enough time producing, and I felt guilty.

Because I felt guilty, I wouldn’t spend that 60-90 minutes a day producing. Instead, I’d wait until the weekend, where I told myself I’d spend two whole days making music. Of course, that never happened, and I’d typically only end up spending four to five hours on music during the weekend.

By telling myself that 60-90 minutes daily wasn’t enough, I actually worked less. Consistency allows you to put more hours into your craft.

Two hours of concentrated production work, every day, averages out to about one track per week if we assume that the average song takes 10-15 hours to make.

If you kept this up, you’d have 52 tracks by the end of the year–roughly four tracks per month.

Even if 10% of those were release-worthy, you’d still have five solid releases throughout the year.

You can see how it adds up. You don’t need to spend 16 hours a day in the studio to put out quality music.

Don’t mistake consistency for boring routine

Consistency implies habit, it implies routine, but it’s not a routine in the sense that you have to do it at the same time every day for a set number of hours.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think it’s a good idea to work on your craft consistently around the same time every day, but it shouldn’t be set in stone, and there are two reasons why…

The first is that you’ll inevitably slip up, or an inconvenience will stop you from producing at your set time for your set hours.

For example, I try to produce every day for at least one hour. I normally do this in the evening, but if I have something going on in the evening, I’ll find some time in the morning or during the afternoon.

If you make it a law, you’ll inevitably break that law and feel disappointed in yourself when you do. Instead of thinking of consistency as “this is something I must do every day for X hours at this time,” think of it as “this is what I must do every day. This time tends to work best, but sometimes I’ll have to do it at a different time.”

Besides, some days you’re just not going to be able to make music. Life gets in the way, in good ways and bad. Don’t feel guilty, just make sure you pick up where you left off.

The other reason why it’s bad to be too rigid with your routine is that creativity benefits from change. That doesn’t mean you should change your routine every day—as there has to be some degree of consistency for creativity to thrive—but it does mean it can be beneficial to change things up for a day or two every now and again.

You could change the time of day you produce, or your environment. Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution did this by mixing an EP at Starbucks. He kept consistent but changed the environment.

The importance of a pre-production ritual

Consistency is great, but it’s also difficult. If you don’t take the right measures to ensure positive consistency, you’ll fall off the wagon.

One thing I recommend you do, which will drastically improve your ability to be creative, is to develop a sort of pre-production ritual.

A pre-production ritual is something that precedes your production session. There’s nothing fluffy or new-agey about it, it’s just something simple you do that tells your brain “it’s time for me to focus now.”

My ritual when producing is to turn off my phone, disable my internet connection, brew a coffee (or tea if I’m producing in the evening—gotta optimize that sleep), and lock my door. When I do these things in that exact sequence, my production sessions are far more focused and productive than they would be otherwise. My ritual for writing is the same.

Renowned composer Igor Stravinsky had a ritual too. Every morning after entering his workplace, he’d sit at his piano and play a Bach Fugue.

The more you do your ritual, the more powerful it becomes. If you’re having an off-day and don’t feel like making music, and you do your ritual, your brain gets the message and it’s easier to sit down and make music. Why? Because the last fifty times you’ve performed that ritual, a good hour or two of creative work followed.

Taking a habitual, consistent approach to music production – furthering your skills and increasing your knowledge daily, makes creativity inevitable.

Take Action

For this chapter’s assignment, I’m going to ask you to do two things:

  1. Set a schedule for production
  2. Come up with a pre-production ritual

Setting a production schedule

Creating a consistent production schedule isn’t hard, but sticking with it is. So it’s important you keep a few things in mind:

  • Make sure you block out time in a physical or digital calendar. You can’t keep a mental calendar.
  • Start small. Stick to 30 minutes or so (especially if you’re busy) and build up momentum. If you over-commit at first, you’ll just burn out and it will be harder to start back up.
  • If you skip a day, don’t worry. Just make sure to pick it up again the next day. Ask yourself whether you want to produce 7 days a week, just during the weekdays, or just during the weekends. I recommend the first option, but figure out what fits best for you. Also, this will be controversial, but try and schedule your production sessions for the early morning (before work or study). Your willpower is highest in the morning and your brain is fresh.

What’s Next?

Now that you can harness creativity, the next step you can take to improve your music is to get a free copy of the Producer’s Guide to Workflow and Creativity. This post is from the second chapter in the book, but there’s a lot more to cover – like workflow, finishing music and originality.

The book used to cost $49, but now we’ve made it available for free. Grab it below, right now.

About the Author

Sam Matla

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I run EDMProd and teach EDM Foundations. Drop me a line on Twitter and follow me on Instagram @sammatla.

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