Many new producers want to just finish a damn track.
So they spend hours and days and weeks ‘perfecting’ one song.
The truth? This strategy simply doesn’t work if you want to improve.
In fact, you have to finish a lot if you want to get better.
Let’s see what I mean.
Note: this blog post is an excerpt from my book, The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. You can learn more about it here.
QUANTITY BEATS QUALITY
“Lock yourself in a room doing five beats a day for three summers. That’s a different world like Cree Summer’s. I deserve to do these numbers!”Kanye West, Spaceship
Quantity over quality is controversial advice but it makes a ton of sense.
Let me use football (soccer) for example. Who’s going to be better at scoring goals: the kid who takes minutes to set up his shots, making sure everything is perfect? Or the kid who takes hundreds of shots in rapid succession, adjusting his technique ever so slightly with each shot?
The latter, of course.
We know that quantity-driven practice is important in sports, but when it comes to music, we seem to ignore it.
But quantity always leads to quality. If you seek quantity over quality, you will get both.
For one, focusing on quantity helps us develop our skills faster. If you spend two months on one song, you’re really only writing one melody, programming one drum sequence, and performing one mixdown.
If you make eight songs in the same time period, you’ll do all those things eight times, and improve more quickly as a result.
Also, music production is largely about solving problems. Because of this, it’s important that you expose yourself to as many problems as you can, as quickly as you can, so you know how to fix them in the future.
If you work on one track for a few months, you’re only going to encounter a certain set of problems that may not repeat themselves in other tracks; if you work on eight tracks in a few months, you have a higher likelihood of learning more because you’re forced to solve more problems.
“The best way to refine your craft is to create a huge volume of work. Not to create the most perfect piece you can, but to create many pieces of work.”Ira Glass
Perhaps the leading argument for quantity over quality is that you have the ability to receive more feedback. If you’re spending two months on one song, you can really only ask for feedback once or twice near the end of the production process. If you make eight songs in two months, you have seven opportunities to use the feedback gained from the last track to benefit the next one.
Won’t my music sound worse if I focus on quantity over quality?
Not in the long run.
Sure, the first track or two that you finish when focusing on quantity may lack the same level of polish that the track you spent two months on had, but that lack of polish disappears quickly as you finish more tracks in rapid succession.
In fact, your music will sound better if you focus on quantity. That’s the whole point.
Is there a point where I should focus on quality?
The point of focusing on quantity over quality is not that you should carelessly pump out music that’s bad because you’re putting less effort into it.
The point is that you shouldn’t get hung up on minor details. If a track is taking too long, don’t abandon it, rather, try and finish it in any way you can.
“Momentum isn’t meant to be just constant movement, but should be seen as maintaining that level of flow you worked so hard to get to.”Jory MacKay
Woody Allen once said that the day he finishes editing a film is the day he starts writing the script for the next one.
Why would he do that? Surely it’s good to take a break after a massive project like that?
What Allen understood was that if he took a break, he’d have a slim chance of retaining the momentum he’d built up.
The benefits of momentum
There is no question that momentum leads to higher output. When you’re in a state of momentum, you get a lot done by working consistently day in and day out.
You also feel a lot better when you have momentum. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like you’re spiralling upwards, and it feels great.
Finally, momentum makes it easier to start and finish music. You don’t have as much trouble sitting down at your desk to make a song than you would if you haven’t produced in a while. It gets to a point where it feels like second nature. It’s perpetual.
Consistency is a trait of momentum, but it also contributes to momentum. Without it, you don’t build momentum, and with momentum comes consistency.
It’s nice to think that momentum is built through quantum leaps like releasing an album or EP, but this isn’t the case. In fact, finishing a big project like an album or EP requires consistency. You build momentum while working on such a project.
Why consistency beats intensity
We romanticism the late nights in the studio, the 12-hour days, the all-nighters. It makes us feel proud just thinking about it.
But that’s not how good music is made.
(At least, most of the time. There are exceptions. Madeon is notorious for locking himself in the studio for 24 hours at a time, and Deadmau5 has said he gets his best ideas during a semi-delirious state around 4-5AM after producing for ten hours.)
Good music is made through continuous, consistent effort. Good music is made through momentum.
Now, what seems like a better way to build momentum: one hour per day for seven days? Or a ten-hour session on a Sunday?
The ten-hour session will probably leave you feeling a bit burned out (if you can even focus for ten hours straight). On the other hand, producing for one hour per day might only add up to seven hours, but you build momentum each session, which makes it easier to roll through day after day.
Daily effort is what moves the needle. Daily effort is what builds momentum.
It’s easy to look at all your unfinished tracks, all the bad ideas you’ve come up with, and feel like you suck.
When you feel like you suck, it’s not easy to be creative.
For instance, instead of viewing a completed track as the only form of success, re-frame it in a way where smaller things like coming up with a good melody or drum sequence are also “wins.”
By doing this, you’re able to build momentum for the particular project you’re working on. When you have a series of small wins behind you, it’s easier to keep going.
Small wins keep you positive and remind you that you’re making progress.
The Get Better mindset
There are two mindsets that we as creative people hold: a mindset that holds us back or a mindset that propels us forward.
The one that holds us back is the Be Good mindset. When we have this mindset, our underlying goal is to show people that we’re good.
Now, this sounds reasonable on the surface, but it’s quite a negative mindset. You always feel like you’re trying to prove yourself, and you’re constantly comparing yourself to others. It’s hard to be creative with this mindset.
In addition, when you have the Be Good mindset, you can’t build momentum well.
Because in this mindset you don’t handle setbacks well. You view setbacks and challenges as things that are wrong with you, rather than viewing them as necessary mistakes that help you learn. You think that because you’re finding something difficult, it must mean that you’re not cut out for it, and so it stops you from producing (thus halting momentum).
The mindset that propels us forward is the Get Better mindset, which I first came across in a presentation by social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson in her popular 99U presentation.
The Get Better mindset is not about being good, it’s about being better. You focus on improving not proving.
You focus on developing rather than demonstrating. As a result of all this, when producing, you:
- Handle setbacks better
- Have higher interest and enjoyment
- Experience deeper thinking and engagement
- Have higher creativity
- Build persistence
All of these aid momentum.
In short, the Get Better mindset is about reframing difficulty. It’s about getting stuck with something, i.e., not being able to write a good melody, but then reframing it to be something positive—“the fact that I can’t write a good melody is a great thing because it’s something I can now focus my energy on learning.”
3 extra tips for building momentum
1. Know that momentum takes time to build
The only way you can build momentum instantly is to have extraordinary success. Perhaps it’s the completion of a big project or a random occurrence that benefits you greatly.
When I launched my first educational course, I let people have free access for the first forty-eight hours. To my surprise, hundreds of people joined. I worked non-stop for the next few weeks improving it. That surprise event had sparked momentum.
But most of the time, these kinds of things don’t happen, and they normally require momentum in the first place. Momentum is something that is built up over time. It starts small and grows.
So, don’t stress out about it taking some time, and more importantly, make sure that you…
2. Don’t skip a day
We’ve looked at why it’s important to be consistent if you want to be creative, but it becomes even more important when you want to build momentum.
If you’ve ever tried to start a new diet or fitness regime, you know that skipping one day can lead to another day, then another day, and then all of a sudden you’ve stopped.
When you skip a day, it becomes much easier to skip another. You think “ah well, I failed yesterday so it’s not that bad if I fail again today. I’ll just get back on track tomorrow.” And on the cycle goes.
Try your best to do something related to music production every day. Even if you can only fit five minutes in, do it. It’s worth it to keep the momentum alive.
3. Don’t rest after success
Just like Woody Allen doesn’t take a break after finishing a film, it’s not a good idea to get too comfortable after finishing a big project like an EP or album.
Likewise, if a song of yours gains a lot of attention, it means there’s a window of opportunity where the worst thing you can do is sit around and not make music.
When you see some success, use it as a launchpad to push yourself higher. Don’t rest. Go from strength to strength. If anything, you probably feel incredibly driven after a sign of success. You don’t want to let that feeling go to waste because it doesn’t come around often.
HOW TO MAKE MORE TIME FOR MUSIC (FOCUSED WORK)
Why is it important to spend more time producing?
After all, you have to enjoy life, don’t you? Isn’t it a bad idea to force yourself to spend more time making music?
Those who ask such questions and rail against the suggestion to spend more time in the studio will often say something like…
“I understand the importance of this if you’re trying to build a career out of music, or if you’re a professional. But what if it’s just a hobby?”
Creating is good for us
We’re generally happier when we’re creating than when we’re consuming. Don’t believe me?
Here’s a simple test: next time you watch TV for more than two hours straight, ask yourself afterwards how you feel.
Do you feel like you’ve achieved something? Do you feel like that two hours was a good investment of your time?
As humans, it’s good for us to spend more time doing creative things. The “I need to relax therefore I need to watch TV” argument doesn’t really work unless we really have to unwind before bed after a long day of work.
“One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change–not rest, except in sleep.”Arnold Bennett
You don’t need as much time as you think you do
In his short piece on Harvard Business Review, Greg McKeown, the author of popular business/self-help book Essentialism writes:
“We have a problem–and the odd thing is we not only know about it, we’re celebrating it. … The asset we’re overvaluing now is the notion of doing it all, having it all, achieving it all; what Jim Collins calls ‘the undisciplined pursuit of more.”
This exists in the music world: you have a handful of successful producers telling the media how they spent 12 hours each day in the studio, and how they credit that to their success (read more about The Narrative Fallacy).
Don’t get me wrong, you do need to work hard in order to get to where you want to be, regardless of what that goal looks like (again, hobbyists and want-to-be professionals will differ in this regard). But blindly working for 12 hours a day because “it’s what everyone does…” is misguided.
One issue with the “long hours in the studio” meme being over-praised is that those who don’t have the luxury to log such hours–everyone who has a job or is a student–feels like they’re screwed.
And I don’t blame them. If 12-hour days are what artists are crediting to their success, then it makes sense to feel like you’re never going to make it. Most producers wouldn’t.
Fortunately, you don’t need to put in 12-hour days to be a great producer.
If you’re constantly being interrupted, distracted by social media, and you’re not structuring your time properly—in other words, not focusing—it’s easy to spend a full day in the studio.
The reason it’s easy is that you’re not fully engaging your mental muscles. You’re not giving yourself a workout, so you never get tired.
You also don’t get much done. Or maybe you do, but it’s taken you 12 hours.
Anders Ericsson, the guy who came up with the theory of deliberate practice, wrote a paper in 1993 titled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.
In it, he notes that there’s a limit to an individual’s capacity to perform cognitively demanding work (i.e., creative work).
Cal Newport paraphrases:
“Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours–but rarely more.”
He goes on (shortened for brevity)…
“One of the studies cited catalogs the practice habits of elite violin players training at Berlin’s Universität der Künste. The elite players averaged around three and a half hours per day in a state of deliberate practice, usually separated into two distinct periods.”
Are these elite violin players spending 12 hours a day deliberately practicing?
Because it’s impossible for them to do so.
Remember, these are elite violin players performing a cognitively demanding task with intense concentration.
This means that:
- You can excel at your craft even if you have a full-time job, as 12 hours per day isn’t necessary.
- Deliberate practice and intense concentration is hard and is something that needs to be trained.
- If you do spend 12 hours a day in the studio, ask yourself how many of those hours are highly focused and without distraction.
What is focused work?
Cal Newport again describes it best:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Focused work is difficult, high-intensity work.
Not all production work requires this type of concentration.
Preparing your project file for mixdown, setting up routing, and performing menial but necessary tasks do not require deep focus.
Because of that, you don’t necessarily need to work in a state of focus to finish music. This is made evident by the many producers who have Facebook open on another screen or their phones constantly buzzing throughout a session.
But of course, just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean it’s ideal. Be- ing distracted affects our ability to be creative, and we can get more done in 2 hours of highly-focused work than we can during 4–6 hours of broken, distracted work.
“It is better to dedicate two to three hours of intense focus to a skill than to spend eight hours of diffused concentration on it. You want to be as immediately present to what you are doing as possible.”Robert Greene, Mastery
The alternative to focused work—work that will ultimately propel you forward and help you make the most gains—is distracted work. Something Newport calls “shallow work.”
Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Music production doesn’t fit this definition because it tends to be a cognitively demanding task that isn’t logistical.
Yet many of us producers treat it as shallow work. We allow ourselves to be distracted. We make up excuses as to why we need our internet connection enabled or why our phones need to be turned on.
The true alternative is treating something that should be focused work (deep work) as shallow work. This is a waste of time.
It also leads to dissatisfaction because your hours of diffused concentration result in less output than you think they should (cue self-loathing: “I’m just not good enough… I’m not productive enough…”).
So why do so many of us follow this alternative? Why do we allow ourselves to be distracted?
It’s not sexy. Focused work is hard.
A lot of people who read this will not make any changes to how they work. Some will laugh at what I’m suggesting. Others will agree with it, make an attempt to stay focused, and then relapse to old unproductive habits.
As a music producer, I’d argue that focused work is exceptionally difficult.
Because the general demographic of electronic music producers, judging by the analytics for EDMProd.com, show that 50% of them are males between the age of 18–24 (with the next largest group (37%) falling between 25–34).
If you’re in this age group, you’ve grown up with the internet. The norm is to be distracted. It’s part of life.
To go against this is to go against ingrained habits. If you’re used to checking your phone every 15 minutes, setting aside a full hour (or more) to focus on something is extremely difficult.
And that’s why the idea of focused work is not sexy. It might seem brilliant when you’re reading about it like you are now, but when you actually sit down to start, it’s hard.
So why do it? Because it’s satisfying. Not only will you finish more music, but you’ll also enjoy the process of making music much more than you would if distracted. You’ll be more present.
What’s wrong with checking my phone occasionally during a production session?
Let’s say you commit to a 90-minute focused production session. You set a goal (to finish the structure for your track), set the timer, and get started.
What’s wrong with checking your phone during those 90 minutes? After all, it only takes a few seconds to click the home button, light up the screen and check to see if anything “important” has happened, right?
Well, that quick click results in much more than a few seconds of diffused concentration—and that’s in a best-case scenario.
What if you got an unpleasant message from someone you don’t like? Do you think the rest of your production session would go well?
In the best-case scenario—as in, you only have one or two notifications that aren’t urgent—you’re still going to incur the cost of task-switching, known as attention residue.
This simply means that you’ll be thinking about that notification for several minutes after knowing about it, and this affects your concentration.
How to cultivate intense focus
So you know what it is, and you know why it’s important. But what are some strategies for actually getting better at deep work and concentration?
After all, if you care about your craft, you should care about getting better at it. There’s no better way to improve than by increasing the time you spend in a state of deliberate practice.
Here are 3 strategies for cultivating intense concentration.
1. Reduce inputs & minimize distractions
Inputs and distractions lead to attention residue and break your focus, so get rid of as many possible.
- Turn your phone OFF and put it in a place where you won’t be tempted to turn it back on.
- Turn your internet connection OFF. You don’t need it.
- Put a Do Not Disturb sign on your door if you live with other people.
- Handle any loose ends (phone calls, message replies) before starting a session.
- Clear your workspace. Physical items can be distracting.
2. Start small
If you’re new to the idea of intense concentration/deep work, then you might be tempted to launch into four hours of non-stop focused music production.
If you do this, you’ll probably fail. I say that from a sympathetic standpoint because I’ve tried this many times myself.
The ability to concentrate is a skill. It’s something that needs to be developed. So don’t feel like you need to start off at the highest level. If anything, you’ll probably burn yourself out.
Start small. Try to spend one hour per day focused on music production. If you find it exceptionally hard to do this, start even smaller (15 or 30 minutes).
3. Block out time
Adding structure to your production sessions is helpful, and one easy way to add structure is to use a time limit.
I like to use a timer in tandem with blocking out time in my calendar. This does a few things:
It’s harder to avoid. When something’s in your calendar, you’ve made a commitment. If you set aside 90 minutes to produce, that’s sacred time.
It provides a clear goal amidst ambiguity. It’s easy to spend some time producing and come out the other end feeling like you haven’t really done anything. When you block out time, you’ve got a clear goal (sit down and try to make music for 90 minutes).
You also focus better. If you’re just producing on a whim—say, for a few minutes before having to go out—then you’re not going to focus well. When you set aside time, it allows you to focus on nothing but music production without feeling guilty for doing so (because you’ve made the commitment).
Give up the small stuff
If you’re struggling to find time to produce, one of the most effective things you can do is reduce the amount of other stuff you’re doing.
This doesn’t mean you should quit your job and produce full time. That’s not realistic unless you have a long-term vision and strategy (it’s certainly achievable, and if that’s what you want to do, then I encourage you to do so).
What it does mean is that you should focus on nothing else but what’s essential. Aside from work, family, friends, your health, and any other hobbies you may have – what’s essential is making music.
Not trying to market yourself. Not trying to build your social media profile. Not spending time downloading new plugins.
These things are helpful in isolation, but they are not things that will make you a better producer. They won’t move the needle.
But Sam, what if my goal is to build a career. Shouldn’t I focus on marketing?
You should, but if you’re short on time, the best way to increase your chances of future success is to hone your craft.
If you’re great at making music, marketing becomes a peripheral task. The product (music) matters most, so that’s what you should focus on. Otherwise, you’ll have a short-lived career that lacks the deep satisfaction one gets from investing time and effort into their craft.
So, next time you find yourself asking whether it’s worth using that new social media platform, remember that the only way to make leaps and bounds is through concentrated effort on your craft.
This one’s simple: Do one thing right now to build momentum.
What are you waiting for?
You’ve learned that high output is the key to improving your craft as a producer. But that’s not even half of the story.
If you want to develop a robust system for producing more music (faster), then check out the full version of The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity.