Up until recently, I don’t think I could have articulated this clearly. But now that I’m aware of it, it makes so. much. sense.
I’ve talked a lot over the years about the importance of finishing projects. In a very real sense, learning how to get better at recording and mixing music is pointless if you never actually finish something, release something. It’s a waste of time and money. Sure, there’s enjoyment in the process. It’s fun to get new equipment and learn new techniques. But be careful that you don’t become so caught up in learning over doing. To know how to produce an album and to actually release an album are two completely different things. They live in completely different universes.
First, the problem…
Before diving into the solution, I think we need to explore the problem for a minute first. Cool?
In my life, I discovered an interesting trend that occurred over the first several years of learning how to record music. There was an inverse correlation (I’m not a math nerd, so correct me if that’s the wrong term) between the level of knowledge and skill I had about recording and the amount of music I was producing. If you were to put it on a chart, it would look this this:
Put simply, the less I knew about audio, the more music I created. Pre-recording I was in a band, I was writing songs, I was playing my guitar non-stop. When I discovered multi-track recording (a really basic piece of 8-track recording software), I instantly saw the creative potential and lost myself in recording anything I could think of. I didn’t have a proper mic or headphones. But I was recording nonstop.
Then I went to college. Freshman year I hadn’t learned much about audio yet, so I was still recording a bunch. I recorded an EP and an album that year.
Then I started getting into audio. I began learning the “proper” way to record music, and I didn’t release an album for another 6 years. Six. Years.
Once the veil was lifted, I realized how technically bad my first recordings were, and there was this unspoken resolution in my heart that I would never recording anything improperly again. I would learn everything I could, and I would amass the perfect collection of “proper” equipment before I dared record another note.
I wouldn’t say I have regrets about it, but there was a lot of good art to make during those years, and I didn’t make it because I was too busy learning how to make good art. Terribly ironic, isn’t it?
Is all this to say I’m against learning? That would be pretty crazy for a guy who runs a business selling tutorials to say, right? I’m a big fan of learning, to be sure. But if I had my way, everyone would learn on the job vs in the classroom.
What I mean is, knowledge about audio and music is pointless if it isn’t being tested and used. You don’t really learn anything until you’ve done it yourself. I regularly have people tell me that they’ve heard me preach about the merits of subtractive EQ for years, but they never tried it. Once they actually tried it on a mix, they were sold. They “learned” about the concept years ago, but they didn’t really LEARN it until they tried it themselves.
Momentum to the Rescue
So if education isn’t the problem, what is? A lack of momentum.
I entered college with a crapload of momentum. I had been a recording fiend. It made sense to immerse myself in recording, right? Right. But something shifted in me. The knowledge turned into a momentum killer.
To be clear, I’m not bashing college or learning AT ALL. Rather, I’m presenting myself as a cautionary tale. What happened to me could also happen to you if you’re not careful.
The name of the game here is momentum. You might expect me to say something like “starting,” but that’s not the most important part. Yes, starting is important; it’s the initial burst of energy that gets this big thing rolling in the first place. Imagine being one of those super strong dudes on TV who try to pull an entire airplane with a rope. It’s really difficult to get the thing moving to begin with (that’s starting), but it’s equally (if not more) difficult to maintain momentum and KEEP it moving. To start, stop, start, stop over and over again is exhausting. It takes a lot of courage to start a new venture. You have to fight back the fear and lies and step into this project, saying (if only for a brief moment), “I can do this.”
Starting is massively important. But once you DO start, your focus must now turn to maintaining that momentum. Otherwise you’re setting out on a frustrating mission, a never-ending project.
I don’t do this very well at all, so I’m preaching to myself. A few years ago, after writing 50 songs in preparation for releasing a new album, I scheduled a big tracking day. I chose songs, recorded scratch tracks, wrote up charts, and schedule Joel and Tim for a one-day tracking session at my studio.
The day came, and we knocked out nine songs in about six hours. In one day we had drums, bass, and either guitar or keyboards (whatever I was playing) recorded for most of the album. I felt like the king of the world. In the past, it would’ve taken a few weeks to each record our parts individually. This time, we had knocked them all out in a day. We started around 8am, took a break for lunch, and finished around 3pm. It was such a good day.
That was July 15, 2014.
When did I release that album? April 7, 2015. Almost nine months later.
Now, is that a bad thing? Finish an album under a year? Of course not. But here’s what happened:
After the initial tracking day, I felt amazing about my progress. I felt like the album was all but finished. I just needed to lay down some guitars, keyboards, and vocals and call it done. I felt so good about things that I didn’t touch the project for at least a month, probably longer.
I listened to the rough mixes from tracking day. I basked in the glory of that day for weeks and weeks without taking a single step towards finishing the project.
I lost the momentum.
I could have ridden that huge wave of momentum following tracking day and knocked that album out in just a couple months. But I didn’t. Instead, I let the momentum die. Then I played that game of “let’s get this thing moving again,” over and over.
That was a very sporadic album for me. Because the momentum was gone, I would work in bursts. I would get myself into an excited frenzy and do a bunch of work, then I would take a few weeks off.
Each time I took a break, the momentum took a break with me. It was like pulling teeth to get me back in the studio to work on the project. When I worked on it, I felt great. I loved it. But there was something about the size of the project (a full band, 13-song album) and the lack of momentum that made it very hard to stay on track with it.
I can predict at least one or two people responding with, “Joe, don’t be so hard on yourself.” That’s not what I’m doing. I don’t have any regrets about that album. In fact, Better This Way is one of my proudest musical moments. (If you haven’t checked out the album yet, you can listen to and even buy it here.)
What I care about is helping you and me both make this process easier next time. Letting projects drag on like that can suck the life right out of them. I got to a point where I was sick of these songs, before the album was even released!! Thankfully I caught my second wind and got really excited again by the time release day rolled around. But boy, would it have been more enjoyable to knock it out in a couple months instead of almost a year.
The details aren’t the point here. I’m not saying you need to release an album in 8 weeks. I’m saying you need to find a way to start and maintain a massive wave of momentum to carry you to the finish line. So many people get bogged down like I did and never actually finish the project. That’s a shame.
Momentum is the key.
Another Momentum Tale
I mentioned this recently, but it’s fresh on my mind, and I want to include it here.
As you may recall, I set a goal to play Ryman Auditorium one day. The first step in that goal was to write, record, and release a bunch of original songs. One 13-song album (Better This Way) and 4-song EP (Free) later, and I had done it. Next? Put a band together and start booking shows.
This is where my fear reared its cute little head. I put a band together and booked a bunch of rehearsals. Then I waited…and waited…to book a show. I wasn’t sure how to do it, and I didn’t want to look stupid, so I stalled. I lost momentum.
Eventually, I made it happen. I booked our first show. Here’s the fun part. Within a week or two of booking that first show, I booked another show, got my song played on Lightning 100 (an independent station here in Nashville), and secured a spot as the Lightning 100 Local Artist of the week for a week in November, which features heavy rotation on the air and a sponsored concert that Friday night. (7pm on November 18th, 2016 at Soulshine Pizza in Downtown Nashville, if you’re interested.)
So I stall and nothing happens. Then I do a little bit of work, make one good thing happen…and a waterfall of other good things come immediately after. You know what that is, right? MOMENTUM.
I could share other stories like that, but I think it demonstrates my point pretty clearly, and as I sit here and type this, it fires me up to go book some more shows and keep this momentum moving.
Momentum is a powerful thing. Ride that wave.
Want to know a practical way to do that? Simple:
At the end of a big day (a big recording session, finishing a great mix, playing a great show), before you go to sleep that night, book the next thing. Book that next session with yourself. Contact a few more venues to book more shows. Schedule another mix session. Whatever it is, book it as soon as possible. Rinse and repeat.
Keep that momentum rolling, and you’ll see some amazing things happen in and around you.
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