The biggest problem with making EDM is getting music finished! Find out how here...
Weirdly enough, two of the most common questions people ask me are 1. "How do you find the time to make music? I'm so busy!" and 2. "How do I get tracks finished?". So how do we find the time to make music, and - once we have - how do we actually finish the tracks we start?
*Note: This post is only intended for people with busy lives. If you’ve got all the time in the world to produce music: crack on, my lucky friend! If, however, you have a job, girlfriend, mates, kids (or whatever), this is for you...
Finding the time to make music and finishing tracks are both issues I’ve struggled with in the past (and still do), and it actually makes sense when I think about it, because we all lead busy lives. None of the best technical production tactics and techniques count for anything if we a) don’t find the time to use them and b) don’t produce finished tracks regularly and release them into the world. I mean, that’s why we do it, right? To express ourselves musically.
My book, “Become a Music Making Machine”, tackles these issues head-on. You can grab a copy here.
There are two issues at play here, so we’ll address them separately:
Problem 1. Finding the time to make music.
Question: If you have a busy life and you have to balance work, family, friends, girlfriend, etc. where do you find the time to do what you love A.K.A write music?
Quick Answer: You don’t find the time…you MAKE the time. Easier said than done, right? Absolutely, but there are some things you can do to help. Here are some tips for when you find yourself getting overwhelmed with responsibilities and commitments, and feel you can’t find the time to make music:
“People with goals succeed because they know where they're going” - Earl Nightingale
Write (or review) your goals in life. This is important for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that the activities that we really enjoy often get sacrificed for things that, upon reflection, aren’t that important. Considering and writing out goals down regularly (I do it daily) helps us prioritise our activities. Also, setting goals that really excite us has a knock-on positive effects in all sorts of other areas in life.
Goals are time-based, meaningful and attainable targets. That means they aren’t idle wishes or dreams; they have to be able to be manifested in reality. For example, a music production goal could be to “complete a 10 track album by December 1st this year”. The more specific you can be about your goals, the stronger the reason for wanting to achieve them and the more believable to you they are, the more likely you are to reach them. An example of an invalid goal would be, “I want to be a famous music producer”. It’s invalid because there is no time-frame attached and no measurable outcome (how do you define “famous”)? However, a valid version of that might be “I want to produce EDM, and play the Tomorrowland and Burning Man festivals within 3 years”, or even “I want to produce a collaboration track with Calvin Harris next year”.
Spoiler Alert: Goals are rarely reached on time and almost never in the way you imagine. It doesn’t matter! Having exciting goals is fuel and focus…they gives our production sessions context. For example, I had a goal once to DJ at The Ministry of Sound in London, and the opportunity to do so only arose a couple of years after I set that goal, and it was from a completely different direction than I expected. However, the compelling vision of achieving that goal was important to me and kept me going.
2. Planning and Time-Blocking
Now we have some goals to work towards, we want to create uninterrupted blocks of time throughout the week, in which producing music is THE ONLY priority. Each time-block should be at least 30 minutes in length (as an absolute minimum), and no more than 4 hours. This is because any less than 30 minutes will not allow us to become immersed, and any more than 4 leads to procrastination, second-guessing or lazy decision making.
If you’ve heard of the concept of “flow”, you’ll know that it’s that state of being completely immersed in an activity. You forget yourself, time flies, and every action and thought follows smoothly from the previous one. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost. This state takes time to get into, which is why 1 - 4 hour time-blocks are best.
“But Will..." I hear you cry "...I don’t have several 1 - 4 hour blocks in a week.”
Not yet perhaps, my time-starved chum, but read on and you just might…
3. Getting your current time expenditure under control
If the aim here is to create extra time for creating music, then the first stage is getting our current time “expenditure” under control - becoming more aware of how much time we spend and on what.
We tend to tell ourselves little white lies about how we spend our time, without fully realising how much of it we don’t use wisely. The trouble is, the little things we miss add up over the course of a day, week, month or year, and before we know it we’re hemorrhaging hundreds of hours that we could be using to make music. This is usually due largely to activities that we wouldn’t miss anyway (like using Facebook every 30 minutes or playing Candy Crush Saga).
For this reason, I recommend documenting how you spend your time for a few days. You can use an app like Toggle or Rescuetime to record your computer use, or just jot all your activities down in a small pad that you can take with you everywhere. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, just try to be as detailed as possible.
Let’s look at an example. There’s a guy called Steve. He has an office job, a girlfriend, likes to work-out at the gym but wants to produce more music as he absolutely loves it. A standard working day for Steve looks something like this:
07:15 - Wake up to alarm
07:30 - Use toilet and shower
08:00 - Have breakfast with girlfriend and read newspaper
08:30 - Leave house and travel to work. Check out Facebook and Twitter on the train.
09:00 - 09:30 - Work (Saying hello to everyone, grabbing a coffee)
09:30 - 11:00 (Work)
11:00 - 11:15 (Making another coffee, having a break)
13:00 - 13:30 - Lunch
13:30 - 17:00 - Work
17:30 - Gym
18:30 - Home and prep dinner
20:00 - Finish dinner and washing up
20:00 - 23:00 - Watches Game of Thrones with girlfriend.
23:00 - Brushes teeth, goes to bed, reads or has sex. Nice.
23:45-ish - Goes to sleep
Now, if he refers to his goal sheet, Steve can see that he wants to write (and finish) 20 tracks over the next 12 months. He knows he’ll need to carve out his time-blocks for that to happen, but doesn’t want to give-up the other important things in his life (e.g. his job, his girlfriend, his gym sessions).
He knows he’ll need roughly 10 hours per track, so works out how much time he’ll need to carve out.
20 tracks X 10 hours per track = 200 hours in total
200 hours / 52 weeks in the year = only 3.8 hours a week (“Wow!”, Steve thinks, “that’s easily manageable!”)
Take into account he might have four weeks off due to illness, holidays, Christmas, etc. and he knows he needs to allocate make 4 hours a week for music production. How might that look, knowing that the ideal music production time-block is at least one hour (minimum 30 mins)?
Well, in the example above, Steve could set his alarm for 6:25, get up straight away and be into his production time-block for a whole hour before having to shower. If he doesn’t want to get up early, he could slip in an hour from 8pm - 9pm, and STILL have time to spend a couple of hours with his girlfriend. If he was really serious about getting good at production - maybe as a new career for example - he could quite easily carve 2 hours a day out of that schedule, 5 days a week, and still have weekends completely free.
His clearly written daily goals will help motivate him when we doesn’t feel like it. If that’s too much of a stretch, he could even do 30 minutes a day, or an hour only on 3 mornings a week.
Either way, he’d suddenly be looking at producing tracks for 3 to 5 hours a week, 15 - 20 hours a month and a couple of hundred hours a year! If a track takes 10 hours to complete using my workflow system, that’s 20 extra tracks a year and he hits his goal. If he falls short by a couple of tracks, or some of them take longer than 10 hours, he’s still produced 15 or 16 he otherwise wouldn’t have!
Also, imagine the IMPROVEMENT in Steve’s music after finishing 20 tracks. That’s 20 more melodies, 20 more drum-tracks, 20 more mixdowns, etc. worth of practise.
*Note: If you commit to too much too soon, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed and wind-up fizzling out. 30 minutes of focussed time, 5 days a week is far better than telling yourself you’ll squeeze in four hours every day and not sticking to it. You can always build up to it later if you want.
4. Just say no!
I know, it sounds like a 1980’s anti-drugs campaign, but it’s what you’ll have to learn to do if you want to protect your time-blocks. Even though some people might seem upset if you decline their invitations, you’ll actually find they’ll respect you more for sticking to your plans. If they don’t, and they try to drag you down…well, maybe they’re not such great friends after all; good friends will support you in the activities that are really important to you (as I’m sure you do for them).
So hopefully you’ll now be able to carve out some regular time in exchange for non-important time-sucking activities (you won’t miss them anyway)!
Now, on to…
Problem 2: Finishing music before you get sick of it.
Question: How do I get finished tracks from ideas as quickly as possible?
Quick Answer: To summarise the answer to this problem, the key words would be: “Focus”, “Decision” and “Momentum”.
*Firstly, I recommend collecting ideas whenever inspiration hits in the quickest, most convenient way for you. Some people write down ideas in a note-pad, but personally I keep my smartphone voice recorder close to hand. Whenever an idea pops into my head, I just hum it quickly (and quietly if I’m public!) so I can refer to them in the studio during my time-blocks.
You have some goals, you have your time-blocks and you’re ready to roll. Good stuff! The beauty of time-blocking your most important activities is that you’ve done the planning in advance so you can be more “present” and “in the moment”. This is a great skill to learn - perhaps the greatest - and you can apply it to any important area of life. For example,
when you are at work, work is your priority - the only thing that matters. When you are on a date with someone - that is the only thing that matters. Similarly, when you are in your allotted music production time-block, that is the only thing that matters! This is the only way you’ll be able to make the most of the time you have to write music. 1 hour of focussed production is far better than 4 hours of un-focussed procrastination.
So, given how much work we have to get done in these time-blocks (and how focussed we need to be) it’s time to remove distractions from our environment. Here are some suggestions:
i) Produce music in a private space, with a door that can be closed. If this is not possible (or you’re producing out and about), make sure you have closed-back headphones to block out the external sounds.
ii) Turn off your internet connection (or at least limit the sites you can access with an app like “Self-Control”. Sometimes you might need to reference a track on YouTube or download some samples, so it can be useful not to COMPLETELY disable it).
iii) Ensure you have any refreshments you’ll need throughout the session. I have a big glass of water close-to-hand, and will take in a cup of tea or coffee at the beginning. Also, use the toilet before-hand if possible.
iv) Clear your desk of shit you don’t need.
v) Kill the number one distraction device; your smartphone! Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram profit from grabbing - and keeping - our attention. Switch it to “Do not disturb”. I also run a countdown timer for the length of my time-block to remind me to switch notifications back on after the session.
vi) Let people know if they are likely to contact you that you will be unavailable during that time. You can leave your phone on silent close by for an emergency call, but realistically how many crucial, life-saving phone calls do you receive? If your time blocks are regular, others will quickly learn when you’re not available.
2. Select a viable idea
This is where you can refer to your idea notes I mentioned earlier in this post, or - if you haven’t recorded any - go through some of your existing ideas you have saved on your hard drive. The point of this stage is to wean out the weaker ideas, then select and DECIDE upon the ONE you are going to pursue. It’s ok to bin ideas (or just save them for another track)….don’t worry, you’ll have more! If you are just starting out or don’t have any ideas, check out this post I wrote for edmprod to get some creativity boosting tips, or download my free cheatsheet here.
3. Limit Your Options
The start of a track is basically a blank canvas with infinite possibilities, and can be very daunting. Try limiting your options in terms of what you can use. You might allow yourself to only use one sample pack, or only to use samples you’ve made. It will force you to make decisions more quickly, with the extra bonus of making your sound design choices more focussed. Also, if getting tracks finished is your goal, you should definitely choose a genre before starting.
Workflow is basically the order in which you do things, and the system you have set-up to help you. For instance, you might start a track with a template in your DAW (to save time), then by selecting and programming a kick, then bass, then snare, etc. You won’t ALWAYS want to stick to this (as creativity is hard to predict), but having a process to work through for each track (especially if you get stuck) can be a great way to keep things going. The truth is, there is a natural workflow for ANY work anyway. In music production, for instance, the workflow might look like: 1. Idea generation, 2. Arrangement, 3. Development, 4. Seeking Feedback, 6. Development, 7. Mixing, 8. Mastering. If you assign deadlines to stages at the beginning of your time-blocks, you’ll get more done, more quickly (especially if you use stakes to incentivise you).
5. Consistency & Momentum
The effectiveness of regular time-blocks lies in the momentum you gain. Even just a little bit every day or two is far more effective than a big session once a month. This means sticking as much as you can to your pre-planned time-blocks, so can achieve your music production goals. If you have to miss one for whatever reason, don’t be too hard on yourself, but DO acknowledge there is a cost, which is the delayed achievement of your goal. If you can re-schedule it for the next day, or add a bit of time to your next time-block to make up for it, it’s worth doing.
And there you are! A few tips on how to make time for making music, and how to actually finish the tracks you start. They are from my book “How to become a music making machine”, which you can find out more about here.
Good luck fighting the good fight, and remember: Finishing creative work has plagued artists of all types from the dawn of time, and will continue to do so! If it wasn’t difficult to consistently finish great work, it wouldn’t have any value - to us or to others.
You are in good company, my friend, and hopefully these tips have helped. Let me know in the comments section, and I’d be very interested to know, what methods do you use for making the time to write tunes and then for finishing them?
Cheers, and happy producing!