the scapegoat dev

Turning music into a chore is how I became a musician - RC Day Nine

In the summer of 2020, I took a 3 months sabbatical in order to finish an album. The experience deeply transformed how I make music – I now know I can make as many albums as I want without even needing to take time off work.

Settling into the sabbatical

I had been making music since 2005, but never released anything besides a first album, a charming work of youthful innocence and ignorance.

Up until that first COVID summer of 2020, I had finished two dozen songs, some better some worse, none great. Making a song always felt like a special accomplishment: something that would only happen if the stars aligned, not something repeatable; certainly not repeatable enough to put together 10 cohesive songs for an album.

In the first two months of my sabbatical, I managed to put together a around 10 songs and improve my technique, by sheer virtue of having 10 hours a day to focus and watch tutorials.

Turning hobby into chore

The real change however was turning music making from a hit or miss hobby into a repeatable, boring, "professional" routine.

In September, 2 months in, I was not only trying to make as many songs as possible, under the nagging time pressure of my sabbatical slipping away like sand; I also started working with other musicians.

I had found a couple of small online techno producer communities – in those early COVID days, everybody was online all the time, bored at home, anxiously living through the summer by fully engaging into their hobbies. Collaborating was just the easiest thing to do.

One song in progress turned into 5, which quickly turned into 10 collaborations, then 15. Every morning jam would sprout 10 viable loops; mixdowns had to be ready by the afternoon because people were waiting for them; my inbox would have 3 new sketches and requests. Music making started to crystallize into little "chores":

  • jam on synths, record, file away
  • clean up recordings, cut out interesting passages, file away
  • make different grooves, record, file away
  • layer grooves and synth lines to sketch out song ideas, save, file away
  • lay out song arrangements, print as wav file, file away
  • refine arrangements, print as wav file, file away
  • do a mixdown, print as wav file, file away
  • do a second pass on the mixdown, print as wav file, file away

I call these tasks chores because there is really nothing special about them: they are fairly mechanical. Routines might be a better name, but I like how action-oriented and well defined "chore" sounds.

Sometimes, good things would happen; sometimes, mediocre things would. Most often, it was impossible to judge the quality of the session in the immediate aftermath.

The only important thing was: put in the hours, switch when a task becomes stale and frustrating, and always (always!) file away the results so that they can be quickly recalled later. If no task is appealing, take a break and go for a bike ride.

Soon thereafter, I was starting to finish 1, then 2, then 3 songs a day, without even noticing it. Everything was just a sequence of sessions that were all similar to previous sessions. Many of those songs never made it beyond being called "jam a02 idea 5" (I switched to a correct horse battery staple naming scheme when it became impossible to sort out which of the 200 "techno jam 0x" tracks was the right one).

Turning chore into music

How musically valuable a certain idea was only became apparent over time, and in context. Ideas that the brain had forgotten about, especially when they were drowned in a sheer ocean of material, could easily be discarded or drastically edited. There was no emotion attached to them anymore: they were just one file amongst many others.

I knew that even if something wasn't good enough, I could just put in the hours and come up with new material. It wasn't a matter of inspiration or luck or serendipity anymore.

I learned that there is no correlation (or indeed, if there is, it is a negative correlation) between how satisfying a session felt and how interesting the resulting material was. Some of my now favourite music came from the most frustrating sessions. Only rarely did the stars align, where a bomb track comes together in one magical session.

In that last month of sabbatical, I finished 40 tracks. Of those, I released 4 as my first EP. I went back to work, but I was able to release many more over the following year.

Discovering my routine

The reason I was able to etch these steps into my brain was the sheer quantity of work I did. You have to get numb before you get good. There was so much material, so much to be done that there was no choice but to get systematic and bureaucratic about it.

Had I continued to make a song here and there, over the weekend, I would have never discovered that making music is boring – I had to pretend being a working musician to get to that point. I had to fake it to make it.

And while creating tracks is just a chore now, I couldn't be happier: the labor is quickly forgotten, but the music stays forever.

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