“For many artists, nothing inspires more existential terror than actually making art. The fear that we’re not good enough or that we don’t know enough results in untold numbers of creative crises and potential masterpieces that never get realized,” electronic music composer/producer Dennis DeSantis writes at the beginning of his new book, Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers.
In the old days of pop music, bands like the Beatles, the Stones and Led Zeppelin worked hard to avoid making their minimalist bass, drum and guitar instrumentation sound as varied as possible. These days, anyone who owns decent home recording software such as a digital audio workstation (DAW) and software synthesizers like Propellerhead’s Reason effectively has access to the timbres of all of the world’s instruments. And access to some of the world’s best players: it’s possible to purchase drum loops professionally recorded by Mick Fleetwood, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, and Joe Vitale, who played drums behind so many of Joe Walsh’s hits, for example. And then via applications such Celemony Melodyne, completely fine-tune and even entirely reshape our sounds into tight, perfectly-tuned notes and riffs.
That’s some rather amazing power, which the Beatles and George Martin would have killed for when they were recording Sgt. Pepper. So why is it, after we boot up our computers and load our DAW software, staring into a blank recording template before starting a new project often feels even more terrifying than a writer staring at a blank piece of paper or Microsoft Word file? What can be done to reduce this fear?
In Making Music, DeSantis, who holds music composition degrees from multiple universities, looks to break the home recordist’s version of writer’s block. As DeSantis writes:
Think about something you consider a hobby, something (besides music) that you do with your free time. Maybe you run marathons, or brew beer, or take wildlife photographs. Whatever it is, have you ever even considered doing it professionally? Probably not. And most likely this isn’t because you’re not good enough (and whether you are or not is probably irrelevant to your decision), but rather because the very fact that it’s a hobby means that it’s something you do that isn’t work. Instead, it’s a chance to spend time on something fun and fulfilling that doesn’t saddle you with any outside pressure to succeed, earn a living, etc.
Electronic musicians, more so than musicians working in other genres, seem to have a more difficult time simply engaging with music as a hobby. Perhaps this is because tools like DAWs are fundamentally designed around a recording mentality. Think about people you’ve met who own an acoustic guitar. Just pulling it out and playing it for a few minutes while sitting on the couch may be the extent of their musical aspirations. And they don’t see this as failure. They’re not lamenting their inability to get gigs or write more music or get record deals. They’re having exactly the relationship with music that they want. In fact, they’re usually not even recording what they play; once it’s in the air, it’s gone.
By definition, being a professional means having to spend at least some amount of time thinking about the marketplace. Is there an audience for the music you’re making? If not, you’re guaranteed to fail. Amateurs, on the other hand, never have to think about this question at all. This frees them to make music entirely for themselves, on their own terms.
Whatever your interest in home recording, whether it’s as a songwriter, an instrumental-oriented electronic dance music composer, or simply as someone looking to record your own instrument and maybe overdub a solo or two, we all know that feeling of writer’s block or producer’s block.
Or “artist’s block” as Julia Cameron, the former wife of Martin Scorsese dubbed it in her best-selling 1992 book The Artist’s Way. From a big picture point of view, Cameron’s book can provide some inspiration to break through artist’s block in general. She stresses that if the artist concentrates on quantity, then quality will come in time as well, as his craft improves through work, process and repetition — provided that cold feet don’t arrive along the way. As one of the many lines I highlighted in my Kindle edition of her book notes, “We usually commit creative hara-kiri either on the eve of or in the wake of a first creative victory. The glare of success (a poem, an acting job, a song, a short story, a film, or any success) can send the recovering artist scurrying back into the cave of self-defeat. We’re more comfortable being a victim of artist’s block than risking having to consistently be productive and healthy.”