How do home musicians keep organized/productive?
June 25, 2008 4:32 PM   Subscribe

How do you home songwriters keep yourselves organized? How do you keep yourself motivated?

OK, so I'm just another guy who's been in five bands since he was a kid, and has recording equipment at home, and a desire to make music. One of one million I'm sure.

I have a harddrive full of half finished songs and song ideas. I have the ever looming sense of worthlessness due to it. (Maybe I should write emo music?) I always feel the need to write, but I never finish anything. I'm currently the father of a 1 year old, so really my time to work on stuff is quite rare, so I'm trying to think of ways to maximize productivity.

So I'm wondering how some other people do it. Do you require you finish a song before moving on? Do you try and work with a few songs at a time? Do you do a traditional albums worth? Even then, do you go about every song differently? Do you hammer out all the drums, all the guitars, blah blah blah?

Basically, I'm a songwriter with no work ethic. So I just wanted to get an idea of how other people handle things.
posted by toekneebullard to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
I write my songs in a notebook then when I sit down to work on songs I make my self play through some of the old ideas and unfinished stuff. As I play through the old stuff I play around with it and add to it or take away.... Slowly but surely they get finished.
posted by magikker at 4:38 PM on June 25, 2008


Play them for a long, long time before even thinking about recording. Iron out any problems and know the song as well as you can before you even think about recording it.
posted by fire&wings at 4:45 PM on June 25, 2008


What you have, my friend, is a song mine. Those are great to have.

What you do is pick a time to work then go thru your halfdone songs and start crafting them. Don't be surprised if you take parts of songs and put them together with parts of other songs. You can do this at one sitting, actually.

For the work ethic part, the only thing that works for me is that I go to a songwriter's network meeting once a month (in hiatus for the summer, unfortunately, but whatever.) I force myself to have a song ready for that meeting. Which many times means I am working on my song literally the night before.

So, if you can set a deadline for yourself, whether real or artificial, it will help. Thanks to my group I have a whole pile of stuff.
posted by konolia at 6:02 PM on June 25, 2008


I tend to only work on songs if I know I can finish them in one sitting. Granted, this means most of my songs are short and not terribly complex, but I think that sort of goal-setting helps: knowing where I want to be at the end of a recording session. So, I'd say start with things that might be near completion, maybe. Well, that works in my case, anyway.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 6:29 PM on June 25, 2008


I'm just tossing a couple cents into the well here, but I'd like to relate some of my methods, and maybe they could help you out in some way.

I'm a songwriter working from his tiny NYC bedroom, with the computer and recording equipment located directly below where I lay my head to rest. It's cramped, it's tiresome, it's hard to work in. Because it can be such a hard environment, I've developed some creative cures for shrugging off work.

Concerning workflow/productivity:

The first thing I do is make a new Garageband or ProTools file for every new musical idea I have- every single one. I might be working on one riff that I really like, drop it for a bit, and pick it back up with a new twist- but I still save the old one. This creates a real big chunk of riffs and ideas that you can later go back through, and as has been mentioned above, even combine later. It also becomes modular.

If there's any advantage to DAWs, it's the whole non-linear, non-destructive aspect. You can mess around with your ideas in real time. If you feel like you have a real strong eight-bar melody, just copy and paste that a few times, stick some space in between for you to riff on and maybe you'll come up with a chorus.

I alternate this approach with the complete opposite: stepping away from the computer for long stretches of time and just playing my guitar. I try to write a whole song all the way through, or a solid chorus that I can jot down in my notebook and come back to later. It's important not to rely on the modular feeling that a DAW can offer you, at least for me. It just makes me feel more like a songwriter.

The key for me is to just keep playing and recording and combining and twisting and testing until a nice shape starts to come to the surface. Don't let the overabundance of unfinished work get you down- I've heard it said many times that for every half-decent song the average songwriter writes, there's a dozen more lying in pieces. I can definitely echo that sentiment.

As far as motivation, you can give it to yourself in many forms:

Time) I tried (and failed, due to a bout of influenza), the RPM2008 challenge. In this challenge, you are to record a whole album in February (the shortest month of the year)- 10 song or 35 minutes. It's meant to be a personal challenge, and you obviously don't need a community to participate in something like this for your own motivation.

Inspiration) I like to read up on how other artists who I admire work through their own creative process. It helps me understand their music, and makes me want to work on my own. Try going to the local library and see if they have any biographies on your favorite artists. Even easier, just a quick google search for some interviews could turn up some results.

I'd have more to add if I gave this more thought myself. As it stands, I wouldn't say I'm the poster child for productivity when it comes to songwriting. In fact, I'm pretty much in the same boat as you. I'm definitely keeping an eye on the thread.

Best of luck.
posted by self at 6:32 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't believe in motivation other than the proverbial gun to the head.

I guess what I am saying is that you shouldn't wait around until you feel like it. Plan your time, even if it is when I get 5 minutes I will play the guitar.

As mentioned above, I have stole ideas from myself, especially when the band is asking for more songs.

Have your recording equipment ready to go at the drop of a hat.

Also I store up titles so when I hit a groove, I already have an idea.

The last song I wrote took 30 minutes. The one before took 3 months.

Don't put your ego in to it. As soon as I stopped wanting to have people think of me as a songwriter, I really felt like I was getting the results I wanted.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:53 PM on June 25, 2008


Do you require you finish a song before moving on?

No.

Do you try and work with a few songs at a time?

I work with as many good ideas as I have at any given time.

Do you do a traditional albums worth?

The album is a good format.

Even then, do you go about every song differently?

Yes.

Do you hammer out all the drums, all the guitars, blah blah blah?

No.

I have a lyrics file where I save any good lyrical ideas I have or anything that suggests a lyric to me. Some of these become songs, some of them just hang around waiting to become songs.

I might be in the minority on this when I say I think it's a waste of time to record every idea you have. I always roll my eyes when people tell me that they wrote 200 songs in the past year or whatever. I don't think something is worth calling a song unless it's a polished piece that you can perform and feel proud of. If I have an idea and I forget it the next day, that means it wasn't memorable, so it wasn't worthwhile. Some songs get written in two days. Some songs get gradually written over a period of months. I'm happier when the former happens, but I've written great songs with the latter method. Sometimes an idea just isn't ready to be finished, and that's ok. There's no reason to force it.

So I write down my lyrics and play a song over and over until I'm satisfied with the tune and the words and the structure. Then I record a demo with guitars and vocals. Then I show my bandmates and I let them record parts. Then we practice it and perform it live and it evolves some more and maybe we eventually record it again. Then everybody gets drunk and lives happily ever after.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:40 PM on June 25, 2008


Slightly OT, but have you ever considered a collaborator? I used to be in a band with a guy who was great at finishing my ideas. I would generally write one verse and one chorus. And he would often write the remaining verses and improve upon my melody. It was great.

I'm in the same boat as you: too many half-finished ideas, motivation issues, lack of time (new parent, two jobs). But I've been more productive due to a trick I learned from a friend. When I practice, I am always running through my DAW. If I stumble across an idea worth keeping, I record it (I create a new folder for each idea/project). With all due respect to ludwig_van, my memory isn't good enough to keep things in my head overnight and I'm often quite surprised at good ideas that I managed to record which would otherwise be lost. But I don't count anything as a song until it's finished. Up until that point, it's just a beta version of a potential song.

The ratio of good ideas to non-starters is always highly in favor of the non-starters, but I don't think, in the long run, that matters.
posted by wheat at 12:12 AM on June 26, 2008


I have a harddrive full of half finished songs and song ideas. I have the ever looming sense of worthlessness due to it. (Maybe I should write emo music?) I always feel the need to write, but I never finish anything. I'm currently the father of a 1 year old, so really my time to work on stuff is quite rare, so I'm trying to think of ways to maximize productivity.

Try this: go through your harddrive and listen to everything. (You can do this at the same time as you're keeping track of the kid, I imagine.) Write down a "to do" for every song as you go, which can cover everything from "write and record a guitar track" or "check to see if this key works" to, say, "burn rough mix CD" or "make backups."

You'll end up with a long list of stuff -- some of it you can do "in the box" while other people are asleep; some of it you can do while doing other stuff ("play rough mix over and over, see if any lyrics pop into head"); some of it is stuff you need to when alone and noisy.

Now, when you have actual time, you grab the list -- "oh, I forgot about that song -- yeah, I can record a sax solo right now!" or "kid's down for a nap -- what 'chores' can I check off in the next 20 minutes?" I find that this keeps me from just sort of wandering aimlessly, and if I'm not feeling inspired, I can still get something done.

Do you require you finish a song before moving on?

Oh, God, no. On the other hand -- being in the same half-finished-song boat as you, I'm trying to "clean my plate" before adding too much more to it. I'll focus on one song a lot but if I hit a wall I quickly move on to another one. (For this reason, it's actually pretty neat having a bunch of half-finished stuff.)

Do you try and work with a few songs at a time?

Usually, although I'll jump around between what "few songs" they are.

Do you do a traditional albums worth? Even then, do you go about every song differently?

No, when a song is finished, it goes up on my website and (this is important) onto MetaFilter Music. I don't think in terms of albums at all.

Do you hammer out all the drums, all the guitars, blah blah blah?

No, because I am not a factory. Sometimes, if I get a mic set up, I'll try and run through several vocals at once or something like that. The checklist system helps with this as well.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 12:55 AM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


I started playing instruments about 15 years ago and I've been writing songs for about 8 years. At this point, after playing in bands, collaborating with other bands as a guest, having done music for TV and a film and, of course, recording by myself at home, I have renounced any kind of formula.

Like many others above, I've had songs "come to me" in a few hours and I've had ideas lying around that I thought were dead and one day suddenly became songs.

So, to give you a quick answer to your questions:

Do you require you finish a song before moving on?
No, and I seriously think you wouldn't be helping the songs if you did. I think by pushing yourself to declare something "finished" you may be cutting the song's own process early, and not letting it evolve. Having it sit unfinished and then come back to it seems to me a better approach.

Do you try and work with a few songs at a time?
Yeah, otherwise I wouldn't ever finish anything. And also, many times while I am working on one song, someone will propose a collaboration, or someone may ask for a song for something, so I end up working in many songs.

Do you do a traditional albums worth?
Not really, I follow the exact same pattern as Karlos The Jackal above, though I have been thinking I could do "albums", if nothing else, to sort the songs in a different way, but I don't approach the writing as being part of an album project.

Even then, do you go about every song differently?
Yeah, every time, inevitably.

Do you hammer out all the drums, all the guitars, blah blah blah?
In my particular case, I moved to a country where it's been difficult to find compatible musicians to play with, and so I've ended up doing everything by myself, and I am tired of it. I don't think it yields the best results, and the process can be exhausting, so, if you can avoid it, I think you should. The songs will be better if more people participate (even if it's only in the performance during the recording, rather than in the writing).

As for how to keep being productive. It sounds like you don't have to make a living with your music, which to me is a fantastic thing, because it means you don't have to meet deadlines and you don't have outside pressures of any sort. I would say don't stress about this process: there will be periods when you play/record less, periods when you play/record more and there will be times when you abandon it "for good", only to come back later. But enjoy the fact that you can take your time with it, and harness that, instead of trying to rush yourself
posted by micayetoca at 6:53 AM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow. I go away for the weekend, and come back to a whole bunch of good answers. Thanks for everyone's input. I'd still love to hear from other people, as I think we all benefit from new ideas.
posted by toekneebullard at 6:02 AM on June 30, 2008


I subscribe to the archivist mentality....record everything as a separate idea, export rough mixes of everything when you shut down the session, periodically listen through your archive, and work on the stuff that hits you as interesting. Using this method, you'll eventually find the cream rising to the top, and the lesser-so stuff just not being around. And I totally connect song thoughts this way, stuff that was written months apart can often be sewn together into something more cool.
posted by thehipcola at 6:13 PM on August 9, 2008


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