Feedback Loops - Release & Improve
I was recently talking to a young, aspiring producer who has a slew of projects that are about 95% finished, but he is unable to muster the willingness to see these projects across the finish line and release them. He cited a lack of confidence in the emotional conviction of his music, claiming his music lacked a certain "something" that he couldn't pinpoint. We talked over the risks, merits and philosophies of independently releasing music we're not necessarily 100% confident about. Below are some the key themes we discussed, that I thought interesting and worth sharing.
Producers Releasing = Performers Performing
There are strong parallels between the lives of music performers and music producers. In many ways they're like two sides of the same coin. The both spend countless hours honing their craft in the comfort and creative-safety of their homes, where they are able to make as many mistakes as they please, experimenting and refining their music.
There comes a time in a performer's life when they must give their performance to an audience. The aim is to present themselves and their music at the very best of their technical ability; conveying emotion, maybe expressing a story through the technical execution and command over their instrument (and/or voice). This is their risk; in this moment they're at their most creatively vulnerable; unfamiliar surroundings, the pressures of a watching audience, etc. Once the moment has passed, they may listen back to a recording of their performance and/or receive critique, which along with their own understanding of how the performance went, will inform their direction of focus, study and practice from that point forward. Although much practice was undertaken for this performance, the post-performance analysis aimed at improving the next performance therefore makes the performance itself also practice (i.e. performance #1 is practice for performance #2, which is practice for performance #3 and so on).
Similarly, there comes a time in a producer's life when they must release the music they've been crafting. The hours, days, weeks of creative toil poured into sculpting a piece of music that (like the performance above) aims to convey emotion, maybe tell a story to the best of the producer's ability, through their mastery of production tools and ultimately is reflective of the best music that a producer can achieve at that given moment in their life. Like the performer, it is in this moment that the producer is at their most creatively vulnerable; at the mercy of anyone and everyone on the Internet to pick apart their work and give feedback, whether its invited or not. In the weeks that pass, the producer may take on board some of the feedback and critique and use it to help inform their future work, in order to make the next release better than the previous one. Although the nature of releasing a "finished" song sounds very end-of-line, it's actually, just one step in the process, as the feedback and critique of that song will help make the next song better. (I.e. production #1 is practice for production #2, which is practice for production #3 and so on)
On this logic therefore, everything we do, whether we're performers or producers is little more than practice! Every performance, every production; there's no real end goal, there's no plateau where we stop improving or evolving in some way (creatively and/or technically). Every performance and release is simply a point in time; a reflection of our ideas and abilities at that stage of our lives.
Considering our art in this way; one of a continuing journey and trajectory should give us confidence. We don't need to always be the best at something, we just need to be better than, or creatively evolved upon our last release or performance.
Shifting Perceptions (post-release)
Where music production is fundamentally different to music performance is that once a performance is done, it's done! Whereas, once a production is finished however, it exists forevermore; to be combed over, analysed, picked apart and critiqued. Furthermore, it's unlikely to be measured solely on its own merits, but rather against the creative, social, cultural and political backdrop against which it was released.
To elaborate, I perceive (and I've spoken with musician friends who feel the same) that once a piece of music (or body of work) is released, it takes on a new life of its own. For the creator it can change and feel different to how it felt (before being released). I.e. it's gone from being an idea and work-load, to being its own creative entity that grows and exists in the pantheon of human artistic expression (or your 39 SoundCloud followers, you know... whatever).
I feel that whilst anything I release will always exist as a reflection of my time and creativity at that stage of my life, it now also has its own sense of being; it's own character. It will mean different things to different people, which change the way I perceive it as its creator. As humans we like to attach certain music to periods or events of our lives, significant or mundane, times of day, tasks and so on. We all have preferred commuting music, relaxing music, music to do housework to, the long holiday-drive playlist etc... Where does our music fit into that and more importantly, why?
Alternatively, something we release might be that release that really grates or doesn't sit well with a particular corner of the fan-scene. If it does, we can assess why this might be and how/if that will influence our creativity moving forward. Either way, we've no idea what kind of impact our music will have until it's out there, doing its own thing, affecting listeners in ways we never anticipated (both good and bad).
Furthermore, we've no idea what music is being released just prior and shortly after ours, or what world events might occur which can all have huge impacts on whether an audience reacts favourably to the work or not (for example there's a wiki page devoted to entertainment that was adjusted and/or rescheduled and/or commercially failed due to the events of 911).
All together, it's this new understanding and appreciation of our music, gained in the months (possibly years) after release that's so important to our own understanding of it and our own creative expression. Moreover, this insight is not possible without releasing in the first instance.
This was once eloquently summed up by Tom Waits. I can't find the interview to quote directly from, but I remember he described writing songs as being like raising children; eventually you have to let them go off into adulthood, venture out into the world to be their own entities and do their own things. Some may fall on their face, however some may go on to do great things. Either way, you won't know until you let them go. It's all part of the process.
Releasing To Improve
On this point, I tend to look differently upon my own work in the weeks and months after its release. I develop a newfound awareness of how people relate to my work, and I develop sufficient emotional detachment from the creative process to better appreciate the work objectively. This appreciation could not happen without having released it and it's only at this point (post-release) that I can truly evaluate, learn, improve and grow as a practitioner. I.e:
It's only through releasing my music that I'm able to properly learn about my music
When I said earlier that performing live and producing music are the same, it's really the notion of this statement that I'm referring to; just swap "releasing music" for "performing music to an audience". A top-class performer is able to convey an array of emotion and context through the mastery of their instrument. A top-class producer can do the same through their mastery of arrangement, technical execution and understanding of the release format. The hours spent learning to be a world-class violist will be comparable to the hours spent learning to be a world-class sound engineer or arranger; the means of performance are rather different; but their works are performances nonetheless.
Don't Misunderstand - I'm Not Talking About Appeasing Audiences
I appreciate that the above may read as if I'm suggesting we gauge audience opinion before deciding what to do next, but that's not what I mean. It's more that I believe it's only when we release music that we're able to truly hear it the way others do. I believe this to be the most positive form of reflective analysis, and also to have the most meaningfully positive impact on our own development; hear the high points of a work, but also the moments that could have been tweaked, changed, explored more deeply and so on.
It's not a matter of assessing what people like and simply doing more of that in order to sell more music (although I understand and have no problem with people who do that). For the artist, it's about understanding what and how people hear their music that differs to their own perception; and then learning from that.
Improving Audience Communication (holistically, not financially)
The inability to truly anticipate how music will be received is the great unknown for producers, and I believe a big part of it relies on emotional connection.
For example, I may try something as a producer that is intended to evoke certain feelings, yet upon release I discover that people may be moved and/or respond to it in completely different ways. This feedback teaches me about human perception and interpretation (in relation to my own view of emotions and music).
This approach to audience feedback and interpretation can further enrich and inform our own ideas and understanding of emotional expression in music; ultimately improving our individual ability to better communicate and speak to one another with absolute clarity (through music).
Releasing music can be considered not only as a reflection of the artist's creativity at any given point in time, but also (and perhaps more importantly) as something that forms part of their personal, ongoing practice as a music-creating human who desires to communicate evermore effectively with other human beings through the medium of music.
Without meaning to sound overly saccharin, where we (humans) may not be able to communicate with words, we all experience the same kinds of emotions which can be expressed through art in ways that transcend conventional language barriers. This is why it's so important to learn from listener response and feedback, in order to always be improving our ability to communicate feelings through music.
Releasing Can Equate to Strategic Practice
In the above, there are some overlaps and thematic parallels with my Creative Cycles & Self Evaluation article. Nevertheless, with all of the above in mind, there's arguably no harm in adopting a Practice-Release approach. I.e. view every release as practice for the next one; thus negating the need to feel unwilling to release through a lack of confidence. I'd go as far as to say that if you feel a glimmer of self-doubt about your work, that's all the more reason to release it, as the feedback will either reassure your doubts or provide you with insights on how to address any (self-doubt-causing) problems in future works.
The above goes a long way to sum up the conversation I had about why musicians should, regardless of their ability, feel confident about releasing music; as it forms part of their wider practice and development. Don't consider your music in relation to everyone else's, consider it only in relation to your previous release and what you have learned from that since it was released.
It's probably now fair to say: stop reading my philosophical ramblings and go finish that music you're working on! And, once it's finished, release it, so that you can study it more objectively and improve your next project, so that it can be even better than your current one!
Happy Music Making (and releasing)