Writer’s block can without a doubt be one of the most frustrating things to overcome as a music producer. I can tell you this first-hand because I have witnessed many producers including myself getting stuck in a rut and not being able to finish anything. As a matter of fact, it took me 18 months to finally finish something that I was remotely happy with, and even then as I look back it was not worth the wait. So, how can a music producer overcome this problem? Well, I can tell you what I have continually had to do to beat this bad habit. Here are five habits/techniques you can use.
This a technique that allows you to set a timer on a task and practically go for it. For example, I use an app called Task Player, and what I do is set the timer for 20 - 25 minutes and give myself a task that must be completed.
This could be the following:
a) Complete a bass line.
b) Complete a melody or chord progression.
c) Find a kick, snare, hi-hats or any percussion.
d) Finish an arrangement section.
Once the timer goes off and I run out of time, I introduce the rule that I am never allowed to go back to it and try to perfect it or make it better. It is the most uncomfortable thing an artist can do, because you have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable in order to get out of perfectionism and finish music. It is about building habits and changing the way you think and act to get into a state of flow and out of the analytical mind.
Sure, the music will be average in the beginning and you will want to go back and correct it, but it is about becoming disciplined and getting the job done to finish more music. The exception to the rule is that when it comes to mixing I don't use this technique.
Force yourself to show up - keep the habit of going
It has been said by many personal development gurus that 80 percent of success is showing up, and I agree to some extent. The hardest part to overcoming writer’s block for an artist is to sit down at the chair; the easy part is doing the work, it’s all about overcoming resistance to do the work. I highly advise you to get Stephen Pressfield’s book The War Of Art, as he talks all about this. The artist must conquer the fear to show up and do the work, whether they like it or not. I still have my days where that little voice inside my head says, “Arghh, come on Mike, you have done enough. You’re tired, you’re stressed, take a break.”
What I have learned in overcoming writer’s block is that taking time off never works. Making a commitment to do at least 15 - 30 minutes of work in the studio regardless of what your music sounds like will get the job done. It’s all about setting mini outcomes/goals.
a) Finish a build-up, find sweeps or drums to complete it.
b) Maybe it’s mixing or layering a sound or drum element.
c) Label and delete tracks to tidy up your arrangement.
d) Create or find a sound for a bass layer or lead.
The goal is simply to show up and tick off one more thing on the list and keep moving forward to completion. Progress and momentum has to be built in order to overcome writer’s block.
Realize that by not finishing you are staying in the same place, and not progressing
I used to think that if only I could tweak this and that to get it like this and that, I would come up with a masterpiece. What I learnt is that I was not only wasting time, but most of the time I would go backwards and be in a worse position than when I first started my music. This is simply because overthinking will always destroy creativity and prevent you from entering the flow state. Your best music and ideas will always come from the flow and that natural state of mind where you get lost in time.
The only way to close the gap to get from where you are now and where you want to go is to finish more music fast. I learned this from three of my mentors, Mike Monday and Hyperbits. And since I have implemented the teachings I have got big results when it comes to finishing more music faster. We need to go through the whole process of completing a project so we can master composition/workflow, sound design, arrangement and mix downs. Without going through it all we never reach our full potential.
Using other artists’ ideas and arrangements to make your own
Getting stuck on an idea or having no ideas can be easily overcome by modelling producers you aspire to be like. Who are your influences? Who do you wish to sound like or draw inspiration from to an extent? Take one of your favorite tracks and copy the entire arrangement. I am not saying to copy everything like sound or melodies, but more in the sense of getting that head start by dragging audio into your DAW and mapping it out with midi sections, labels and color codes in order to have something to work towards. I still do this at the start of my writing process, because it works.
Stop overthinking and start doing
Overthinking will always destroy creativity as mentioned earlier, so it bears repeating. It can be hard to overcome writer’s block because you have to be able to almost become another person. You have to really not care about your art to a degree and lose any emotional attachment. That is the hardest thing for a music producer; we take big pride and so we should, but where do you draw the line? Well, if you are not completing then you really have to do the opposite to what you used to doing.
I used to treat my music so meticulously that it was ridiculous and I never finished anything. The moment I stopped almost caring my best music started to happen; it sounds weird but it works. You can always improve on art for eternity, but you just have to accept that most people will not care about your work, especially not as much as you do. Make it a goal to finish more average music in order to get to the point where your average music becomes better music, and your better music becomes great.
It only happens when you close the gap; quantity gets to quality. It’s a long road, but it will be longer if you get stuck in your bad ways and don’t finish more music faster.