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“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” By Michael J. Fox
It’s great to strive towards the perfection that the voice in your head tells you about, but the reality is you will never get there. Never. The target always moves one step further away. Dont get me wrong, nothing will quash your career faster than a string of sub-par work, but “good enough” is often all that is required. In an ideal world we wouldnt have to earn money or spend time on daily chores (or ever expire!) leaving us free to pursue perfection to our hearts’ content. But in reality we have a time limit and this requires setting a threshold above which is excellence – anything more is wasted energy and will prevent you from starting other fruitful projects. In this post we are going discuss the best way to achieve excellence in your music but still finish the track before you’re seventy.
CERN is an engineering marvel that smashes particles together at near light-speed in an attempt to recreate the conditions at the beginning of the universe. You cant get much closer to playing God, but even CERN had tolerances on its parts when they was designed – when the boffins said “this is good enough”. Steve Jobs doesn’t wait for perfection in Apple’s designs, they’re tweaked as they progress. Waiting for perfection would delay their release and allow another company to steal the thunder. First to market bags the prize.
The key is to set your boundaries for excellence – knowing what the market, your audience, deem acceptable. Then marginally exceed.
Anything more requires an exponential investment of time for a reward that wont scale. Strive for incremental improvement, that way you get a reward at each step, and if that particular move doesnt work then you havent invested too much. Accept the action for what it was, analyse it, and learn the lessons to enable you to refine towards your goal. There is no such thing as failure, only lessons acting as steps to your goal.
So how do you set the benchmark for your track? How do you know when it’s good enough and you’re not just procrastinating?
In the past record labels and distributors largely acted as a filter for the market, setting the standards for what is good enough to go to market and what the public at large hear. The internet, social media, and MP3 revolution of the last decade have completely changed that gatekeeper system. Now anyone can put music out there which can, in theory, be heard by anyone. The quality control is in open season or at least that is how it can appear.
In music the gatekeepers are no longer simply the labels, though they still do have some say, the people who set the standards are the taste makers. The taste makers are continually evolving as the public search for fresh and interesting products and leaders of those new fields emerge; though there are some constants.
In terms of dance music the taste makers can be separated into:
- DJ charts
- social media
- leading music brands
One great music download store has understood well that taste makers are the new way of filtering music that suits the listener. Satellite Records have a whole section called ‘Curators’ where taste makers from around the world comment on and recommend tracks. A great forward-thinking way of helping people find the music they’ll love and a fresh twist on the DJ chart method.
Essentially the taste makers are the leaders of what Seth Godin refers to as ‘Tribes’. The internet has allowed people to connect in social groups which previously where disparate and spread over wide areas. People can then collect and connect with other like-minded people and create ‘tribes’. Below is a great video by Seth Godin speaking at TED about the concept of tribes. Really, like the Chemical Brothers said in their classic “It Began In Africa”, we are going back to our basic human instinct to connect and operate in tribes with mutual objectives and views, all facilitated by the internet.
Dance Music is always being categorised and split into sub genres, helping people find similar music and people with similar tastes. People liking Tech-House are a tribe, people following Diplo and the Mad Decent Crew are a tribe. David Guetta fans are also a tribe. In each of these cases the taste maker is the leader, i.e. Diplo and David Guetta, in tech-house at the moment the taste maker could be said to be Toolroom Records. If you want to be in Diplo or David Guetta’s DJ Chart you need to meet and exceed the current quality level of tracks in that chart. Just as if you want to be in that tribe you can either follow or add something fresh that the leader likes.
Regarding the benchmark for your tracks, if you are making commercial tech-house then you need to align with the production quality, arrangement and type of ideas being released by Toolroom Records. If you want to release on Saved then you need to critic the recent catalogue of Saved and what Nic Fancuilli is playing and make your track good enough to fit into that selection. But – and this is the big point – you needs to bring something new to the table. If your music doesn’t bring something fresh – ask yourself why should they play or sign the track? the guys already on the label and who they know already make plenty of great tracks and get promote them to the right people…
The Fedde Le Grand track in the above video, while not my normal style, is a sick production and has massive crowd impact. I can totally imagine that blowing the roof off a large stadium dance event with its epic builds and grooving bass and percussion. It’s got my mind remembering seeing the likes of Nick Warren and Paul Oakenfold years back at Creamfields – Epic times! If you want to release on labels like Toolroom do you believe your track could match that emotion or is good enough to be mixed in a set before or after it? These are questions you need to ask yourself and make up part of your benchmarking process.
When you have detailed the quality benchmark your track has to meet you can then reference against that benchmark and know when your track has reached the quality level it needs. This is the point when you’re finished, when you have reached excellence. In an interview with Resident Advisor Deadmau5 said “…you’ll never complete anything. I’ll never be 100% happy with any production. I can go back and make any production that I’ve done better. That’s just the process of what makes you an artist.”
It is defining a quality benchmark that will help prevent you procrastinating about the imperfections of the track you are making, and deciding if it is good enough or not. To summarise you can avoid the music production procrastination cycle by following three key steps:
- Define your target for the music – i.e. Toolroom Records / Saved Records / Hessle Audio,
- Define your motif – something that sets you apart from everything else out there
- Reference your music production to the benchmark until you meet it, and be brutally honest with yourself.
These are high level steps each with their own layers of complexity and effort required to complete, and in the coming weeks we will discuss them individually in further detail as we try to help you on your way to becoming a proficient music producer. I wouldn’t start a new track without knowing the answers. Start today and think about what you do when you make your music, and what you want it to achieve. It is only by going through this process of self-analysis that you will finally reach your goal. I wont lie, it’s a difficult process often forcing you to admit things we all wouldn’t naturally like too. And it’s a learning process that never stops – a challenge that makes music creation such fun and ultimately makes you a great artist.