Chapter 1 - Introduction
Increasingly, due to the nature of my work, I am asked questions, often very specific questions, about such topics as sound engineering, mixing, song writing, performance and promotion, and I often worry that people are asking the wrong questions.
The music business is changing. When I first started doing this nearly 10 years ago (when I was 15), I had a really fixed idea in my mind of how I was going to “make it” as a musician and song writer. And over the following 10 years I have pretty much completely changed my mind on everything about how I plan to “make it”. The only thing that hasn’t changed is my drive.
If you want to be a successful musician or recording artist, you have to REALLY want to be a successful musician or recording artist. Not just “I fancy being a successful musician or recording artist”. Not “I’ll do it for fun and maybe one day I’ll be a successful musician or recording artist”. You need to REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY want it. To the point that essentially you’re willing to do very stupid things to achieve it. This is true, I think, for any art, but I only have music to use as experience.
Look at your life right now. Do you have anything you really love in it? People, possessions, jobs, pets, cities? Would you give all of it up? If the answer is no, stop reading. You’re not going to be a successful musician. I didn’t have to lose all of these things to get where I am, but I did have to lose a job, a city, a girlfriend, a ton of friends, most of my high-value possessions and I lost contact with my immediate family for the best part of 2 years. It’s not essential (or an inevitability) that you’ll give up all of this stuff, but this is how much you have to want it. I think I’ve labored this point enough now, but serious dedication is needed.
Are you willing to work for 8 hours a day in a “normal” job, and then spend another 8 hours a night making music? That’s what I had to do to get All The Lights In The Sky made. Does that sound like your idea of fun? Cause it wasn’t my idea of fun, and it wasn’t fun. It was horrible. But the goal of completing the project and achieving my dream was worth the struggle.
If you’ve read this far and thought “I could do that” you’re probably also not going to be a successful musician or recording artist. Why? Cause what you should be thinking “I’m already doing that”. If you’ve read this far and are already living in this way, I’m sorry to say that there’s a real possibility you’re not going to be a successful musician or recording artist, simply because there is an element of luck involved. If you’ve got this far, and got this mindset, you’ve maximised your chances so far.
However, wanting it is not enough. The next thing you’re gonna have to do is to somehow develop a mindset of complete and utter pessimism and self belief. It’s a strange mindset, and one I view the world through in all situations. In a nutshell, you have to be totally and completely confident that you CAN make amazing music, but you also have to completely confident that you HAVEN’T YET made amazing music. At all times. I don’t think I’m a successful musician or recording artist and neither should you. You should believe you can be. As soon as you start assuming you are, you stop getting better.
Which leads me on to my next point. Assume everyone is going to think your music is terrible. Because it will be terrible. That’s the mindset you have to maintain. When I put out new tracks by Area 11, I assume people are going to hate it. This isn’t me being self loathing by the way, because I think it’s great. I just assume people aren’t going to like it. In this way, whenever I read a positive comment, I am always surprised. More importantly, it means that when I read a negative comment, it doesn’t make me feel sad or frustrated. It confirms what I thought, which is fine. I was ready for it.
If you’ve come this far and you’re thinking “holy shit, this is exactly how I think already, and I’ve already sold all my clothes to buy musical gear” I’m very happy I’m not the only one, but I also have to remind you there’s still only a slim chance you’re ever going to be a successful musician or recording artist.
The next thing you’re gonna have to learn is something that I use daily and it really helps me. Every time you begin to write a new song or record a new track, stop and abandon it as soon as you realise it’s not as good as the last track or song you made. Even if you’ve spent 5 hours, a week, 5 weeks, a month, a YEAR on it, abandon it. And get used to being self critical, cause this will help you identify this kind of thing. For the new Area 11 track I’m writing now, I keep looking back to how I felt after we’d finished GO!! FAP and comparing how I feel about this song to how I felt back then. Every time I go “this isn’t as cool” I delete it and start again. Letting go of a ton of work quickly and with confidence is something you’re gonna have to get used to.
If you’ve got this far, then you’re like me. I’ve got where I am by living by the rules I’ve just set out for you, and also by gaining a ton of experience. If you’re here and going “yeah Sparkles*, I am this guy” but you’ve never recorded a track, never written a song, or never done anything musical in your life, you’re lying to yourself or you’re a very intelligent 6 year old. You need to go back. If you’re asking me questions like “what mic should I buy?” or “what cheap soundcards can I buy?” or “how do I start writing a song” you’ve not fully embraced this lifestyle yet, and will never move past this early stage. If you want to know answers to these questions, go to google, do some searches, read and re-read blogs, magazines and forum posts until you think you have an idea of what each bit of gear does and then buy it. If it wasn’t what you want, sell it and buy more. Asking me is not the correct attitude! You will never learn WHY it’s the correct thing to buy. If I’m having to tell you any of this, you’re NOT going to become a successful musician or recording artist. EVER. GIVE UP.
If you want to do this, you need to REALLY care about why one mic is better than another. REALLY REALLY care about different grades of XLR cables, or if you should use balanced or unbalanced looms, or if putting a speaker in front of a kick drum is ever a good idea and WHY. You need to not only WANT to know this stuff, but be actively seeking answers and CARING about what they tell you and why. If you see all the technical shit as a means to an ends, you’re not going to be a successful musician or recording artist! Not anymore! It should be part of the process; part of the joy of making music. You don’t have to know everything. You won’t know everything. If you think you do, you’re WRONG and you also have a terrible TERRIBLE mindset.
And that leads me to my final point. NEVER EVER ASSUME YOU’RE GOOD ENOUGH OR THAT YOU KNOW ENOUGH. You’re not and you don’t. Relax and go “that’ll do” at any point and you’re fucked. Because eventually you’ll be old and working in a studio making terrible tracks for terrible bands and wondering where it went wrong (or not even working at all, and telling all your friends about how you used to be in a “band”). Answer: you relaxed and decided you knew enough. YOU DON’T. There is too much to learn. Stay on the cutting edge of technology. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Every time you make a new track, try to improve EVERY aspect of your mix from the last time. Drums weren’t perfect last time? Make sure they’re better before you release the track. Bass was a bit buried? Make sure it’s never again like that. Guitars unfocused? Fix it. If you release another track with the same problems, you’ve relaxed, settled and you’ve given up.
And if you’re here, and you’ve read this, and you’re thinking “finally, someone gets me”, then congratulations. You’re a fucking moron like I am. But you probably have a small shot. That is, if you can write music people like. But I can’t tell you how to do that. And I don’t want to. The rest is down to luck, but in my opinion you’ve put yourself in the best position you possibly can.
Or just go on the X Factor. Your choice.