How to deal with the shifting target of your music goals and resolutions

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Salt & pepper. Hall & Oates. 4th of July & fireworks. Pro Tools & the spinning rainbow wheel of death.

When something as pesky as LIFE gets in the way of your musical goals, don’t fight it; live it

We set grand goals for our music. Recording a classic album. Selling out a stadium tour. Getting a billion views on YouTube. Being everywhere, loved by everybody. Then life happens. Your dog Kiki gets sick. You get a promotion at work. You realize that staying in a strong relationship takes just as much love and attention as your creative life. Things change (didn’t Rush sing about that?)

We don’t give up on our music; we just… attenuate our ambitions a bit. A cult classic, if not a best-seller. A theater instead of a stadium. Forget a billion views; we’d be happy with a hundred thousand!

That’s normal. It’s part of maturing. In fact, I think this kind of scaling back of expectations can actually bring you closer to real, achievable, sustainable success. I see it all the time with bands that work with CD Baby and in the lives of some of my music friends.

Here’s a small example from my past week that illustrates the point.

Yesterday was New Year’s Day, an arbitrary marker of time that, as far as I know, is unrelated to celestial or earthly phenomena (you astrophysicists can correct me in the comments below if I’m wrong about that).

I mean, wouldn’t the day after the Winter Solstice be a more appropriate time to hang a new calendar on the wall and make resolutions?

Anyway, I’ve always been a bit of a grump when it comes to New Year’s resolutions (don’t wait for January; change now, you lazy-asses!). But this year I did set the holidays in mind as a kind of target week for me to get my home studio up and running again.

Most of the components had been packed away in various boxes for several years (who knew having kids would be so all-consuming!!?) And now that my daughter is a little more independent (meaning that hot stoves, sharp objects, and tall chairs have lost some of their allure) it seemed like a good time to start a new recording project. I could use my time off in December to piece the studio together and get the bones of a song tracked by New Year’s Day. A simple resolution! Or so I thought.

Out came my old Tascam 388 reel-to-reel recorder — which had a melted capstan belt. I had to order a replacement online and it took a week to arrive by mail.

Up went the shelving to hold my studio monitors — which took three times as long as I thought they would to hang, thanks to some poorly made drywall anchors, and more trips to Home Depot than you should make in one day.

Out came my interface — which now needs both a Firewire 400/800 adapter AND a Firewire/Thunderbolt adapter (neither of which are available at my local electronics stores… so again: ordering online and waiting)!

Out came my Pro Tools install discs — which alerted me to the fact that my version of Pro Tools wasn’t compatible with the new Yosemite operating system on my Mac, so I needed to upgrade to Pro Tools 11, which took a looooooooong time to download and install.

Then I started Pro Tools — which yielded error message after error message.

The list goes on. Every step of the process: delays, setbacks, frustrations.

Anyway, by last night (January 1st) I had recorded a crappy sounding kick drum with a questionable sense of groove. The bones of a song it was NOT.

BUT… it was the beginning of a song.

Which brings me to the point of this rambling story: BEGINNING is often the hardest part of any creative process. Laws of inertia and all that. Just shaking off the dust, oiling up the rusty joints, and getting down to the business of beginning. It can be tough, especially if you have pretty strict limits in the time, energy, finances, or health departments.

By beginning, though, you get a more realistic sense of your goals and what it will take to achieve them. Once you’re on your way, you can break the larger effort into smaller, more manageable (and more achievable) goals.

I was naive to think I’d have more tracks recorded by January 1st. I’d forgotten about all the boring maintenance, configuration, troubleshooting, and home repair required to set up a decent little project studio.

Despite it all, though, I still think of my crappy kick drum (and all of the work behind it) as a success. I’m rusty at this home recording thing. It’s going to take time. Until yesterday I was the musical equivalent of someone who’s extremely out of shape, but vows “to run five miles a day and lose seventy pounds” by summer — and then they get exhausted after running three minutes.

I could beat myself up and get lost in disappointment, OR I could pat myself on the back for simply lacing up my shoes. The last of of those options is the one most likely to lead to a better kick drum sound, and then maybe a snare, and one day (maybe by this weekend) a bass! At this point for me it’s about choosing the path that is most likely to keep me motivated, and to make a daily habit of it (which will help me move through the times when inspiration is lacking). That path might not be to tackle the mountaintop, which sounds exhausting. I might actually be happier, more productive, and more creative when I’m hiking in the foothills.

My goals will shift along with the changing realities of my life, my family, my music, and my career. That’s okay. Reality can be a pain in the ass, but it can also be a force to sharpen you, bring your priorities into focus, and hopefully make you a better person.

Sorry if I’m getting all “self help” here. Time to offer a practical tip before the daemons of Atlantis fly off with my aura:

If you’re overwhelmed by everything it takes to create your music and put it out there,  just do ONE THING right now. Do another thing tomorrow. Repeat.

Maybe it’s recording a kick drum; maybe it’s a blog post, a tweet, or putting the lyrics to one of your songs online; maybe it’s writing to one club booker, finishing one line in the lyrics to your next song, or answering an add on Craigslist.

I think it’s okay to shift your goals and expectations. The important thing is to keep moving towards them. Step by step, if not by leaps and bounds.

[Picture of Pro Tools booting up from my Instagram.]

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  • Josh

    Glad to hear you’ve gotten your stuff all set back up, Chris! I agree that that initial lift-off of any project requires the bulk of the energy, vision and organization needed for any endeavor. However, lately, I’ve been feeling like finishing stuff is more difficult. When the excitement, motivation and passion have faded but the finish line still isn’t quite in sight, it’s tough to find the will to power through and finish. Then I start losing focus, faith and even interest in the thing. sometimes my collaborators do, too, and the thing stalls. That’s when I make the mistake of starting on a project while I wait. Now I have multiple unfinished projects that are stalled only yards from the finish line. Starting doesn’t seem to be my problem – it’s finishing. Anyone else in that boat, too?

    • Oh yeah. I get into that boat too. My pattern over the years has been to start recording an album, second guess everything, start on a 2nd recording project where the mission is to work quickly and simply. Finish that 2nd project and release it. Then go back and tweak the earlier one until I’m happy. It’s like… always working on two things at a time. The slow down and doubt is maddening, but the breath of fresh air from the 2nd rescue project is always great. My “goal” for the stuff I work on at home is to only work on one song at a time. Start, labor, finish, release. Repeat. We’ll see how it goes.

      As far as being stalled yards from the finish line, what do those yards look like? Mixing? A few vocal takes? Some unfinished lyrics?

      @ChrisRobley

      • Josh

        Mixing is often a pain, yes. Not having money to finish stuff is a factor.

        Lots of times it’s that key people in the process bail before the thing
        is done. (I live in Austin – the Flake Capital of the World.) ex: I’m just about to finish a CD that was two drummers ago.

        I wasn’t a very good band leader in the past – my expectations were too high and so everyone else’s were, too. I play the kind of music that mixes a lot of styles. That can bring everyone’s weaknesses out.

        ex: one project that started in 2009 stalled because the drummer can’t play a train beat. I didn’t know that when I made a country arrangement of this classical piece but I found out in rehearsals. When I suggested we get a country drummer for the tune, that pissed him off. He’s a key player/arranger in the project and doesn’t want to be replaced… So I suggested we skip the train beat and go with a simpler drum part… No. The challenge was made and now must be be met. So we did useless take after useless take in the studio. The other 7 tunes we did were great. It’s that one that’s sitting in limbo. Everyone knows it needs to be better (even him) but no one wants to step on this guy’s toes and he still thinks he can go back and get it. The thing was last worked on in August 2013. I don’t think he’s been practicing his train that much.

        I will say that the last EP my band actually released was super smooth sailing. We knocked it out quickly. It helped that no one quit and everyone was realistic about what they could play — even me. Oh, yeah, and we were really prepared, too.

        • That always helps speed things along. Well, good luck with the train beat. Or… just X that song and put the rest out. Might be better to forget that one for the sake of progress.

          @ChrisRobley

          • Josh

            thank you! I thought of that but… the tune is pretty essential. The project is an all-over the map version of an entire classical suite and this piece is the finale!

  • lifebohemia

    Absolutely wonderful post. Those ancient philosophers were incredibly wise, and these sayings are my favorite. “Think of the small as large.” “Do your duty without thinking of results.” This article helps you realize you’re not alone. Thanks.

    • Thanks so much for sharing those quotes (and reading the article). Yeah, I don’t think we’re alone. I think most artists at all levels drive themselves crazy with their own goals, expectations, ambitions, etc. Strange balancing act (joyful duty and results).

      @ChrisRobley

    • Thanks so much for sharing those quotes (and reading the article). Yeah, I don’t think we’re alone. I think most artists at all levels drive themselves crazy with their own goals, expectations, ambitions, etc. Strange balancing act (joyful duty and results).

      @ChrisRobley

  • SO GOOD. Just what I needed. And I thought I was the weird one who makes the grandiose goals & gets overwhelmed by details on day one! Thanks, Chris. 🙂

  • Ah. Hmm. Maybe that drummer will be more open to hiring someone else for that one song after he gives it a few more tries.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Dahï Speranza

    Thank you so much for this post ! I would always feel so overwhelmed by everything I had to do to keep my music career going as I thought it would be best and then ended up doing nothing ! You’re right , being realistic brings more outcome and it’s more encouraging !

  • Nice. Glad the post was helpful. And yeah, daydreaming all day of the big picture or getting stressed about all the minutia — neither is very helpful.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Xan Angelfvkk

    I like the fact you made that point about the Winter Solstice vs New Years. I always thought these kind ov blogs were way to “muggle-licious” to delve into this kind ov thing. But you are dead right, getting started with anything can be difficult. Even when your gear is set up ready to go. And, there’s always brand new “unprecedented” problems that come along too.

  • Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Christopher. Just wanted to say that I’m learning how important it is to stay balanced between my creative life and my relationships. For me it’s difficult to tear myself away from my joy of creation during which time is non-existent until I hear my wife’s voice and her need for my loving attention. I love both worlds so i must be more consciously aware to maintain that fine balance which is so appreciated. I see it all as an opportunity to improve myself.

    • Yeah, there’s definitely a learning curve to navigating all these responsibilities. I was a slow learner, and am far from the top.

      @ChrisRobley

  • Bsan

    I needed this article so much right now…my equipment seems to be breaking down just to spite me at the moment. Facing several repair jobs.

    • Well, that sucks about your gear not cooperating, but happy to hear the article was helpful at the right time. Happy repairs!

      @ChrisRobley

  • YEA… F^$K TGE GREGORIAN CALENDER!

    great article.

  • Roger Bourne

    Great article Chris it’s a help to know that even people as clued up as you have the occasional setback and I sympathise with Josh as well. I had my own studio years ago recording on video tape–no tape hiss–my brother was an expert in that field and set it up for me. Then he died suddenly and when we moved house I tried to assemble it all but couldn’t make it work. Now I use other peoples studios. If anyone wants a lot of (old) studio equipment contact me on rogermbourne@hotmail.co.uk IT’S FREE!

  • Guest

    ya, f the gregorian calender!

  • Haha. Thanks.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Glad the article resonated. I was mostly thinking out loud, and giving myself a pep talk, but it seems like many musicians deal with this same concern.

    If you find the “3 easy steps for balance,” holler! And I’m glad to hear you’re finding a way to make music, have a family, volunteer, and more without giving any one of those things up.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the article. And too bad you couldn’t get your old studio setup going again. Do you like your new process better anyway? Also, what kind of gear are you looking to unload?

    @ChrisRobley

    • Roger Bourne

      Hi Chris, I just put the stuff in storage last week so can’t give you the model numbers off my head but can find out if you’re interested. Basically comprises two large floor standing B and W speakers, Yamaha sound processor, JVC equaliser, Sony valve amplifier, various video recorders,(Sony, JVC, Hitachi,)
      Two JVC digital processing units, Various microphones (20?) Sony 6 track stereo mixer mains/battery, 6 track stereo mixer JVC mains only. I used to record a lot of the live shows we did when I was a performer. so much of it needed to be portable.

      • Cool. I think I’ve got what I need, but figured I’d ask in case anyone else on here was interested.

        @ChrisRobley

        • Roger Bourne

          Thanks, Chris, that was good of you–anyone else interested?

  • Absolutely. Always a wrench to be thrown in the gears. Thanks for reading!

    @ChrisRobley