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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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