How do you know when you’re finished with a song?

Whether you’re in the writing or recording process, the tools available to musicians today can open up new worlds of possibility. But with the seemingly limitless options can come a kind of completion anxiety where you’re terrified to commit to something actually being DONE.

Do you endlessly tinker and tweak? Do you find yourself laying down 25 vocal takes and saying “I’ll decide later?” Do you do alternate mixes so that you’ve got the acoustic version, the lush version, the dance version, and can’t tell which one to include on the album? Are you searching for some sonic Holy Grail?

As artists, we quickly come to understand that the art we make will rarely be as beautiful, as important, as haunting, as huge as the initial idea that spurred the creation. We don’t want to be driven crazy on some mad quest, chasing every last lyric, every texture, every phrase into a black hole from which the song will never return. But neither do we want to be mere craftsman, so detached from our creative work that every song seems driven more by technique than passion. How do you know when something is “good enough?” Remember how long it took Axl to finish ‘Chinese Democracy’? In that case, “good enough” probably would have been far preferable to perfection.

Here are a few ways I’ve found to help me deal with completion anxiety:

1) Be prolific. Always having a handful of half-completed songs sitting around helps me never feel too much pressure to get one done quick. I’m not stressed about getting any particular song perfect from the get-go. This way I can work on a section, phrase, or lyric for whichever tune I’m feeling called to at the moment. Also, by the time you actually start recording, you’ll have more tunes than you need and can pick your favorite ones from the bunch.

2) Go into a studio. I realize this is cost prohibitive for some and creatively restrictive for others. But for me, it’s always seemed to work. I can be fairly quick and efficient in a studio if I’ve done sufficient preparation and thought out some of the production ideas in advance. Also, the fact that I’m spending money to be there keeps things focused. The other benefit to this approach, time-wise, is that you’ll probably be asking your whole band (or session players) to set aside a block of days in their calendars. Bang out the music in a week, two weeks, whatever. But save yourself from the insanity of doing a day here, a day there, spread out over a whole year.

3) Set parameters before pressing record. Have a clear vision, not a vague sense of endless horizons. Make up arbitrary rules to guide the process like “I’m only going to let 4 instruments play on each song.” “This album will have no backing vocals.” “Each song on this album can either have strings or horns, not both.” “Everything except vocals must be played live by the same musicians.” This will keep you from getting carried away. You can always change your mind if you really NEED to add that extra special bagpipe overdub for the 3rd chorus.

4) Consider the recording as the beginning of your next promotion cycle. I know this sounds a little… strategic. But don’t be so worried about purity. You’re going to have just as much fun or frustration recording your album either way. But thinking of the album as something that eventually must be released into the world will also focus your efforts around the recording. it must be tracked by June. It must be mixed by this August. Mastered by September. Artwork done by September. Back from duplication by this December. Promo materials prepped by January. Reviews start pouring in by March to coincide with the start of our national tour. Etc. The recording begins this process and your commitment to a promotion strategy will drive you towards the album’s completion.

5) Listen to the opinions of those who understand you and your music. You might be embarrassed by a sloppy guitar solo and want smooth it out. Someone you respect might say “Hell no! Don’t change a thing. That take is raw and visceral and amazing. Leave it be!” If you’re being your own harshest critic, enlist an outside ear. Maybe they’ll tell you that your work here should be done. It’s good enough.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on when to leave well-enough alone and how you stay focused and efficient in the creative process without sacrificing inspiration. Feel free to leave your comments below.

-Chris R. at CD Baby