Kim Lajoie's blog

Don’t make good music. Make amazing music.

by Kim Lajoie on March 21, 2011

Anyone can get sidetracked.

Sometimes it happens quite naturally. The distraction is easier, faster, more gratifying than putting in the hours of work to get a result.

When I speak to a musician or composer or producer, I can usually tell how connected they are to their work by how much they talk about gear.

The good ones don’t talk about gear.

If you make music, gear is a distraction. If you’re thinking about gear, you’re not thinking about music. Of course gear is necessary, but gear is like any technology – it’s working best when it stays out of the way.

When I meet some people who make music, the first thing they talk about is gear. It excites them. It challenges them. It gets their juices flowing. I’m sure it’s the same in other fields – there are probably plenty of photographers who endlessly compare lenses or lust after other gear but never think about taking breathtaking photographs. Or filmmakers who are more concerned with having the right equipment than telling a compelling story. Personally, I find a lot of gear boring. They’re tools. That’s all. Gear is important if you want to make good music.

But gear isn’t important if you want to make amazing music.

What’s important if you want to make amazing music?

Creativity. Hopefully this should be self-explanatory. You need the ability to generate new ideas. You need to be able to synthesise and combine ideas. It’s not important that what you create is necessarily different to everything else – the important part here is the act itself of creating. Without creativity, you’ll be stuck teaching high school kids and playing in cover bands.

Work Ethic. This is more important than most people realise. Work ethic is what gives you the ability to Get Things Done. I usually think of it as a combination of motivation, commitment and discipline. Motivation is the willingness to do the work. Commitment is the belief and courage that form the promise to do the work. Discipline is the stamina and mental strength to follow through on what you promised – to stick to the plan. Without work ethic, you’ll be known as that person who has high hopes but never achieves anything.

Resonance. This is the real magic. This is the ability to tell a story that connects with people. At one end of the scale, this could be as simple as making upbeat happy infectious songs that make people dance and feel good. At the other end of the scale, this can be music (and a persona) that taps into a collective subconscious – whether it be to tell us what we’re thinking but not saying, to expose our fears or to fill us with wonder and amazement. Without resonance, your music won’t move your listeners to support you and fall in love with you.

Some people are naturally good at one or two of these things. There are people who are extremely creative but are stuck in their own world and never get anything done. There are people who are high achievers but are more comfortable following the rules than writing their own. There are people who know how to make their audience laugh or cry but shrugged off any expectation of artistic integrity long ago.

Think about your own strengths and weaknesses in terms of creativity, work ethic and resonance. If you’re strong in some areas but weak in others, you might consider partnering with someone who has complimentary abilities. For example, a person with strong work ethic could partner with a person with song creativity and resonance. Or, a person with strong creativity and work ethic could partner with someone with strong resonance.

Also consider that your weaknesses aren’t fixed. You can become good at something that you were previously not very good at. Even though it might appear that some people are naturally good in some areas, they’re actually skills – you’re not stuck the way you are. Of course, like all skills, it takes a lot of hard work (years!). The improvements may seem unmeasurable at worst and incremental at best. But it can be done. Just remember – they’re not innate superpowers – they’re skills. And like all skills, they can be learned and acquired and developed.

No-one’s holding you back.

-Kim.

24 thoughts on “Don’t make good music. Make amazing music.

  1. Daniel Lawther says:

    “Without work ethic, you’ll be known as that person who has high hopes but never achieves anything.”

    Reading that hurt a bit, simply because it fits me so well. I have hundreds of half-finished songs sitting in Ableton, a 1/3 finished computer role-playing game I’m writing, a drumkit I never learned to play, and so on and so forth.

    I really need to start setting some deadlines or something, force myself to finish stuff. (It’s not only music-related things, I have similar issues with my Uni studies.)

    Very insightful post, thanks.

  2. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Daniel Lawther
    Try not to beat yourself up for it. Work ethic, like most things, is a set of skills that require practice. This means that:
    1) Undeveloped work ethic is not something you’re stuck with. Even though it might seem that some people are good at it and some aren’t, anyone can get get better at it.
    2) It’ll take time to develop it. Don’t expect to just ‘acquire’ it by just ‘turning it on’. It’s like learning a musical instrument. It’ll take practice. Expect small, incremental steps. Expect setbacks. Go in for the long haul.

    -Kim.

  3. Kronsteen says:

    I would put it differently. There are people who are interested in making music, and people interested in sculpting sound.

    The former write lyrics, make melodies and play instruments.

    The latter care about getting the amount of click in the kick drum right, not letting reverb from the bass obscure the vocals, and making sure the guitar solo cuts through the backing without having to be overpoweringly loud.

    Of course, most musicians/producers/engineers/artists are at least a little bit of both, but I think it’s rare for one person to be both a good music-maker and a good sound-sculptor.

    This of course is why studios have engineers, why most bedroom demos made by one person aren’t great, and why so many great sounding songs mean absolutely nothing.

  4. Mark says:

    That’s so true about gear. When people first start out in music production learning about and acquiring gear is important for a couple years but it seems like some people get stuck in that mode. I say never put a gear purchase on a “Todo List” or you’ll train yourself to think buying things is getting work done when in fact it’s the opposite.

  5. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Kronsteen
    True. This post doesn’t apply to people who are purely engineers who work under the direction of a producer or artist.

    It really is for the producers and artists who are responsible for bringing amazing music into this world.

    @Mark
    Buying gear is important, but I agree that it isn’t Getting Things Done. Buying a toolkit might be the first step in building a boat, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

    -Kim.

  6. Tom Mrak says:

    Great article.

    I’ve gotten caught up on the geek tech aspects because I make electronic music and was curious about how the sounds were shaped, and forgot about what was important.

    I have a friend, who up until recently was just using Ableton and NI Massive on an iBook G4.

    I usually don’t plug people, but man, it’s insane. http://www.olegmokhov.com

    @kim Unfortunately, we live in an instant gratification culture obsessed with youth, making the long haul not easy to do because few people will support it.

    I’m 29 right now; feel silly for pursuing my interest in electronic music. It doesn’t require that you be 19 and look like Zac Efron.

  7. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Tom Mrak
    When you get caught up in the tech geek aspects, what do you do to pull yourself out of it and focus on the music?

    Your friend has some cool music. It just goes to show – it’s the witch, not the wand. 😉

    Don’t feel silly for pursuing your interest in electronic music – it doesn’t matter what age are you. As long as the passion is there, you’ll find a way to make it work.

    -Kim.

  8. Tom Mrak says:

    @Kim Lajoie

    I step away from it, talk to people, listen to music I enjoy.

    Oleg’s really taught me how to simplify. I sometimes make things too complicated and ruin a mix, or have a hard time finishing because I want something to sound “just right”.

    There are people who think that electronic music is dead, and that the music industry is dead.

    Far from it.

    If you saw Tron Legacy you heard it in the form of Daft Punk. Whether you like her or not, a huge part of Lady Gaga’s sound stems from this “dying” culture.

    Given that the Ultra Music Festival sold out very quickly. and David Guetta, a French house DJ/producer has sold millions of albums, gained international acclaim in his early 40s, and worked with many famous modern groups, including the Black Eyed Peas, I am more inclined to believe reality.

    I dare say that electronic music is doing just fine, and as it is a reflection of a time as much as your average pop song; it will be with us for awhile, and crossover with many genres.

    You can’t just be marginal, you have to eat music for breakfast like Oleg and do something to connect with you audience, even if that something is wear outrageous outfits like Lady Gaga, or lightup mouse heads like Deadmau5.

    Barnes and Noble didn’t suddenly go out of business because Amazon opened. They had to change the way they did things by expanding on who they were as a company. The store in my hometown was once pretty small, and has only grown in size since Amazon became huge.

    The same thing goes for creative types as well.

    Would love to hear what people think.

  9. Nox says:

    @ tom as far as I’m concerned I don’t care what others opinions are regarding electronic music, I will listen to whatever is out there and make the type of music I love to make regardless.

    I do believe the best music comes from oneself without trying to fit into the current zeitgeist of what is modern. All music that is good will be timeless and have a place for someone regardless of the actual year, and to me this just means that music is an individual thing, not a collective thing when it comes down to it. No matter how much we hear about others opinions and the magazines opinions we always put on the music we want to and this should apply to music making as well. The music HAS to be true to yourself and you have to make it for yourself and if you are happy with it and can listen to it and feel you accomplished what you wanted then it will have a place in someones head – even if it’s just you! But most likely there will be others who can enjoy it too.

  10. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Tom Mrak
    Thanks Tom, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts here. I agree with you about electronic music not dying. *90s* electronic music might have died, but electronic music *generally* has far from died – it’s evolved and grown just like any other genre.

    It’s interesting that you mention David Guetta achieving success in his 40s. I’ve had a few of my artists express concerns about being too old for success (they’re all younger than Mr Guetta). I always tell them that it doesn’t matter. People can find success at any age – it’s only a matter of how much they want it.

    @Nox
    You make a good point – it’s important to be true to yourself and make music that you love. If you don’t love your own music, it will show through and others will perceive it as being half-baked or lifeless.

    -Kim.

  11. Tom Mrak says:

    Thanks guys.

    He was already known in EDM circles before that, but most EDM isn’t mainstream. But, that could be changing.

    As risky as this all is, I don’t think I could live with myself I were to live to old age having done nothing.

    Being an artist is extremely risky, especially if you’re over the age of 25.

    Another person someone told me about was Junior Vasquez.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junior_Vasquez

    Andrea Boccelli is another.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Boccelli

    I mean, we’ve had Fatboy Slim, Nine Inch Nails which is Industrial, Daft Punk and a few others, but it’s rare.

    When I heard that Deadmau5 sold out a concert in Minneapolis, it made me think. Perhaps this sort of music has more appeal than people think.

  12. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Tom Mrak
    I think electronic music has a huge following, but it’s not usually the ‘Top 40’ crowd. It’s a similar situation to rock music. Rock doesn’t dominate the charts right now, but it’s big enough (like electronic music) to have zillions of subgenres and diehard fans.

    It’s a big world out there. You don’t have to be on TV to be successful. You just have to connect with your own audience.

    -Kim.

  13. Tom Mrak says:

    I totally agree Kim.

    I’m trying to find a way to make http://www.voltagecontrolmusic.com work better.

    I did a pilot of a podcast on electronic music, more about the history and creation of it along with http://www.bluerize.com

    It’s a bit too complex and has some rough spots, but if people want to check it out, just drop me a line @ tedmrak@gmail.com to see where it’s headed, please do.

    I’d like to not only have the site as a place to showcase what I am working on, but provide resources and products for people to purchase, and promote the work of artists and other crazy types i believe in.

    I really need the support right now, but I am not receiving it. I am not sure how to deal with it, so I ask.

    I have been lucky to have come in contact with people who are “crazy” and artsy or entrepreneurial who encourage and support me.

    They understand why people need to pursue what is important to them.

    We only have one life, and knowing that it is possible to die at any time, I’d rather live without regretting that I didn’t do what I was put here to do.

    I have already wasted enough time trying to please other people. I would rather spend my life creating stuff which resonates with others.

    I am aware of the high amount of insecurity that comes with being creative. However, reality proves that most careers are no longer a safe bet, and education isn’t about enrichment any more for a lot people.

    This does not mean I am against traditional careers or education; I think many people do it all for the wrong reasons.

    I lost my job in Feb. and the job market in my area is not very good, and it would take a long time to return to school just to study something I don’t even care about,go into debt for, compete with 22 year olds, and be passed over for that “good job” while competing with many other people who look great on paper.

    Developing a traditional career typically starts when you are young, and the days of having a career with one company and the safety, no longer exist. (At least in America)

    I am an auto-didact anyway, I learn best on my own, and quite rapidly.

    I can bootstrap my way to support myself, and there are people I can talk to who have done it before, but I am having a hard time convincing the people around me that is is something I have to do.

  14. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Tom Mrak
    It sounds a bit like you want to start up a netlabel. Do you intend to promote only music or other media as well?

    -Kim.

  15. Tom Mrak says:

    Well, I hadn’t considered that actually.

    There are lot of tutorials and patch/sample libraries online, but most of them are either too expensive, too technical, or lacking in content or quality.

    I am by no means yet an expert, but there is a lot I had to create or learn on my own, and at the very least I can teach musicians and fans interested in this stuff a few things.

    The idea behind the Electronic Music Program, as the podcast is called is to enrich the lives of creators and listeners by sharing some of the history and creation of music, mostly electronic stuff, but since so much modern music is at some point, electronic, it has a lot of potential. Essentially, it’s a documentary series.

    Secondarily, it’s a marketing tool.

    There is also of course providing music for libraries and performing work on various projects amongst other things which I have not even considered or thought of yet.

  16. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Tom Mrak
    Sounds interesting – let me know how it goes!

    -Kim.

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  20. Kenny says:

    Great blog, I will be reading more often!

    By the way – being “stuck” teaching high school kids is not the greatest analogy for the article!

  21. Kim Lajoie says:

    Why not? I don’t think teaching high school kids is less important than making music. But teaching music is certainly not the same as making it. They’re two different activities (although many people do both).

    -Kim.

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  23. Odin says:

    Great article!

    Personally I perceive myself as very creative, but I’m having trouble with the work ethic part. I decided a while ago that I wouldn’t make any new Cubase project before I had finished a certain track, but I’ve made a dozen new ideas since then. I have this almost uncontrollable urge to try out stuff. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it easily gets in the way of finishing my songs.
    Another problem is my interests are shifting all the time. I can’t commit to any any style or genre. So that even though I want to finish what I started two months ago, I might now want to make a different kind of music. This post motivated me to try a bit harder to finish things.

    Makes me wonder though: how do you know whether you have good resonance or not? And how does one get better at that?

  24. Kim Lajoie says:

    Hi Odin,

    I think it’s very important to develop the discipline to finish what you start. It’s not always important that you ACTUALLY finish what you start, but it’s very important that you can do it when needed.

    Regarding resonance, you can tell by how engaged people are. By the strength of people’s response to your music. Getting better at it? I wish I knew. The easy answer is: Try lots of different things, take note of what resonates most, look for patterns, and do more of that.

    -Kim.

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