After good response from a comment I left on Reddit I decided to write up the method I use to keep myself productive even when I’m not feeling super creative.
Two caveats about how this may or may not work for you:
This is a solution I use when making music on my own in a DAW setting. This may not work as effectively for a band that writes songs together live. But who knows, read it over and you may find something useful.
This is for the kind of person who listens to their unfinished songs and ideas over and over again. If you don’t mull over unfinished songs, and you just leave them in the dust, then this probably won’t help you much. But read it over, and you may find that doing that can help you generate more usable material.
I listen to my unfinished music over and over again. I save the scraps to Dropbox and I stream them as I drive to and from work. I’ve done this for years, but it’s only recently that I realized that most of that listening is quite wasteful. I listen, I think of things that need to be fixed, changed, expanded on, and then the next song comes up, and I forget all those details. Then I do the same for each successive track. Worst of all, I listen to these WIPs so often, I risk getting tired of the songs. So when I load up the session in my DAW one day, I can’t remember what I wanted to do with it, and I’m sick of hearing it! A perfectly good song, wasted.
So, the solution is pretty simple: Make that listening time more useful by taking notes.
More importantly, keep those notes organized and easy to access. So for this write up, I’m going to demonstrate how I use Trello to organize notes about WIP songs.
Trello is “the free, flexible, and visual way to organize anything with anyone.” Trello has a lot of features you won’t need for this process, but the truth is, any note taking tool will work just fine. I use Trello for other things also, like planning song/album releases, organizing promo materials and contact info all in one place. Really, you just need something that is easy to use, and easily accessible. Evernote, Google Keep, Apple Notes, a pad of paper, whatever works best for you, as long as you can get to it whenever you need it.
I won’t go into the details of how to get started with Trello, but you can find that here. You can definitely get the idea of how to use this process without knowing Trello’s inner workings.
The first thing I do is make a Work In Progress list, and I make a separate card for each song/idea I have.
Each time I listen to a song, I pull up it’s card, and I use the checklist feature to add notes.
Notes can be as detailed or as abstract as you want. Sometimes it’s just about the general mood or where the song needs to go, and other times it’s about specific things at specific times. The most important thing is that when you look back on the note, you’ll know what it actually means. These notes are meant to make things easier, so be kind to your future self and don’t be too ambiguous.
So, let’s look a couple days down the road, and now you’re at the point where you feel like you need to work on your music, but you’re not in a very creative place. This is when the notes are most valuable. Without the notes, you open up your DAW, you push a few faders, and then you walk away. But since you have notes on things you wanted to change, you can get valuable work done, even though you have no real desire to create at the moment. Yes, you’ll have to ignore the notes like “reinvent the entire genre in the bridge” but you can definitely knock out the “toms need to be panned” note or the “double length of Chorus 2” note. As you do it, check them off and get them out of the way. The last thing you want is notes too messy to be useful.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, doing these remedial tasks can get your brain into the right mode and you’ll find your creative spark once again. If you start coming up with ideas, you know you can run with them, because that stuff that “needed” to get done is still in your notes and won’t be forgotten, and you can do it later, after you’ve got this new brilliant idea down. Always run with the creative ideas, and leave the simple things for the notes. And if a simple thing comes up while you’re in that creative flow, make a note about it, and get it out of the way.
So, you make those changes, render out a new mix, and it’s ready to be listened to and scrutinized again, adding new notes as needed. This is especially helpful for those of us who have a hard time considering a song finished. If you can’t come up with any more meaningful notes, it’s probably time to kick that song out the door into the world. (Or deem it unworthy and let it go.)
Hopefully this can be useful for you. If you have some ideas to improve it, or perhaps you do it in a different way, leave a comment and share your ideas.