Most people suffer from some kind of “creative block” at some point. Getting stuck somewhere in the process of making work, or “over-working” things. Ultimately unable to produce or finish work to a standard that you are happy to share.
Over the last 4 years since I’ve been working on my music again I’ve had a number of periods where I’ve become frustrated and found it hard to finish work. I tend to “over-work” tracks until they just lose their way and become overly complex or “muddy”. I end up not getting any music out into the world and don’t really move forward. They are frustrating times and I can also then become anxious about being “stuck” which isn’t a good place to work from.
This has led me to spend some time looking at my working process and trying out different ideas to help with these problems. There are a lot of articles online about getting unstuck and a simple Google search will turn up 100s of ideas that may work for you.
I even have a deck of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards which can be fun to use sometimes.
How I work changes all the time but what follows are my current techniques for remaining unstuck. While these ideas apply to my music creation, they could easily be applied to any creative process.
1. Work on lots of tracks simultaneously.
I work on multiple tracks at the same time that all move forward together. I usually have 10-15 tracks in various stages of development. I used to only work on one or two but I have learnt that it is wise to have a lot of options to switch between or to leave for a while.
2. Switch tracks as soon as it’s not working.
As soon as anything becomes “difficult” I stop working on it and switch to another track. By difficult I don’t just mean hard to do but frustrating or destructive in some way – you’ve tried lots of options but it’s just not working. Switching allows me to constantly have “fresh” ears and so I don’t end up spending hours changing between kick drum sounds or slowly destroying arrangements.
Usually when I come back to a track again another day with fresh ears I can hear straight away what needs changing.
3. If it’s really not working leave it for a longer period.
If a track is just not working or I just can’t get the mix or arrangement to work then I put it into my sleep folder for a while – “zzz”. I have 34 tracks in there at the moment. Periodically I browse through this folder looking for ideas and sometimes pull tracks out again to work on them some more. It’s a great way to get difficult tracks off my mind for a while without losing the ideas in them.
4. Have low pressure “creative” only periods.
I enjoy generating new ideas for tracks and experimenting. I don’t tend to have many issues with that initial part of the process. It’s the later arranging, producing, finishing part that tends to be harder for me. So I will periodically spend some time just generating new ideas for tracks, this is a pressure free time where I am not trying to finish, just start. I’m not precious here, I throw a lot of stuff in the sleep folder and just generate lots of solid ideas.
5. Do completely different things often.
I’ve also found it’s important to get my mind away from the music creating process completely quite often. I still have the day job which takes me away from music for large parts of most days but I also spend time writing for this blog, making cover art from photos, and going on lots of walks!
6. Finish quickly and ship
One of my main problems was over-working. Tracks can always be “better” and so stopping work on them is hard. To combat this I’ve started to set myself ambitious goals for completing work. Last year I managed to get 20 new tracks up on SoundCloud and this year I’m hoping to finish more.
These are my current techniques to keep the creative block away and they work resonably well – at the moment! Things get hard for most people at some point so don’t despair, take a break, try something like the above list, or an Oblique Strategy – things will improve again. Good luck.