Failure is a scary word. Terrifying. Frightening. Paralyzing. But literally every successful musician, artist, songwriter and producer who’s kicking ass will tell you this—the faster you fail, the faster you succeed. In fact, when you step back from your bruised ego, squashed heart and/or tortured soul, you’ll find that “failure” is actually “feedback.” The wise rocker knows this bit of music industry tips, and does her best to fail fast. It’s a necessary step on the road to kicking ass faster.
By Jeff Leisawitz
1. Write Songs that are a Bitch to Play
You’re already a master at that E minor chord, that four on the floor quasi-disco beat, and/or that “easily in my range” vocal melody. Good for you. Keep doing what you’ve always done and it’ll get old fast. Come on. You’re a f*ing artist. Artists push forward into bold new territory. Write something that’s tough to play. Not impossible. Just a few steps outside of your comfort zone.
Maybe it’s a new style. Maybe it’s something that requires more dexterity than your fingers know. Maybe it’s a ton of subtle changes in the song structure. It’s your call. But you should have to stretch to make it work.
I once wrote a bass line (in my head) that was seriously killer. Problem was, I couldn’t actually play it. I practiced until my fingers bled, but I still couldn’t quite get it. So I visualized Geddy Lee of Rush knocking it out of the park. Then I cranked up the Pro Tools and gave it another shot. Perfect take. F* yeah!
2. Rehearse Before Everybody Knows the Songs
Hey, it’s great when everybody shows up to practice and is ready to rock (although that rarely happens). Instead of freaking out on the bass player when he misses the changes, use the time with the band to fail together.
Why is this sage advice? Because your songs can almost always get better. F*ing up together is actually a creative process. You just need to keep an ear out for cool possibilities that haven’t been explored yet. No song is cast in stone until it’s streaming around the world.
3. Challenge Your Vision
Part of being an artist is having a vision. Without one you’re definitely going to suck. So you need to know who you are, what you’re about, who your audience is, etc. But here’s the thing—it’s easy to get sucked into your own head. And as much as we all want to believe we are Kings of the Universe, a little nudge from qualified creatives from the outside world is generally a good idea.
Connect with photographers, designers, producers, remixers and other artists who you respect. Make stuff that’s way out of bounds of your usual thing. Even if it doesn’t make the final cut you’re bound to get something useful out of it.
4. Learn Something that Hurts Your Brain
I know, I know. It’s more fun when your brain feels good. But long gone are the days when musicians just had to play music. If you wanna elevate your action beyond a gig at your neighbor bar you’re gonna need to know a few other things—social media, graphic design, music marketing, production, etc.
What’s one of the best ways to fail fast? Learn something new. You’ll fail every five minutes while you learn to properly resize your images for Facebook, how to set up your social media buffer, or how to edit video. What’s the good news? You need to know all this stuff anyway. And although this directly contradicts my advice above, sometimes you don’t need to pay a pro or rely on a flaky friend to keep rockin’ forward.
5. Write 10 Hooks (and Trash Nine)
In the ‘90s I was a music journalist in Seattle at KNDD 107.7, the radio station that broke grunge music to the world. I interviewed Butch Vig from Garbage (who also produced a few little bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins). He taught me a really big lesson.
“Songwriters often stop with their first idea,” Butch said over rum and cokes in some hotel bar. “With Garbage we record every idea, every track, every lyric that’s half decent. Then we trash 90% of it in the mix.”
I’ve transferred this to my songwriting students. Once they’re completely solid with the music on the chorus of a new song, I ask them to write 10 different lyrics and melodies for the same part. They bitch. They moan. And the ones who are Not F*ing Around actually do it.
Guess what. The best hook is almost never the first one. In fact, it’s generally the fifth or sixth one. And it’s generally worlds better than the others.
JEFF LEISAWITZ is an award-winning musician-producer, a critically acclaimed author and internationally distributed filmmaker. As the guy behind Electron Love Theory, he fused interviews with Seattle’s WTO demonstrators into electronic music, garnering more than a quarter million downloads worldwide. He has released five studio albums and has landed more than 5,000 music placements in film, TV and multimedia, including clients like HBO, MTV, Discovery, Microsoft, NBC. Leisawitz is an adjunct faculty member at Pacific Lutheran University––teaching college students to rock. (Seriously.) Not F*ing Around— the No Bullsh*t Guide for Getting Your Creative Dreams Off the Ground is his first book. Download a free eBook here: jeffleisawitz.com/nfa.