Understanding creativity and what makes us creative is a tricky thing. It’s hard to quantify how to be creative, especially to those that aren’t. Often, unless we’re really in tune with ourselves, we have no real idea of how we make things happen. We just sort of…do it.
Every creator is unique and different in the way they express themselves. We all have our own approaches, guidelines and rituals that we explore when we sit down to make something. Recently, after reading Steal Like An Artist, I began to really think about this more deeply and decided to note some strategies that I personally live by when it comes to creating music.
I’ve kept these pretty open so that my other creative friends can find value here. There are likely many more than what you will read here, however, I find this to be a great starting point to build upon later.
If you’re a creator who needs some inspiration, or wants a gentle kick in the ass – I hope this article is exactly that for you. Take what you find useful and leave the rest.
REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF OPTIONS AVAILABLE IN ORDER TO MAXIMIZE CREATIVITY.
Too many options often leads to indecision, and decisions are what ultimately gets us to a finished product. To make it easier on ourselves, we can create limitations. These limitations often force creativity, as you have to find creative ways to do things within the self-imposed box you’ve put yourself in.
Don’t believe me? Ask Dr. Seuss. He wrote one of his most successful books “Green Eggs and Ham” after making a bet with an editor that he couldn’t write a book with 50 unique words or less. He managed to do so in exactly 50 words, and that bet went on to being one of his most successful creations.
I will personally use a few varieties of limitations to my advantage, such as time limits – for example, giving myself a 30 minute time limit to compose a beat.
In other situations, I will limit how many sounds I can utilize in my production session. For example, I may tell myself “OK – we need to make a beat with 3 sounds: drums, bass, one instrument. How do we make it so it sounds full?”.
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN OTHER ART TO FIND INSPIRATION.
BORROW IDEAS WHERE APPLICABLE.
Rick: “Going to museums and looking at great art can help you write better songs. Reading great novels…seeing a great movie…reading poetry…The only way to use the inspiration of other artists is if you submerge yourself in the greatest works of all time.”
The other benefit of familiarizing yourself with the greatest works of all time is that it allows you to develop taste – being able to sense and discern what’s good vs. what’s bad, and more importantly what people like.
I agree with this whole-heartedly. Inspiration is out there for you to discover and lift from different places. In Steal Like an Artist, author Austin Kleon encourages the reader to steal inspiration from their influences – not blatantly rip them off, but take the parts they like and dispose of the rest, and create something entirely new. Even 40 admitted to finding inspiration in Kanye’s 808’s and Heartbreak before making “So Far Gone” with Drake.
Other forms of art can also inspire the creative process. I utilize other mediums a lot when making music – constantly finding inspiration in comic book movie adaptations. I even have a video of myself watching the trailer for VENOM and scoring my own soundtrack to it. Watch below.
MAKE SOMETHING AND THEN TRY TO BREAK IT.
THIS WILL LIKELY INSPIRE NEW AND BETTER IDEAS.
Any artist that has worked directly with me on production knows that I’ll usually start making a beat, and once the foundational elements are there, I’ll try to “break” it.
I’ll change the tempo. I’ll transpose the pitch. I’ll throw an audio effect on the master that shouldn’t be there and just totally mangle it.
Most of the time when I do this – I discover something awesome. This ultimately changes the course of the beat and leads me to creating something better.
Don’t be afraid to do something unorthodox to your creation. Switch things around. Do things that don’t make sense and just see what happens. You’ll often push the creative boundaries to somewhere you never thought you’d go.
In a worst case, assuming you’re using a digital medium, you can always hit undo and revert back to how it was.
LEARN FROM OTHERS AND FIND INSPIRATION IN THE PROCESS.
1 + 1 = 3
That’s not what we were taught in school, but that is the formula when it comes to collaboration.
Something magical happens when multiple people come together to work on a project. Many of today’s hit records feature multiple producers and songwriters contributing to a song, such as “Sicko Mode” by Travis Scott featuring over 30 writers. This is because different skill-sets, perspectives and tastes all add up and take you somewhere you normally wouldn’t go alone.
I always think of my collaborations with DJ XP and SLWJMZ. I’m an engineer, XP is a DJ and SLWJMZ is a musician. All three of us also happen to be producers. When we get together, there are three different perspectives and skill-sets combining together to create something dope, like Staasia Daniels’ single “Nowhere“
Working with others will cause you to learn from others too. People may approach situations differently – and unique perspectives can add to your own knowledge.
Whenever I connect with another producer, I’ll notice they’ll approach problems differently than I normally would. Maybe its an unlikely effect or plugin that they used, or a strategy around placing snares, or how they create melodies. Sometimes their approach may not even make sense, but often I’ll be inspired and take that learning with me into my own production later. Every collaboration I’ve done has somehow made me a better producer.
DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.
OR BE OVERLY-CONCEPTUAL. JUST START AND SEE WHERE YOU END UP. YOU CAN BE MORE SPECIFIC LATER.
I think all artists are hard on themselves. What we do is subjective, and depending on how we feel that day, our art can be the best or worst thing ever. This can be effectively summarized via the graphic below:
Sometimes we have this urge to be very specific with our vision. “The song has to be about this” or “this video must compete with that”. This is not good – in fact, it just mounts the pressure and can lead to paralyzing fear to do anything at all (see: writer’s block).
I believe its far better to be loose with your ideas. When you sit down to create, see it as exploring and try just about everything. Don’t limit yourself – just do whatever comes to you and tighten it up later. I think many people seem to forget that the world doesn’t hear your art until you release it. Chances are you aren’t releasing it the day you’re creating it – so there should be no expectations.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
Work through your creative process bird by bird and don’t let expectations overwhelm or frustrate you. I find the best albums just “come together” organically. Stack music, meditate on it and decide later what makes the album when you have built up a catalogue.
FIND A RHYTHM OR ROUTINE – DAILY IF POSSIBLE.
I make it a point to create regularly – not just because it’s my livelihood but also to keep myself sharp. I compare making beats daily to shooting free throws in the gym. It’s practice for game day.
I often make a joke about this saying I’m preparing for when Jay-Z calls me for a session. I’ve routinely made so many beats that it’s become second nature. Even with Jay in the room I should be able to crank one out simply because I have a point of reference and have done it over and over again. This should give me a significant advantage over another producer who only makes beats when they “feel like it” with no consistency. Put that producer into the same situation and they would likely crumble under the pressure.
Human beings are creatures of habit. Habits make it possible for us to do things without requiring motivation, saving us a lot of mental energy and time. They allow us to run on auto-pilot so to speak. The key is we have to program ourselves to do so with the right habits.
If your goal is to be a successful creator who gets paid for their work, whether its in music, film, art, or writing, make sure your habits support this vision.
“Show me your habits and I’ll show you your future.” – Mark Batterson
“The key to your future is hidden in your daily routine.” – Jim Kwik
MORE IMPORTANTLY, COMMIT TO THEM.
The only way to make progress in anything in life is to make decisions to get there. Decisions propel us from moment to moment, and opportunity to opportunity. Can you imagine what would happen if we never made decisions? We would never leave the house. We wouldn’t eat. We would just rot.
Similarly, with creating, we must make decisions to get us to our end product. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be curious and explore ideas in order to see where you can take them. However, after doing some exploring, it’s important to figure out which direction you are going to pursue and see it through.
For example, a common problem in the music production community is that we have a lot of unfinished beats sitting on our hard drives. Often, these beats go unfinished because we are struggling to make decisions to complete them. We don’t know if we should keep this loop in, or remove this melody, or add a new drum sound. By not committing in either direction, we are stuck. So we decide to shelf it until we feel inspired for another day. This can go on for years at a time.
So how do we make good decisions? This ties into our next point…
ASK GOOD QUESTIONS WHILE CREATING TO HELP YOU MAKE DECISIONS.
Think of questions as creative prompts. You ask a question, and it helps you decide the direction you should go in.
I implement this into my creative routine in every session, asking questions as I go like “what if I did X?” or “how would this sound if I did Y?” Curiosity is often your friend when it comes to creativity.
This can help determine what you are doing stylistically, or help you figure out what you are creating for the end listener. Asking yourself a question like “what type of song am I trying to make?” (love song, trap song, etc.) can help you get somewhere faster. This also ties into the first point – create limitations.
I will admit, however, it does work against another point – don’t think too much or be overly conceptual. There is clearly a happy medium between the two.
I’ve already explored the Power of Asking Good Questions in another blog article so check that out if you want some more ideas on how to implement questions into your creativity.
DON’T CONSUME CONTENT, TAKE BREAKS & REST.
According to studies, the average American checks their phone 80 times per day. Millennials are worse, checking their phones upwards of 150 times per day.
We live in a very over-stimulated world thanks to technology. The smartphone has become an extension of ourselves, allowing us to have access to infinite information and seamlessly connecting us to people around the world at any given moment.
We are constantly being bombarded by input – information, online opinions, stimuli. Before smart phones and the internet, we could easily disconnect (we weren’t connected in the first place). Now, its not so easy.
All of this stimulation has caused us to forget about the importance of solitude. Solitude is the state or situation of being alone. I discovered this after listening to an incredible podcast featuring Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism where he discussed the importance of solitude in our lives.
Why do we need solitude? Multiple reasons – such as:
- It allows our brain to rest
- It allows our body to catch up with our mind
- It prevents burn out
- It jumpstarts the part of the automatic nervous system that calms you down
- It allows us to explore and discover ourselves
- It enhances creativity by freeing up the mind of all distractions in order to focus fully on one thing
This is why breaks and rest periods are so important when it comes to creating. I think of this like going to the gym. Muscles aren’t built in the gym working out, but rather when you are resting and recovering.
The same goes for creation. We need to take creative breaks in order to gather ourselves, our thoughts and ideas in order to make progress in our work. We also need to live our lives in order to find inspiration.
We can take this a step further and consider minimizing outside influence on our work. Many successful producers and artists have acknowledged that not listening to music has helped them create some of their greatest works. Some of your favourite rappers say they don’t listen to rap music to avoid being influenced.
I personally go through listening “seasons” as well. When creating or working on a specific project, I will exclusively listen to my own music. Once the project I’m working on is complete, however, I will go back and listen to all of the music from other artists that I’ve missed out on during that period and catch-up.
These are a few key principles that I live by – and there are likely to be many more that I will add to this list over the years. This is not the end of our journey – but rather the beginning.
Below are some important books that I recommend you check out to continue learning and honing your craft. Some have been mentioned in this article, and each one has helped me personally.
GOOD BOOKS ON CREATING
GOOD BOOKS ON FOCUS & DECISION-MAKING
GOOD BOOKS ON HABITS
GOOD ALL AROUND BOOKS
BEHIND THE SCENES.
HOW THIS POST CAME TOGETHER.
This article started off in my journal as a brainstorm, which I’ve included below (some didn’t make the cut or got amalgamated with another point):
The journal then turned into an Instagram post on my profile which later evolved once again into this blog post you are reading.