How to Stay Productive as a Music Composer

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Music composer productivity tips

The first step toward being productive as a music composer is creating an environment and a mindset that keeps you focused and motivated

This post originally appeared on DIY Music Biz. Reposted with permission.

As a music composer, musician, or artist today, you’re equipped with everything needed for creating music: Pro Tools (or whatever DAW), tons of plug-ins, instruments, MIDI controllers, records, laptops, apps, time, etc. Heck, there’s even video tutorials that show you how to use what you have.

With all this high-end technology and “Johnny-on-the-spot” training at our finger tips, how do you avoid information overload? How can you stay productive, achieve your music career goals, and actually get some work done?

In my opinion, it all starts with preparation and lots of discipline. Here’s how I stay productive – use it, modify it, take it with a grain of salt… Do whatever you like except ignore it!

1. A Nice Hot Beverage: Tea

This is my drug of choice. For many a music composer, it’s coffee, alcohol, comfort food, or maybe even some sort of recreational drug(s). With me, it’s tea, and I drink several cups throughout my sessions.

I like tea because It doesn’t get me all hopped up or make me feel lethargic. Tea balances and relaxes me and overall, helps set the mood. I’m not sure if this all in my head, but it sure does the trick. My grandmother rattled on for years about the health benefits tea offers, she was all about herbal beverages and what not. I won’t go into that here – unless you’re interested of course…

2. Clean Work Environment (Workstation)

I’ve always found it hard to create when my music workspace was a mess. I think this stems back to my childhood. I never got over the “me, my, and mine” phase. “Greg this house is MESS!” … “Em, uh, my room is clean.” Even in relationships, I’m the same way. The whole place could be a mess, but my workspace, gaming area, and other areas where I create are clean.

The same goes for my computer’s desktop: if it’s cluttered, I wont be getting any work done.

3. No Internet Connection

First off, I love the Internet – I don’t know what I’d do without it. Right now, roughly 95% of my business is conducted via the interwebs. All the negotiating, contracts, file delivery and payment processing, all of that happens online.

When it comes to creating music, it’s a different story: the Internet becomes my worst enemy. Instead of working as a music composer, I could easily spend hours checking emails, studying analytics on my websites, doing research, and all sorts of unnecessary business work. It’s madness, so the only way for me to be productive is to stay clear of the Internet when I’m trying to work.

4. Comfortable Clothing

Really? Yea, gotta dress appropriately for my environment and I have to be comfortable at the same time. If I’m working from home, it’s pjs, and if I’m heading off to a recording studio, it’s jeans (or khakis), a short sleeved shirt, and Chuck Taylors. I’m very simple.

I’ve tried the whole business look, it doesn’t work for me. In fact, it’s hard for me to connect with music industry professionals who wear business suits and ties. I don’t know what it is, just feels like I’m conversing with a facade.

I expect this attire at a record label, law firm, etc., but c’mon, you don’t need to go out in the field or recording studio like that. Just my opinion: short rant over.

5. Mind Mapping, Plans, Ideas, and Goals

I’m a firm believer in goal setting and, I don’t mean just writing them down, I mean breaking the goal(s) down systematically.

Anyone can voice or write down a goal, but without the proper layout/plan of action, nothing gets done. I normally start out with sticky notes, one idea per note, and onto my computer monitor it goes (around the edges). Once my monitor gets cluttered (usually eight sticky notes or so), I take the notes one by one, and start building my mind map. One idea per note, one note per map. Once the mind mapping is complete, I take action, one section at a time until the project or idea is complete, and then I move onto the next one.

6. Setting Deadlines

I thought about adding this under “Goal Setting,” but decided not to because it needs special attention.

Studies show that people without deadlines get the least amount of work done vs. people who do. Where is study? I have no idea, just sounds cool to say. Truth is most people are procrastinators and they generally don’t get anything done unless there’s a deadline attached to it. I’m one of these people and it’s the reason why I give myself 30 minutes to complete a track. It’s not because I pride myself in it or think it’s better to push tracks quickly. It’s because it keeps me disciplined and I know if I give myself 5 hours I wont actually start working until an hour or two before the deadline.

That’s three or four hours wasted! When a company gives me a project, I always short the deadline. Give me two weeks, I’ll send the project back in 10 days, one week, four days, etc. I chart everything on my spreadsheet with an earlier deadline. I’ve been me for damn near 30 years and, I know how I operate best.

Not to mention, it’s a lot easier to commit 30 minutes vs. “X” amount of hours. Call it a mind hack, self manipulation, a kick starter, whatever – it works.

When I’m done with my 30 minute idea dumps, I’m full of creative juices as well as more music and ideas to pull from when push comes to shove and a project is due.

What are some things you do to stay organized and productive?

Music workspace image via ShutterStock.com.

Greg Savage is an entrepreneur from California who makes a living producing music and sound designing for various companies without the use of a record label or manager. He started DIY Music Biz because he wanted to create a reliable resource for musicians, producers, composers, and artists that would be useful regardless of their success or skill level. Topics covered on DIY Music Biz include: Marketing Music, Music Licensing, Sound Design, Gear Reviews, Personal Experiences, Income Generation, Case Studies, and much more.

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29 thoughts on “How to Stay Productive as a Music Composer

  1. WMAJ!

    thanks for taking time out of your busy day to read and comment, means a lot. I’m glad I could be a bit of inspiration to you.

    I’m a fellow procrastinator, it’s hard to overcome at times. I find doing small things really helps me get over the hump. Even if it’s non work related, just to kick start you.

    By the way, love your slogan!

  2. I just wanted to say thanks for sharing these tips. In a way, it has opened me up to entirely new ways of operating, especially your advice about the internet, since that is where I spend about 99 percent of my time it feels like. I have also been fighting a lifelong battle with my inner procrastinator, so I can appreciate the value and sense of accomplishment that comes from not only setting deadlines, but also beating them!

  3. I think everybody has his own way of creating music. I create my music not when I am sitting down in comfortable clothing or in a quiet room. These I do in the second faze when I want to work on arrangements and recordings.
    So How do I create it?
    I create almost hundred percent of my music when walking in streets or in shopping malls. Pretty strange isn’t it ?

  4. Hi John,

    I relate with everything on your list. Especially 1,3 and 4
    #1 I remember having a chair that didn’t adjust and everytime I turned my armrest hit the workstation, frustrating. Couldn’t move back because, well, then I’d be too far from the midi controller $100 down the drain

    #3 I too find that my dog can become an issue. The cell phone I walk around with that thing on vibrate, I can’t stand a ringing phone.

    #4 Yes sir…. You’re right about this for sure.

  5. HERE IS MY LIST
    1) Having a comfortable seat so your butt is not “always on my mind”.
    2) Ergonomic positions for everything so that carpal tunnel doesn’t cramp your style.
    3) Get the dog, the phone, and other distractions under control.
    4) Record everything from the start…. you might have a valuable loss.
    5) When in pain… give it a break.
    6) Never publish your final cut untill you have listened to it many times (including in your sleep).

  6. What happens if at the thirty minute cutoff you continue to have ideas for the track? It seems like it would be a waste to dump them because of a time restriction.

    1. Bear Grizz,

      File open new, lay down the direction/idea and come back to it later. Sometimes the ‘new direction’ turns into a completely different track altogether. That time restriction isn’t the end all be all, its just a way for me to start working.

      Good question btw

  7. Everything you listed is EXACTLY what I do in my everyday routine, even with the tea. One thing I’d like to add is that I light candles and incense in my studio. For some reason a great aroma helps me relax to stay very creative and productive. Thanks for sharing this, it’s refreshing to hear a fellow composer stay creative in these methods!

    1. Hi Matthew!

      Hmmm candles & incense, haven’t tried that yet. I did use lava lamps at 1 point. I might have to go find some cinnamon flavored candles, love that smell. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks Greg for sharing your work flow habits for staying productive.

    I’ll add a few of mine:

    – I’m right with ya on tea: stay hydrated! I stick with water and wait till the very end of the work day/night for a cocktail or hot bath. I also stay away from grains (bread and pasta etc) because they make me feel lethargic and drowsy which leads to grabbing a cup of joe which leads to the undesirable effect of being hopped up and jittery.

    – I use my phone’s voice memo function to record ideas while driving in my car. More ideas come to me in the car than almost anywhere else and they’ll leave my head as soon as I answer a call or step out of the car. I’ll also use it in the studio when a lick or vocal idea comes to mind but I’ve got to complete the tracking of something else.

    – Take your project out of your studio and set it up in a fresh environment for a day or two. I have a basement studio and sometimes need an expansive view (a window out onto the world) to “think big”. I was hitting a wall mixing He Must Be In Love by Leslie Brown – a slow gospel blues. I packed my laptop, hard drive etc into an overnight bag and got a hotel room downtown with a view of the city and the mountains – i completed the vocal edits and mix in 2 days. Yes, that can get expensive, but some tunes are worth it. Try staying in a spare room at a friends house, take a drive into the dessert, etc… Change your environment from time to time.

    All the best Greg and thanks for all your work with DIY Music Biz

    1. Ben,

      It’s funny you mention using your phone as a recording device for ideas. I recently started using my phone for the same thing. For a while I was carrying around a handheld similar to an H1 zoom, now I just use the phone. Voice transcriptions are very accurate on some of them as well.

      I agree with the change of environment. I love going out of town with what I call my “backpack setup”, the lady doesn’t like it to much, but i get a lot of work done..

      Thanks for the kind words and support my friend 🙂

  9. I heartily endorse rule #3. Keeping my main music/video editor cut off from the internet not only protects it from malware but from even greater dangers like Facebook and cute cat pictures. If I need/want to get on the web, I have to get up and go into another room. Often, it’s just less trouble to keep working.

  10. Hey Tim,

    thanks for sharing your story. What EQ(s) are you working with (hope you don’t mind me asking). What made you go back to a 4 track? Was it for simplicity? I ask because I keep a few pieces of vintage gear in my studio for that reason – Simplicity, get the job done!

    – Greg Savage

  11. Yep. You gotta have a plan. I just completed my first session on Sunday in my new studio.
    I have an entire room to myself. What a luxury!
    I went in there knowing I must complete four tracks with the stipulation they had to sound
    great. Once I got the EQ right everything happened so good. This was one song, two vocals
    and two guitars.
    Plenty of coffee.
    BTW I have taken a step back and recorded with a Tascam four track cassette recorder I found on
    ebay for two hundred bucks. Awesome.

  12. Even though I can’t agree with everything, what does make sense for me is this… Do what works for you…there’s no absolutes in creativity… only what helps you presonally. That’s what I get, and that’s what I can agree with from this.

  13. Pertaining to number two – a clean workstation:
    New York Times on 9/19/2013 reports a study ( a real one unlike Mr. Savage’s ‘cool to say’ remark) at the University of Minnesota where people who work in messy or cluttered environments produce more creative results. People who work in neat environments? They eat healthier foods.

    Also, missing from this list is that an artist needs a regular schedule. Carve a block of time out of the day in which to write. This is a suggested method of creative writing which is easily applied to any artistic endeavor.

    1. Hi Mike,

      First, I had to go read that case study(love case studies), thanks for mentioning it. I’ve worked in studios and been in environments that were messy/cluttered and it doesn’t inspire me. I find myself cleaning up before doing anything. Then again, everyone is different and everyone’s definition of “messy” isn’t the same.

      Second, you’re right about “blocking time”. I normally do this during while breaking down my goals. I should have outlined that, thanks for bringing this to our attention – it’s powerful

      Last, thanks for reading and leaving a comment, means a lot to me.

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