Musicians have no shortage of big plans. From 2 hour concept albums to mind blowing stage productions that would put Cirque du Soleil to shame, we often have an unrivaled ability to dream up things we’d like to accomplish…someday…as soon as we finish that press kit and play that Monday night show at the Viper Room. We’re going to blow the mind of each and every one of those 25 people who we begged to come out. But we need to be ready, so it’s cool that we’ve been rehearsing for 8 months to perfect our 30 minute set. Of course we’re on our 3rd bass player now… those first 2 guys just had a bad attitude, you know, wanting to be paid and everything. Anyway, we’ll be ready in a couple more months, probably. Although we might need a new in-ear monitor rig, but once we get that dealt with, for sure we’ll be ready… Does this sound familiar?
I’m sure you know or have known people who just can’t finish things. Let’s look at a more specific example. I won’t mention names, but I’ve got a particular lead singer in my mind. Who it is doesn’t really matter, you just have to know that he is real and he was once the lead vocalist of one of the top veteran metal bands. The band was and still is a household name in the world of metal. This singer was part of the band’s humble beginnings appearing on their debut album. His contributions were considerable but for various reasons that are not important now, he parted ways with the group very early on. That was 30 years ago, and after exiting that band, his artistic output quickly sank to nothing. Despite this, his former band’s subsequent accomplishments and rise to fame was enough to keep his name coming up in conversation, generally with speculations of “what if” he hadn’t left so early. Fast forward to today and we find that for the past 8 years (at least), he has been working steadily on his current band’s debut album. Debut album. This band has been around for at least 10 years. Let that sink in. There is plenty of material for a full length album, modest interest from labels and promoters, interest from fans, and yet the album is never quiet done. It always needs one more mixing session or re-do, one more mastering engineer, or one more new song to really finish it off. Over the years, there have been countless news headlines about how the album is almost done and coming out soon. These headlines repeat themselves every 6 to 12 months, with the album’s name changing every couple years. When pressed on the album’s lack of…a deadline or perhaps existence, our mystery lead singer will say things like, “we’ll we’re taking our time to make sure it’s done right”, or “I don’t want to cut corners and cheat the fans”. “Doing it for the fans” always makes a good fallback position. The bottom line here is that the album has been 6 months away from being finished since it was started. I’m not singling out one person here (or lead singers in general), but that story makes a great example. We have all known people like this. They have songs, but they’re never quite ready to record. Or they have songs recorded but the mix is never finished. Maybe they’re students, and they got to the last class but got to their final exam and then backed out. So close, but never finished. Why does this happen?
Simply put, this kind of “anti-finishing” behavior comes from the paralyzing fear of final judgment and rejection. If we never finish, we can always think that success and achievement is just around the corner. For artistic types like musicians, the fear of our work being deemed unworthy runs deep. We are defined by what we create. When our work is judged to be poor or underwhelming we take it as a direct reflection of who we are. What if those haters were right? What if those moments of self-doubt were more justified than we had hoped? For many, the possibility of facing that judgment is simply too much. Too much of a risk. Better to live in a world with the possibility of success than one with the certainty of failure. That is of course, a very short sighted view. These fears lead to crippling self-sabotage, mental paralysis and (let’s cut to the chase here) the pissing away of opportunity and sometimes even entire lives. In the case of this unnamed singer, his lack of creative output over the decades has made his current situation even worse. He’s comparing his new work to the work he did as a young man 30 years ago. He is no doubt a very different person with very different abilities now than he was and had then. In a genre that puts so much emphasis on technical skill and physical appearance, this situation doubles down on the pressure that he’ll put on himself. It’s no excuse though. The only way out of this situation is to finish what you start.
The lessons and knowledge we learn from our failures is priceless. As the late IBM CEO Thomas Watson Sr. put it, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your rate of failure”. Rising up from the ashes of previous failures is how we build quality and precision into our future work. There is a clarity of vision and perspective that can only be achieved through hindsight. Get that song recorded. Get that album out. Send the press-kit to the promoter. Do your best, but then let it go and let it be judged. Your audience will tell you what works and what doesn’t. From that reaction and from your own feelings 6 months down the road, you will learn and grow. As artists our work evolves, gaining quality and precision as we move forward. The process can only work if we can finish things and then move on to the next.
There is of course a fine line between never having the confidence to finish something and rolling something out before you’ve done your fair share of work. Personally, I tend to err on the side of overconfidence. In retrospect, my first solo album (no longer available), was not a quality product. The production was dubious at best, the songwriting was self-indulgent (did “Victory Foretold” really need five verses?) and even the cover was phoned in. However, I could only fully realize the seriousness of those issues after I released it and saw and heard the reaction of the audience. I learned from the experience, and it pushed me to work much harder on my 2nd album, which I’m still happy with to this day.
Although I’ve used one particular person as an example, I hope I’ve made it clear that this problem is one that affects a huge number of people, musicians and artists of various types in particular. Some of us never start, but so many more start but never finish. Imagine looking back on your life after having spent decades making excuses as to why something wasn’t finished, only to wonder where the time went and how it was possible for you to accomplish so little. Somewhere along the line you got stuck and couldn’t finish what you started. Let’s not fall into this trap. Just get it done.
– Max Carlisle