The feeling of being stuck can seem unshakeable. When you’re in a frenzy, looking for inspiration just for the sake of finding something to work with, everything you thought you had within you feels like it’s falling apart. Although this isn’t always comforting to hear, know that every artist has been there — even the artists who seem to be churning out heavy-hitters at incredible quantities.
Historically, NEST HQ has made it a mission to give back to our community of artists and music-lovers alike. We reached out to some of the biggest power players in electronic music and beyond to share their knowledge on what happens when they get caught in a nasty case of writer’s block. Featuring Kill The Noise, Virtual Riot, and more, here are a handful of perspectives designed to help you make the most of your creativity.
Audiofreq – Producer
In my experience, my writer’s block can be boiled down to a handful of problems that I need to overcome. Awareness of where I am at in my blockage can help me get through it, or at least feel a little better about it:
Lacking in ability: Sometimes getting stuck is a matter of just not being able to pull the right sound. The easiest way to fix inability is through knowledge and practice. There’s plenty of youtube tutorials on almost all genres and sounds imaginable. Take some time out, learn and practice!
I honestly believe that learning from the past, and truly understanding previous works is an unbeatable way to grow. Challenge yourself to reverse engineer sounds from your favourite tracks, replicate them and put them in your library to later use: learn from the masters. Don’t be afraid to copy (for the purposes of learning and understanding) because this is literally how we learn and grow as human beings. Dissect, copy, adapt, evolve and grow.
Forcing something where it doesn’t belong: Maybe you want a different emotion from where the track is going or perhaps a vocal or melody just doesn’t want to do what you think it should do. After a time a song gets a life of its own, and you can’t really control it any more, it needs to do what it needs to do. What is the song really trying to say and do? Let it happen, take the risk and finish the song of how its writing itself – you can always change it later, do another version of just write a new song.
Too many ideas in a track: In this day and age, more and more cool music is being produced at an ever-increasing rate. This is great for the listener who has access to an almost unlimited smorgasbord of musical delights of all flavours but it can be extremely distracting for the producer – its too easy to get excited and distracted by the daily delights when looking producing music and comparing an ever increasing list of reference material. Try to keep things simple by way of only putting a few ideas at once. Mastering simplicity and discipline to a handful of ideas in a track is hard, but as the saying goes, less is more.
Not being afraid to move on: You will always have new ideas, sometimes it’s not time for the song to be written yet. It’s okay to put something in the fridge for a month, six months, or six years. Nothing is wasted. In the process of creation, you’re always learning and improving, gathering sounds and techniques and melodies and if they don’t work now, they can be re-used later. Sometimes a session just isn’t there. Don’t be afraid to walk away and start again fresh tomorrow.
Emotional state – Being ready, open, and stable: Some people, particularly writers of the acoustic world and wordsmiths, can craft while extremely intoxicated and sad or angry, but for the producer it’s important to be able to have a level head to operate the complicated machinery that is a DAW – there’s a lot more to making electronic music than angrily clicking buttons on a screen. That’s not to say that one shouldn’t capture extreme emotions or reflections of last weeks inebriation — by all means, do so! But it can be hard to get all deep and technical if you’re too high or drunk or just flat out depressed. Again, don’t be afraid to walk away if the vibe isn’t there in the session. As the old saying goes: sometimes a good rest is best and it’s totally okay to take a break for a day or two, or a month or six months. A healthy mind means healthy art.
Getting fresh perspective: It can help to work with people who do things completely different from you, who approach music in a different way. Co-writers or lyricists who come from different backgrounds and like different things. As a sub-point for this, it can help your own work to have a solid concept in mind before you work on the track: what is this track trying to do, where is it going to go? If you can answer these questions and explain the track to another person from a different scene/discipline, then it will help solidify what you’ve gotta do to move forward.
David Spekter – Songwriter
Writer’s block is incredibly common and there are similarly innumerable ways to overcome it. First off, I think it’s important to note and recognize that creativity comes often in waves. By that, I mean as a writer or producer you will inevitably have periods of high productivity and periods of low productivity – understanding this helps. When you’re in the middle of writer’s block, it’s important not to panic; another wave of creativity is always coming, but it will happen on its own accord. Acknowledging that inspiration will inevitably strike you again is important to finding it.
Input. As a writer/producer, you are what you eat, so to speak. This means you have to experience art and life in great diversity. Whenever I get stuck, I often go to a live show, a movie, a museum, watch something on YouTube, listen to other music, literally anything to keep my mind active but not focused on the problem at hand. I’ve found inevitably my brain is working in the background to solve the problem and when I sit back down, the answer is (sometimes) more clear.
Collaboration is your friend. Having someone else’s perspective is everything. Sometimes if I’m starved for ideas, I’ll reach for a production start from a friend, or a loop from Splice. Something that challenges my way of thinking simply because I didn’t make it myself. Or inviting a friend into a project to help finish it – it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes what you’re doing just needs a fresh set of ears.
You have to know when to quit. Of course I don’t mean quitting altogether, rather being aware that not every day is going to be an amazing day. Take the pressure off yourself. The best songwriters in the world, and by this, I mean those who have arguably the largest volume of radio play, sales history, volume of cuts (artists taking songs), only have about a one to five percent success ratio. Only one to five percent of their songs are, by reasonable definition, ‘very good.’ We’re all mostly writing mediocre stuff with the occasional strike of gold. Some days, some weeks (for some people, even months), you may simply have to say “I’m not going to get it today” AND THAT’S OKAY. In my experience, once you take away the nagging voice that says “I have to get something,” you will actually get something.
Lastly, go to sleep. There is a prevalent mindset amongst struggling creatives that “It’s always grind time” (or whatever aphorism you want to put in its place). I’m guilty of it, glorifying sleepless nights in pursuit of work. By ‘go to sleep,’ what I really mean is take care of yourself: eat good food, hang out with your friends, (do actually go to sleep), call your parents. Applying endless hours at the problem, while sometimes valuable, isn’t how creativity works. We aren’t factory workers, it’s not “How many songs can I make per hour?” One good song can change your life, but it could take years to get. So with that in mind, like any long-distance race, pace yourself.
You’ll notice a lot of these are as much proactive as they are reactive. If you want to be writing every day, without persistently running into a drought, it’s important to develop habits that serve to stave off writer’s block rather than only combat it when it appears.
Kill The Noise – Producer
One of the ways I’ve been staying motivated lately is finding people outside of my immediate creative zone doing interesting stuff and see what their process is all about. Sometimes it’s more about the philosophy behind making things that reminds me of the reasons why I’ve decided to choose this path in life. Sometimes that is what I need, a reminder. There are other times, direct musical/artistic inspiration is the thing that gets wheels turning, but for me personally, I think more often it’s the underlying purpose that needs to be re-evaluated. I think it just comes back to being proud of your work. I think that is the thing that brings about the most happiness doing what you love. I think being proud is an expectation that you can set that is realistic and can be achieved by being a thoughtful, consistent hard worker.
There are a lot of other types of goals that get in the way of being proud of your work that aren’t essential to happiness, like money, fame, and that sounds really cliché, I know! Those are by-products of being good at what you do and they are never guaranteed. Once you get fixated on the by-products, it breeds entitlement, which breeds a whole bunch of other unsavory traits like jealousy and frustration. I think happiness (for me) is just simply about purpose, and if you can find the right kinda fuel to work off of, you can be happy and inspired because it relies on only one thing: being proud of yourself, and also being proud of the people you work with. This kind of mentality once it begins to take hold starts to effect the kind of people you want to be around both at work and in your personal life.
Lately, Mat [Zo] and I have been sharing a lot of videos we find with each other, everything from visual art stuff to philosophy, for example. Sometimes the most seemingly random things have these nuggets of wisdom in there that’s relevant to our ongoing debates about what “good” music is all about. In the process, it fashions our sensibilities and ultimately the creative decisions we make. All of this stuff carries over back and forth with our solo stuff. This video, for example, is a guy building a deck:
If you listen to what he’s saying and think of the deck figuratively, you might get an idea of the kinda stuff we talk about. Like for us, we would think about this from the perspective of a musician instead of a carpenter. However, the goal is the same. We’re trying to build something, that’s obvious, but the less obvious and more important bit is enjoying the work itself. The goal is to develop an ethos that helps us do better, more efficient work. Developing the attitude is the part that sets the rest in motion.
I would say one thing we might ALL have in common as people who make things, is that we all do get stuck sometimes. The thing that differs immensely from my experience is how it affects people’s attitude towards their work and their inspiration when they get held up in the process. I think slowly over the course of many years you begin to TRULY realize that the obstacles in your way are an essential part of your development as a master craftsman or woman.
If there is any advice I would give people, it’s that consistent, honest work pays off — sometimes it just takes time to realize why. Every time you show up and do the work, regardless of what by-products you have to show for it at the end of the day, you are adding in a very real way to the pride you have in your work and the meaning it has to you. You will realize you haven’t wasted a moment if you’ve been putting in honest effort… the only thing you have to do in that case is make a deal with yourself that you are going to commit to it. That’s the challenge right there, that is the obstacle: it isn’t writers block, it isn’t any of the other things that get in your way along the path, it’s just you, and the deal you make with yourself about how you are going to live your life and treat the people around you. Everything else in my opinion will play out according to that question: “Am I gonna show up?”
Krimer – Producer
Writer’s block is something every producer comes across at one point or another. Everyone deals with it differently. There’s no secret recipe, but I wish there was. You can’t force creativity; it’s supposed to come naturally, but once you get stuck in writer’s block, you start overthinking and forcing your creativity and just make it worse. What I found to be useful for me is to write drums. All kind of drums and writing chords too.
The main thing is to get out of your comfort zone — it’s now time to experiment with new stuff you wouldn’t normally do. When there’s absolutely nothing coming out, I get up and leave the studio. Play video games, go outside, watch a movie. Try to think about what you were doing last time you had inspiration, it might be the key to get out of your writer’s block. Don’t panic and keep it cool. It’s really frustrating but everyone gets out of it and then they laugh about it. Remember what helped you get through it last time because I can guarantee you it will happen again. Music is about having fun, don’t take it too seriously.
Oolacile – Producer
Writer’s block is a very complex subject. There’s a lot to say about why and how it happens, what it does to the artist, and also how to combat it.
Writer’s block can be caused by a variety of things. It’s brought on different ways for different people, for me at times it has been my health and not feeling well and just wanting to try and relax and feel better. At times, it has been feeling stuck at a wall with writing, such as hating everything I do and thus causing me to feel unmotivated and give up trying. But when an artist isn’t writing (at least for me, personally) it feels like time is being wasted and you’re throwing your life away. For me, I feel if I’m not constantly making art, then I’m not spending my time well. Which isn’t necessarily true; there are many other things that can be done to improve your art and state of mind to create art outside of just straight creating.
The biggest, most common way and most straightforward way I combat writer’s block is by literally forcing myself to write something, even if it’s just for an hour. Sometimes an idea will come up when forcing myself that will spark my inspiration and help me finish or flesh out an idea. But more often than not when I’m really in a block and not feeling inspired, this doesn’t really work that well with actually completing any ideas that are worthwhile.
Another good way, which is pretty much by pure luck, is hearing something that someone else did that is unusual and exciting and that inspires me to try and do something similar, whether it’s expanding on their idea, or coming up with something bizarre in my own way, but maybe still in the same vein. This one applies mostly to hear new sounds — sometimes I’ll hear a dubstep producer make a crazy transforming metallic oneshot, or sometimes I’ll hear a neurofunk producer making some super out-there twisty reese bass and it’ll inspire me to want to open up Massive or Serum or whatever and start turning knobs.
One pretty unusual way that inspires me to write is by watching movies or anime or playing video games. When I binge-watch a lot of an anime series or play a lot of a video game, I really get in the mindset of whatever it is I was playing/watching, it really affects my psyche. This can really affect the way in which I write in terms of the kind of sounds I make, or the melodies in the intro and of course which vocal samples I’m using. It’s always great to write tunes around a cheeky vocal sample you saw in a movie or a game or a show.
Personally what I find as the most effective way to combat writer’s block (which is also the only method that costs money, or at least costs morality if you’re an internet pirate, haha) is getting new software or hardware. Whether it’s buying a new VST plugin that allows me to create new sounds I couldn’t before or at least changes my approach to sound designing. Or whether its a MIDI keyboard that allows me to play in melodies and basslines, or a new drum machine that gets me programming drum patterns in a different way with a different feel. Whenever I get a new piece of equipment I’m always excited to push it to its max potential and don’t stop playing around with it till I fully have complete control with it, and within the time of me mastering my equipment, many new tunes and ideas will have come out of them.
Virtual Riot – Producer
The classic way to overcome a creative block, especially with sound design, is to limit yourself to maybe just one plugin or go online and look for a new plugin you have never used before. There are even many free plugins that can get you great results if used correctly and a new program can spark new ideas.
Something I’ve recently discovered is that the location you’re producing in can change what you write a lot. Put your speakers around your bed and get comfy or put them outside and sit down on your balcony or maybe even try producing in a standing position with your laptop on a counter or tall table. Especially the last one is super fun when you’re working with something like the NI Maschine or Ableton Push, you focus a lot less on technical aspects and a lot more on the vibe as you move around a lot more while making beats or loops.
And last but not least, if I’m out of ideas what helps me the most personally is just listening to a lot of new music, preferably not in the genre of what I am trying to write. Bringing inspiration from other genres into what you’re producing will make you produce tracks that are a lot more unique, in my opinion.