Learning to Finish
“Real artists ship” is a quote attributed to Steve Jobs. All artists create, but not all artists finish, and even fewer publish. “Real artists ship” means having a completed product, done and ready to go out the door. Mastering shipping in this context is incredibly important, regardless of skill level. It teaches you not only consistency and follow-through, but how to know when something is done. I can attest that a song never feels perfect; it’s only done when you decide it is. How much time you spend polishing a track is up to you, but it’s important to have an end goal in sight. Otherwise you can whittle away time without improving your track much, if at all.
I used to be terrible at this, particularly when it came to mixing. My song would be 99% done, but I kept working. I’d imagine the perfect sound in my head, convince myself that it was only a few knob turns away, and be invariably disappointed when that wasn’t the case. It was a viscous cycle. I’d check mixes in my car, rush back to make the “one adjustment” needed, only to find that my issues were still there. This kind of nonsense is why one of my earlier tracks reached version 17.
The problem with waiting for a perfect song or mix is that it doesn’t exist. It really doesn’t. Sometimes, after all the techniques and experiences you’ve had, this is the best you can do right now, and that’s okay. Banging your head against the wall over one song won’t make you a better producer, but finishing songs will.
So, how do you know when a song is finished? After all, you don’t want to make the opposite mistake and release tracks below your skill level. You want whatever you put out there to be the best representation of what you can do at the time, but that’s the rub. Isn’t there always more to work on? How do you find the balance? To answer this, I’ll use a Jordan Peterson quote: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” Before releasing something, I ask myself: is this as good or better than my latest release? If the answer is no, I either work on the track more, or give it up. If the song is as good or better, I release it.
If it’s only as good as your latest release and you want it to improve it, be specific. Otherwise you run the risk of the viscous cycle. For example, “My kicks are too weak; let me try to fix that,” or “My bass guitars sound lifeless.” The important part is having an achievable standard, meeting it, and sharing your art.
Peterson, Jordan B, and Norman Doidge. 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos. Vintage Canada, 2018.