The Suck Factor

The Suck Factor

I was talking to an artist I met the other day & was intrigued that he was not only getting by with his art, but that he was living a pretty good life from it. Most of what he makes sells out pretty fast, and it’s not like he lives in a big city, so I was impressed. Naturally, I had to investigate what made him tick & what separated him from all the starving artists.

I already had learned that he was very good at what he did so I figured that he obviously was born with quite a gift.

well… yes & no…

He definitely had a gift, but it wasn’t as an artist. A least not from the start. His gift had more to do with his ability to plan for what most artists would consider red flags for any artistic pursuit. Sucking.

Where most people would try something once & fail, try again maybe a year or 2 later, failed again, then give up, he didn’t look at things the same way. His art of choice was ceramics, something I tried once or twice and gave up (anyone need an ashtray?). What really surprised me is the story he told me & how he viewed his experience.  It’s not the way most of us approach things or define the experience at all.

Apparently, this artist was far from naturally gifted at ceramics. I guess he started off as a hell of an ashtray sculptor himself, but he came from a physics background & instead of feeling like a failure, he looked at his artistic venture in a more scientific way. If one approach didn’t work, he would take note and try again slowly improving his technique.  Sometimes it would take 10 or 20 tries just to figure out where the issue in the process was. It seemed that in his mind, he already knew he would nail it given enough time. Keep in mind that he wasn’t even thinking yet about selling or even showing his work. He was still getting the process down.

After about 1000 attempts he was prepared to show his work & people bought it up right away. Some things obviously sold better than others. There was also pricing to keep in mind. He didn’t want a $20 piece to devalue his $500 pieces but he knew he needed both to make a good living. He didn’t really have an artistic conflict about one thing selling better than another because he simply enjoyed the process of creating, not necessarily the specific piece. He knew that his art was a job, a job he could love, but a job nonetheless.

This really hit me hard and made me take a good look at my creative beliefs, my work ethic & my definition of failure & success. Was I willing to try something 10 times? 100? 1000 times? until I had mastered my creative art? If I am being honest, I’d have to say no & the reason for that is that I was defining failure as a certain number of times I don’t succeed. Sound familiar?

Remember, there is a huge difference between the art you make and the art you share. Don’t let the art you are making now deter you. If your goal is to be great at something, plan for a lot of sucking & missing the mark. Try not to let it get you down.

Remember that many people have to go to college for 4-8 years before they are prepared to do what they do well. Can you imagine someone judging their architecture skills on what they were about to accomplish & understand after a week of schooling? So why then would we judge ourselves on our art or music before we put in the proper amount of time? From that point of view it sounds a bit silly doesn’t it?

Now once you become a “natural” at one aspect of music, don’t think you weren’t meant to explore another style just because your work is not nearly up to par with the style you excel at. How about making 100 attempts at it before you judge?

I can give you a perfect example for myself in how I will use this new process. I am not great with many soft synths. My strengths would be Ableton’s Operator, Subtractor (reason), and TAL’s Juno 106 clone. Most soft synths I just poke around on the presets, tweak the knobs I understand & then use EQ, Filter & fx to get an interesting sound. If I don’t get the sound I’m looking for, I go back to the familiar. This, I must admit, slows me down & limits my options.

You could argue that less options is a good thing & I would strongly agree, however I believe that too many options mainly becomes a problem if you are not already skilled or familiar with the tools you are using. For example, you can’t have too many words in your vocabulary unless you have no idea what the words mean & how to use them in a conversation.

What I’ll have to do to get better at more synths is put the breaks on making songs & take a week (or a month) on 1 new soft synth until I can consider myself proficient at it. Then I can add it as another option. I predict that doing this process a couple times will make the process go a bit faster each time as I find similarities and common themes among different tools.

What is it that you can apply this to?

What is it that you think you are a failure at?

Do you think you will still be a failure after 100 or more attempts?

Are you willing to let go of instant gratification to allow yourself to improve at whatever pace is necessary?

If the art you make doesn’t satisfy you, pat yourself on the back for the improvements you made since your last attempt & then refocus on perfecting your weaknesses in your next attempt.  When you attempt something new, set aside some time for the “suck factor”. Maybe that’s why they call it suck-cess :-)

Happy music making,



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10 Responses to “The Suck Factor”

  1. October 2nd, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Dan stanley says:

    A’s always very nice and usefull articles and views.

  2. October 3rd, 2011 at 12:56 am

    Doron says:

    Excellent article mate!

    you certainly provide another perspective on the “limit one’s options to enhance creativity” stance.

    Letting go of that instant gratification pull is challenging but necessary to begin to appreciate your art as an art and not just a means to an end. Having said that, I wish I could do it, I find that aspect challenging…

    I recently read a study (cant remember the site) about an experiment between given 2 sets of students the following challenge:
    -group 1 – had the entire year to make one item and would be graded against that.
    -group 2 – had the entire year to make as many items as possible irregardless of quality, only quantity was important.

    the result – group 2’s QUALITY completely destroyed group 1 because the year of experimentation and trial and error proved far more useful than spending a full year making a single item to perfection.

    I guess it works the same with everything in life, keep trying and experimenting, forget about the results and eventually, the results will be awesome.

  3. October 3rd, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Mudra Sudra says:

    Wow, I have been writing electronic for 10 years, and I still suck, my main problem is arrangement, but thanks for giving me hope to go back and fly into that glass window again!

  4. October 4th, 2011 at 3:26 am

    JvT says:

    All this is true and must be kept in mind. Problem is that when you are producing music completely on your own, you often miss the distance to figure out what is good, what works, where the strength or weakness is. The analogy to vocabulary is great!

  5. October 4th, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Khobe says:

    I would add 10,000 times makes you a master! Repetition is the essence of art.

  6. October 5th, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Harris W says:

    very outstanding way to approach weakness as a factor. great article.

  7. December 8th, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    KILLMeDJ says:

    Thanks for the article
    It’s great to know theirs people out there dealing with the same stuff!

  8. January 19th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Looking back, Looking forward | Music Software Training and Ableton Tutorial Videos says:

    […] The Suck Factor […]

  9. September 10th, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    How to be the best in the world at music | Music Software Training and Ableton Tutorial Videos says:

    […] Next, learn how I write songs & the valuable lessons from sucking […]

  10. May 19th, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    In_10z says:

    Fabulous article! I have met quite a few successful artists and I’ve heard bits from just about everything in your article when inquiring how they do it. Experience through repetition and small failures is the key to success along with passion and vision for what you do. Talent will make it easier but you can have all the talent in the world; yet still be lazy and/or not enjoying the things that talent brings. I have a friend with an off-the chart I.Q. but he quit high school and opened a tree-removal business. He’s always smiling, the business does very well, and loves what he does. I know another guy who retired at age 37 from a prestigious position at a successful company to work on an invention. He’s been out of work 5 years spending all his savings working experiment after experiment with a clear vision of his invention and works relentlessly with a smile on his face. I’m confident he will put his invention on the market soon with huge success (pssst: wish I could tell you what it is because it truly is amazing). Anyway, thanks for the extra motivation. I will apply these concepts the next time I’m scratching my head in frustration because my precious mix won’t go loud!

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