Bit by Bit: Advice for Aspiring Artists

- Posted March 20th, 2015 by

Welcome, friends, to a new article segment I’ve been putting together. Unlike most of my work on The ChipWIN Blog and my writings with Nerdfit, I wanted to address some things that I’ve seen plaguing many new and promising artists. I do this in the hope that those new folks will realize that their problems, much like many new artists’ problems, are not only common but solvable.  If you’re new, relatively new, or just having issues with thinking that you’ll ever make a great track, join me for a monthly pick-me-up in Bit by Bit!

Bit By Bit copy"Glenn I know this is more of an intro article, but you need to have
an image in there somewhere."
Is that so?  Well then, loophole achieved. On with the content.

Over my time being involved with and even making chip music, there have been a lot of things I have seen or picked up on from the community that seem to get lost in translation on those who are starting out. The urge to offer advice and encouragement has always been there, but the time often felt wrong or not my place. All of that changed one night during this most recent MAGFest.

The hotel suite I stayed in was very much a chiptune social revolving door for the majority of the weekend; a place where floor space to even sit and chat was often a rare commodity. Some of the people heading down to Chipspace were reflecting on the positives and negatives of their performances and/or recent songs, and comparing notes with each other. Off to the side, a newer person seemed to give a half-hearted shrug and commented about how “they don’t really know if they like their own music or not.” In the upbeat and positive mood I was in, I did what I could to pry out of him the problem. Reluctantly, he admitted, “The thing is I can see myself improving, but it’s just not what I want to sound like. I feel like I’m not progressing fast enough, and I’m not hearing my own, unique sound yet.”

This hit home all too easily. Pandastar, in his genius, coined this experience “chipsecurity,” a cute phrase for chiptune-related insecurity. I explained to the disheartened artist the following things that, honestly, I wish I had been told when I started:

1) When you’re starting out, it isn’t the pace in which you or others see yourself improving at, but the fact that you are actively trying to progress.

There are a lot of musicians and gamers alike who have this preconceived notion that “practice means gradual, constant improvement.”  I’m here to tell you that said notion is (mostly) bullshit.

Practice and learning are absolutely vital and, without question, the only way you’re going to improve. However, just because you are learning and practicing doesn’t mean you will automatically improve in specific increments each and every time. That’s far from the truth. There will be times where you will have a steady period of improvement. There will be times where you can’t figure out why everything sounds like garbage. And there will be times where it seems like you’ve done nothing but taken baby steps towards your goal, and suddenly a few months (or more, like in my case – almost two years) will pass since the last noticeable improvement.

This happens. This happens often. The only thing you can do to combat that is to keep making music. Every day. Even if it’s for ten minutes and the only thing you’ve managed to create sounds like a dying 56k modem and a computer speaker’s eternal suffering. The key here is that you’re making creativity a daily routine and a habit.  Once you’re able to keep that routine and habit, you will have more opportunities to learn and, eventually, improve.

So at this point, you picked up LSDJ three months ago, watched some tutorials on youtube, and read the manual (okay, you probably didn’t read the manual, but you fucking should immediately after this article. You’ll thank me later.) By now you’ve made something sound closer to what you want! But, surprise, your first few songs sound… flat. Generic. Boring. Mediocre at best. You look to people who inspired you and their music. It’s full of life, and atmosphere, and emotion… and you wonder how they manage to all sound so different if you sound so bland?

The answer is simple: they kept learning. They experimented, perhaps compared notes with other interested artists, or they tried emulating sounds they heard from other places until something stuck (or was discovered by accident.) However, when does one discover their own unique sound? Surely, there’s a point where it strikes you like a bolt of electricity, right? Actually, this is where my second point comes into play.

2) If you lack experience in creating music, you often won’t recognize your own sound and idiosyncrasies. This is partially because you have yet to develop any. It is far more likely that people will often point out your composing characteristics and habits to you.

As a new artist, you have yet to properly learn how to handle different parts of your craft. You have, by the nature of learning, no uniqueness to said craft without constant repetition and exercises in creation. However, more importantly, as a new artist you owe it to yourself to learn music theory. In that, create exercises in what you learn to expand on your newly learned knowledge, and see what you can do from there.

Of course, for those of you that feel the anxious pressure of producing stuff along the way, go for it! Never let yourself be held back just because you haven’t learned about something yet, but do think about going back and seeing where you could have improved something you’ve completed upon learning something new.

Hell, if you’re looking for ways to learn good examples, work on some covers.  You’ll already be instantly more appreciated by the community than those no-talent hacks that throw a midi file into GSXCC and upload them to youtube for millions of hits, then resell their underwhelming converted MIDI files for money on Bandcamp or iTunes.  That, friends, is dishonest and also known as theft of intellectual property.  We’ll get to moral ethics and music in the not-immediate future.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn where your best resources for educating yourself are. For myself, I lucked out and was able to learn from example by checking out the forums of my tracker of choice. I was exposed to examples from people like Rushjet1, Weird Bananas, Hertzdevil, Heosphoros, Interrobang Pie (hey, I see you judging that name already.  Shut up.  Like them or not, that Brony has talent I refuse to ignore;) Jayster, and RainWarrior. Later on I discovered CoatlessCarl and Danooct1, and… got incredibly down on myself since I feared I would never be on their level of amazing. But that’s a story for another time.

To end this article, Nathan Reed aka D.B.O.Y.D. (Don’t Blink Or You’ll Die) pointed out the following quote by Ira Glass to me, which is very much along the same lines of thought:

With that all done and said, happy creating, friends!  If you’d like to ask me about a different issue or problem that you may be having with your work, feel free to message me on Facebook or email me at SendToGlenn (at) ChiptunesWIN (dot) com.

Oh, and that story for another time about me getting incredibly down on myself?  I guess you can say I’ll tell you…  in a bit.

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