How To Work Smarter, Not Just Harder, As A Musician, Songwriter

Juggling life’s responsibilities in conjunction with finding time to work creatively on your music can seem impossible at times, and attempting to do too much in too little time can quickly contribute to burnout. Here we look at how working smarter and more efficiently, instead of just harder, can help make managing your career more sustainable.


Guest post from Berklee Online’s TakeNote

I used to complain there weren’t enough hours in a day. A morning writing appointment would seep into a late afternoon lunch out, followed by a meeting with my publisher, phone calls, emails, some song coaching, an evening gig, then popping into a networking event with a friend. I’d stay up late in the glow of my laptop, refining my social networking platform for the 89th time or tugging on a few lyrics with my guitar. The next day would be the same—except maybe add an hour-long drive in heavy traffic across LA to visit a studio and writing team in the hopes of getting involved in a new project. I thought I was working hard. All my time was, after all, spent in pursuit of the dream of making music for a living. But no matter how much time I devoted to this dream, I always felt behind. There simply wasn’t enough time to do all the things I knew I could be doing to push forward with my career.

Marriage and two children later, I’ve changed my definition of “busy.” With four people’s schedules to maneuver, I feel like the executive officer of a small company. No longer can I schedule meetings on a whim, run out to a studio to hear a mix at my leisure, or work out a song idea in my head while I’m driving or throwing together a quick dinner. I get interrupted … a lot. I work on less sleep. I get pulled in different directions, all of which I care deeply about, but require all of my attention at any given time. And sometimes, I get anxious, feeling as if no person or passion in my life is getting the best I can offer.

Having a desire to create without the time or process to create it can feel like an enormous burden. Those we love feel the burden, too, when our attention is further split between our relationships, a demanding or uninspiring day-job, and other responsibilities of life. So what can a creative do? 

In my situation, the solution was fairly simple: Make a plan and stick to it.  That’s it. This didn’t mean make a plan and wish the plan were different. It meant get real, determine some short and long-term goals I could actually reach with the time, connections, and desires I had, and acknowledge when I reached them. That’s all.  

I am amused by my former self, and the way in which I functioned without a plan. Sure, I made progress towards my goals, but there were too many activities along the way I made time for that weren’t in line with those goals. Did I really need to rehearse with my friend’s band singing backup on that one song while they ran through the whole set list? Did I miss the opportunity to connect with a writer I really wanted to meet and eventually write with because it was easier to just write with those people I already know—even if their skill sets didn’t necessarily complement mine?

 I’ve got five song ideas going at any given time, and when I feel my interest in one waning, I don’t sweat it. I simply switch over to a different song and push it forward a little more.—@berkleeonline instructor Andrea Stolpe CLICK TO TWEET

But how do we make a plan when we’re not quite sure what activities will land us in the ballpark of the people we want to meet and the songs we want to write? We make educated guesses. Touring at the expense of promoting our gigs results in a waste of time. Writing the same song over and over again in our living rooms without playing them for listening ears doesn’t grow our writing style or our fan base. Musicians need to start thinking more like business owners. We need to understand the purpose of the music we create, whose lives we touch by creating it, and how to get it to them. We also need to define what progress looks like along the way. 

How will we know we’re on the right track? Will it be by the quality of the songs we write, by the number of fans we accumulate and keep, by the musicians we enjoy playing with, by the ease with which we can pull off a successful tour, by breaking even or making a profit, or by the sheer enjoyment of the process of writing and recording? Like any good business plan, ours should be born from the distinguishing characteristics of our passion. That includes the life we live with our partners and children, friends, and all our other responsibilities.

I used to write on a whim for four-hour stretches. Now some days I get a half-hour four times a day. But a funny thing has happened. I don’t write and rewrite the same line 18 times anymore. I don’t because I can’t. There isn’t time. I’ve got five song ideas going at any given time, and when I feel my interest in one waning, I don’t sweat it. I simply switch over to a different song and push it forward a little more. My objectivity is fresher now that I haven’t spent hours on a song trying to get it just perfect. I’m okay saying that not every line in my song needs to be a special moment.  Some lines are just lines. And I’m amazed at the realization that my listeners are still engaged. That last push, editing my songs for what I considered personal perfection, required 50 percent of the time with about 2 percent of the gain. Totally not worth it.


Now when I schedule a collaboration, I do so with conscious effort. I pursue writers who can bring something to the collaboration that I can’t get anywhere else. I risk spending three hours in a room with someone I don’t know and who doesn’t know me just to grow my skills and my network. I say no to gigs that don’t ultimately seem to support my goals. Sometimes I find ways to work my personal life into my writing and gigging life, such as performing in a family-friendly environment or with another artist with whom I can share the responsibility of filling the room. I avoid spending excessive time on social media, putting time instead on just a few personal connections that work in line with my goals.

And I never try to make it alone.  I always involve another musician I trust and enjoy in any goal I set, whether it’s booking and promoting a gig, mixing a new demo, or meeting a few new faces at a local gig.

The bottom line is, I never needed more time—I needed time management.  Know thyself. Treat your small company like you would any company with limited time and resources. Don’t apologize for saying no to opportunities that aren’t good for your company. Lock arms with others who support what your company strives to accomplish. Celebrate goals reached, and regularly assess those you haven’t. Shift focus and be ready to quickly abandon a path that is no longer aligned with your goals. 

And the next time you wish you had more time to work on a project, wonder who you can involve to finish it more smoothly or quickly. They might just be the person fate has been nudging you to meet.   

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