Retreat - The noun retreat means a place you can go to be alone, to get away from it all. A spot under a shady tree might be your favorite retreat from the sun, or your bedroom in the basement may serve as a retreat from your siblings.
From time to time I take trips, normally by myself, for two or three days, to focus on nothing but songwriting. I normally take three to four of these trips a year. Of course this isn’t the only time I’m writing songs. I’m constantly writing and working on new songs throughout the year. But I find monotony and routine to be the enemy of creativity. I find that by removing myself from my day to day environment and distractions and going somewhere new for a few days, that it pushes me out of my comfort zone and helps me reach a mental space more conducive to creativity and songwriting.
Sometimes this is as simple as going to a small town away from the city and booking a cheap hotel room in a more inspiring environment. Other times, I go somewhere further and even more awe inspiring. I’ve taken songwriting trips to places as far away as the Bahamas, The Cayman Islands, Mexico and The Dominican Republic.
Of course, budget is a consideration when planning these trips. But since I more than qualify as a professional musician in terms of what I earn as a musician, I can legitimately deduct the cost of these trips from my tax return, which makes them more affordable. I also tend to stay in very affordable places when I travel, like hostels, or by using sites like Airbnb or couchsurfing to find economical or even free places to stay. You'd be surprised just how affordable travel can be if you're resourceful and flexible.
These trips have yielded positive, but mixed results. Some of the trips have been more creative and more fruitful than others, but all of them have led to new songs and new musical ideas that I doubt I would have arrived at had I stayed in my normal, familiar environment.
It’s hard to force creativity and inspiration. In my experience you can’t will yourself to write a great song anymore than you can will yourself to feel hungry. Just getting on a plane or driving in your car and travelling to a different environment isn’t going to automatically produce amazing songs any more than sitting down and trying to force yourself to eat a meal when you've just eaten is going to make you hungry.
However, putting yourself in a new environment, free from the distractions and routine of your normal, day to day life, allows you to look at the world a little differently, free from the rote nature of a life lived habitually. For me, this seems to be the time I feel the most alive and inspired and it tends to lead to periods of increased creativity. This isn’t to say you can’t replicate this feeling, or at least get close to it, when you’re at home, in a familiar environment. It’s just a little harder to do in my experience. Traveling to new places forces you out of your routine and alters your perspective on life, which lends itself to making new creative connections and insights.
Several times I’ve even taken extended trips of a month or longer to places where I’ve lived and worked from while focusing on songwriting. These trips are of course a little harder to plan and it requires dealing with a lot more logistics, but these trips have been particularly inspiring and rewarding, in ways beyond just writing new songs.
One of the challenges with taking two or three day songwriting retreats, is that there is a sense of pressure in trying to write something quickly, which sometimes backfires. Inspiration tends to happen on its own schedule and its own time. It can be encouraged and nurtured, but it can’t really be forced. When you have more time to devote to the process of songwriting, it's easier to allow inspiration to unfold on its own time frame, while you do everything you can to encourage it, including daily periods of songwriting and lyric writing.
In 2014 I decided to experiment by taking an extended trip of several months to the Caribbean to write and play music in the tiny beach town of Cabarete, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Cabarete is small, with a population of roughly 37,000. Although not as known as Punta Cana, on the opposite side of the island, it has a steady stream of tourists and a thousand or so expats, primarily from the US and Canada, who call Cabarete home, year round.
Cabarete, Dominican Republic
Cabarete has what’s known as one of the top five beaches in the world for kite boarding. There’s a great beach to surf a few miles north. There’s one street, about a mile long that runs through the center of town, with the beach on one side and a few dozen restaurants, bars and pool halls that line the other. Other than hanging out at the beach, surfing, swimming and drinking mojitos, there’s not much to do in Cabarete, which is what made it the perfect place to spend several months playing and writing music. It’s hard to not be productive when there’s so few distractions.
I had taken a shorter trip to Cabarete the year before and met Brian, the owner of a bar and restaurant called "Lazy Dog" that hosts musicians six days a week. Upon my return to Cabarete, when Brian learned I would be staying for several months, he offered me a job playing music three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I jumped at the offer. My main goal in spending time in Cabarete, was to focus on music and running my internet business from a more inspiring and picturesque environment. So the chance to gig three times a week, for cash money, playing both originals and covers was exactly what I was looking for.
I wrote a lot of songs during my time in Cabarete. On one day off, I woke up, particularly inspired and wrote three songs in about two hours. The song below, Naked And Alone, was one of them. The story behind the song is that I had developed a bit of a crush on one of the servers that worked in one of the bars I performed at, who we’ll call Carolina, which is what I call her in the song but isn’t actually her real name.
I ended up playing this song at almost every gig I played during my trip after I wrote it and it became a song that I would get frequent requests for. By the time I left Cabarete, people were singing along with this song when I played it at shows. For better or worse, nothing ever transpired between "Carolina" and I, but it doesn't matter because I have this song and will have it forever.
The melancholic sense of longing that permeates this track might seem like a weird juxtaposition to the sun-drenched Caribbean beach town where I wrote it, but music is funny like that. It's not just our location that dictates the mood of songs we write. It's the music we listen to, the experiences we have and a host of other things that end up informing the music we write.
I don’t try to write Latin or Caribbean influenced songs just because I happen to be in the Caribbean. My goal with travelling isn’t necessarily to be inspired by the local music, although I sometimes am. More often than not though, I simply find that when I’m feeling inspired and living life to the fullest, I’m more likely to be inspired to write music that I feel strongly connected to. For me, travel has been a great way to facilitate this sense of inspiration.
Here it is, Naked And Alone, a song inspired by my time living on the beach in Cabarete and a Caribbean server named "Carolina" and our unrequited love. I recorded this song last year in LA at my producer Gary Gray's home studio. I sang the vocals and played all the guitars.
I often get asked for advice on how to select a music producer to work with when recording music with the goal of licensing it, and in general what to look for in a producer. Over the years I’ve worked with a half dozen or so different music producers and I’ve had varying degrees of success with each of them.
The first producer I worked with who produced tracks I ended up successfully licensing was in 2002, in Chicago. This particular producer, who was referred to me through a mutual friend, was really talented, but he was also bat shit crazy and very difficult to work with. He also ended up being fairly expensive. He charged 40 dollars an hour at the time out his home, which isn’t too bad in the grand scheme of things, but he spent a lot of time on each track I recorded and it ended up adding up very fast. When I told him about my licensing success for the songs he produced, he informed me he was doubling his hourly rate, if I chose to continue working with him. I politely declined.
After that I found another producer through an ad I placed on Craigslist. This particular producer, Mike, had a home studio in his house where we worked on a number of tracks together. I explained my licensing success with Mike and told him the story about my previous producer and the falling out we had. Mike ended up graciously agreeing to produce my tracks for free in exchange for a percentage of any money I made. This arrangement worked great for a few years. Mike and I worked on a number of tracks together and accumulated several dozen placements over the next few years. Mike relocated from Chicago in 2007 and we gradually lost touch with each other. This was before tools like Facebook and Skype made it so easy to stay in touch.
Over the next few years I produced music either on my own or in one of several home studios that I used at the time. Although I still signed and licensed a good amount of music over the next few years, my success ratio diminished significantly compared to the previous five years. I struggled to maintain the same quantity and quality of output that I had previously and I also became extremely busy with other things as I launched my website, How To License Your Music.com, and grew the website to something that could comfortably sustain me. This took several years of very concentrated effort to realize and as my focus shifted more and more to helping other artists launch their own licensing careers, my own music was put somewhat on the backburner for a few years.
I don’t remember the exact year I connected with my current producer, Gary Gray. I believe it was in 2012. Gary initially took one of my courses and we hit it off in terms of our outlook about the business and our work ethic. We initially began collaborating by creating a course together about music production as it relates to music licensing. Then, motivated by the interest in our first course, we created another course about music mastering. A couple years ago I had Gary work on a few tracks I had already started but wasn't happy with, and over the last year or so Gary has become my full time producer.
Gary already had an impressive list of credits in both the licensing industry and beyond when we connected. He’s worked with and is friends with some of the greats like Quincy Jones and Barry Gordy. He’s had music placed in a wide range of projects including feature films, television and commercials and he's done live sound for some of the biggest acts around. [See his credits here]
Check out this recent video Gary made to learn more about what he’s been up to this year:
Working with Gary was a no-brainer. I sensed a growing interest in the topic of music production when we came together and knew I needed to bring someone on my team whose knowledge of music production surpasses my own. We’ve collaborated a lot since then and have scored a numbers of deals together since, including having a track placed in movie theaters around the USA as a part of licensing deal with AMC Theaters, getting music picked up by an Emmy award winning show on A&E and signing music with a half dozen or so different libraries and publishers this year. I also recently signed with an amazing agency that focuses on ads and commercials, an area I’ve been focusing more on this year. I’m confident this deal wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Gary’s help and his amazing production skills.
[Check out one of our latest tracks below]
When it comes to selecting a producer, here’s what I look for:
1) Someone who has licensing credits – If you want to license your music, then pick a producer who has a proven track record of producing tracks that have been licensed. Makes sense right? Production is really important when it comes to licensing your tracks and if you’re working with an outside producer you want to make sure they have the chops to produce your music for tv and films.
2) Someone who actually produces, not just mixes and masters – Producing music in a way that will work for licensing entails much more than just mixing and mastering a song so it sounds “good”. A real producer will also help you craft your songs in a way that make your tracks sound “current” and “modern”. A good producer will help you bring your songs and arrangements to life, as opposed to just hitting record and then mixing and mastering your tracks. I’ve worked with both types of producers and believe me, there’s a huge difference. A producer actually produces as opposed to just engineering. I give Gary full artistic control of my tracks in terms of production and what he thinks works best. We sometimes have differences, and of course he’ll make changes if I insist and sometimes I do have him make changes. But for the most part, I trust his judgement and nine out of ten times the results are better when I let him take the production reins.
3) Someone who is easy to work with – Like I said at the beginning of this post, my first producer was amazing as a producer and had a great sensibility for what worked production wise. But he was so crazy and unpredictable as a person that it made working with him a pain in the ass. It wasn’t fun and in the end he turned out to be an even bigger asshole than I initially thought. You’ll most likely be spending a lot of time interacting with the producer you pick, so make sure that you pick someone you resonate with, personality wise. It will make a big difference when it comes to the final product.
4) Someone who is flexible – It’s also important to work with someone who is flexible. Gary has been super cool about compensating him for his work and he’s always been reasonable about money. I won’t go into the terms of our arrangement, since that’s between the two of us, but it’s more than fair and works for both of us. This is in stark contrast to my first producer who tried to double his rate when he learned of my initial success. I’m interested in developing long term relationships with people and I always look for people who are going to be easy to work with and fair. Gary and I are currently finishing a new, ten track CD of all new songs that I’ve written this year that Gary has arranged and produced. I’m ecstatic about how the new tracks are sounding and the feedback we’ve been getting is amazing.
Here’s a new song we just finished a few days ago called “Shooting Stars”. Let Gary and I know what you think in the comments!
For more information about Gary Gray and to get in touch, visit http://learnaudioengineering.net/
See all of our courses here: http://www.howtolicenseyourmusic.com/online-store.php
Today, a fun topic….
A new study by the University of Westminster that included a survey of more than 2,200 musicians concluded that musicians are three times more likely than the general population to experience depression and severe anxiety. 71% of respondents indicated they had experienced panic attacks or severe anxiety and 65% indicated they had experienced episodes of depression. This study really hit home with me and in today’s post I’m going to explore why there’s such a strong correlation between being a musician and suffering from depression and anxiety.
“There are days, hours, weeks, aye, and months, in which everything looks black, when I am tormented by the thought that I am forsaken, that no one cares for me. …I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything!” - Tchaikovsky
Throughout time, countless musicians and artists have suffered from depression and mental illness. Artists and writers as diverse as Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Janis Joplin, Woody Allen, William Blake, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Elliot Smith, Daniel Johnston, Gustav Mahler, Beyonce, Robin Williams, David Foster Wallace, TS Elliot, William Faulkner, Henry James, John Keats, Georgia O Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Michelangelo, Edgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollack, Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few, have all suffered from forms of depression and mental illness. I’m sure there are many more I’m leaving out. But as you can see, it’s a long list.
My Own Experience
I’ve never talked about this publicly and I rarely even talk about this issue with family or friends, but I’ve experienced two different episodes in my life where I’ve experienced severe anxiety for prolonged periods of times. One of these episodes happened right after I went to college when I was 19 and I experienced a similar, although much shorter lived period about three years ago. I’ve had a few full blown panic attacks at times, and other times have experienced anxiety severe enough to momentarily disrupt my life and set me back a bit. Apart from these isolated experiences, I would consider myself a more or less normal person, who has led a full and active life.
I’ve never taken medication for my anxiety and apart from a handful of therapy sessions when I was in college, I’ve dealt with this issue more or less on my own. Practices like meditation, exercise and even songwriting, have helped me get through these darkest periods of my life and I feel like ultimately I’ve bounced back stronger every time. By dealing with these episodes and coming out the other side, I feel like I’ve become a stronger, more resilient person. In a strange way, I would say I’m even grateful for these challenges, although I would never wish severe anxiety on anyone.
The Correlation Between The Arts And Depression/Anxiety
Nancy Andreasen, the author of “The Creative Brain” argues that artists tend to have an openness to new experiences, a greater tolerance for ambiguity, and an approach to life that enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative people tend to “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in positions of authority”, while artists live in a more fluid and nebulous world. In other words, we live in a more stressful world. “Such traits can lead to feelings of depression or social alienation,” writes Andreasen.
Although according to Andreasan artists experience higher rates of mood disorders than the general population, the extremes of highs and lows tend to be brief, balanced by long periods of normal affect, or euthymia. During these periods of normalcy, artists frequently reflect upon and draw from memories and experiences of their darker times to create their best art. This rings true in my experience. Like I said, I’ve experienced just two periods of what I could consider severe anxiety, followed by years of normal, functional life. In other words, most of the time I’m pretty normal. Really, I am.
Another study that I found suggests that artists are more likely to suffer from depression because they simply think more than other people and are more prone to periods of rumination. Self-reflection and rumination can lead to creative insights and increased creativity, but it’s also correlated with an increased risk for depression. Perhaps this is why the goal of meditation, something I have found to be very beneficial, is to detach from thinking momentarily. It’s harder to become depressed by our thoughts if we’re not actively engaging with them.
Here’s my own, completely subjective and unscientific take on why there is such a strong correlation between working in the arts and suffering from things like depression and anxiety. It’s hard to say whether or not if I chose a different life path I wouldn’t have experienced the episodes of anxiety that I had. Do I experience anxiety because I’m a musician? Or am I a musician because I have a sensitive temperament that lends itself to working in a creative field like music? It’s difficult to objectively analyze myself. All I have is my own experience to go by. After all, I’ve never been anyone else. But there are clearly things about being a musician that make life more challenging and difficult than a more conventional life path.
I think artists and musicians are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety due to both their innate personalities and psychological makeup, as well as the inherent difficulty of making a career in the arts. It’s a perfect double whammy for depression and anxiety if you think about it. Take an extra sensitive person and then throw them into an ultra-competitive field that is inevitably filled with periods of rejection, setbacks and disappointment. It’s a perfect storm for depression and anxiety.
Trying to make a living as a musician is fucking hard. It’s really hard. It’s hard on so many levels and in so many ways, that I think you probably have to actually be a musician to really get it. If you’ve followed my work at all over the years, then you know that I like to focus on the positive. I’m a “glass half full” kind of guy. At least I like to think I am. But guess what. I’m also human and when I struggle I feel pain and discontentment like anyone else. Being a musician can be so discouraging at times that in my experience, it can be a real challenge to maintain a healthy perspective and outlook. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to spiral down into a path of negativity.
[Check out the recent video I made where I talk about my own struggle to stay positive as a musician]
However, I think the feelings of depression and anxiety musicians feel is more than just the result of struggling in a difficult, competitive industry. After all, even highly “successful” musicians and artists seem to be more prone to struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues than the rest of us.
Being a musician often feels like a sort of double edged sword, you get to experience periods of sheer bliss and inspiration and then you get knocked backed down to earth again as you try to navigate your way through the maze of madness that is the modern day music business. For me, it sometimes feels like a sense of existential angst of being able to taste and touch divinity for brief moments and then being forced to deal with greedy music executives, rejection, a failing music industry and so on. As I reach for the stars, I often get knocked back down to earth where I’m forced to deal with the slow, monotonous grind of being an indie musician.
I like to think of music as the place where my divinity and humanity meet. That might sound like hyperbole, but it’s really how I experience it. When I’m writing a new song or listening to great music, it’s like being given a glimpse of god, or something greater than myself. If you’re a musician, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But to try and make a career out of music, is a bit like confronting the devil. Dealing with rejection, greed, the public’s watered down taste in music, corruption in the music industry and everything that goes along with being a professional musician, can be soul crushing. It’s the yin and the yang of being a musician. You get to taste divinity, but you have to go through hell to try and integrate the passion you have for music into your life in a practical and sustainable way.
Now an outsider might just look at the plight of musicians and think, why don’t we just get a “real job”? If being a musician is so hard and we’re struggling so much, why not just admit defeat and do something else? It’s a reasonable question. But if you’re truly compelled to make music the way that I and many others are, you know it’s not that simple. Being a musician is a calling. It’s like being called to be a minister or a nun. For many musicians there is a sense that this is something we were destined to do, which makes it extremely hard to just walk away from.
What To Do? How I Deal With The Dichotomy
Through meditation and contemplation, I’ve been able to reach a healthy perspective about my life and music. Making great music and achieving success are important to me, but I don’t hinge my happiness or sense of well-being on them. In a strange way, I don’t really care if I “make it” any more. After all, there’s no guarantee that if I did, quote un-quote make it, I would be any happier than I am right now. All we really have is this moment. I focus on being happy day by day, instead of worrying about what may or may not happen in the future.
This sense of detachment gives me relief. But don’t get me wrong, I haven’t given up. I’m still trying as hard as ever and I’ve made more progress this year than I have in many years and yes, that feels good. But I’m not too worried about what happens, ultimately, one way or the other. It seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. By not making the outcome so extremely important and heavy, I’m free to pursue music in a way that is still enjoyable and uplifting. I want to be successful, but I’m not going to pursue success at the expense of my own well-being and happiness.
Half Glass Full Optimism
Much of how we view ourselves and our respective situations is simply a choice. One of the reasons I’ve adopted a glass half full outlook over the years is that it simply serves me better. There are clearly things that are fu:&ed up about the music industry that we can’t change. But there is also a lot to be optimistic about. It’s never been easier to record, promote and distribute music in history. Although there are clearly challenges in the new music business paradigm, there is also much to be optimistic about and we get to choose which things we focus on.
I want to make great music and it would be cool if I was acknowledged for it on a wider scale, but if that doesn’t happen, I’m still going to enjoy the hell out of my life and make the most out of every day I have. That’s a choice I’ve made and it’s a choice we are all free to make. After all, this moment, right now, is all we really have.
Don’t let your future success or lack of it determine how you feel today.
Please share your own experiences and thoughts on this topic below.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.