Creativity, Music

How to organize the tracks in your album

Are you a musician planning to release an album but struggling to put your tracks into a coherent sequence? Are you planning a live concert but feeling unsure how to organize the program? Here are some tips that might help.

These tips come from my own experience as I put together an album of new music I’ve composed over the past five years. I’ve got 35 tracks with a playing time of 93 minutes. My mastering engineer requires a track order before he’ll begin work on the project. Each track needs to have a number — 1, 2, 3, 4… — and the engineer needs the tracks ASAP. Here’s why the problem is impossible:

  • There are too many options. If you have 35 items like I do, the number of ways you can organize them is 10,333,147,966,386,144,929,666,651,337,523,200,000,000.
  • Each option is time-consuming to evaluate. Listening to the material in any particular order takes a 93-minute investment which is emotionally exhausting.
  • My reactions change each time I listen. I might like a certain transition between two tracks the first time I hear it and not like it the second time.
  • If I listen to a certain order too many times, I start to memorize it. Then it’s hard to tell whether I like it because it’s effective or just because it’s familiar. Familiarity is confounding.
  • I’ve dedicated years of my life to creating this material, so the stakes are high. A bad order means that my tracks will compete with each other rather than elevating each other. Some pieces will not have a context in which they can shine.
  • Each piece was conceived on its own, without thought to how it might fit in a sequence. The pieces all have different styles and moods. I had no plan for how they were supposed to fit together.

But as I write this post, I’m in good shape. My track order is mostly finalized and I’m ready to send it to my mastering engineer next week. An impossible problem became possible for me, thanks to these ideas:

  1. Think of a story that you want to convey with the tracks. I’m grateful to @alexgardner for offering this suggestion when I reached out for help on Twitter. At first, I thought that my tracks were so heterogeneous that they couldn’t fit into any unified narrative. What I realized is that the narrative doesn’t have to be evident to the listener. It can be a “secret” story — one that’s known only to me — one whose only purpose is to help me wrap my mind around the problem.
  2. Make a list of track attributes. I’m grateful to @gahlord for this suggestion, also via Twitter. I created a spreadsheet listing the starting and ending note of each track and a brief description indicating bright/dark, fast/slow, and long/short.
  3. Decide on a goal for the ordering. In my case, the goal is to sustain a sense of variety throughout the album so that each track can be experienced fresh. I decided that variety and contrast are more important to me than grouping tracks by theme or emphasizing similarities between them. My desired shape is “fractal” rather than “linear.”
  4. Pick a middle piece — one to go right in the center of the album. Then go through each of the remaining pieces and ask if it should come before your middle piece, or after your middle piece. This lets you break the problem in half.
  5. Next, choose your first and last pieces. Now you’ve got: Opening -> Middle -> Ending.
  6. Next, distribute your biggest pieces. What are the longest, densest, or most important pieces remaining? Pick the top two and put one in each half of the album. Now you’ve got Opening -> Big Piece #1 -> Middle -> Big Piece #2 -> Ending.
  7. Try to make contrasting pairs — two tracks that are very different, but that also sound good together and flow well, one into the next.
  8. Now try to identify twins — two tracks that are very similar. Experiment with placing twins before and after a contrasting pair, as if to form a ring around it. So if A and B are a contrasting pair, while X and Y are twins, you’d have something like X -> A -> B -> Y.
  9. Make a provisional commitment. Choose an order as quickly as you can, and then rename all your tracks according to that order, using filenames like 01_MySong, 02_MyOtherSong, 03_MyOtherOtherSong. This gives you a reference point to measure future changes against.
  10. Now see if you can improve your provisional order by swapping pieces, so for example, the piece in slot 5 and the piece in slot 11 might trade places.
  11. Make short clips out of all your pieces. Each clip should consist of the opening 3 seconds plus the closing 3 seconds of the piece. Once you’ve made these clips, you can put them in any order you’re considering and listen to the whole playlist in a minute or two. This is a way to quickly preview an order without having to listen to all the material over again.
  12. Once you’ve arrived at an order you feel good about, review each track and use your intuition to determine whether the track is “happy” in its current position. Does the track get along with its neighbors? Does it sound better in their company than it would sound all by itself? If you find any tracks that aren’t “happy” move those ones, but leave everything else where it is.

These ideas worked for me — maybe they’ll work for you too?

Creativity, Personal Development

Why would you seek an audience?

If you’re an artist who makes things to please your own eye or your own ear, why would you seek an audience? If you create a piece of art for the satisfaction it brings you, and if that satisfaction is experienced by you, hasn’t the art’s purpose then been fulfilled? Assuming it’s hard work to cultivate a following for your art, why would you invest in that?

My need to answer this question is pressing. I’m a musician gearing up to release new work this year. I’ve sworn that I won’t let my music go into a void, not this time. But my energy fades whenever I think of self-promotion. I’m an introvert. Marketing has never been my thing. I hope that knowing my reasons for wanting more listeners will help me stay motivated to connect with them. If you’re an artist facing a similar question, I hope you might gain something from the thinking I’ll share.

But if you’re aiming to earn income from your art, I have nothing to add to what you already know. A larger audience means more income, so it’s obvious why you’d want more viewers or listeners. And if your art carries a social or political message, a larger audience means more impact, a better chance to advance your cause. If your art is meant to communicate something specific to someone specific, it can’t function in an empty room. And if your creative process relies on feedback beyond what your own eyes and ears can provide, a larger audience might help you do better work. And if you’re seeking validation and prestige, a larger audience means more of that. These situations are clear: you need an audience.

But what if you’re making art for art’s sake, what’s your reason then for seeking an audience? What if you’ve been laboring on your own for years – as a “nobody” as Emily Dickinson would put it – to do something that’s really hard but really rewarding? And what if you’re doing this for the joy of it – not to please anyone else, but just yourself? Not to profit from it, not to further a social cause through it, but just to experience the pleasure and fascination that it brings you? What if achieving an aesthetic ideal is more important to you than any practical outcome? What if you do your best work in solitude? And what if you vow to keep pursuing this ideal no matter what – no matter whether there’s a market for it, no matter whether anyone ever praises your product or asks you for more of it? If this is you, why would you care whether your audience consists of one or one million people? 

In my case, I compose music in a particular format called canon. I’ve been doing this since 2014. A two-minute canon can take me two months to write. Each piece brings me immeasurable joy to create and behold. I feel blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to study music year after year, starting pretty young, and ultimately to create the kind of music I want to create. I’m further blessed to have a collaborator who has performed and recorded my works. My music has been enjoyed by a handful of people who know me personally, and a tiny few who have somehow discovered me online. Why isn’t that enough for me?

Why do I feel – as I prepare to release ninety minutes of new work this year – that more people must hear it? Why have I vowed that this time, I won’t let it be ignored? I won’t simply put it online and hope that people find it. I won’t just email a dozen reviewers and shrug when no one replies. This time, I’ll do the work necessary to bring my music to those who are poised to enjoy it, and I’ll do the work necessary to expand that circle. But if I wrote the music for myself and experienced the pleasure I was seeking from that act of creation, why does any of this matter?

I used to think of this question in terms of the intrinsic value of the work itself. I believe the work is unique, and exciting, and that it makes a contribution within its particular niche, so the world needs it. If I keep the material to myself by not sufficiently promoting it, then it will go to waste. This would be a disservice to the music and to the world. 

I’ve never been happy with this reasoning because it focuses on a negative outcome – the music going to waste – which leads to a burden – I must save the music from oblivion. Furthermore, the world is already full of music. Beautiful music is hard to make, but humanity has been making it for centuries, and it’s not a scarce resource. No one person will ever get to know more than a tiny fraction of the great music that’s available; ditto for visual art and literature. This will be controversial but I’ll say that while humanity needs art, it doesn’t need any particular piece of art – there are no “essential” works –  including anything I make or anything you make. The world could benefit from what we make, surely, but the possibility of benefiting from something is different from needing it.

So I’ve tried to identify other motivations for pursuing an audience, motivations that don’t rely on the assumption of need. Let’s suppose that I’m doing something optional and unnecessary. Why might I still want more people to hear and appreciate it, and why would I be willing to put in the hard work to achieve that goal?

My first answer is simply that I want others to experience the same joy that the music has given me. As for why this is so, I believe that joy is expansive: when we find joy in a certain thing, we want others to feel that same joy, from that same thing. And when others feel that joy, our own is magnified. This is just how joy, the emotion, works – it makes us yearn for connection, kinship.

Second, I want to share my knowledge. For me, knowledge is similar to joy in that when I’ve learned something useful I want to convey it to someone else. I’ve had to learn many things to be able to write the music I write. I’ve had to find ways to surmount countless musical challenges, creative challenges, and personal challenges. If someone’s totally new to canons and counterpoint, I want to welcome them into this part of the musical universe. But if someone knows about these things already, I want to see if I can offer them some bit of new insight that may help or inspire them in their own journey.

Third, I want to grow through interaction and collaboration. I know I can write more of the music I’ve been writing, and within that domain there are endless possibilities I want to explore. But I’m ready to branch out. Someone could recommend an album that might change my life. Someone could ask a question that opens a new musical direction for me. Someone could teach me a new technique for composing or a new way of listening. Someone could become a new collaborator and together we could make something great.  I want to grow not only in the ways I’ve planned for myself already, but in the ways I can’t predict, haven’t even conceived. But none of this can happen if my music stays with me in a bubble.

So I want a larger audience because I want to share my joy, I want to share my knowledge, and I want to grow. To be clear, this is not my argument for why anyone should listen to my music; this is not where I say what’s in it for them. This article is about me; it’s my explanation of why having an audience is important to me. It’s a “note to self” that I’ll return to when I must choose how to spend my time: composing new work or reaching out to new listeners.

If you’re an artist facing a similar choice, maybe some of these reasons apply to you too?