10 tips on maintaining a healthy workflow as a part-time musician

To use the words of the great Nick Cave, “If you don’t write it, someone else will. Is that what you want? If not, get to it.” It really doesn’t get more elegantly blunt than that. If you’re looking for some mind-blowing songwriting tips to flush away that writers block then check out these methods from the greats: Rilke, Cohen, Cave, and Waits.

Though for us mere mortals it can feel like an eternal balancing act between working, creating, and just being a better person. Thus, here are 10 bullet proof tips to maintaining a healthy workflow as a part-time musician.

All photos by Dani Hansen

Here are 10 tips on maintaining a healthy creative workflow as a part-time musician and clearing out those subterranean homesick blues.

1. Fuck the rut

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Either you’re playing the same stuff all the time or you’re bogged down in perfecting a song. Ofttimes the best thing you can do is to take a break, and I don’t mean a 20 minute walk around the block.

Don’t play any music for a week, take a holiday. I’ve seen plenty of guitarists chomping at the bit to break through, practising every day with no progress. The best thing, yet often the hardest, is to just drop it all and break the mould. You will shed your old skin and come back fresh and ready to jive.

2. Be a social player

This could likely be the single most important rule to being a musician, full stop. Play with, talk to, work with, and just generally be around as many musicians from as many different genres as possible. Not only will this greatly expand your palette and knowledge you will slowly absorb these influences and craft more varied, holistic soundscapes as a result.

“Get your head out of your arse and stop playing vintage blues, or listening solely to techno,” they say. All the biggest artists in the world now fall under at least five genres or more. Unless you can create your own genre, that’s definitely a vibe too.

3. Take less time, not more

Bob Dylan once said, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing”. If you’re heading into the studio have your shit on lock down. You wanna know every part and exactly how to play it before hitting record. That being said you should still be open to new ideas from your producer or engineer. Just don’t rely on them.

In 1965, Bob Dylan took just three days to record Bringing It All Back Home. Funnily enough the takes on the album were all cut from the second and third day of recording. The album went on to sell over a million copies.

When the Beatles went to record their debut album in 1963 with producer George Martin, they essentially performed their live set into two microphones at Abbey Road. In a 13 hour stint the Fab Four cut 10 tracks. These were added the bands first two singles and the result was Please Please Me.

While we can’t all be Bob Dylan or The Beatles the principle remains the same. Be prepared.

4. Be honest about your 9-5

Your job matters! It really does. One of the biggest killers of creativity is hating your job and being glum because of it. Leaving work every day tired, grumpy, and sick of everyone are not primary catalysts for creative workflow.

Holding down a 9-5 job and being a musician is incredibly hard work but it should do more than just pay the bills. Ideally you also want your job to give you: time, resources, or skills that will promote success in your creative endeavours.

5. Learn new songs every week

Studying the greats is the quickest way to write new music. Many of your favourite artists spent their entire lives learning, playing, and crafting the music you enjoy so why not learn how they did it? You can’t do it all on your own after all. As a self taught musician I found Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Jeff Buckley the best teachers of all, and they were free.

LIFE HACK: If you learn a new song each week chances are it will birth new ideas and new songs will sprout forth.


6. Raise the stakes

Nothing like a bit of public pressure to spike the creative juices. Go busking, or better yet, lock down a weekly gig at a dive bar. This will encourage you to learn new material and tighten up your own. Plus drunk crowds of people are often the best judges.

Furthermore you may meet more musicians at your shows. In this case revert back to Tip #2.

7. Wrap your work with a theme

If you’re working towards an EP or an album, or are generally a bit amiss with the direction of your music, try to centre it upon a prevalent theme. Like electrons around the nucleus, your songs will ideally revolve around a theme or concept to give your sound a cohesive quality.

Metallica use particularly original themes to frame their projects, such as For Whom The Bell Tolls inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel of the same name. Plus Call of Ktulu refers to the unfathomable, god-like monster conceived by the great horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft.

8. Make time to create workflow

To put it into perspective the average person will spend a 90,000 hours, or a third of their lives, at work. Another third will be spent sleeping. This only leaves so much time to create and it can be easy to waste.

Make sure you set aside slots of time each work and stick to them. This is an important part of fluid workflow as you will anticipate these days and channel the inspiration.

9. Don’t be afraid of the odd corporate gig

The occasional well paying gig can go a long way to supporting your music. While this can initially sound like a paradox hear me out. If you get a handful of well paying shows at dive bars each week, not only will you quickly become a well trained musician you may even make enough money to quite your job.

Furthermore, it will wildly free up your schedule to create music you truly care about. One of my friends played at a make-up convention for five days straight. He played eight hours of guitar a day and way paid enough money to travel Europe for three months and write his next album. Win win!

10. Learn a bit of theory

While this might seem like boring homework it’s incredibly helpful and will always create more music in turn. If you’re a songwriter learn how to produce and record. If you’re a guitarist learn the modes, or triads. There’s always a new scale lurking around the corner. If you’re a producer learn how to build harmonies and melodies directly. This will nicely prepare you for the next time inspiration strikes and is a crucial part of building your overall workflow. Learn and create my friends.