Creative Strategies for Producers w/ Matt Shadetek: Finishing is a Skill

In this creative strategies article, Logic expert and Dutty Artz label owner Matt Shadetek explores strategies to help you complete your creative projects.


Finishing is a Skill: 3 Reasons You Don’t and 3 Strategies to Help

Finishing creative projects is hard. We all struggle with it, even those of us know how to do it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it gets easier with time. Finishing is a skill: the more you do it, the better you get at it. Once you’ve seen the beginning, middle, and end of the process a few times, you start to recognize what each phase looks like. Starting is always exciting and fun. Sometimes the middle is fun; sometimes it’s a drag. Finishing is always hard and scary. Once you know how each stage feels, you’re less likely to get knocked off track.

As I’ve talked about in other pieces, making art is a process of decision making. When you begin, it can be hard to trust your own instincts. Once you’ve made a lot of decisions and realized that none of them caused the universe to collapse, your confidence grows. Being more confident makes you faster–much faster. Think of a high dive. The first time you climb up and look down at the water 20 feet below, it feels pretty scary. Will you lose it on the way down and do a painful and embarrassing belly flop? Are you going to die? When you finally get up the guts and jump, you realize that it’s fun. You didn’t die or embarrass yourself, and the next time around you’ll be able to jump without so much hesitation. Confidence is built through experience and experience is built through action. The only way to get better at finishing work it is to do it, again and again.

But finishing is hard! Yes. But it gets easier with time. And it’s worth it.

Because this is something that many, many people struggle with (myself included) I’ve decided to address a few common reasons people fail to finish, and a few strategies to help us all.

Reason 1: “I don’t know when to say it’s finished!”

Calling something “finished” is a completely arbitrary decision. There are some basic conventions in producing and writing music: it should be around 3-6 minutes, it should sound reasonably good, the musical parts should change often enough to not to be boring. But as you can see, every one of those statements contains words like “around” and “some.” Since there are no real rules, you can’t rely on a fixed standard to know when something is done. Some people make very short songs; some people make very long ones. Some people like music that sounds “low-fi,” which can be a code word for terrible mixing and engineering.  The point is, at every stage it’s a completely arbitrary decision.

Reason 2: “It’s not perfect!”

This is the part where I reach out of the article and give you a big slap for even thinking this, even silently in your own head. Think of it as tough love. I want you to win and I believe you can do it. Of course it’s not perfect, nor will it ever be. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating (in all caps): WE ARE ONLY CAPABLE OF DOING OUR BEST WORK TODAY. Making something perfect is not on the menu. What’s on the menu is making something as good as you possibly can given the skills, time, energy and resources you have right now. It’s entirely possible that the result will be far worse than you hoped it would be. See my article “Get Ready to Fail” for some more tough love regarding this fact. All we can do is work as hard as we possibly can with what we have today. Not tomorrow, yesterday, or at some point in the distant (imaginary) future.

Reason 3: “Wait I have another idea!”

In all likelihood, you’re having another idea because the part of your mind that’s scared of failure (finishing something crappy) is trying to protect you. It’s saying “Look over here! If we go back to the beginning, we won’t run the risk of everyone laughing at our crappy product.” Don’t listen to this voice! Fear is a legitimate instinct, but it is not the friend of the artist. Face the fear and drag yourself over the finish line. Crawl if you have to. Don’t turn back. You can do it.

Let’s talk now about some strategies to help you crush these obstacles into tiny bits and win.

Strategy A

Go until you’re empty. Ready to give up? Not excited and inspired to work on it anymore? Good. That means the tank is empty. It’s time to finish. In Reason 2 above, I mentioned the limitations of time, skills, energy, and resources. Let’s take a look at how these limitations can help you finish.

Time: Running out of time is probably the easiest way to finish. The book report is due at 9AM! This forces you to manage your other resources effectively. You don’t have time to start again. You don’t have time to start adding a bunch of crazy stuff that the project doesn’t need. You don’t have time to obsess over tiny details. When the deadline arrives, you hand it in, whatever state it’s in. Hooray! You’re done.

Energy: This one is a bit harder because, if you’re a hard worker, you’ll always try to scrape the bottom of the barrel for a bit more energy. Knowing when you’re running out of juice for a project and monitoring your current fuel levels is an important skill to develop. When you get to the point where you can’t stand to work on it anymore, wrap a bow around it and call it finished. Feel good that you put everything you had into it.

Skills: This one is a bit harder still. Recognizing when you’ve run out of skill on a project takes self awareness. Let’s say you’re mixing down a song. Often, the temptation is to fiddle endlessly with levels and EQ. Eventually, you have to realize that, given your current level of skill, you’ve checked and balanced everything to the best of your ability and it sounds as good as it’s going to. Applying your same ears and skills to the song and fiddling with it endlessly is not going to make it better. If you’ve run out of skills and it still sounds terrible, you may want to involve someone else. Or just call it “low-fi.”

Resources: This is a catchall category for all of the other factors that affect the process–money is the biggest one. If you need to ship the product to pay your next months rent, it’s time to finish. If you’re about to run out of money to pay the people working on the product, it’s time to finish. Money, like time, is a useful limitation because it’s not that easy to argue with yourself over. When the money runs out, to quote Leonard Cohen, everybody knows.

Strategy B

Keep a “next project” list. Feeling tempted by that sexy new idea? Write it down and use the new idea as incentive to help you get across the finish line. That’s your reward for finishing the idea you’re sick and tired of now. The excitement of starting something new never lasts. Know that, and act accordingly. Capture the idea and and place it safely on your “next project” list; then carry on and stay focused on your current project. If you’re worried that you’ll lose the excitement for the new idea in the meantime, that’s a feature of the process–not a bug. If waiting a while makes it no longer exciting, then it wasn’t a strong idea anyway. Double win! You’ve finished your current project, and prevented yourself from wasting time on an idea that didn’t hold up.

Strategy C

Have a process. When I’m working on a track, I divide it into the following steps:

Sketch: Write the initial musical parts, drums, bass, chord progression, verse, chorus etc.

Arrange: Quickly build the parts into a skeleton arrangement that is as long as the track should be, and outlines where the main changes will happen.

Detail: Add unique details, parts, or changes that I need to make the arrangement work. These might be small details like drum fills, or big new parts, like a new chord progression for a bridge.

Mix: Make a decision about the sound of every part in the track. Sometimes this just means listening to it and saying “sounds good.” Sometimes it involves detailed effects processing. The point is to listen and made a decision.

Listen: Listen to the track for a while, play it in some DJ sets, share it privately with friends, and decide if I still agree with all my decisions.

Finalize: Based on experiences during the “listen” stage, make necessary final tweaks.

When I have gone through each step in the process, the track is done. If I still don’t like it after I finalize it, it gets trashed. It’s pretty rare that I’ll go that far with a track and trash it, but it happens. Regardless, I do not end up wondering what might have happened. I’ve checked the boxes, done my best at each stage, and have realized the potential of that track. Whether it’s good or not, I move on.

Hopefully the ideas put forward here will help you finish your own projects. Even though I’ve used musical examples, but the fact is that this works for almost anything where you’re a human being creating something.  If you’re early in the process looking up at the mountain and feeling overwhelmed my advice is this: Put one foot in front of the other, start climbing and focus on what’s in front of you.  I’ve been doing this for a while and I can tell you that although it never gets particularly easy the more you practice the faster it goes. And if you don’t stress yourself out about things you can’t control, it can be a LOT of fun.

About Matt Shadetek

Matt Shadetek is one of New York City’s most exciting producers. His live sets encompass contemporary Dancehall, UK Funky, and Dubstep, all delivered with Shadetek’s unique production voice which bridges the underground-mainstream divide. He’s one of the rare DJs who can rock a crowd with sets composed solely of his own dancefloor bangers and remixes.

Matt’s early love for Hip Hop and Dancehall along with edgy electronic sounds led to his Warp Records debut album Burnerism as part of the duo Team Shadetek. While Matt was living in Berlin and touring Europe, the followup LP Pale Fire was released, featuring the underground hit “Brooklyn Anthem”. The hit song kick-started a dance craze in the Brooklyn reggae scene (leading to over 100 fan videos of kids dancing to it).

Returning to NYC, Matt founded the Dutty Artz label/production crew with DJ /Rupture. Shadetek produced Jahdan Blakkamoore’s debut album, Buzzrock Warrior (!K7), pioneering its signature Reggae-Dubstep-Rap sound. In 2009 he also teamed up with Rupture to release the mix album Solar Life Raft (The Agriculture). His latest release, on Dutty Artz, is Flowers, an effervescent solo instrumental effort that references dubstep, UK Funky and Garage. He has toured internationally both solo and accompanied by Jahdan as vocalist.

Connect with Matt on Twitter | SoundCloud | Website


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