In my last blog post, my recent intern Jacob wrote, “Barry is the most organized person I have ever met in my life. He has every minute of his day on a schedule and he follows it strictly.” Every minute might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s true that I work hard on having an efficient schedule. Everything in music production and having a home studio requires organization and self-discipline; I am constantly juggling clients and am often the main point of contact between them and the other professionals working on their products. If you’re self-employed, you know you don’t have much of a choice but to get organized.
Keeping Track of a Self-Employed Schedule
My Apple calendar is probably what Jacob noticed first. I wouldn’t have any idea what to do without it. Like anyone’s calendar, mine has recurring items with necessary info attached: students that I always see on the same day, gigs on Saturday nights, the start, end and breaks of the semester of all three schools I teach at. A lot of the reminders are ones I don’t need (drive the kids to camp!) but it’s nice to see them all in there, so I know what my day looks like. I also mix in regular one-time entries to keep track of personal items, like grocery lists and scheduled services. This is the skeleton of my week. The rest of the tasks come from two places: my email inbox or my long, long list of goals I keep on my computer. When I get an email about a project, I can look at my calendar and see exactly when I have time to work on it. I respond immediately, add the item to the calendar and delete the email. My inbox is impeccably clean. I used to keep old calendar items for a record of what I’d done, but now I just don’t want to know.
There is one item on my calendar that’s always moving: to-do. There’s a shortlist inside of all the things I should do right away, or soon, and every day it comes with me to collect more items. I populate it with some of the more pressing tasks from OmniOutliner, a note-taking program that uses expandable lists to nest items and make your impossible organization a little neater at a glance. I put all my goals in there, in categories like Composition, Health, House, “Eventually,” Money, Website and Wife. When I notice I have some extra time and my calendar to-do block is looking a little thin, I comb through Omni-Outliner and find activities I want to tackle.
Filling my OmniOutliner with goals is the only way I can keep track of the endless things I could be doing. I try to set longer term goals for six months or even five years to keep it populated, but setting those loose deadlines also breaks the list up into something more digestible. A lot of my longer term goals are about getting more physically organized and digitizing old systems; as organized as your schedule is, you’re still going to waste time if you can’t find the tools you need to work. I’ve been organizing the garage, making it easier to find tools and scrap wood. That might sound like it’s out of my scope as a producer, but there’s a lot of equipment in a home studio and sometimes you have to get creative with storing it and setting it up. I’ve also been converting old cassettes into WAV files, and an assistant recently helped me do something I thought I might never get around to: scanning more than 1,000 pages of sheet music into my iPad. Now every time I go to a gig, I don’t have to spend time searching for charts, compiling them into a to-go binder and then replacing them when I get home. It also cleared up shelf space and decluttered the studio.
It’s easier said than done, but having an assistant is an irreplaceable organizational tool. Everyone has tedious projects, whether it’s organizing the garage, filing, building improvements or scheduling. It may not be worth your time to stop producing content in order to organize, but removing even small inefficiencies multiplies your productive time. And being organized about your goals means setting yourself up for clear communication, so when you finally do hire someone to tackle those super-annoying, tedious tasks you never want to think about trying yourself, you know exactly what you need them to do.
Communicating Your Needs
Even if you’re not hiring an assistant, in the music business you need to be ready to explain your vision to the people making it real. Structure and education are essential parts of executing an artistic project, but many people are afraid of learning too much. They think controlling the process makes them less creative. That’s wrong. When you know about music, or art, or any field you’re working in, you understand how elements are working together and hopefully, how to ask to make the right changes.
Creative adversity can make you stronger—we’ve all heard the stories of quirky playing styles derived from not really understanding an instrument—but an unconventional start is very different from avoiding self-improvement.
As a producer, the more I know, the more helpful I can be. My job is often just knowing things. Even so, I do my best work with artists who can communicate their needs. We spend less time on stylistic trial and error, and on fixing mistakes. I’ve noticed the best singers are usually the ones who can read sheet music; they have amazing breath control, and can sing long notes consistently. I think it would be a stretch to say just reading music gives you those abilities, but the more focused practice you have outside the studio and off the stage, the more well-rounded you’ll be as an artist. That’s always a good thing.
Holding Yourself Accountable
It’s tempting to look at your to-do list and say, “I just don’t feel like it.” I don’t get tired of being disciplined, though, I get tired of not being disciplined. I know everything is easier for me when I have a plan, and all my plans are designed to fit together. Even so, it does take energy to be the voice in your own head keeping you honest and on track.
One of my favorite techniques is mentioned all the time in self-help books (a genre I love): consistency. When I was working on my Master’s degree, my composition lessons involved a book called How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. It wasn’t about music composition, but it was about being consistent. The idea is to put aside time, say, every morning, and tell everyone to leave you alone to get some work done. Choosing a project and getting little bits done every day will keep you on track or even ahead of schedule. If you write 10 measures a day, by the end of the year you’ll have over 3,000 measures. They probably won’t all be good, but there’s bound to be something worthwhile in there. As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way writes to her mystical creative source, “Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.”
When setting goals for daily improvement, I try to be realistic about how much I can keep up with. If I really get into one good habit, then I can add another, but I want to be sure I can maintain each one without sacrifices. I used to ask people to help hold me accountable, but now I just use an app called HabitShare that tracks your commitment by displaying daily streaks. The idea is to connect with friends, but it helps me just to see my own progress, simplified.
Becoming A More Organized Person
Organization and discipline comes naturally to some of us. Many prefer to “wing it.” No matter who you are, at some point you’ll be confronted with a complex situation, and you’ll have to come up with a way to tackle it. The only way through is to be mindful: think about what’s realistic for you and what best helps the people you’re working with. After trying something, make note of what worked, what didn’t and why. It’s great to take advice from people who seem to have more organized careers, but in the end what’s important is what’s sustainable for you. Just remember that creativity thrives with structure, and you’re only doing yourself a major favor.
Sound like me? This blog post was written by Brianna Caleri (Barry’s assistant) after an informational interview on the subject and years of absorbing Barry’s ideas and tone.
[Cover photo by Markus Gjengaar, courtesy of Unsplash.]