How to Deal with Perfectionism as an Artist

Posted by on Nov 5, 2019 in Pick Yourself | No Comments

Dealing with perfectionism as an artist can be a real struggle. In this episode of Pick Yourself, I’m going to show you three strategies that will help you overcome perfectionism and even use it to your advantage.

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The typical perfectionism trap of electronic music producers & DJs

Let me describe a scenario that might sound quite familiar to you. You’ve been working on this one track for weeks now. Hours of research and development went into crafting the perfect kick drum. Your bassline and lead synth have been carefully designed to complement each other. Every little percussion hit has exactly the right velocity. Now you’re at the last stage of automating the drop so the song hits hard when the kick comes back in.

You’re sitting in front of your screen with blurry eyes, moving faders 0.1 dBs up and down, trying to find the perfect sweet spot in your sound. Should the filter cutoff open up a tiny bit earlier? Maybe that’s a bit too much reverb in the break? You’re doing your best to nail this song because it’s the one you wanted to send to that new important label contact you’ve met recently.

At this stage of the process, you’ve already failed to deal with perfectionism as an artist.

Suddenly, things start to fall apart. Your ears are tired, it’s already 3 am in the morning and headache starts to creep in. Everything sounds wrong at this point and you start to question the core elements of your song. Exhausted and disappointed, you’re shutting down your computer and decide to continue on another day.

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The downward spiral continues

The problem is, that your late-night-tweaks have made things worse. So you go back to the version before (which you’ve hopefully saved under a different name). You’re starting over from scratch but somehow you’ve lost your momentum. Since you’ve been working on this tune for way too long already, you’re now starting to feel estranged from your work. You’re losing the confidence that this track will ever be good enough to be sent out to your label contact.

So what happens? Well, you start with a new song and the old one has to rot in the graveyard of abandoned Ableton sessions. After all, you’re not going to fall in love with it ever again. The sad moral of the story is, that you’ve wasted time and energy because you haven’t learned to deal with perfectionism as an artist. Your label contact would have probably loved your track in its 90% finished form already and might have even helped you with the last 10%.

In a worst-case scenario, you would have lost your release opportunity because the slot has now been offered to another artist who finished his or her track in time. Imagine how this would feel!

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Three strategies to deal with perfectionism as an artist

I’ve been struggling with perfectionism my whole life. So believe me, I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences with this. The good news is, I’ve managed to use it to my advantage now. This doesn’t mean that I’m completely cured of it. But I’ve certainly reached a point where it doesn’t get in my way anymore. It was a lot of hard work and it has taken quite some time. Since I believe that perfectionism is the nemesis, the arch-enemy of every electronic music producer or DJ, I now want to share some of the things with you that have helped me. These are my top three strategies to deal with perfectionism as an artist.

1. The “better done than perfect” mindset

“Better done than perfect” has been my personal mantra in the year 2017. This was when my mixing and mastering studio business started to really take off in Berlin. I had to get so much done at the same time that my perfectionist side started to bother me quite a lot. I simply didn’t have the time to tweak everything to absolute perfection, or else I would have missed deadlines (which hasn’t happened a single time to this day).

Whilst serving my studio clients the best I could, I also applied for funding, re-built my website, renovated my new studio room and did the acoustic treatment. After kicking off all these projects with my typical perfectionist attitude, reality quickly put my feet back on solid ground. I came to realize that there was no way I could ever finish all these tasks in a manner that would satisfy my perfectionist side. So I had an honest conversation about this issue with one of my mentors. He was the one who introduced me to the “better done than perfect” mindset.

Dealing with perfectionism as an artist means accepting that the act of finishing something is way more valuable than tweaking it to perfection (which you’re never going to achieve).

The slogan “better done than perfect” is a typical Silicon-Valley saying, just like “move fast and break things”. It’s never 100% clear who said it first, but that doesn’t matter anyway. It’s said to be one of the core mindsets that has turned a little company like Instagram into one of the leading disruptors of our time.

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Don’t settle for mediocre output

This mindset doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put out quality work. Instead, it means you have to build awareness for when your song has reached that critical point where you must stop and put it out into the world. If you want to fight perfectionism as an artist, you first need to build awareness for when things start to go wrong. This doesn’t only apply to music production. Writing your artist bio or creating social media posts fall under the same category.

We are never going to enjoy the satisfying feeling of having created a “perfect” piece of art because it is an illusion. A good way to think about this is: If you’re perfecting something, you’re hiding it from the world. So nobody except yourself is gaining anything from it because your creation might never be published. Wouldn’t it be better to let your fans and followers enjoy your work while it still means something to you?

2. Take advantage of the fast feedback cycle

The biggest benefit of the “better done than perfect” mentality is that you get valuable feedback faster. Let’s say you’re writing an album. A typical perfectionist would hide in his or her studio for the next three years crafting something that they’re really scared to release in the end.

Somebody who’s adopted the “better done than perfect” mindset would produce an album but already release a couple of tunes while he or she is still in the process of finalizing it. This allows you to get a feel for how your tunes are resonating with your audience. Moreover, you will notice if blogs and magazines are picking them up or not. I’m not saying you should adapt to what the masses are expecting from you (this isn’t your job as an artist). But it helps you get some external perspective on your work and can be a massive productivity booster during the last steps of the process.

Give your songs the chance they deserve

The fast feedback cycle also applies to your tracks that don’t fit with any label. Instead of letting them rot on your hard-drive graveyard, you can release them as freebies to your audience and see how they do in the real world. Just because no label dared to put them out doesn’t mean that your music isn’t good enough. You might be onto something and in the end, your audience might know it better than any label A&R.

Overcoming perfectionism as an artist means embracing the fast feedback cycle and creating better music thanks to it.

Once you put out a song, something starts to feel different for you. It’s a feeling of letting go in the truest sense. It frees your mind to pursue the next creative task without being held back by the last project. Apart from that, you will hear your published songs differently. It’s a strange feeling but once you listen to it on Spotify or in a record store, you suddenly notice different shades and aspects of your own music. This gives you valid input for your next productions.

3. Embrace your perfectionist side when it comes to building systems

The most fascinating aspect of perfectionism is that it only pops up when it’s not necessary. Contrary to that, there are many situations where a bit more attention to detail would be beneficial. We tend to rush things that make us feel uncomfortable or that don’t come easy.

We struggle with perfectionism when it comes to music creation or writing an artist-bio. But for some reason, we’re still sloppy with the use of our calendar, our various email and messenger inboxes, our bookkeeping, or other aspects of our music career that should be properly systematized.

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Systems save you from losing focus

With “systems” I mean well-organized ways of dealing with a specific issue that you’re facing regularly in your music career. If you’re sometimes missing important meetings or calls, it’s because you don’t have a proper system in place to deal with it. If you’re notoriously answering people’s requests too late, it’s because you don’t have the right system in place. The same applies to taxes and other ugly aspects of your music career. If your bookkeeping is a total mess and you start panicking when tax season comes closer, it’s a clear sign that you need to systematize this aspect of your career properly.

This is where perfectionism might help you. But you have to consciously decide to use this weapon to your advantage.

A system has to be rock-solid. Therefore, your perfectionist side might help you achieve this goal. The great thing is that once such a system is up and running, you can focus on your creative work again. The only difference is that you suddenly feel this wonderful piece of mind. Dealing with perfectionism as an artist doesn’t mean you have to get rid of it completely. You can use it as a tool that helps you deal with the less-interesting aspects of your career in a way that removes all the pain and frustration.

You could, for example, build a system for your release-promotion strategy that includes blog outreach, DJ promos, and social posts. If you organize this in the form of a checklist and calendar reminders, you will never again have to worry about promoting your release.

Putting it into action: Dealing with perfectionism as an artist

So what can you do to overcome perfectionism as an artist? I’ve put together three action steps that you can directly implement. Perfectionism isn’t something you can cure overnight, so be prepared for a long journey. I believe it’s worth the effort, since overcoming perfectionism as an artist will help you unlock your true potential.

1. Write down three examples of unhealthy perfectionist behavior on your journey as an artist.

  • Think about music production but also other aspects like writing your artist bio, creating social posts, or tweaking your artwork.
  • How has it affected your output? Have you felt negative consequences due to your perfectionist attitude?

2. Make the “better done than perfect” slogan your personal mantra.

  • Use the slogan as your smartphone-/ computer background image and put stickers on your desk or wherever you tend to fall back into the perfectionism trap.
  • Take action now put putting out one track that you’ve delayed releasing for way too long. Embrace the fast feedback cycle and notice what you gain thanks to this.

3. Use perfectionism to your advantage by designing a system for something important that slips through the cracks.

  • Whether it’s emails and messaging, the use of your calendar, or your release promotion strategy – design a bullet-proof system that prevents you from failing ever again.
  • Don’t forget to limit this task to a certain timeslot, or else you’ll slip into the perfectionist habit of never finishing it.

That’s it for this week’s episode. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Have you already tried fighting perfectionism as an artist? What has worked for you and where are you still struggling?

Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

If you’re one of the artists who truly want to make a difference in the electronic music scene, go download my free PDF called “The Seven Strategies of Highly Successful Electronic Music Artists”. Just click the image below and get it for free:

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Click on the image to download the free guide