Re-contextualizing Time

Here’s an obvious statement, with a not-so-obvious ramification.

Time is cumulative.

 

As a society, we’re trained to think of time in specific blocks.  We take an hour for lunch.  We work from 9-5 (if you’re lucky).  Television shows are either a ½ hour or an hour.

 

So we’re trained to think that if we don’t do anything for the full hour that nothing is getting done.

 

Here’s an experiment.

 

Can you do a 100 push ups in a sitting?

 

If not, can you do 10?

 

If you could do 10 consecutive push ups with perfect form how long would that take?  Maybe 30 seconds?  Now let’s say you did that 10 times a day.  That’s 300 seconds (aka 5 minutes).  But you can’t do anything with 5 minutes of exercise a day, right?

Wrong.

Try it every day for 5 weeks.  Try adding 1 push up per set every week (and more if you can).  That pushes you up to 15 per set or 150 a day.  By sheer increase in number you’ll notice that you’re getting stronger.   You’ll probably  notice physical changes as well.

Guess what happens when you apply this to practicing a difficult passage with a metronome?

Reclaim those shorter time increments in your day by reprogramming your brain for what they mean!  Those minutes add up over the course of the days, weeks and months ahead.

You can get a lot done in a lunch hour and those hours add up. Set a timer and work on things for 20 minute increments.  But when you work on them, really work on them.  Don’t half-ass them.  If you do this multiple times a day, you will get a lot more done than you might think.

If you have a strong understanding for why you are doing something, you will do whatever you have to to overcome any obstacles associated with how.

I hope this helps!  More posts soon (and more podcasts as soon as I can stop running my air conditioner long enough to record one!)  Thanks for reading.

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PS: If you play guitar you may be interested in a book I just released yesterday!

The Scott Collins Fretboard Visualization Series: The Pentatonic Minor Scale

Book Cover Full
You can read all about that here or see excerpts and order the book here.

Deadlines Are Your Best Friend

Hey Everyone!

I have a new post coming up next week about benchmarks and perfection, but as a starting point I wanted to bring out this chestnut (originally posted on guitarchitecture.org).

One of the things that attracts me to improvisation is the immediacy of it.  You perform and then it’s done.  While I like documenting these improvisations I fully recognize the danger of doing so.  (The danger being that when you record something there is a tendency to say, “Oh that sounds pretty good. I should just tweak a couple of things and then it will be perfect.”)

A Variation on the “I used to Walk a mile in the snow to get to school” rant

The way records used to be made back in the day,  involved a bunch of musicians who rehearsed and/or toured some material to death getting together in a room.  Mics would be set up and levels were typically set by putting loud instruments in the back of the room and softer ones up front (soloists would literally step up to the mike to solo and then step back) and after the end of the performance, the record was recorded.

Multitracking came along and studio time was still prohibitively expensive enough that you wanted to get tracks done as quickly as possible.  I played in several bands that did weekend cd’s tracking and overdubs on day one and mixing on day two.  There were always things that you wanted to tweak – but two days later you had a CD and it was done.

You kids and your new fangled “machines”

Now everyone has a multitrack recorder called a computer that can edit audio to the millisecond and the temptation to play god and make the perfect aural universe is a dangerous one to productivity.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my computer and I love Logic but I also know that if a take is 95% of the way there in terms of recording – it may take all day at best to get that extra 5%.  In a worst case scenario it might take forever.

Perfection is over rated.

Midi can be “perfect”.  It can be quantized and performed uniformly ever single time.  From a performance perspective, it can play things faster and cleaner than you will ever be able to with millisecond accurate timing.

Midi is also typically boring.  No one wants to watch a sequencer play things on a stage.  Audiences might listen, but they’re not going to give it their full attention.

In pop music (i.e. “rock” music) – ProTools and midi as a performance standard have increasingly become the goal.  Once I was sitting with a world class engineer and in discussing talking about how out of control the pursuit of “perfection” in commercially released recordings is,  He said, “let me give you an example” and proceeded to bring up a track he was working on on his desk top.  The track was going really slow.

“Is that an old computer?” I asked.  It turned out that it was the newest version.  Top of the line with memory and drives at the highest level the system would support.

When the track finally loaded I saw why it took so long.  There were eighteen thousand edits on the drum track alone.  18,000 edits!  On a 4 minute song.  Every single drum hit was cross faded.  Every single hit was moved and jostled to fit a midi track.

From a perspective of timing – it was perfect but from a performance perspective it was boring and it sounded like every other programmed drum track you ever heard.

I am not advising you to give up on bettering yourself (quite the contrary) – but my general advice to any artist is not to get seduced by “perfection”.  Perfection can be a great motivator or it can be the siren song that sinks your productivity.

To paraphrase a quote that I should be able to cite, “A true artist never completes a work but merely abandons it.”

Deadlines are your best friend.

Deadlines allow you to get things done.

Real (i.e. no-moving and non-negotiable) deadlines force you to realize that 95% of something is more than 100% of nothing.

Work at the highest level that you possibly can – but realize when it’s time to move on to the next thing.

As Steve Jobs famously stated,

“Real artists ship.”

Thanks for reading!

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Stop Kicking Yourself When You’re Down Or Discarding The Amateur Mindset

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

(I don’t quote racists like Henry Ford lightly.  But, for me, many of Ford’s quotes highlight the lesson that there are times that you have to listen to the message while ignoring the messenger.)

The biggest obstacle in the way of most people realizing their goals isn’t a lack of money, information or skill.  

It’s their mindset.

Thinking like an amateur may be holding you back.

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The Devastating Gig

If I have any wisdom to impart, it is undoubtably from making a seemingly endless series of mistakes and correcting them.   One mistake that I made early on (that took a long time for me to identify and correct) was equating what I played with who I was.    This meant that every single gig was a proving ground.

So if I played a good gig, I was elated because I was somehow validated as a good guitar player.

And if I played a bad gig….then it must mean I was a terrible guitarist.

This sounds insane to me as I write this (and hopefully insane to you when you read it!)!  But this is a common mindset.  I know a lot of players who do this and beat themselves up at gigs, sessions and in the privacy of their own practice time.

It comes from how players define themselves and it comes from thinking like an amateur.

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You are more than what you do

Many musicians develop some odd concepts (in my opinion) about what constitutes a musician.  I remember getting out of college and having a discussion with a classmate of mine.  He had asked what I was doing for work and I said, “Oh I’ve got a day gig to pay some bills and then I’m gigging/recording with a couple of bands and teaching on the side.”

His face buckled into a disgusted contortion as if instead of speaking –  human biohazard had just freed itself from my mouth and landed on the table between us.  “Oh….”, he said in the most passive aggressive snark possible.  “I see.”

“What about you?” I asked, trying to ignore the reaction.  “What are you doing these days?”

“Oh well I’m playing in a band full-time and teaching.”

“That’s great!!” I said.   “Is it all original music?”

“No it’s a GB band.”

“Hmm…I didn’t know you liked those kinds of gigs.”

“Oh I hate them.  The people are stupid and the tunes are awful, but some of the players are okay and sometimes we get to play some standards after the date.”

(insert awkward pause) “Well at least it’s pay….”

“Well it’s consistent.  But it’s not great money.  I’m always spending almost as much on my car and gas as what I’m making on a gig.  So I’m running a little short.  Thanks a lot for paying for the coffee by the way…”

Does that sound rewarding to you?  It didn’t sound rewarding to me.

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How you define yourself will either break you out of prison or put you there 

I defined a professional musician as someone who was paid to perform music at a professional level.  My classmate defined a professional musician as a person whose sole source of income comes from playing music.

I’ll paraphrase a quote from my friend bassist/composer Daren Burns here,

“I am completely unimpressed when someone tells me that they’re a full-time musician playing music that they hate.  I don’t see anything noteworthy  or impressive in that at all.”

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There was a several year period of time that Jeff Beck was pretty much working on cars full-time and not playing guitar at all.  I’ve never met Jeff Beck – but based on what I’ve seen of him I don’t think that he worried about whether or not he was less of a musician because he wasn’t playing music full-time.   Additionally, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thought of Jeff Beck as a mechanic who played a little guitar.

Jeff Beck defined himself, did what he wanted to do and didn’t worry about how other people defined him.  Not to take anything away from Jeff, but isn’t it odd that most musicians think of this mindset as fearless and badass?   It’s odd because in my way of thinking, this should be the norm rather than the exception.

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If you don’t define yourself, you let other people define you and (most likely) you won’t like their definition.

How do you deal with isolation?   Some people see the four walls they are in as a cell and each hour of each day erodes who they are a little more until there is nothing left of them.  Other people see the four walls as a blank canvas and work on creating things within those confines.

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Life is a surprisingly good teacher if you’re observant.  If you take the time and energy to look at what, how and why you do the things that you do – you might learn a lot about what your priorities are.  For myself, I learned a while ago that there were a number of things that I wanted to do, and that there was no clear career trajectory to get to where I ultimately wanted to go – so I was going to have to find my own way.   I could either get hung up on what other people thought of a path I was on (that quite frankly they didn’t understand), or I could take steps towards achieving goals I had for myself.

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Are you thinking like an amateur?

I don’t know how many of you have toured with bands.  It’s an interesting experience.  Even if you’re unfamiliar with the material on the first night, within a couple of shows you get into a rhythm and the set moves into a comfort zone.   And in your spare time – you find that you’re not shedding the material relentlessly (because you already have it down), but instead you’re stopping at roadside attractions and looking for clean places to go to the bathroom so you don’t have to bag it on the bus. (If you don’t know what that means – don’t ask and enjoy your morning coffee instead).

Amateurs analyze every aspect of the performance. They scrutinize every detail and obsess over what was right and what was wrong.

Professionals get the set under their belt and then show up to do the work.

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The Ballad of Jane the Plumber

Llet’s say a homeowner has a broken pipe in the basement.  So they call Jane the plumber.  Jane comes over to the house and says, “this whole pipe has to come out and it’s an odd size.   I don’t have any that length on me.  I can do a quick fix that’s not going to be pretty.  I’ll get you through the next day or two – but I’ll have to pick some up and come back and to replace it.”

Do you think the homeowner says, “What a noob!  She doesn’t even have pipe!”  Not likely.  The homeowner is thinking, “I’m glad that the water is back on again.  I hope this doesn’t cost me fortune!”

Now, do you think Jane the plumber went back home and had a melt-down?  “I am such a hack!  I can’t believe that I showed up at that house without that pipe!  That repair was a joke!  I am such a loser!”

Not bloody likely.  She probably put the pipe order in and went to the next gig.

I’m not saying that professionals don’t care.  Professionals do care about what they do, but they don’t get emotionally invested.  They’re professional because they have the skill set to handle what comes up at the gig, not get freaked out and get through it.  They don’t waste energy evaluating what they do – because they’re too busy doing it.

If you find that you’re taking punches from yourself at a gig or a session take a step back and ask yourself, “what would Jeff Beck do?”  and then go tool out your engine 😉

I hope this helps!  As always, thanks for reading!

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Podcast #4: Separating The Suck From Success

Hello Everyone!

Guit-A-Grip podcast #4 is in the bag!

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Subscription Notes:

  • You can subscribe through iTunes here
  • You can use this link to subscribe with any other feed based service
  • or you can right-click here to download it.
  • or you can stream this episode below:

http://traffic.libsyn.com/guitagrip/Guit-A-Grip_Podcast_Episode_4.mp3

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Tech Note:

A trip to Radio Shack netted me a score on a $6 boom stand and a replacement wind screen for my Shure so audio wise hopefully this is a step up from podcasts 1-3.  I’m still sussing levels out (like at the end of the podcast when the music drowns me out a little bit  while I’m hawking my wares so I guess I’ll take that as a lesson to make sure that I keep my energy level up from beginning to end!

Guit-A-Grip Episode #4 – Show Notes

When I recorded this podcast, I was sitting about 4 feet away from Mrs. Collins who was sound asleep but listening back to it, it sounds like a late night cough suppressant commercial!  I hope that no one mistakes my dry delivery on this as being lacksidasical about the subject matter.  It’s just that volume may have subdued my passion.

It’s easy to get sucked into the trappings of using someone else’s definition of success and not realize it. (Hence the title of the podcast). One thing alluded to in the podcast (but not stated out right) is that as an artist, you need to have as objective a view about your skill set as you can.  Telling yourself that you suck at something isn’t going to make you better at it.

At a certain point, everyone sucks at everything.

It’s called being a baby.

You have no skills as a baby.  You suck at walking, at talking, Hell even craping in a socially acceptable manner is a dismal failure.  However, you learn all of those skills – because they’re just skill sets and behaviors that you have to learn – and no one expects you to be awesome at anything out of the gate.

So you’re not a baby anymore, but adopting a mindset that everything is a skill that can be learned will probably help you grow much faster than adopting a mindset that says, “I suck at this.”  There’s a story in the podcast that touches on this idea as well.

Mindsets

This is the topic of a whole other podcast, but the important thing to note about mindsets is that they can be changed.

As humans, we have the capacity to be adaptive individuals.

The good news is that you don’t have to maintain a defeatist mindset.

The “bad news” is that you have to be self-aware enough to understand your mindset, and emotionally distant enough to analyze your reaction and make a conscious decision to react to situations differently.

That requires habitual behavior, awareness and discipline.

A topic for another time…but something to consider as this podcast rolls along.

I hope the thoughts on success help! If you like the podcast please let me know. If you really like it – leaving a rating on iTunes would be really appreciated.

More posts and podcasts are on their way. Thanks again!

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Detriment Versus Determination

I wanted to take a moment to talk about balance in terms of vision, execution and success.  And I’d like to do this because, in what has been a challenging transition moving to NY,  I’ve come across a number of posts with well-meaning advice that all seem to work on the universal formula of: following your vision = success.

“You will always be successful if you follow your vision.”

That’s just simply not true.

It’s not only a case of gleaning the wrong lesson from a given situation, it’s a case of giving advice to people that makes them think that they’ve failed when they followed their vision and it didn’t bring them the result that they planned on.

Detriment

I’ve talked here before about the television show Shark Tank (and the much better BBC series Dragon’s Den that it’s based on), and one thing that happens consistently on the show(s) is people investing everything they have (and more) into a bad business.  They’ll present an idea that might seem novel, but when the investors get into the financials it becomes obvious that the business isn’t working.

It’s heartbreaking to watch because, as an outside observer, you can immediately see it’s a bad investment.  The people who have created it however are so passionate and have invested so much of themselves that they’re convinced turning the business around is merely a matter of determination.  They’re convinced that if they just keep at it and invest more money into it, it will succeed.  They’re convinced that it’s some shortage of resources, execution or acumen that’s causing the business to fail.

The Golem

The history of the Golem goes back much earlier in Jewish folklore than the story that I’m telling here,  but the most famous story of the Golem dates back to 16th century Prague.  Rabbi Loew, the chief Rabbi in the Prague ghetto, sculpted a figure out of mud (The Golem) and then (through a secret series of steps) brought him to life to protect the locals from antisemitic attacks.  The Golem went on a murderous rampage and to be stopped, Rabbi Loew erased the first letter of the word “emet” (truth or reality) on the Golem’s forehead leaving the Hebrew word “met” (dead).  The Golem turned back to lifeless mud and, legend has it, was taken to Rabbi Loew’s attic to be reactivated in the event that it was needed again.

Redefining “Success”

Now I don’t think that I’m telling tales out of school, but you can devote the rest of your life to carving anthropomorphic shapes out of the dirt and not make a golem.  Maybe you’ll prove me wrong!  But I don’t think that it’s a constructive use of time – if you’re trying to make a rampaging golem.

If, however, you like working with your hands and like sculpting golems you might find yourself getting good at it.  You might start creating something unique that gets the attention of other people, who ask if you could make a smaller version out of clay.  Or perhaps you document all of the golems that you create with photographs and release a photo book on The Golem project.

The point is, you can be successful in whatever you do but

  • it might not be the success that you planned on
  • any alternative success will only come out of hard, passionate work of high quality that connects with other people.
  • Finding alternate success requires being open to other possibilities.

Determination – A Guitar Story

When I went to Berklee, I had a couple of hometown awards for playing under my belt and had built up quite a bit of speed from practicing the same licks over and over again.

I also didn’t have any formal instruction.  I was practicing things with bad technique in a vacuum.  So while I could play quickly and energetically, I didn’t have anything to say and what I could say I could only express quickly and inarticulately.

I had inadvertently modeled my guitar playing after the way an auctioneer speaks at an auction.

“ihavetwentyfivetwentyfivedoihear3030thirthinthebackdoihear35…”

When I got to Berklee, my first teacher Doug (a killin’ Jazz player – btw), really took me to task on my picking and my timing.  He told me that I’d have to start all over technically.

I was pretty resistant to this idea.  So I said, “to Hell with that” and just kept doing what I did.

And like the people on Shark Tank/Dragon’s Den – my work stagnated.

Sure I got faster, and a little cleaner.  But, as a player I wasn’t getting any better.

Fast forward to going to CalArts. I remember the first lesson with Miroslav Tadic well.  I barely slept the night before and when we met,  I talked about how I wanted to learn repertoire, how I wanted to be able to negotiate odd time signatures in a more fluent way and how I really wanted to work on ornamentation and stylistic elements of Baltic music.

He had me play for about 30 seconds and said, “Your hands are a mess.”  Your fret hand is completely compromised for your playing.”  He told me I’d have to put intensive work in to fix it.

Again, I was resistant to the idea but realizing where I went wrong at Berklee, I decided to give it a shot.  I also took some lessons with Jack Sanders and Jack reinforced everything that Miroslav told me. Then I started the real work.

I started relearning everything that used my pinky.  Ultimately, I had to re-learn everything.

That was a while ago… and I’m STILL working on it.

“Success” – A “Career” Story

One of the primary reasons I went to grad school was because the local music scene I lived in was in a death spiral (in terms of how things had always been done) and I didn’t see that changing in any other scene. I thought if I could get a teaching gig at the collegiate level that it would a.) be something that I could engage in passionately and do really well and b.) give me the financial stability to do what I wanted to do with my musical interests on the side.

When I got out in 2008, the job market was grim.  The following financial crisis made it even worse, and I realized that (in an ever shrinking pool of positions and downsized departments) that (for the few positions I was seeing open) no one was going to even look at my resume without a doctorate.  And a doctorate wasn’t in my future.

I realized that the only way I was going to get into that building was through the back door.  So I worked on books and tried to establish myself more as a player.  And then, I was informed that without a lengthy peer-reviewed process with a limited release on a “name” publisher that no one in academe was going to take my books seriously.

(This despite the fact that no one in academe has released 1200 pages of guitar reference texts, much less done so in the same academic year.  There’s an extended rant in my pocket about the whole outdated academe publishing scam that I’ll save for another post.)

It was the last reinforcement I needed.  For the foreseeable future, I was going to have to go it on my own.

If I viewed going to CalArts solely as a stepping stone to a university faculty position, it would (thus far) be a profound failure.

But I don’t look at it that way.

In addition to the incredible knowledge I got there, my books would never have been done if I didn’t go to CalArts.  I never would have gotten the video game credits I have if I wasn’t there. This blog wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t be writing for Guitar-Muse.

Even more importantly, I never would have met (and played with) people like Miroslav Tadic, Vinny Golia, Randy Gloss, Susie Allen, Wadada Leo Smith, Butch Morris, Carmina Escobar, Daren Burns, Sahba Motallebi, Craig Bunch, Eric Klerks, Sarah Phillips, Andre LaFosse, George McMullin, Don McLeod, John French, Jonathan Wilson or the dozens of other people I was fortunate enough to meet and play with being there.  Some of these people will be lifelong friends and (while my creditors would disagree) you can’t put a price on that.

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In other words, it paid off in different ways and was a success in other ways, but not in the way I initially planned for it to be.

 

And so…

Be determined and passionate and present in whatever you do, but be balanced enough to know when you’re making progress, and when you’re trying to make a Golem.

Like the first lesson that Miroslav gave me, putting that advice into practice might take a while to implement.  But trust me, it’s a good use of your time.

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I hope this helps!  As always, thanks for reading!

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Be Wary Of The “To Kill A Mockingbird” Production Model

Harper Lee

 

I’ve been accused of having pedestrian tastes when listing Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as one of my favorite books, but it’s a decision I stand by.  It’s extremely well written with excellent story telling, indelible characters and meticulous language and focus.  It’s truly a classic work.  

 

Here’s a question though, have you ever read any other Harper Lee books?

 

In case you’re wondering why you haven’t, it’s a trick question as there aren’t any.  A recent compelling documentary, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, has brought to light a fantastic back story about the book.  Airline reservationist and author Harper Lee secured a literary agent with some strong short stories and a personal referral and then saw the original manuscript for Mockingbird rejected by 10 publishers before finding an editor in Philadelphia at a publishing firm who saw something real in the work.  The editor liked the idea but saw a series of short stories instead of a unified novel in its submitted form.   So the two of them went to work crafting a novel.

 

They proceeded to spend two years editing and hashing out the story.  I can only imagine what an exhilarating and agonizing time this must have been for Ms. Lee (she is said to have referred to this period of her life as, “A long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again.”)  but the payoff was a book (and a movie) that became a classic (and a huge financial success).

 

Harper Lee hit paydirt with Mockingbird but while she never stopped writing, she never published again.  

 

Isaac Asimov

On the literary front, an interesting contrast to Harper Lee can be found in Isaac Asimov.  One of the most prolific writers of all time (his Wikipedia page bibliography is approximately 500 books), Azimov was originally a biochemistry professor at Boston University who became a wildly successful and influential author. I don’t know that any of his books have the emotional impact of Mockingbird (and none of them have the civil rights impact that Mockingbird did), but there’s no denying his influence.

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In terms of artistic output,

I recommend that you don’t hinge all your efforts on any one big payoff.

 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of pursuing “perfection” in artistic output (particularly with regards to recording), but in my opinion, you shouldn’t hinge all of your efforts on ONE defining work.  This is applicable to any aspect of artistic work, but consider for a moment bands who hole up for years on end recording, editing and mixing their full length “masterpiece”.

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In addition to the fact that it’s impossible to ascertain how it will hold up over time (I’m sure that there are a lot of former members of ’80s bands listening to the then “hip” electronic drums on old recordings and wondering what they were thinking.), all indications for the current and future economic model for working musicians involves multiple streams of revenue from multiple releases, sources and performance.  

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In other words, you’re going to need a lot of output and it all has to be high quality.  

 

Creating a classic work like To Kill A Mockingbird is like hitting the artistic lottery.  Instead of getting stuck on any one big project, work consistently hard, keep enough perspective to know when a project is done (the subject of a much longer future post) and keep outputting material.  

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As a short term example, 3 four song EPs released over the course of the year might ultimately gain you more traction (and visibility) than 1 full length released every 12-14 months but it will most certainly put you in a better spot that one full length released  every four or five years.

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(In related news, I’m taking my own advice on this and plan on releasing a lot of Scott Collins output that’s been in a holding pen for a while.)

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Stay engaged.

Stay productive.

Make everything you do as great as you can

then let it go and move on to the next thing you do.

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As always, thanks for reading!

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