UPDATED FROM A MARCH 2018 ARTICLE.
Fear is one of the biggest hurdles to making music, like, “What if I produce something and it doesn’t sound good?”, or, “What if no one likes it?”, or even, “What if I realise I can’t do it?”
Producing is a game that can look difficult from the outside, a fact that is not helped by the myths surrounding how it’s done. So in the spirit of helping you get past the fear and started in music production, let’s debunk some of the biggest myths right now:
7 DJ/Producer Myths
1. You need formal music training to start producing
I almost quit my job and studio business to go to music school full-time. I’m glad I didn’t.
I’ve worked with clients and have friends who went to university to study music production, and everyone said that they learned all they needed to get started making tunes in the first few months of their degree course.
Further, the most interesting thing is that all the stuff they learned in those first few months could be found scattered online through blogs and disparate YouTube links, as well as in short courses that collect all that information and present it to you conveniently in one place (including books).
Of course, you don’t get a nice degree to add to your resume plus a piece of paper to hang on your wall, but it then becomes a choice: spend the next decade studying and paying off your student loans for the distinction, or pay a fraction of the tuition fee and learn hands-on at your own pace?
While we’re at it, let’s list some musicians who never went to music school: Prince, David Bowie, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Eric Clapton, Eminem, Jimi Hendrix… the list goes on.
I kept my studio business and continued working in the music industry, and now we’re here. Best decision I’ve made after I graduated.
2. You need to know how to play an instrument to produce music
This is a trap I fell into early on, and one that I find myself tripping over once in a while. Bit the truth is you don’t need to know how to play a musical instrument to produce music. This will make the purists cringe, but it’s never been more true thanks to the digital audio workstation (DAW) since everything happens “in the box”.
For example, to write a piano chord progression you don’t need to know how to physically play the keys on a piano (which takes months and years), you only need to know what notes those piano keys correspond to (a quick Google search gets you this in two minutes), and you can then draw these notes in your DAW.
This mindset saved me from hundreds of hours’ worth of detours trying to learn the physical aspects of playing an instrument. Instead, I focused on understanding how notes are laid out in that instrument, which also means that I can now write parts for guitar, synths, piano, strings, brass, and other sounds in a DAW.
Granted, there is an inexplicable joy in playing music on a real instrument, but don’t think for a second that you need to know how to actually perform with these instruments in order to produce your own dance music. All you need is the laptop that you’ve already got plus some software, and you’re good to go.
3. You have to create all the sounds you use from scratch
Here’s a painful story: I started producing electronic music in a DAW called FruityLoops back in 2000. I introduced my best friend to it a few months after. I had a head start, and I was being a “purist” about it – I designed all my sounds from scratch, refused to add any pre-made loops or music samples and insisted that I record everything myself using a microphone. I even tried creating my own signature synth patches because I felt like I was using someone else’s sounds if I used the stock patches in my hardware synth.
All the while, my friend had already released a four-track EP and was handing it out as burned CDs at gigs. That same friend went on to enjoy a career as a full-time music producer and film scorer.
I was jealous. I was still stuck figuring out how to finish one song, and the more I thought about it the more insecure it made me about my capability as a music producer. It took me nine years of seething before I swallowed my pride and asked him: “How’d you do it?”
“It’s easy. All music styles have patterns, and those patterns use specific sets of sounds. If you know the pattern of a style and then use those same sounds, you can come up with hundreds of songs in that music genre,” he said.
“Getting those sounds is even easier: they’re all in the DAW or available to download online, you just have to use them. Add loops into the equation, and you can come up with songs fairly quickly.”
If someone had told me that when I started, I’d probably be on my twelfth album by now. I’m on my third, so I’ve got lots of catching up to do.
4. You have to make something completely original in order to be a legit music producer
There was a period in my music production career that I tried really hard to create something no one’s ever heard of before. Every time I came up with something that sounded good, I’d trash it because I’d realise that it sounded like a perfectly acceptable chord, or that I’d come up with a vocal part that sounded vaguely familiar.
It took me a long time to realise that, as hard I tried, every track I produced had a little bit of something from another song. It’s human nature – as babies, we copy what adults do, but we do it in our own way. Soon enough, we’re doing everything a fully grown human does, yet we are our own person.
The same goes with producing music – it’s great to aspire to create something that’s been totally unheard of before, but don’t think for a second that you aren’t a legitimate music producer just because you want to make songs that include the essence of songs that you’ve enjoyed through the years.
The truth is, there’s no such thing as an original idea – look at the tech industry. Innovation comes from making something new out of combinations of existing technologies. Microsoft’s Surface comes almost a decade after the original tablet PCs (which were horrible), and the iPhone was hardly the first “smartphone” invented. These two products innovated by taking ideas from different spaces, and then fusing them into something that defined their categories.
If you want to create something “original”, don’t think about making something from nothing – think about creating something from other things, and then putting them all together.
Picasso said it best: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
5. You’re not musically talented / you don’t have a music background, so you just can’t produce
I grew up in a loving home, but not everyone around me was supportive. I liked to draw when I was a kid, but my cousins all laughed and said I couldn’t draw, so I stopped. I told my guitar tutor that I wanted to learn The Unforgiven by Metallica, and he said I wouldn’t be able to play it because I wasn’t a decent guitar player. I tried the drums and was told that I had no rhythm. I tried to sing and my bandmates laughed at how bad I sounded. It’s pretty safe to say I started with zero talent.
Today I’m a beat-making music producer who is also a frontman for a rock band where I sing and play guitar. You get the picture: I was not musical at all when I started – I just leaned into it. Use what you already know to get started, and then learn what needs to be learned as you go along.
Here’s a truth any “creative” will tell you – we all have the same tools at our disposal to make stuff. You don’t have to be a photographer to take pictures. You don’t need to have a million-dollar book deal to start writing. And you certainly don’t need to have a background in music to make your first tune, you just need to try it out and keep at it.
I’d say I’m the least “talented” person in my immediate circle of musician friends, but talent only gets you so far – hard work gets you further.
6. You don’t feel inspired to produce music yet, so you can’t possibly make anything good
Inspiration is a very real thing – it allows producers to work feverishly on a masterpiece and get it done overnight, as if by magic. However, not all great works are done this way. You’ll have a better chance of producing and finishing a song if you knuckle down and work instead of waiting for a stroke of divine inspiration to visit you at some random occurrence.
I’m going to be honest here: If I only produced songs when I felt “inspired”, I’d only have two tracks down. If you ask me, the ultimate source of “inspiration” is a looming deadline.
I love to quote authors when it comes to talking about inspiration. Here’s one of my favourites by the great American writer William Faulkner:
“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”
7. You need to write a chart-topping hit for people to recognise you as a DJ/producer
You don’t need to write a big hit and tour the world to be considered a music producer – think of all the folk who are happily making original tunes, edits and remixes, dropping them in their sets as well as sharing them with friends and building a small base of true fans. They’re music producers, just like all those festival headliners you love. Everyone wants the fame and the followers, thinking that if they don’t amass a millions-strong following on Facebook or Instagram, then they wouldn’t have “made it”, but that isn’t true.
It’s like the myth of the “overnight success”. For instance, people marvelled at a young upstart who came out of nowhere and landed at the top of the charts with an EDM banger, only to realise later on that he had been working hard as an unknown producer for a number of years prior.
That kid was Martin Garrix, and the song was Animals. He’s huge now, but I doubt that he considered him less of a music producer before he got his big break. Fame, fortune, and followers are cool, but you don’t need these to validate yourself as a DJ/producer.
What’s great about becoming a DJ/producer today is that you’ve got all the resources you need to get started. You don’t need a fancy recording studio space, expensive controllers, and costly monitors that weigh a ton. You’ve already got a computer that you use for DJing, as well as a pair of headphones or speakers – now all you need is some guidance to get you through the process of producing your own tunes.
Want to jump in today?
Our All-New Dance Music Formula course is designed to get you from complete beginner to your first pro-sounding tune finished, with just your laptop and any copy of production software Ableton Live. Check it out!
Do you want to become a DJ/producer? What’s stopping you? If you’re already a DJ/producer, what myths did you bust yourself during your production journey? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below.