This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

Aspiring musicians are always looking for a common trait in the musicians they love that enables them to make such great music. They figure if they can find this secret trait, they can emulate it to write music millions of people love just like those they admire. Within the first paragraph of this book, I’m going to give away the secret that every musician I know with a huge fanbase understands: They make the music they want to hear, not the music they think their audience wants to hear. They don’t say clichés like:

"This is what's popular and it'll make us rich."

"This is what everyone will be into next year."

“Everyone is doing this now so we gotta start doing it.”

The great musicians of any genre or era let their emotions guide them by making music that fills an emotional need inside of them. After they've expressed that emotion, listeners then connect with it when they need an emotional void filled. Don't get me wrong, not every song that's made by musicians making what they love gets popular. If it were that simple, this would be an essay, not a book. There are tons more moving parts to this puzzle, but this is both the first and most important part of the songwriting process that musicians get wrong. It’s a linchpin that if left missing causes the wheels to fall off since emotionally vacant music fails to have any emotional impact to connect with listeners.

In my experience, every single act that's made music to "cash in" or "get popular" has failed, and every producer I've ever discussed this with has said the same thing. The musicians we've seen passionately working to perfect what they need to hear, go on to have at the very least a small but passionate fanbase (as long as they put in the work to get others to hear it).

Whereas the acts who disingenuously make music to please others can’t even get their significant others to buy a record to support their music. Getting through a song that's made to please the masses is a painful experience. It's emotionless since it’s not guided by authentic emotions. The musical chameleons that imitate someone else write songs with no feeling since it’s only a diluted emulation of another person’s authentic emotions. Instead, this watered down music fills in the blanks of a coloring book, which is the least emotionally resonant art form possible. When you're creating to please others, you always guess at what will be resonant since you can't know what others want to hear. This guessing game leads you down a rabbit hole that makes writing consistently great songs nearly impossible.

No One Wants To Hear Music Made To Please Others

Those who make music with motives of achieving commercial success as opposed to making the music they want to hear don't even want to hear their own music. There's a mind-boggling statistic that 20% of the songs on Spotify have never been listened to once. Just as awful, a large percentage of the songs on iTunes have never even been purchased. There are many reasons for this, but one culprit is there's no feeling to be found in the countless emotionally vacant songs, so even the writers or their loved ones would never subject themselves to another listen to this insincere garbage. Sadly, we've all had this commodity in music form pushed on us at some point in our lives as they strike a pose through music instead of trying to connect with us emotionally.

Whether it's a country music documentary on Johnny Cash or the excellent Stretch and Bobbito documentary on 90s hip-hop, those interviewed talk about "music that speaks from the heart." This music authentically comes from what the musician loves instead of trying to do what someone else wants them to do. There's a reason one of the most overused lyrical clichés is "my heart's a compass" right behind "follow your heart." Every artist creating great music is expressing an emotion, which they let guide them to a sound that makes them feel that emotion in a stronger way.

I know the idea that you need to love the music you make is counterintuitive to the stigma that listening to your music is for narcissistic, self-absorbed douchebags. In 2015, Apple even shamed Jamie Foxx for enjoying his own song in an iPhone commercial. But this trait is the commonality in everyone who makes great music. However, we shouldn't confuse this with musicians never wanting to hear their song again after it's recorded. Writing, rehearsing and recording, along with the paralysis of creative decisions you make along the way, is enough to have a sore spot towards a song for a lifetime.

When Making The Music You Love Collides With Expectations

The love a musician has for the music they make gets complicated with success. Artists suddenly have to keep the money coming in to support their team, who holds a financial interest in their music. To make matters worse, fans have expectations and musicians think they should live up to them in order to sustain their success. Sophomore slumps are often caused by giving in to the expectations of fans, money or commercial success instead of the artist listening to what their heart wants to do, just as they did when no one was expecting anything from them on their debut record.

Humans develop emotionally, as well as the naturally occurring development of what inspires them. Therefore, the music that's emotionally resonant with you changes as your emotions change. Inevitably, you experience different parts of life, evolving along the way. This is why you see your favorite bands struggle after they become successful and continue to grow further from their original sound. They know they get a paycheck by making music they no longer emotionally feel resonance towards. This payday is at risk if they follow their emotions by changing their sound to one that's emotionally resonant to them. This is why you see musicians make big changes to their sound instead of making the record their fans want to hear. They're listening to their heart instead of the sounds of those throwing money at them.

One of the most overused thoughts in rock criticism is that you have your whole life to write your first album, which is why debuts are often the most impressive work in an artist’s catalog. This thought ignores that the artist probably made releases with other bands or wrote all of the songs in the past six months, disregarding older material that wasn’t presently resonating with them. The main thought this neglects is that external forces haven't begun to tug at the songwriter, which is the much more common culprit for a poor showing on a second album.

Whether it's financial gain, writing hookier songs, having a hit or following whatever trend a clueless suit thinks will lead to success, the advice to not follow your most emotionally resonant instincts gets hurled at you the second your music receives acclaim. Instead of being advised to "just keep getting better at doing what you do," an army of “professionals” tries to influence the musician instead of letting them continue the authentic expression of what they feel, which is what made their music connect with an audience in the first place. Time and time again the musicians who resist outside pressures by writing their most emotionally potent truth allows them to sustain writing great songs.

It’s not just the financial gains that tug at musicians after they become successful. As a musician grows emotionally past their old self, an illusion of a catch-22 occurs: they can make their fans happy by making a record of their old sound that's no longer emotionally resonant to them, or they can follow their musical inclinations that their fans may find alienating. Most great musicians know there's no choice but to follow their heart. For example, Blink-182 could no longer do songs about dog farts in their thirties, so they had great success with their huge sound departure self-titled record. Radiohead had to make music outside of the confines of a guitar after OK Computer since they had mastered that expression. Daft Punk can’t make another Homework or Discovery since that’s not what's emotionally resonant to them. They're all following their emotions by making the music they want to hear.

"If there's no feeling there can be no great art ... If there's no feeling, just forget it." – Ray Bradbury

The choice between doing what the fanbase wants versus what your heart is telling you to do is often framed as safe versus risky, but defying what the heart wants is the riskiest move of them all. Fans will say “just make part two of your last album” or “make more songs like ____.” These critiques are regularly seen through the prism of business advice where “the customer is always right.” But what’s definitely not right is trying to make an emotional connection with someone when your heart isn’t present. The only directional concern for a musician should be fulfilling an authentic, emotional expression of what’s inside them since anything else leads to music no one wants to hear.

Badly navigating this concept has doomed many musicians’ careers. When they make the music the fans want to hear without it being emotionally resonant to them, the fans call it hollow and soulless. You can make a list longer than the pages of this book of musicians who make the experimental record they want to make, fans revolt, so they return with an uninspired version of their fan-preferred-sound that never has the emotional impact of when that sound was emotionally resonant to them. To the listener, there’s something missing they can’t place their finger on that doesn’t feel right. This missing element is the emotional connection between the artist and listener.

However, when the band makes the music they want to hear, they either come up with a record that alienates fans or a record that's celebrated. The "safe option" of a crowd-pleasing record only works when that sound is still emotionally resonant to a musician. The only "safe option" is doing what your heart wants since that's the only way your music will continue to be resonant to your audience.

This choice can also lead to musicians regretting their decisions. When I interview musicians who made a record inspired by making more money or what a suit told them to do, they're always regretful they didn't trust their heart by doing what they knew was right. They learn the lesson, but it's too late and their career is done. When the musician does what their heart wanted and it doesn't connect with their audience, they always have a more peaceful demeanor as they don't regard it as a regret. They accept it was all they could do and for whatever reason, their audience wasn't in the same place as them. There's no choice but to make the music you want to hear since the other option is always regret and failure.

This extends past my experience as well. If you watch any documentary on someone who made a great work, the most common correlation between all of them is an artist saying "I made it for myself, there was a void." They wanted a flavor they weren't tasting or an emotion they weren't feeling in other artists’ work. Despite the excessive vacuousness of many stars today, you never hear that they made music to get "made, paid and laid." Even the dumbest genre-defining hair metal bands or pop stars will talk about how no one was doing what they were so they had to make it for the rest of the world to hear.

When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks talks about working with Rick Rubin, she says he lets music be “discovered not manufactured,” which is an artful way of describing the origins of great music. Rubin, being one of the most successful producers in music history with an unparalleled track record that spans both unknown acts and established artists across nearly every genre, has an undeniable understanding of how to craft a great song. He says, “any commercial considerations get in the way. If you think about music that gets on the radio, you won't be using your own voice in its most potent form. Competing and concern about what others think gets in the way of good music.”

It's not hard to figure out why writing songs about your passions results in songs that sound passionate to others. Inherently, these passions are what we feel strongest about, so they'll evoke the strongest response inside us. They compel us to work tirelessly at getting our expression right. When we follow the compass of our emotions, we gain the added benefit that anything we're passionate about puts wind in our sails, which makes any endeavor easier. Ask anyone who has fallen in love as they describe the intense feelings of when someone understands them. When we connect with each other through the emotions in a song, it's very much the same.

  This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.