Grant Muller

The RPM Challenge and The Power of Constrained Creativity

rpm_11_tshirt_webIt seems like there is a time-boxed challenge for everything out there on the internet. For writers there is NaNoWriMo, for moustache growers there is Movember. Game programmers have Dream.Build.Play. If you do it, there is a challenge for it, and if there isn’t, you can create one. I’ve always wanted to get involved with one of these little challenges, but find myself unwilling (or unable) to commit the time. It’s either work, running, or remodeling a kitchen that gets in the way. When Tim Alexander asked me to play drums for a few tracks on the RPM Challenge this February, I jumped at the chance.

After that I asked him what the RPM challenge was, and what kind of music he was writing.

The RPM Challenge

The RPM Challenge gives the recording artist a month (in this case the shortest month) to record an entire album start to finish. 10 Songs or 30 minutes. Go. No recording before February 1, recordings must be submitted February 28. Or 29 in a leap year I guess.

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Tim described his music to me as “Big, dumb pop songs”, but that doesn’t really do them justice. Sure, they’re pop, but in the hilarious way that They Might Be Giants are considered pop. The songs are catchy and original, and the subject matter is usually off the wall. This is Tim’s second year with the RPM Challenge, he successfully recorded Backstage Stories in 2010.

The music sounded like a lot of fun, but I had a secret motive for wanting to get involved. Besides the desire to get into one of these creative challenges for the first time, I hadn’t played my drums in damn near a year. I had let my brand new Peavey Radial Pro 1000’s languish due to life’s little setbacks for months. This was the motivation I needed to get my new kit record-ready and my butt back behind the set. I slapped some new heads on the kit, rearranged things a bit, and by the end of January I was miced up and ready to go.

The challenge was a breeze, but of course, I was only committed to playing a few songs. Tim would put the files I needed in a shared Dropbox folder, I would load them up in my DAW of choice, bang out a couple of takes, then send the wavs back to Tim for inclusion in his mixes. Toward the end we had worked out a system that involved me providing a stereo reference mix plus all the unmixed tracks that Tim could use to really dial in the sound he was looking for. It went great, and I got the chance to live a creative challenge vicariously through Tim. Not to mention play my new drums. You can hear the results on the Letter Seventeen Bandcamp site.

Embrace Creative Constraints

I see a lot of potential in these time-boxed challenges. First, they absolutely require focus. I know in my daily routine I bounce back and forth between working, coding, writing, training, reading, and in general not focusing on any one thing day in and day out. For people like me, these challenges are the creative constraint we need to force us to focus on one thing for a short period of time, whether it be a day, a week or a month, and let the other stuff wait for a while. This allows the unfocused among us to continue “unfocusing” most of the time, then really apply our energies at intervals in a concentrated effort to finish just one thing. To borrow an analogy, “Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale”. The same can be said of listening and writing music. If I consider all of my unfocused time as inhaling, gathering information, listening and really forming ideas, I can focus all the data I’ve gathered into one concentrated exhale. Then maybe breathe normally for a while. It’s a bit like Agile software development, you set yourself up to sprint for a very short period of time, concentrate on that and that alone, and come out the other end with something complete.

These challenges also force you to organize your brainstorms into something finished. Sure, with some of the challenges like NaNoWriMo there is a premium on getting as many words on the page as possible, but at the end of the day those words have to mean something for them to be worthwhile to you. You could go all month, typing a dictionary into your word processor, or stringing together 500 disparate riffs into 10 songs and calling it a finished piece, but you wouldn’t really be doing yourself justice. The point is to have a finished work that you can show off at the end. You’ll be proud for having finished, but you’ll be prouder for having finished something worthwhile.

Lastly, there is an emphasis on “shipping” with these challenges. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Steve Job’s, “Real artists ship”, and these challenges have a built-in way of separating the “real artists” from the twiddlers: a deadline. Much has been said about artificial deadlines, but the presence of a community around you, working toward the same goal, in many ways competing with one another to be “real artists” creates some kind of unique motivational magic. From Tim’s RPM page:

2578047960-1I wrote 5 songs in 25 years. Thanks to RPM 2010, I wrote 13 more in 15 days and used 11 of them for my album. My wife had heard me sing maybe 3 times in 17 years. Then I released an album. So I basically went from zero to 60 in a month.

Powerful stuff.

You can check out the fruits of Tim’s labors, Snowbound, at the Letter Seventeen Bancamp site.

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