When will I be Good at Music?

Most of the important decisions in my life have been made with a fair amount of caution.

As a matter of philosophy, I typically lay out all the pros and cons and probability weight the different options to see which choice has the best chance of succeeding. It’s a very boring, finance-y way to approach problems, but I’d say it’s effective if your goal is to minimize risk.

My tendency to rely on data and calculation makes that rare feeling of genuine conviction incredibly satisfying. It’s not that common for me, but there are times when it feels totally right to just viscerally want to do a specific thing.

Doing long distance for 4 years is an example of that. I’d say leaving a stable job in finance is another example.

Getting to that point of just clairvoyantly knowing what you want – without having to second guess yourself – is very rewarding. And I believe that working towards those genuine, personal goals is a very reliable way to be “happy”.

A Meaningful Life Side Quest

I have a long-dated goal of being a modestly successful music producer. I would define this as having a handful of songs with over 1 million hits. I don’t necessarily want music to be the focal part of my identity, but I do want to be really good at it one day.

Just to quickly explain in terms my audience is likely to understand, the process of producing music is kind of like building a song in Excel. You drag around all of the distinct sounds (e.g. the vocals, the drums, etc.) in a specific arrangement within a spreadsheet-like software so that things sound good and balanced. Most people don’t realize that music is constructed like this!

This guy made me realize making beats (and YouTube videos) is super fun

Producing is about arranging different sounds and instruments, like a composer

In contrast, DJing I guess is more like… walking someone through different Excels in a seamless and engaging fashion. This is just to say that producing and DJing are distinct skills and I am not as interested in being a great DJ.

DJing is about commanding the flow of music, like the maestro to an orchestra

I started producing about two years ago and I would estimate that I have about six to eight more years of diligent work before I can create professional-quality music. I definitely don’t kid myself about the amount of work and dedication it takes to become truly good at something – especially to be good at an art!

How Long Does it Take to get Good?

To better approximate where I am on the skill curve to reaching professional quality, I tried to chart out how many hours my favorite electronic music artists have invested in their craft. I accomplished this by going through a bunch of interviews and Wikipedia pages to determine the year each artist started producing. I also scraped a second data point of when each artist released their first “breakout” song (i.e. their oldest song on Spotify with >10mm hits).

  • Notes:
    • Kaytranada’s breakout song was on Soundcloud, not Spotify
    • Robotaki doesn’t have a >10mm hit song yet
    • ODESZA just said they started producing “in college”, so I took the most conservative case and assumed they started as freshmen

I had a couple of observations from this data:

  • It took this list of producers an average of 5 years to produce their first “breakout” song. These are some of the most celebrated producers in the world, so there’s probably a lot of survivorship bias involved, and I’d assume that 5 years is a relatively fast path to success.
  • The goldmine age for reaching fame in music (at least in electronic music) is in your early 20s. That means a lot of these people were grinding in their high school and college years (while I was off doing stupid stuff… like case competitions).
  • I’m guessing that reaching success in your 30s is a lot less likely because if you haven’t already made it by your 20s, you need to shift more time to pay bills and maintain other responsibilities.

If we want to try to arrive at an estimate for sheer hours, we have to make some assumptions about how much these artists were working each day.

Many of these producers put the bulk of their hours in when they were in high school or college, so I’m going to assert that most of their weekdays were somewhat busy. I think it’s reasonable to believe they produced 7 hours every weekend day and 4 hours every weekday. Here, I’m also referring to focused hours of deliberate practice on music production. This would exclude adjacent tasks like practicing DJing, watching tutorials, playing at concerts, networking with other producers, etc.

Over the course of 5 years, if you practice 7 hours every weekend day and 4 hours every weekday, you’ll get to 9,000 hours. If you choose a more aggressive case, in which these producers were working private equity VP hours, then maybe they clocked in 14,000 hours. I hate to say it, but maybe Gladwell had a point.

For me, I’ve probably put in 2 to 2.5 hours per day for the last two years, which is why I think I need an additional six to eight years to reach that level. Yes, I’ll be in my mid-30s by then.

Slow and Steady

I’m often frustrated by my apparent lack of musical progress, which is why I was interested in seeing how long my favorite artists had to work for. The skill curve to get your music sounding remotely professional is incredibly steep.

There’s a legendary quote from radio icon Ira Glass about the body of work and level of determination that is required to be skilled creatively:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass, American public radio personality

I’m realistic – I know that I’ve completely missed the boat on the normal timing for people to reach commercial success in music.

But I don’t care about the obstacles and logic that much, I know that this is something I want to try and do, even though it’s financially unviable and extremely saturated. I want to be like Ken Jeong.

Exploring music production started as an innocuous way to fill the void and to casually combat existentialism, but it’s evolved and honestly, I just really love making music now.

I don’t love music enough to forego financial or physical comfort, but I guess I love it enough to forego financial excess and traditional career prestige.

In full, I suppose the convictions I have are two-fold. The first is the notion that the mastery of music is worth my time and energy. The second conviction, which is actually probably more important, is that I’ll actually be able to support myself with my other online businesses. I wouldn’t be able to put in consistent time every single day if I had to work a normal job.

The second conviction is not a guarantee, but I’m starting to believe that that’s likely too.