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Doing It on Purpose

September 1, 2005
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Understanding the real purpose of any undertaking is crucial to guiding an endeavor to success. When you don't understand the essence of an effort, it is easy to operate from a wrong set of priorities. But in practice, one can easily miss the forest for the trees, especially with projects that involve a lot of detail. Naturally, this problem multiplies in groups because varying interpretations of the mission can produce divergent sets of priorities.

Even two people with the same destination may approach it with very different ideas about the point of the exercise. A friend of mine had quite a learning experience when making his first album. Not only was he finding his way through the recording process, but he was also learning about songwriting and arranging. Most of his learning took place at the sessions; that is, he was writing in the studio, which would have been fine except that the album's producer-engineer preferred a more disciplined recording approach and expected much more pre-production than the artist had done. The producer's objective was to bring the project to completion, while the artist was fashioning an étude out of the album-making experience. Both wanted a finished disc, yet they differed fundamentally on how they were trying to accomplish it. The result was friction between them.

Decision making is surely enhanced by clarity of purpose, too. A soul-funk band that I play with started working on new material that took the band more in a more contemporary R&B direction, which made some members unhappy. In considering the material, I tried to examine the band's real reason for playing. Was it to work the events circuit? If so, then we should learn the material that would please the audience. But if the band existed so that we could play the dance music we liked and see how far we could make that go, then we should choose material according to our tastes.

There is also the “why do I put myself through it?” test. Consider the question of working cheaply or for free. There are many good reasons to do so, such as to support worthy charity benefits, get greater public exposure, widen professional contacts, gain experience, do a favor for a friend, and so on. Time is money, though, as are expenses. So you need to decide whether playing for low pay is actually an investment toward a hoped-for return of some sort.

That said, if after six years you are still working for peanuts in order to enlarge your contact base, you need to ask yourself why you're doing it. By that point, you should have either a bunch of great contacts or some other reason for continuing to work cheaply.

Clarity of purpose once saved me from considerable emotional pain, if not financial loss. I provided the majority of the funding for my band's album, mixed the album, produced the sessions, and called in a lot of accumulated favors to make things happen. I was aware that I was putting a lot on the line for a band that I knew to be volatile. I had to weigh the possibility that I might never see any of what I was owed come back.

After intense reflection, I concluded that if the album turned out the way I realistically thought it could, it would be worth doing as a musical and production statement, regardless of the financial loss. I had access to great facilities and the opportunity to finally make an album the way I thought it should be done.

You've already guessed that I lost all my money, but it's a work I'm proud to have played a part in, and I have never once had a second thought or a regret about the time, the energy, the equipment, or the money I put into making that album. Incidentally, it eventually became somewhat of a cult favorite, not that that helped my bottom line.

It is all too common to realize after the fact that our objectives — or someone else's — were not what they seemed to be initially. All we can do is to continually try to gain and maintain enough perspective to examine all of our possible reasons for doing something, and then discern which is driving us and why.

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