“How many songs are you working on right now?” is a question I get asked a lot that I can’t give a simple answer to. On various hard drives scattered around my house I’ve got dozens of unfinished recordings ranging from single melodies to entire songs. On my phone there are almost a hundred more. I’m of the philosophy that musical ideas worth exploring can come to me any place and any time, so I do my best to be prepared when they do.
But being ready for new ideas to find me and not being able to move on from the past are two different things. I can’t speak for every songwriter, but putting valuable time and energy into attempting to transform old demos into new finished songs is almost always fruitless and futile for me. If you’re stuck in a pattern where it feels impossible to let go of your old, unfinished music, here’s some inspiration for cutting ties and moving forward.
Why old demos don’t move on to become finished and released songs
Most writers have unfinished demos floating around for a myriad of reasons; not having enough time, an inability to develop musical ideas, or lacking an overall sense of creative direction are common culprits. But no matter the reason why demos don’t progress, the main thing for experienced songwriters to remember is that your songwriting process can and has resulted in completed and released songs before. Demos stay demos for a reason. Similar to lonely people obsessing over old flings and missed romantic opportunities, it’s easy to dig up old ideas and try to turn them into new music. But if you’re interested in finishing songs and sharing them with the world, you’re better off abandoning old ideas and throwing your weight behind making new ones.
Clearing away the old to make room for the new in music
Newness and the urgency of being able to capture and interpret ideas and emotion in the moment is hugely important in songwriting. This isn’t about mindlessly hopping from one idea to the next, but instead having the discernment to know what ideas are worth working on. I’m sure digging up and finishing old demos works for some writers, but most of us have the best chance of making something good by focusing on the now and not the past. Dwelling on old ideas takes not only time from the present, but also the energy of our intentions. You can’t pull great ideas out of thin air today if your attention is devoted to resurrecting and remedying ones from years ago.
But if you’re like me and insist on listening to your old unfinished work every once in a while, a benefit to be gained besides nostalgia is to try and identify why the music in question never made it past your filters to become complete and released songs. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll have a better chance of weeding out dead-end musical ideas as they happen.
Also, it’s important to note that we sometimes obsess over old ideas because great new ones are hard to come by. Whether the advice of ditching old ideas to focus on new ones applies to you or not, this is something important to remember every time you set out to create something new in music.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.