Reaper for Live Playback – updated Videos, Feb 2017

Here’s an updated playlist of videos outlining a method of using Reaper for live playback (backing tracks) on stage.

There are five videos:

  1. Import Template: multi-channel routing for your audio interface and setup for midi program change.
  2. Import Audio: how to import multiple tracks to your playback session
  3. Import Audio Custom Actions: explanation of the custom action for importing audio
  4. Navigation Custom Actions: four custom for navigating the set list – Previous/Next Project Tab, Stop and Play
  5. Custom View: some tweaks to the display, including SWS Notes and Project List

If you are using Reaper for live playback, I’d love to hear from you. It’s always great to hear how other people are using Reaper, it’s such a flexible and powerful tool.

Free Download Pack of Custom Actions for Live Playback Here

(When importing audio using the “Import Audio” custom action, it will prompt you to insert a marker – this is where you can input the “stop” command marker, which is “!1016” [without the quotation marks])

The Curiosity Cycle

The Curiosity Cycle

How do we keep learning and improving our technique?

A lot of the knowledge that I employ in my work hasn’t come to me through formal education. I don’t have a degree in music or music technology. I picked up most of my knowledge from colleagues and mentors. Most of this sharing of knowledge was informal and there was no testing or awarding of certificates. I know what works because I have seen it work in action.

I am still deeply interested in all areas of the world of music: performing, recording, technology, technique, philosophy and more. I am continually engaged because there is always an opportunity to develop and deepen my approach to my work. I know from experience that there will always be someone I can learn something from, and they often show up in unexpected places.

There are two attitudes to self-improvement:

1) There’s SO MUCH to learn, what’s the point?

2) There’s SO MUCH to learn!

In my opinion, the first viewpoint (“What’s the point”) comes about when the student doesn’t feel supported in their pursuit of knowledge. If I am not connected to inspiring people or situations, it is very easy to become despondent.

The second, more positive viewpoint comes about when the student is surrounded – and supported – by inspiring mentors and equally curious peers.

Put simply, if you don’t see the world as a universe of potential, try changing your surroundings, and seek out people that inspire and engage you. (If you can’t find inspiring people, go to the library, look on YouTube, find other ways to be inspired.)

Here’s a brief explanation of the diagram above:


What is missing from your practice? What skills are you interested in cultivating? What abilities do you see in others that you want for yourself?


Research the things that you are curious about. Read magazines, source interviews with skilled practitioners, watch tutorials on YouTube.

3. Confirmation

Seek out a real person who already has the skill you are curious about. Check in with them and confirm that you are on the right track.

4. Application

Take these new concepts and apply them to your everyday practice. Employ trial and error. Operate in a state of observation and revision.

It’s quite possible that stage 4 will trigger stage 1 again. The new ideas and concepts might point you in the direction of a new investigation.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there are times when it is wise to avoid getting into this cycle, such as in the middle of a major project, where changing your work style could have a detrimental effect on the end results. In the context of commercial work with clients, the best time to nurture curiosity is between major projects. However, if you have an ongoing creative project that would benefit from fresh approaches, there’s never a bad time to get curious.


A real-world example of applying this cycle:

You hear about mid-side processing, either in conversation, or on a forum etc, and become curious about what it is and how you might use it in your recording or mixing process.

You do some research, read some articles in Sound on Sound, watch a few YouTube videos, check out some plugins that apply M/S processing.

At this point you might even have started trying out the process in your own work. Here’s where it is essential to check in with another professional who is familiar with the technique; personal insight borne of experience will give you a unique view of the new technique you are investigating.

If you can, check in with more than one peer or mentor. Always get a second opinion. Don’t take advice or instruction from just one source.

Lastly, you start applying the technique to your work. At this point, it is important to be aware that the new technique can tend to dominate your process for a while. Keep doing A/B tests to determine if the new technique is actually enhancing your work.


Get A Second Opinion

In my mentoring work, I regularly refer clients to other colleagues, either to look at a specific topic (i.e. synthesis/arranging etc) or to gain a different insight on a certain subject. I know from experience how valuable it is to see things from another viewpoint, and not to place the responsibility for your learning with just one person, institution or tradition.

Quite often I will check in with two or more people about a concept that is new to me, and I will get wildly differing responses. For example, some sound engineers are quite happy to use hipass filters when mixing, and others hardly use them at all, preferring to mostly use shelving instead. The challenge for me, then, is to make sure I understand their reasoning, and find a way to make both approaches work. I can add both techniques to my “toolkit”, and use them according to the needs of the project. Over time I might decide that one way suits me better, and it will become integrated into my personal aesthetic.

I hope this has been useful, and, as always, I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Pushing the Envelope, Staying Ahead of the Curve, the Cutting Edge and the State of the Art

Pushing the Envelope, Staying Ahead of the Curve, the Cutting Edge and the State of the Art

Pushing The Envelope

“One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’… [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.”

   The Right Stuff – Tom Wolfe – 1979

Innovation is a wonderful thing. Innovating in the studio and innovating on stage are two different things. I see the studio and the rehearsal room as laboratory environments; they are where you test concepts and try out new ideas. When we transfer to the stage, there is a subtle difference: the musician is still innovating, trying out new ideas, testing new concepts, but the technology needs to be reliable. By technology, I mean everything from the guitar to the laptop to the video screen to the Joshua Light Show. When the clarinet was invented, Mozart embraced it for what it was – new technology. The piano is an amazing piece of technology, but it needs to be reliable, it needs to stay in tune.

Testing a new aircraft and pushing it to its limits is only possible if there is a reasonable ratio of risk and reward. Putting new ideas on stage that require the use of technology needs the same ratio of risk and reward.

Don’t get confused with technological innovation for the sake of it. Use the technology to achieve the music you hear inside yourself. The technology is there to work for you.

In my opinion, a lot of music technology journalism is advertising dressed up as editorial. Do I need the latest this or that to do my job to the best of my abilities? Probably not. Would I like all the new shiny things? You betcha! Pushing the envelope doesn’t have to mean always having the newest gear. I can push the envelope of my performance technique, my songwriting skills, my knowledge of production and engineering. The tools needed to do this are available in abundance.

Behind The Curve

“Just remember,” Davis told her, “you have to stay ahead of the power curve.” “I don’t understand,” Joyce replied. “It’s a saying they have on aircraft carriers. If a pilot comes in ahead of the power curve, he can pull up and out safely if something goes wrong. If he falls behind the curve and something happens, he’ll crash into the ship. You always have to look out for yourself and stay ahead of the power curve.”

The Execution of Charles Horman, by Thomas Hauser, 1978.

(Disclaimer: I don’t know the first thing about aviation physics.)

There is something interesting about the above quote. In a way, using the phrase “behind the curve” is kind of backwards in the context of the quote. In order to build safety and redundancy into your system it actually needs to be over-powered not under-powered. The phrase “behind the curve” suggests a system that is out of date and not up to the job. Right now in 2016, an under-powered system is a thousand times more capable than anything we had twenty years ago. Setting up your live rig or studio setup with this concept in mind will give you reliability, while still delivering technological capabilities that will more than match the job. Think about it as being “ahead of the  power curve” and you’ll get the idea.

There is a common philosophy in music technology that you should try to keep your system a couple of years “behind the curve” and freeze the state of the system until you are fully ready to upgrade. There are a few different reasons for this:

  1. New hardware and software will generally have a few bugs that need ironing out in the first few months post-release. You need your live rig or studio setup to work flawlessly all the time, so ironing out bugs shouldn’t be part of your daily routine.
  2. If you are in the middle of recording an album, the last thing you want to do is update your operating system only to find that half of your studio peripherals and plugins are no longer compatible with the new OS. Wait until you have a good week or two of downtime where you will be able to safely address any compatibility issues without affecting the smooth running of your business.
  3. When working with a team (for example a touring crew), it’s best to all be using the same version of a piece of software. I just found this out yesterday, when I tried to load an Ableton session I created in my studio on to the laptops we use for live playback. My studio version of Ableton is 9.6, and the touring laptops were on 9.2, so the session wouldn’t load. This lack of backwards compatibility is a really serious issue, and hugely annoying when you need to get on with soundcheck. The only solution was to tether the tour laptops to our phones (because venue wifi was non-existent) and download Ableton 9.6 on to them. Lesson learnt.
  4. Reliability is a different issue in the studio and on stage. In the studio, you need your gear to be reliable so that your clients can come in and get work done. You need your system to work. But a little downtime can be accommodated within reason. On stage, downtime becomes an awful, awkward, gaping grand canyon of dead air. If you rely on technology for your live show to work, it has to be 100% reliable. I have experienced only a few serious equipment failures on stage; one was a playback system freezing up in the middle of a support slot in one of the biggest stadiums in the world. The redundancy system was to have a second playback device loaded up and ready to go, but the backup device wasn’t ready to go, so there was considerable downtime while the issue was resolved. Lesson learnt here was: have a redundancy system that is actually loaded up and ready to go.

Definition: cutting edge


  • NOUN

  • 1The edge of a tool’s blade.
  • ‘tools with cutting edges should be kept sharp’
  • 2[in singular] The latest or most advanced stage in the development of something.
  • ‘researchers at the cutting edge of molecular biology’


Source: Oxford Dictionaries []

To be at the cutting edge implies being in possession of exclusive knowledge and techniques, but if you apply the first meaning of the phrase, “cutting edge” simply means keeping sharp the part of the blade that does the job. Your tools are yours, and not defined by fashion or commerce. Keep those tools sharp and functional, and you will be always be at the cutting edge of things. If you can get on stage and do your job to the best of your ability, you are cutting edge; if a client can walk into your studio and efficiently and effectively realise their vision, you are the cutting edge.

State of the Art

The earliest use of the term “state of the art” documented by the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to 1910, from an engineering manual by Henry Harrison Suplee (1856-post 1943), an engineering graduate (University of Pennsylvania, 1876), titled Gas Turbine: progress in the design and construction of turbines operated by gases of combustion. The relevant passage reads: “In the present state of the art this is all that can be done”. The term, “art”, itself refers to the useful arts, skills and methods relating to practical subjects such as manufacture and craftsmanship, rather than in the sense of the performing arts and the fine arts.[4] – Source: Wikipedia []

I hear the phrase “state of the art studio” or “state of the art technology” quite often. I try to remember that the arts of music and creativity exist outside of the limitations of time and fashion. Technology helps get the job done, but the song existed long before the tape machine. A great song recorded straight to vinyl or on a home cassette recorder is still a great song.

In terms of evolving technology, “state of the art” is like a marker in time; this is where we are, and this is the best we can achieve with this technology right now.

Pushing the Envelope, Staying Ahead of the Curve, the Cutting Edge and the State of the Art. What does it all mean? What am I trying to say?

If you are working in the music industry and you rely on technology to do your job, you might feel a sense of urgency, a panicked drive to constantly upgrade your setup, to stay ahead of the curve. But what if staying ahead of the curve actually meant running an over-powered system so that you could rely on its built in redundancy?

I sometimes spend too much time trying to push the envelope of what I can do with technology, when the simplest approach is usually the one that will give me the most space to be creative and express myself honestly.

What if your approach to your work wasn’t driven by fear, but instead was built upon a foundation of self-belief, a security in the knowledge that your tools were good enough, that you could keep sharp your cutting edge?

If something is “state of the art” does that mean that it is actually highlighting the limitations of a man-made system, showing us the boundaries of our reach? What are the limits of human imagination? Does “state of the art” ever apply to human creativity?

I love technology and I have relied on it for most of my working life. I want to remind myself that there is something far more powerful and abundant than man-made technology, and that is the creative impulse we were born with.

Thanks for reading.

Baby Loss Awareness Week (9-15th Oct 2016) My experience.

Baby Loss Awareness Week (9-15th Oct 2016) My experience.

It’s Baby Loss Awareness week (9-15th Oct), and bereaved parents are being encouraged to speak up and help break the silence around baby loss. I am a bereaved father. I would like to share something of my experience.

*trigger warning – baby loss*

In January 2014, we went into hospital expecting to give birth to our boy/girl twins. The pregnancy had been exceptionally healthy and there were no known issues with the babies. During labour, our daughter fell on her own umbilical cord and died. Our twins were delivered just after midnight. Our daughter was stillborn. Our son was perfectly healthy. We believe that our daughter would also have been perfectly healthy, had it not been for the terrible accident she suffered in the hours before her birth.

The night of the birth was traumatic, devastating, joyful, wonderful, and everything else in between. I still cannot properly describe the mess of emotions we went through that night.

We were very lucky to be surrounded by an amazing team at Gloucester Royal Hospital. I will never forget the level of care and understanding that we received there. After 48 hours, we moved to a smaller maternity unit, and a day or so later, we went home. Leaving the hospital with one child is usually the best feeling in the world for most parents; for us, it was the most bewildering mixture of the deep love we immediately felt for our new son, combined with an almost unbearable pain, impossible to comprehend.

I can now safely say that through most of the first year after the birth, we were in a state of shock. I am forever grateful to the support and counselling we received from our GP, our bereavement midwife, Footsteps in Gloucester, TAMBA, and Child Bereavement UK. We were also (obviously) supported by our wonderful families and friends, and continue to be.

Returning to work, for me, was unknown territory. I learnt a lot about myself, my limits for suffering, and about the importance of working with people that care about your emotional welfare. Two months after the twins were born, I went back to work as musical director for a short tour of the UK. The management, touring crew, and my bandmates were so understanding and supportive, it felt like coming home to family.

It is now two and a half years later, and we are stronger and more at peace.

I read once that love is knowing the beginnings of grief. I didn’t really understand that before, but I think now I do.

If you are a bereaved parent reading this, please know that my heart goes out to you. Maybe time does heal, maybe it doesn’t, but at the very least, time will give you more breathing space between the moments of grieving. I hope you find more peace and less pain.

Advice for friends and relatives:

  • If you are a friend or relative of a bereaved parent or sibling, and you don’t know what to say, just say “I don’t know what to say”. That is good enough. Being present is what matters.
  • Please don’t tell people “you’re doing brilliantly”. People in shock/grief can look really good from the outside – don’t let that fool you.
  • Please don’t say “you should be feeling better by now”. There is no timetable to this. Allow people to be bereaved, it’s a permanent part of who they are now.
  • Don’t say “well at least…” There is no good way of finishing that sentence.
  • Do bring food, even if you just leave it on the doorstep!
  • Do help with laundry, dishes, cleaning etc. It really helps.
  • Be consistent with your support. Call once a month for six months rather than six times in one week.
  • Put dates in the diary for future shared events. It really helps to have something to look forward to.


Thanks for reading. I hope it helps in some way.   John Garden.




Hard Times – Part Three: Personal Challenges

Hard Times – Part Three: Personal Challenges

Here is the third and final instalment of my blog about enduring and overcoming “Hard Times”. I didn’t want it all to be from my perspective, so I asked around for some input from friends and colleagues. The following shows my questions in bold, their responses in italics, and my thoughts in plain text. If it sounds like I’m giving advice, please feel free to ignore it. Take what is useful and leave the rest.


• Personal challenges (being away from family / illness etc).

A response to this below in italics:

“It’s really important to be ill when you are ill.  Anyone who doesn’t understand that is mad.  Ditto making time for family.  It’s all possible if you can calmly but assertively discuss what you want.”

I think the important part of this advice is “what you want”. A lot of the time when I am working on a project, everything feels hugely important, and admitting that I am ill or need some time with family seems indulgent, as if my absence would damage the project (of course, everything is usually just fine without me). Being able to say what I want isn’t always easy for me. Although sometimes, as a performer, you just have to get on stage and do the job no matter what state you’re in, in many other cases it is always possible to negotiate what you need. It really helps me to know in advance what my limits are, before demands take their toll. Unfortunately, I generally only learn what my limits are through hard-won experience….

For a touring musician or technician/manager, one of the biggest challenges is being away from loved ones and friends. Being away from your home and daily routine can also be very upsetting for some people. One of my biggest realisations after nearly a decade of touring was that I wasn’t “OK” all of the time when I was on tour; the overriding emotion that I had spent more than ten years masking was that of loneliness. Even though I enjoy the company of my colleagues and friends on the road, I still miss my family and friends back home. There is a sense of powerlessness about not having the choice to just jump on a plane or train and go home when you’re feeling a bit low. Realising this got me halfway to finding a way to cope with the emotion when it arose. I am most guilty of isolating myself on tour, so I try to make an effort to stay connected with band members and crew. There are always opportunities for socialising, or organising a dinner together. On a few recent tours I started a “fit club” with a few of the crew, which involved some stretching and fitness drills etc. Having this outlet made a huge positive impact on my state of mind during those tours.

• Being out of your depth.

Some straightforward advice:

“Take a step back, listen to what others say and support the goal.”

Being out of your depth is an ideal situation for learning new skills. If I’m out of my depth, it generally follows that I am surrounded by other musicians or crew who are more experienced and knowledgeable than me, so it’s the perfect time to swallow my pride and say “I don’t know how to do that, can you show me?” One of my weaknesses is not being able to make that admission of being less than perfect in a work situation.

Here’s another response (in italics):

“I tend to put my head down and get on with it. It doesn’t last long, this feeling – I learned a long time ago I’m a quick study, and I aim to please. It’s usually a case that I think I’m out of my depth but actually I just need to climb up a level. I’ve only had one or two real “imposter moments”, and even then the work stood up. So I don’t worry so much about this anymore.”

As this contributor points out, being out of your depth is the perfect opportunity to level up.

This can be a scary prospect, and in the past I have called on support from other friends and colleagues in the industry to find the courage and confidence to help me through the process. Knowing that I have allies I can call on when I’m feeling overwhelmed is a huge source of strength.

• Feeling undervalued.

“I feel that most days so partly found a way to live with it.”

I have just had a meeting with an artist/producer manager who said that even some of his most successful clients still say this to him. People who have recorded or mixed multi-million selling albums. They still feel undervalued and unsure of themselves. It almost seems like an industry-wide affliction, at all levels of experience and ability.

Here’s another response:

“On the occasions that I’ve felt undervalued whilst working on a project, it almost always means the problem is the client, not me. Either that or the match just isn’t right and you need to walk away. I feel undervalued (in a horribly passive way) when I don’t have work.”

In my experience, we are only ever undervalued by other people because of their ignorance. Sometimes the client just cannot see the quality of your work. There’s nothing you can do about that. But it is dangerous territory, especially when it comes to valuing your time. As a freelancer who sets their own rates and negotiates their own contracts, it can be very confusing to work with one client who agrees to my “top” day rate for one job with no argument, and then work with another client who wants to negotiate me down to under half of my normal rate the next day.

I realise now that much of what adds value to my work is the years of experience already behind me. It’s not necessarily about what I do on the day, but it’s about the decisions I make based on what’s gone before. I don’t need to impress the client, I just need to do what I do. Sometimes my feeling of being undervalued is compounded by the fact that I over-extend myself unnecessarily. Over-working the job will cause resentment when you are not only undervalued for the job you were asked to do, but you were also undervalued for the extra effort you put in.

I am only now just learning to put sensible boundaries on my efforts, especially if I feel that the client may not value my work.

• Having too much work…

Three responses to this situation below:

“Plan-in time off, enjoy it while it’s there, build a financial buffer.”

“Never, ever a problem – the maxim “if you want something done, give it to a busy man” holds true. I quite like it when it’s like this. At end-of-project crunch time, it’s bearable because it’ll pass.  The only thing I’ve done where it was months of sessions without a break taught me never, ever to do it again. I love my job, music is my life…but I still work to live. I’m not prepared to sacrifice my marriage, my peace of mind or my health for the sake of a gig.”

“This can still happen from time to time.  Head down, drink water, eat your greens, sleep well and try and enjoy what you’re doing (it’s what you chose to do after all, eh?)”

There are a couple of scenarios that are familiar to me with regards to this; one is the dreaded diary clash, and the other is poor time management. An example of the diary clash happens is when a gig is offered to you in the middle of a tour that you have already committed to. As I have said in an earlier blog post, once it’s in the diary, it stays in the diary. Although it can be painful turning down a gig that you might see as more prestigious than the one you’re already committed to, in the long run I think it’s better to be known as someone that honours commitments rather than someone who chases glory above all else…

When I am not on the road, and mostly doing a variety of jobs in the studio, I do struggle to manage my time effectively. As a touring musician, I’m used to meeting challenges head on and trying to find a speedy solution (generally the same day). As I do more studio-based work, I’m understanding more and more that jobs aren’t always started and finished in one day. Sounds obvious, but it was surprising for me to find out how much I needed to shift my preconceptions around work when moving between the two worlds.

• In Conclusion

Something useful that I have learnt from hearing other people talk about being freelance and running your own business is that our business is based on relationships, so the more we can build those relationships, the healthier our business will be.For me, the most dangerous thing is to only think of my clients as an inconvenient obstacle between my work and my income. If I treat my clients as part of an ongoing project (my career), then I can share with them my success and prosperity.

I’ve been working in music for nearly twenty years now, and it’s amazing how much I still have to learn about operating as a freelancer in the music industry. I do quite a variety of jobs, and I find that all of these principles apply, regardless of the actual details of the job.

I hope that you have found some of this useful, and, as always, I look forward to hearing from you. I’ve already had some very interesting feedback and some great suggestions for further reading and future subjects I could write on.

Thanks for reading.


Hard Times – Part 02: Working With Difficult Clients

Hard Times – Part 02: Working With Difficult Clients

I wanted to write a piece about enduring and overcoming “Hard Times”, but I didn’t want it all to be from my perspective, so I asked around for some input from friends and colleagues. The following shows my questions in bold, their responses in italics, and my thoughts in plain text. If it sounds like I’m giving advice, please feel free to ignore it. Take what is useful and leave the rest.


  • Working with difficult clients.

Here are a couple of responses to this question:

“Make an extra effort. Either clients are difficult because they know exactly what they want and you follow their lead, or they are difficult because they are insecure and/or hiding their incompetence with a lot of bravado. Either way they just need TLC.”

“Try and see it from their perspective and work the problem from that angle.”  

I agree with this absolutely. Insecure clients can be very difficult to communicate with. Lots of clear questions and clarifications help.

Another response:

“I’ve usually found a way to get through this for the benefit of the project. My ego kicks in, also, which helps. Despite my protestations I am very good at what I do, and these clients need me.”

Exactly. I try to remember that I am there because of my skills and experience. Sometimes the client may not actually be aware of just how good you are, which can be frustrating.

Here’s a response that I don’t agree with completely:

“I have had clients I would never, ever work with again but I’d rather have a difficult client than no clients.”

As stated above, clients can be difficult in many different ways, but there are always ways that I can choose to engage with – or detach from –  the difficulty. Here are a few examples from my own experience:

  1. Outrageous Demands

The phone rings at 2am. It’s my client. They are calling from another country and they are in the middle of an emotional crisis with another colleague or band member. I take the call and talk them down. Then the phone rings again. It’s the other band member, calling about the same drama. I take the call, talk them down, then go to work in the morning, completely exhausted. My mistake? Taking the call. Having my phone on. I engaged in the drama. The only phone call I should be taking at 2am is from an immediate family member or very close friend. Yet I still took the call, and ended up resenting BOTH clients by the morning. I have heard this kind of thing referred to as “Triangulation”.

  1. Undervaluing/Underpaying

“I’ll pay you £20 to do the work.” The job was going to take two hours. So that’s £10 an hour. After tax, £8 an hour. After my overheads etc, probably just about minimum wage, and I can find a minimum wage job anywhere. Yet, time after time I have engaged in these kind of work agreements simply because I would rather be doing work in my chosen field than anything else. Fear drives this decision. I worry that there will be no other work ever again, so I take anything that is offered. Agreeing to the clients’ low fees puts them in control of my business and, ultimately, my career. I have to decide what my day rate is and go no lower. I have to decide what my hourly rate is and go no lower. When the phone rings or the email pings, if the offer doesn’t match (or better) my going rate, I must politely decline, or offer an alternative arrangement that meets my minimum requirements. So much easier said than done, I know. Negotiating my worth at the start of every job gets exhausting. It really helps to print out my minimum day rates as a reminder, so that they are in front of me when I’m on the phone or writing the email. Remember – if you get flustered in the middle of negotiating fees, you can always say: “Let me have a think about this and I’ll get back to you.”

  1. Overly Emotional or Argumentative / Abusive or Disrespectful Behaviour

Sometimes I convince myself that this kind of situation just comes with the territory of working in the creative arts. When I am feeling confident in my own value, I generally walk away from people that create unnecessary drama at work. It’s not always that easy, though, especially if you are all living on the same tour bus for weeks at a time. I’m sure that sometimes I have been the overly emotional person in the equation. Being away from home, putting yourself on stage every other night, losing sleep, not looking after your health, it can all contribute to a pretty shaky emotional state.

It’s important to learn how to differentiate between normal emotional reactions and toxic emotional behaviour. Frustration and anger aren’t inherently evil emotions, they have their place. Aggression and intimidation, however, should be unacceptable in a working environment. I have encountered this on the odd occasion, and I have to admit that in the heat of the moment it’s hard to know what is the right thing to do. I would like to think that if I ever felt unsafe or threatened, or if I was unable to control my own anger, I would be able to take a step back, sit down with someone I trusted and talk through the issue.

  1. Substance Abuse

Uncontrollable sadness or anger isn’t helped by drink or drugs. Being on tour is an especially fertile ground for substance abuse, because of the likelihood that you will be surrounded by free alcohol on the backstage rider, and possible (probable) offers of drugs from other musicians, crew or fans. Being away from your usual routine, from your home, family and friends can trigger feelings of loneliness, lack of control or even feelings of invincibility, which in turn can encourage excessive drinking or drug-taking. If you are working with a client who is struggling with addiction, you need to look after yourself first. Ask yourself if it is wise to continue the working relationship.

If you feel that you are having issues with alcohol or drugs at work, please talk to a friend, family member or your doctor. There are other organisations that can help you.

  1. Inappropriate Boundaries

Where does a work relationship end and a friendship begin? I have observed over the years that many of my work colleagues have become good friends. This isn’t normally an issue, but if someone who has become a good friend then also becomes a client, there are a few pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t do mates’ rates. Mates’ rates are ok if 90% of your clients are not your friends. The longer you work as a freelance creative artist, the more likely it will be that you will count more and more of your clients as friends and vice versa. So when 90% of your client base are also your friends, it becomes very bad business (for you) to work at mates’ rates for the majority of your income. As someone said to me recently – “Your mate would rather pay you than pay a stranger to do the same job.”
  • If you want to socialise, set aside time to socialise. Don’t bring your social life to work. Monday – Friday: in the studio; Saturday: barbecue. You could be hanging out with the same people all week, but make sure that they know when you are working and when you are socialising.
  • “Can I just pop over and play you a few ideas?” – In this situation I have to decide if this is a paying gig, or something that is in my “creativity for the sake of creativity” category. Most of the time I know if someone is willing to pay me for my time or not. If I think this is a non-paying opportunity, then I add it to my “creativity” time budget. You might decide to budget two days a month to non-paying creative work. It could be one week every month. It’s up to you to decide what is appropriate to your current situation. If you have space in your “creativity” time budget, then allocate it to your friend, and let them know when you can hang out. I have to remind myself that I’m not obliged to give away all my time for free, but I do believe that it’s important to allocate some time to creative exploration. This kind of “free-play” will always feed back interesting ideas into your regular work.
  1. Lack of Commitment

You are doing a great job, but your client isn’t pulling their weight. You’re at the studio at 10am, they don’t show up until 2pm. You know the song inside out, they forget the second verse. You’re ready to mix the song on Monday but they don’t send you the stems until Wednesday. This lack of commitment on the part of the client impacts on your productivity and ultimately your income. This is where your written agreement comes into play. I usually clarify things by email before starting a job; it doesn’t have to be a printed contract to be binding. Put down the dates you are agreeing on, the day rate you are agreeing on, and any additional costs, i.e. travel, accommodation etc. If you envisage that the time budget will overflow, add a contingency fee or additional hourly rate. For example, my mix fee is based on a day rate, which includes two free revisions. After that I charge by the hour for any additional revisions. This avoids endless revisions and encourages the client to think carefully about the revisions they ask for.

You can’t change or control the commitment of the client. You can, however, decide whether or not to engage with that client again. Make sure your terms are clear; set a limit on each project.

  1. Fear of Success

This seems like an oxymoron, but I am finding out it is more common than I realised. I experience it myself on a daily basis. A classic example of fear of success is the never-ending album. The rewrites, the remixes, the alternative alternative artwork decisions; they are all symptomatic of fear of success. As the person working for a client with this issue, it can seem like the job becomes a constantly expanding epic that will never end. As exhausting as the job may seem, the obsessive overworking is still less daunting to the client than the prospect of actually being seen by the world and having their efforts judged.  There are a few options available here – one is to set a time/effort boundary, and let the client know that you have to stop working on the project at a specific point; the other option is to try to coach the client through their fear, and get them to the point where they are ready to let go of the process and finish the job. I don’t think either one is the right way, but the decision has to be made that reflects your best interests. If your health is suffering because the work is spiralling out of control, I would recommend taking a step back. If you believe in the project and the client, then pushing through to the end could be the best decision you ever made.

When I stop and think about it, I believe that if I engage in a working relationship with a difficult client, I contribute just as much to the dysfunction of the relationship as the client, simply by taking on the job in the first place.

Here’s a brief yet very important response from another colleague to the general question of working with difficult clients:


It’s important to remember that you can always negotiate something. Even if the fee is unmovable, you can still negotiate your time. If the client is making outrageous demands, break it down into a list, and agree on the things that are definitely possible, possibly possible, and just plain impossible.

More to follow in the final Part, Part Three, including Personal Challenges, Being Out Of Your Depth, Feeling Undervalued and When There’s Too Much Work…

Thanks for reading. As always, I appreciate your feedback and comments.



©2016 John Garden

Hard Times – Part One: When There’s No Work…

Hard Times – Part One: When There’s No Work…

I wanted to write a piece about enduring and overcoming “Hard Times”, but I didn’t want it all to be from my perspective, so I asked around for some input from friends and colleagues. The following shows my questions in bold, their responses in italics, and my thoughts in plain text. If it sounds like I’m giving advice, please feel free to ignore it. Take what is useful and leave the rest.

Part One – When there’s no work…


“Put the financial handbrake on and call around”


Limiting your outgoings during hard times is obviously a good idea. My favourite part of this advice is to “call around”. Don’t tweet, don’t facebook, don’t email – pick up the phone. In order of effectiveness, using the phone always comes first. Then email. Then social media. But sometimes when we are feeling the squeeze and work has gone quiet, the last thing we feel like doing is talking to other people. In my head I usually imagine that everyone else has a full diary and every job they are doing is a well-paid dream job, so why would they want to listen to me moaning about my situation? But I have to remind myself that we all need support, and the best way to find a solution to a problem is by asking for help. Pick up the phone. Do that first.


“A terrible spiral of self-doubt, self-loathing, worthlessness. Eventually hits a zen-like state or the drought ends. In the former, I carry on being ready but stop actively being terrified. In the latter, it’s like a huge burst of energy; like the sun has come out after a very long storm.”


This is such an honest response, and there is a lot of truth in it. When you are freelance, every job that comes in can feel like a validation of your whole self. By that logic, when there are no jobs coming in, it can feel like you are being rejected completely by the world. A little detachment can go a long way. When work comes in, I try to remember that it’s just my business that is being validated, not my whole being. Similarly, when the work goes quiet (again), it just means that I am on the other side of a repeating cycle. More work will come in, and then it will go quiet again. This is guaranteed. It is the reality of freelancing.


There is a very important phrase in the quote above: “carry on being ready”. When I am half an hour away from stage time, I try to be ready – dressed appropriately, gear set up, body warmed up. When I am three weeks away from my next job, I carry on being ready – make sure my gear is all working, my website is updated, business cards printed, showreel current; there are always things you can do to carry on being ready.


“This is a good time to research a new area or write.”


I once met a visual artist who painted during spring, summer and autumn, and every winter he researched a different artist. He would spend all winter reading biographies of that one artist, letters they wrote, doing studies of their artworks. We might not be in control of our work schedule in this way, but we can remember to use the quiet periods to listen to new music or read about the lives of other musicians and creators. One of the most interesting things about reading biographies of creative artists is learning about all the projects that didn’t happen. A boxer once told me “You train 100% because by the time you get in the ring, you’ll only remember 30% of your training.” The same applies to our creative endeavours. What makes it to the stage and what comes out of the studio is always only ever going to be a percentage of the original vision. Keep developing new ideas, keep working on new collaborations. Some of them won’t ever see the light of day, but that is not a problem unique only to you. It’s universal; but we still get to share 30% of our dreams with the world.


“I tend to put my energies into something musical that’s nothing to do with my work – even if it’s only for an hour or two a day, it helps.”


Putting your energies into something musical that has nothing to do with your regular work is a magical enterprise that will generate unexpected results. I highly recommend it. Investigating a different artform can also be very instructive, especially when you go back to your first art and realise how much you actually know already.


“Most importantly, if there is an end in sight to the fallow period it is important to rest and catch up with family and friends.  It may also be a good time to reacquaint oneself with oneself.”

If you’ve been working in the creative arts as a freelancer for more than five years, then it’s likely you have a capacity for very hard work and intense focus. You might not realise it, but you have probably also developed a will of iron, and an ability to withstand a lot of uncertainty and worry. This combination of intense hard work coupled with periods of deep “worrying” is guaranteed to induce exhaustion. Because there is usually no set rhythm to these cycles of productivity and “rest”, it can be very difficult to put in place a regular routine of self-care. In your professional life you have probably developed some very good techniques for being flexible and aware to the moment; remember to apply these skills to your personal, inner life as well.