In one day, Beck Hansen and friends recorded an album-length cover of a beloved pop music album. They did it by setting aside time, lowering their guard and letting creative work happen. Anyone with a side-project could learn a lot from them.
Hansen, better known as the singular Beck, is known in popular culture for a cut-and-paste, information-overloaded sound that takes a lot of time to produce, and far more time to release, promote and tour on. For the Record Club project, he took a step back from the standard conception of "Let's make an 'album'."
He rang up like-minded friends and cohorts, got them to agree on an album—the Velvet Underground's debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico—and limited the project to 24 hours. There were no practice sessions or pre-arranged song structures, and no intention to, as Beck put it, "'Add to' the original work or ... recreate the power of the original recording. Only to play music and document what happens." The result? Some pretty striking, and strikingly pretty, music. A total of 11 tracks and one alternate take, and at the end of one really long day, there's this new thing that anyone can listen to, watch videos of and obsess over.
Any musician with a few musically gifted friends could try the same project, but there's a wider lesson for programmers, writers and hobbyists of any stripe. When you're contemplating a new project, or stuck on a big one, consider how Record Club demonstrates the payoffs of creative constraints, definite time frames, and a ban against external expectations to your Big Serious Project.
The joys of creative constraints
Why does Flickr's video service allow for only 90 seconds of footage? Cynically, you could assume it's to save on bandwidth and storage costs, but Flickr says otherwise: It's actually about emphasising original, condensed, in-the-moment content rather than super-awesome World of Warcraft screengrabs. Spending time randomly clicking around Flickr's video pools is scads more tolerable than randomly browsing YouTube's user clips, which, aside from the occasional bit of brilliance, mostly serve as primers on the pitfalls of poor lighting and sound and having a huge amount of time to talk about popular music feuds.
Writer of things creative and productive Merlin Mann provides examples for, and neatly sums up, how creative constraints can paradoxically free you. In the case of so many Big Serious Projects (or BSPs, for this post's sake), setting up a personal constraint scheme—12 songs in one day, 140 characters or less, 20 minutes of no-distraction coding before lunch every day—is simply a way to trick a big part of your brain into thinking that your BSP isn't actually that big, or serious.
In my own case, the BSP is a blog project I'm working on (and not quite ready to link to), one aiming to create a searchable catalogue of restaurants in a certain region. If I start thinking about the competition, the design demands, the future technologies I'll have to implement ("Dear God, what if it doesn't have static page caches?")—it feels like something I might be able to do a little on this weekend, or maybe Monday morning, but wait, isn't my wife's flight arriving then? On the other hand, If I give myself 45 minutes at a Panera to pound on the site's design files, and only those files, I've actually accomplished something. The rest of the BSP is still sitting there, it hasn't melted into a puddle because I refused to quit my day job for it and I'm a little bit closer to knowing just how big it really is.
No-nonsense time frames
Lifehacker editor Adam Pash gave himself one year to design, code and launch MixTape.me with almost no programming or development background. Gina Trapani launched Twitalytic after a few months of coding, knowing that it wasn't complete, but worked, and that folks with real interest would test it out, contribute to the code and help it get even better.
I gave myself two hours in a coffee shop—the max allowed on a Wi-Fi ticket—to put up the framework for my side blog project and write some of the first copy. It wasn't close to finished, and had a few embarrassing glitches, but I got something done and had a handle on how I could make the site work, rather than letting the BSP sit unloved in the corner, occasionally crying out for attention and distracting me from other work.
For a lot of web developers, long before they start integrating a new protocol or platform into their work, they hack together a rough demo over a long weekend to make sure they truly grasp how it works. And a weekend-scale implementation on a personal site usually translates roughly into a 90-day implementation cycle in a business context, which is a reasonably approachable project size.
That's a thought that works on many levels—not the least of which is that your mind may trick you into thinking your project is a big, 90-day "corporate" thing, when it's really something that just requires some guarded free time in the shed this weekend.
Photo by Dustin DeKoekkoek.
Shutting down naysayers
The Velvet Underground & Nico is, to say the least, an album that every rock critic has thoughts on, and has already been covered many, many times over. Similarly, music webapps, Twitter tools and food-obsessed sites have all been "done" before. All of them, though, are still legal and free to think about and work on however, and so is your own project idea, we hope.
If you actually trick yourself into finishing your weekend project and it doesn't change the way we live and work today, you will survive. Your boss at your day job won't find it and fire you for aspiring to something greater than 40 hours a week of whatever they want. Assuming you haven't abandoned your monthly bills and family to hack at your weekend project, you will have a place to sleep and people who will forgive your obsessions.
Better still, as Ira Glass puts it in this previously posted clip, your not-all-that-great stuff will eventually catch up to your tastes. This is what I've taken to telling myself as I find myself unable to knock down an ugly-looking rounded corner, or contemplate rebuilding an entire tag database. Keep pushing, and you'll eventually end up within something you yourself would want to use.
Those are, of course, just my own navel-gaze-y thoughts on how a pop star's side project can inspire. I'd love to hear in the comments how you get your own personal projects done in weekend hacking fashion