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Agile music

Written by Tommi on 01.04.2009 12:38:08

Blog image for entry Agile music Now that the first monthly free new Viola-track is online, I'd like to take a step back to observe one really personally interesting reason for our choice to start making music in this manner.


Scrum is an agile project methodology popular in software engineering. The name comes from the weird huddle that rugby players form every now and then during a game, after which, there's a bunch of running and hitting each other going on. The point of Scrum is to accept the fact that at any given time the visibility to what we're actually trying to accomplish in the very end of the project is vague-to-cloudy at best. The past way of trying to battle this problem has been to just polish our crystal balls as ferociously as possible, but as time and again we crash and burn against the problem that it's just not possible to predict future events and circumstances, no matter now hard you polish, you just can't tell in advance how the world will turn while you work on something.

The basis of Scrum is iterations. Short ones. You decide to do something, actually do it, see how it went, check out what kind of world you live in at that point in time and decide what you want to do next. Plain and simple. The point just being that with every iteration you make something that's tangible, demoable and an independent piece of work (in software, for instance, a single completed and functional feature). “Release early, release often” is one of the key beliefs here.

Ever since I was introduced to this methodology and started running projects with it, I've tried to rake my brain on how to apply it to making music and it didn't take too long for me to realize that the equivalent to a software project in music is the album format. That got me thinking about the sensibility of the way we're used to creating albums to see if there's something there that Scrum could be applied to and the problem I constantly ran into was that practicalities dictate a whole lot of the way the process works. Making single finished tracks one by one generally just isn't economically feasible and especially releasing them one by one just doesn't make too much sense, if you want to generate any revenue off them. It's just so much cheaper to rent a studio space for a full day to record an album's worth of tracks than to do them independently.

Viola Music Club = Scrum in practice

The realization that finally made things click was the combination of two things: 1) with Viola, we could just give up on generating revenue from recorded music 2) we could cut down our recording costs down to zero euros due to infrastructure we had already accumulated during the years.

With the new parameters, it was actually possible to find a working method that follows the most important Scrum guidelines. Basically at the very beginning of each month, we have a total tabula rasa to do whatever we feel like at that moment. With albums, you always had to think about the general concept and guide your stuff for a full year or two in that direction and in many ways you could end up in situations where something you did two full years ago was steering your current output and that would often make the last parts of album projects really tedious and difficult to manage. Another problem is that multitasking usually leads to mediocrity. I've been close to really losing my marbles several times when I've had to keep tracks of finishing 10+ songs at the same time, not being able to fully concentrate on any single one of them.

But now, we can put our complete attention for the single track we're working at at the moment. Every single bit of inspiration and care is directed at one target at a time. Also the fact that we're time-boxed (we have a fixed deadline and a very limited amount of time to work on a given track), we're forced to prioritize our work and concentrating on “what provides value” for the track = eliminating waste. Personally, I'm quite capable of working on a hi-hat track for weeks, but with a month of time to make a complete (composed, recorded, mixed, mastered) song, you just need to get rid of non-essential stuff and fix your attention on the key features.

But for me, the most important possibility is to completely reinvent what “Viola” means to us once a month if need be. If we get a huge shared neo-post-grindcore-disco awakening with Riku some month, we never have to wait more than 60 days to get some neo-post-grindcore-disco released.

I feel we did a good job on the first track and I'm very confident we'll be able to push out a good-to-great track each month.

For the people about to ask “but how will you make money in the future”, the answer still is: we never really have and we probably never will. Not much to gain, not much to lose.
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