“Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.” – Julia Cameron

We often want things to be perfect – the songs we write, the way we present ourselves on stage, our improvised solos, our performances, and our recordings. Perfectionism is a tempting trait, particularly when we find ourselves seeking success (or even just making a living at our art).

But the truth is, perfectionism can hold you back. It can paralyze you and keep you from moving forward not only artistically, but in your music career as a whole.

“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” ― Michael Law

That’s not, of course, to say that you shouldn’t strive to do your best and put great music out there. But your best doesn’t necessarily have to mean perfect. For 99.99% of musicians out there, there’s really no such thing as perfect. We’ve all listened back to past performances and recordings and noticed things we wish we’d done better no matter how well we thought we did at the time (if you haven’t, you’re lying to yourself, so stop it).

Perfectionism can especially hinder your progress when it comes time to record an album. The songs have to be beyond compare, the melody and arrangements have to be perfect, the individual performances by each musician have to be faultless, the production and recording quality must be flawless, and the mastering, artwork design, etc. must also be without fault.

But things happen.

If you let perfectionism get in the way, it may take you years to release an album. Or you may never even release it at all.

Everyone is afraid that if they don’t wait until their playing is perfect that they will be shunned, rejected, made fun of and shut down. But that will only happen if you let it. The audience wants you to succeed and they want you to do well. If you show that you are making a sincere effort to do your best, grow, learn, improve, connect, and share what you’re doing, then the audience and other musicians will support your efforts.

Honesty and transparency (dare I say authenticity) are essential to your success, not perfectionism. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, I would argue that we need to make mistakes. We need to be a bit embarrassed or a bit frustrated and sometimes even a little bit angry with ourselves because that’s what motivates us to get better.

Accept that you won’t be the best, that there will always be someone better than you or an album that is better than yours can be one of the most liberating experiences.

At some point, we all get weighed down with self-doubt, wondering if we’re good enough and if the projects or recordings we make available are good enough. The thoughts can be overwhelming and more often than not, we but things on the back burner saying we’ll be ready later and that we need more time. But by waiting for later, waiting for things to be perfect will keep you waiting forever. Over-analyzing and waiting for perfection only prevent you from achieving success.

“If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.” ― Ecclesiastes 11:4

And when today’s audiences demand everything instantly, you can’t take two years or more to put together an album. They’ll forget about you. To really be successful, you have to push out a steady, constant, and consistent stream of content to your audiences to keep them engaged and interested in what you’re doing. You just cannot wait for perfect.

A Personal Example

Just off the top of my head I can tell you a few things that went wrong with my albums – two tracks are mislabeled on “Never My Love” because the company that provided the master put them in the wrong order and no one checked before they went to manufacturing (oops). On “Behind Your Eyes” there are a few issues with the artwork quality because the font was too small and it didn’t transfer to the disc correctly. And that’s not all.

What you also might not know is that the versions of two of the songs from Behind Your Eyes were released as singles prior to the album release and that the versions of those songs are, in fact, different than what actually ended up in the album. In the year or two that it took me to prepare the album, my singing improved dramatically and so I redid the lead and background vocals on both of the tracks. It provided me a “single version” and “album version” of each of the songs, and gave listeners and incentive to download both versions. The fact that I wasn’t perfect in my performance gave me a place to improve and added two items to my music catalog.

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” ― Brené Brown

Mistakes are all a part of the journey to become a better musician and a better person.

So once again, don’t look for excuses as to why you can’t get out and perform or release your record due to the fact they aren’t perfect. Instead, look for ways to make it happen.

This is why I’ve become an avid believer in the single release model.

By releasing one song at a time until you’ve collected enough material for an album, you can test the songs you’re working on and even give yourself time to return to them if you deem it necessary (that way you have an “album” and a “single” version). You can see what works and what doesn’t and then select the best tracks to include as part your album (although I still recommend keeping two or three tracks available only as part of the project).

If a song doesn’t work, if it isn’t good enough, then it doesn’t go on the album, but at least you gave it a chance.

The single release model also allows you to release a constant stream of new material to your audience, providing you with the opportunity to not only improve as you go but give your fans something to look forward to regularly. Although an argument can be made for the anticipation created while holding off until a full album release, you also risk losing the attention of your fans as they are distracted by other artists and releases that come along while they’re waiting.

Of course, the same can be said for the reverse. If you rush to release music and don’t spend the time you need to on recording and writing it, you can turn fans away with sub-par material. There’s definitely a happy medium somewhere between “oh, whatever, that’s good enough” and “it has to be perfect.”

What are your thoughts on perfectionism? What do you think about the release process? Should we continue to record albums or start to shift [back] to the single release model?

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Published by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.