The RPM Challenge

On January 20, 2010, I signed up for The RPM Challenge. Little did I realize what a huge impact it would have on my life.

I’ve been a musician for most of my life. I took some piano lessons as a kid and I learned to play acoustic guitar when I was in high school. I wrote a few songs here and there and learned a few cover songs over the years. In college I bought a 4-track cassette recorder. I didn’t do a lot with it, but I always envisioned myself as a recording musician. Not as a profession, mind you, but as a hobby.

In February of 2009 I loaded up GarageBand and tried to learn how to record myself singing and playing. I wrote a blog post at the time that ended with “Neither version is particularly good, but I had fun.”  And that sort of summed up what I was doing.

In March I posted this:

I purchased a refurb Mac Mini for the studio and have been setting it up over the past few days.  I think it’s going to help me a lot to have a dedicated system in the studio (a term I use loosely since it’s really just an extra bedroom with a couple of guitars and a mixer).  I’ve been testing things out and I think I’m going to be quite happy with the Mini

I began re-interpreting songs by my friends in the band Sha-Pink.  Their songs are…. odd, to put it gently.  Here’s an example:

By July I had recorded four of their songs, which they featured on their podcast (or “Oddcast”, as they called it). I think that made me a Sha-Pink tribute band.

So there I was – learning how to record and working away on cover songs. Then January 2010 came around and I sent an email to Darrin from Sha-Pink.

Convince me I need to participate in RPM2010.  It scares the hell out of me, and I have no idea how I can do it, but… I think I have at least three songs I can flesh out already.

He wrote back quickly:

You have to do it because it’s WAY FUN. Who cares if you don’t cross the finish line? Less than a third of the bands do.
If the sun rises tomorrow and Letter 17 is not registered to participate in the 2010 RPM challenge, the dead shall walk the earth in search of fresh tasty brains. You don’t want to be responsible for that.

He was right. I didn’t want to be responsible for the zombie apocalypse  So I signed up.

In the first 15 days of February I wrote 13 songs, 11 of which appeared on my eventual album. I learned that I could write. RPM2010I also found an amazing community of supportive people who would read my blog posts about my new songs and give me encouragement and feedback. One person reached out to me and asked for the tracks to one of my acoustic songs. He sent it back to me the next day with layered background vocals.  Another time I made a comment about how listening back to one of the songs I’d just written made me feel like a real musician. I received a response of “That’s because you are a real musician.”

On Sunday evening, February 28, I packaged up my completed CD and mailed it off to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  I had completed The RPM Challenge.  On the morning of March 1, I handed a CD to THE WIFE and she finally had a chance to hear what I had been working on all month.  You see, not only had I not written many songs over the years, THE WIFE had only heard me sing a very few times.  And here I was handing her a music CD with 35 minutes of original music on it.  She listened on her drive to work and wrote to tell me that she liked it and was proud of me.  I surprised her.  I also surprised myself.

I’ve now participated in six RPM Challenges, and I’m about to start number seven. I’ve met and worked with people from around the world, from a guitarist in Spain to a bass player in Canada. I’ve sung along with lovely ladies in Cornwall and Texas. I’ve worked with people in San Francisco and New York.  I made friends with a drummer at work and we formed what we actually call a band, although I still don’t sing in front of others. We’ve since added another vocalist and guitarist from Phoenix. And remember that guy who added backing vocals to one of my songs the first year? He’s recorded with me nearly every year, singing and playing keyboards. He lives in Canada. We’ve never spoken to one another, but we’ve worked together on music for years.

So that all makes for a fine story about how I found a musical community, but that’s not really what this is all about.  RPM fundamentally changed me.  It took me from talking about what I wanted to do to actually doing it. My signature on the RPM forums says it all:

I wrote 5 songs in 25 years. Thanks to RPM 2010, I wrote 13 more in 15 days and used 11 of them for my album. My wife had heard me sing maybe 3 times in 17 years. Then I released an album. So I basically went from zero to 60 in a month.

And it’s true. I also gained a level of self-confidence that I previously lacked.  Why yes, I AM a musician. Seeing the look on people’s faces as I hand them a CD is always interesting.  “So, wait.. this is real?”  Yes.  Yes it is.  They smile and snicker a bit, but invariably I receive an email in a day or two telling me how much they enjoyed my record.

Is my band The Beatles?  Are we going to sell hundreds or thousands of records?  No on both counts. Honestly, if we sold ten I’d be thrilled beyond belief. But I’ve given away a few hundred CDs over the years and I’ve amused people with some songs about donkeys.  I’ve also found an artistic outlet and a way to follow my passion.

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

The RPM Challenge is meant to get artists creating art. RPM stands for Record Production Month. The Challenge is to record and release an album of at least 10 songs or 35 minutes of new, previously unreleased music during February, the shortest month of the year. If you can also write all of the music during February, that’s even better, but it’s not a requirement. Will you release Sgt. Pepper’s?  Probably not. But you might surprise yourself by what you create.

If you’re a musician and you’ve always wanted to do something like this, sign up for The RPM Challenge.  Don’t be scared.  We’ll help you. You’ll might end up with a record. Or you might end up with something more.


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