Most bands record their first album with a tight budget for studio time and often no budget at all for extras such as session musicians and guest producers. The instruments they record with are the ones they already own, or ones they beg, steal or borrow. And yet some of the greatest albums ever made were recorded this way. There is an edge to them. You cannot stop listening.
Constraints can be good for creativity. Faced with limitations people improvise, hack and work through problems. If there are fewer choices we are forced to use what we have. And through this process magic can happen.
Contrast that with the choices available to a band that has already had some success. Now there is queue of collaborators, gifted equipment, and endless time to record and to tweak. Would it sound better with another take? More overdubs? Maybe some strings? And so it goes.
The lean sound becomes bloated. The release date gets pushed back. Creative paralysis kicks in. When the album finally comes out there is so much more to it than the first one, and yet something is missing. The infamous second album syndrome has struck again.
This problem is not unique to bands. Many of us wrestle with something similar every day. Technology has unlocked an incredible abundance of opportunity. Sit down in front of your computer or unlock your phone and there is an almost infinite choice about what to do next. It can be overwhelming.
And that is why introducing artificial constraints can be so powerful. Some of the most successful products do less than their competitors, but do more for us as a result.
Twitter limits our messages to 140 characters, and so we are forced to be more concise. Instagram allows us to add only one photo at a time, and so we curate a better feed. Fixed gear bikes allow us to enjoy the simplicity of cycling, without obsessing over gear ratios.
I notice something similar when I watch my two young sons playing. Given too many toys at once and they never seem to settle into a game. Hand them a few pieces of Lego and they can create a whole universe.
This article originally appeared in the Lancaster Guardian, where I am a guest columnist.