This is an opinion column. The thoughts and viewpoints expressed are those of the author, Yuan Chang, who produces electronic music under the moniker NUYA.
Last year, I decided to take my biggest dream seriously. I made 52 songs in 52 weeks.
My journey started in 5th grade, when I dreamt about making electronic music. My childhood was categorized by Playstation Ones, trance music and rice soup. I spent lots of time dancing to Malaysian black market techno CDs, running around in circles in the living room. I daydreamed about entering the talent show with my 5th grade crush and performing a choreographed dance to "Heaven" by DJ Sammy. When I turned 13, I was able to finally have my own email and sometime in middle school, my dad sent me an MP3 watch from Malaysia.
It was way before the era of Fitbits and Apple Watches and was a dinky watch with a simple LCD screen, but I felt incredibly cool. I downloaded all of my favorite trance music and listened to it on the bus every day, where it filled the gaps where I wished friends were instead. I dreamt of electronic music, orchestras, and being influential. The type that made people cry. That made people think about the beauty of the world.
But alas, enter an unavoidable 12-year hiatus marked by themes and motifs of not-good-enough-ism, societal and cultural expectations, doing art in the dark, and a stormy sea of capitalism. I replaced music school for a safer advertising major. I swapped my song-making with classical music competitions. I kicked my musical dreams to the curb with the shiny dreams of making millions. You know, that classic story arc.
By the time I was 25, I knew I needed to take back the most important thing to me. I don’t know how I knew, but I at that moment looked at my life as if it were a movie. I was closing a very important chapter of my life, when my biggest project of six years was coming to an end and my longest relationship with an ex-partner was coming to a close. I wasn’t tied to anything, besides the few worn threads to a dream so many years ago.
I asked my brother, who is a techno producer, for honesty. What did he think of me plunging into music? "Well, you have a problem with commitment. You say you’re going to do something and then you do it halfway or move onto the next thing," he told me. Oh. Ouch.
He was right.
And that was the fuel for the challenge. The fuel of realizing I went back to square one after many years. The fuel of not wanting to repeat old patterns and play old stories. My brother told me that if I wanted to get as good as quickly as possible, then I should consider doing a song a week. To consider finishing a song is more important than making the bestsong. That I have to let go of my perfectionism. That good artists are good because of repetition and not solely sheer talent.
Wait—a commitment? To my biggest dream, nonetheless? In The Alchemist, the shopkeeper dreams of going to Mecca but he never goes. Because if he went, he would lose his biggest dream. I couldn’t romanticize it anymore. I would actually have to do it. So I did it.
I didn’t even have a mouse or a keyboard. I was living everywhere—I moved from city to city in Florida on busses, working on my music on the go. Here is the first song I created.
Check out song #13 below. It’s cheesy—I know—but at this point, I was okay with cheesy. In fact, I told myself that if only five songs in my challenge were good, I would be happy. This, however, was was not one of them.
Eventually, I started writing diary entries for all of my songs. "I learned how to say eff it and mess around," reads one.
By song #17, "Give Me Deep," I started to actually like the music I was making. This was during quarantine, when my partner and my brother both lived in this crazy wonderful farm in the middle of Miami. So I cooped up with them. My diary entries got a little more technical. "I learned how to layer synths effectively, I learned to group synths and volume control them, I learned how to use Exhale (AMAZING), I learned to delay things slightly + pingpong for richer sound, learned 's' for solo," one entry reads.
By song #22, "Your Iris, The World," I fell in love with making music. I was going a little crazy while quarantining. I had mega anxiety making this song—until it sounded good. It showed me the reason why I went back on this path. "Probably my favorite one up to date," I jotted down in my diary. "It feels like—me. I calmed down and played instead of trying too hard. Became curious.”
At this time, I was approaching the halfway point. My commitment was super challenged. By the time I got to the 30s, though, my own unique style started solidifying. Just like real life, I guess.
With song #37, I really loved incorporating strings. Repetitive female vocals. I coated on the reverb. I created libraries for my work. I went back to my grandma’s house in Cape Coral and stayed low for a while. My days looked a bit more normal, with exercise, meditation, design, sleep, and eating grandma’s food, sleep.
Song #39, "Seismic Souls," was incredibly important to me. I won "Audience Choice" at the Gamers Music Festival out of 120,000 votes, and my track was chosen to play as the background music for the Opera gaming browser.
It was the first validation I got from the outside world that they liked my music, and it was incredibly surreal. I could hear my child self thanking me that I picked up music again. "The trees told me to write this one with them in mind. I think I did an okay job of that," I wrote.
Song #41 is probably my favorite out of all the songs I’ve done. My best friend April sent me lyrics over the phone, which I took one phrase from and created something that hit me in my soul. "This definitely feels like 9 y.o Yuan + nightcore + nature Yuan," I wrote.
Song #48 is a collaboration I did with a friend named Mila, who has a beautiful voice. She recorded it on her phone, without knowing what the song sounded like, and I produced music around it. “I learned how to do delay time pitch ramp, different kind of basses, ABAC structure, and how to move forward with making songs sound more interesting," I wrote. "I don't like things in this song, but for the most part, I'm happy about it."
By this point, I was in final stretch mode. In other words, I was starting to burn out. I was humbled and exhausted by how much grit it really took, considering I was juggling my remote job at a solar company, leading a community project in Orlando, dance practice, and maintaining relationships.
I decided that my last four songs would be inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender. At this point, my life got really crazy and the last thing I wanted to do was make music on some days. I snuck in 30-minute sessions around all the building projects I had to do. I'd nail in some wood, then go make a little music. I'd go to Home Depot, then add a bassline. It was hectic.
For Song #52, the final song, I went full circle and created a redo of my first song. I made the track on a plane to New York, where I spent hours in the airport trying to finish it. And it finally hit me—I was done. I sat for a while finishing the last notes. I spent New Years toasting to my friends and the end of this challenge.
After a year of challenging myself, I gained some valuable nuggets of wisdom beyond the songs themselves.
- The best artists all sucked at one point in one time. Failure is important to growth.
- It's okay to use others' work as inspiration as long as you end up bringing something new to the table. How else are we going to learn?
- Quantity, not quality. Yes—when we get caught up in making masterpieces, releasing the perfect track at the perfect time and making the perfect brushstroke, we often shoot ourselves in the foot. Quantity turns into quality, if you’re consistent.
- If you let go of your dream, you can ultimately come closer to it.
I became an EDM producer as soon as I chose to be consistent. There wasn’t a benchmark of mastery that I had to jump over with a trophy and society’s thumbs up. It was when I produced EDM everyday. It’s humbling, really—especially in a society that values merit and warps art with its capitalistic hands.
It's also important to note that this was a 26-year journey, not a yearlong one. What people don’t see are the countless number of times I’ve downloaded Ableton, FL Studio, and Logic, only to uninstall it in utter frustration. How I would pass the piano every single day with a promise of, “I’ll pick it back up one day." How much angst and anxiety I had about it.
After all, they say the best time to plant a tree—or in this case, be an EDM producer—was 20 years ago. But the next best time is today. So I don’t regret “wasting” time at all. Now I can comprehend the wisdom of knowing my worth when I start playing live shows. I know how to approach burnout, balance, perfectionism, my attitude, and my health.
And I realize what’s actually important—that we as artists have the potential to heal others and help make sense of this crazy world. While before I might have been fueled by the desire to be rich, and be showered in validation, I now see my journey as a way to target issues like loneliness, climate change, social rights, and women empowerment. Not solely to stroke my ego.
I wrote this to inspire young people to keep creating. I wrote this for those who know music is their truest passion, but distract themselves with other things. All of the producers who see the polished lives of their favorite artists and experience creeping feelings of imposter syndrome. For all young women like me who were told that their art was too weird, annoying, basic, or mediocre. If this is you, I challenge you to do something every week for a year that you love to do for the sheer fact that you love to do it.
I promise you will surprise yourself.