I’m not a winter person, which I suppose makes me a bit of a fool for having lived the bulk of my life in snowy New England. Every year, the first snowfall would be met with an odd commixture of wonder and apprehension. If it snowed on Christmas, it admittedly added a little magic to the Bing Crosby and twinkle lights. But I’d come to loathe the month of February. By then, the snow became less a magical force and more a fiendish torment, winter a seemingly endless and thoroughly sadistic endurance challenge of light deprivation and wet woolen socks.
Something changed a few years ago that has made the darkened, dead month of February my favorite of the year. It has nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with music and community.
Launched in 2006 by the now-defunct Portsmouth, NH newspaper The Wire, the RPM Challenge was a simple call to action for seacoast musicians: record an album of music–ten tracks or 35 minutes–in the shortest month of the year. In that first year, a little over 200 bands and artists signed up. The following year, it increased tenfold and had spread beyond the seacoast–far beyond; Japan, New Zealand, Europe. There was even a participant in Antarctica.
The “RPM” stands for Record Production Month. “Challenge” makes clear the fundamental notion that has become a slogan: “It’s not a contest. It’s a challenge.” That is, you don’t win anything for finishing.
Only that’s not 100% true. You win quite a bit. By participating, you gain songs you might never have written or recorded. You gain skills that only come from seat-of-your-pants mad dashes to the finish line. You gain insights on to how to budget your time, collaborate efficiently, balance responsibilities with passions. You gain mistakes that you can learn from.
In 2012, I attempted the challenge for the first time. I was a relatively new dad with twin toddlers in the house and a full-time job. I’d grown frustrated at the drought of musical creativity in which I found myself, listlessly playing the same few songs I always played at the occasional open mic. I wanted to write new songs but couldn’t find a way to get it done. I figured RPM might be the jumpstart I needed. I got a couple songs done and plateaued. I thought, “Just not how I work, I guess.”
Except… I’d managed to get more done in a month than I had in the previous year. Maybe the previous two. So in 2013, I tried again. And finished. Ten songs. And I have finished every year thereafter.
The RPM Challenge, by virtue of its time limit, is an incredible motivator. You don’t have time to talk yourself out of something, to second-guess or self-censor, and so you just do whatever crazy thing comes to you because you need to find a way to get it done. Over the years, I’ve written songs about mullets, Tony Danza, Aquaman, Donald Trump’s hair, English grammar, the RPM Challenge itself, and, using text-to-speech, have performed a duet with Siri. Because why not?
But the motivation is just half of its magic. The other half is its community, which reconvenes on the RPM forums every year to talk shop, give advice, collaborate with and support one another. Through the site and the yearly listening parties in Portsmouth, NH, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know dozens of people from far-flung places, people whose advice, support, kindness and artistry have augmented my life in innumerable ways.
Now, the first snowfall heralds the approach of another RPM. Come January, as I walk through the frigid morning air, crystals of ice stinging my cheeks, I barely notice. I’m brainstorming. “What’s the concept for this year’s album going to be?” By February, I’m jotting lyrics during my morning commute, or organizing collaborations with other RPMers, programming drumbeats during my lunch break, listening to others’ demos on the walk home from the commuter rail, and recording guitar, bass, ukulele and everything else a song might need in the cellar when the kids have gone to bed.
Well, not everything else. See, recording vocals at night won’t work, since I’d wake the children. So I record those in my car. Because it’s February, my favorite month, and that’s what you do; you find a way to get it done.