What the Heck is it?
The RPM Challenge is a creative prompt to musicians: create and record 10 songs or 35 minutes of original music during the month of February. It is free to participate, and it is a volunteer-run community project. This challenge is similar to other challenges like NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month in November) or Inktober (the drawing challenge held every October). The aim throughout all of these challenges is to be creative and get producing.
This all started in 2006, when the staff of The Wire, an alternative newspaper in Portsmouth, created, promoted, and ran the challenge. Once musicians were finished with their albums, they would mail them in, and be asked to pick one song that would be played during the listening party, held the following month. The listening party is not only a time to reflect on your achievements but also connect with other musicians who have completed the same task. These parties are extremely fun and exciting.
The RPM Challenge states on its website: “[The challenge] is not a contest, so there is no winner. The challenge functions solely to give musicians a needed push towards finishing original material and help them achieve a sense of satisfaction. The challenge is open to all participants regardless of style, solo artists or groups, country of origin, language or theme. The albums are then made available for streaming and sharing via an online jukebox, and a listening party is held.”
I personally have participated in this challenge three times. Two times with bands, and once on my own. I can attest, it is the most craze-inducing, stressful, chaotic, and nail-biting experience. I can also confidently add, it is one of the most fulfilling, inspiring, and fun projects I have ever been a part of. For anyone who has written music before and recorded music, you know this is a tall order. Creating that much original content is hard in itself in such a short amount of time. But actually recording it all, when you are not a sound engineer, is a huge endeavor. It teaches you a lot though and makes you think in a different way about how music is communicated. It’s an incredibly humbling and satisfying experience. Each year the number of participants of this challenge grows and grows so I know I’m not alone in this sentiment.
Being a part of this challenge means you also have access to the website, where there are so many other musicians to connect with. Having trouble with background noise on a track? Want opinions on what is the best microphone for recording a chorus of singers? You have a support system to help with that! You can pose questions to your peers, get feedback on rough drafts, and commiserate together as you are up in the late hours of the night trying to edit.
From Newbie to Veteran
But don’t take it from me that this is a fun and rewarding project to take on. Here are some perspectives, from a newbie to the RPM Challenge in 2019 to someone who has done it many, many times.
Raphael Bastek, who goes by the name Bug musically, has been a musician since his high school years. Though he had heard about the RPM Challenge before, he finally took the leap in 2019, completing a solo album titled La journée sera rude.
When reflecting on his experience in 2019, Raphael stated:
the RPM Challenge, though daunting at first, provided a tremendous boon to both my creative output and artistic productivity. I can’t help but think of a quote from the great Ray Bradbury – ‘Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.’ The RPM Challenge applies this mentality to music production. After a month of writing and recording as often as possible, I had crafted some of the best – and some of the worst – material of my artistic oeuvre, and none of that would exist without the RPM Challenge pushing me to do what all aspiring artists should do: create.
When asked if he was participating again this year, Raphael said, “Oh yeah, this year’s album is already extremely ambitious… we’ll see how it shakes out.”
Not surprisingly, the RPM Challenge sees many repeat participants. Jim Rioux has been making music for the challenge for the last seven years. Why does he keep coming back for more? Jim states, “In addition to being a great creative opportunity and the source of what often eventually ends up on my records, it’s greatly enlarged my musical community. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with such folks as Guy Capecelatro III, Sierra D’Amours, Emma Vachon, Pete Duschene, Jonathan Blakeselee, Carand Burnett, Chris Greiner, Mike Wolstat, Marc McElroy, Jacqueline Scott, Peter Donovan, Mark DeCarteret, Bill Bisig, and Kathleen Clancy–all in various capacities and in various arrangements. The band Pale Wallace (with Guy Capecelatro III) was my first project, and we’ve done one every year since. Other bands include KIOEA, Codpiece, Tooths, Water Table Monitor, and Muscle and Memory, to name a few…I’ve never used my own name when recording solo, but have used various monikers, including Cartwheel, They Went On, Go I, and Holocene. This year I’m looking forward to another Pale Wallace project with Guy Capecelatro III, a project with Mark DeCarteret and Kathleen Clancy we’re calling Merkin, and other projects I’ve yet to imagine. It’s truly an exciting time of year.”
Now is the Time
Music is so darn accessible. There have been folks before who have completed an RPM Challenge album all through using music-making apps on the smartphones. There is nothing holding you back from joining in on the challenge. To recap why it’s so great to do:
- It’s free.
- There is a support system built in to help you out.
- You will learn a lot about recording, equipment, and yourself.
- Your creativity knows no bounds. This is a way to let it out!
- At the of the month, you will have accomplished something amazing.