Entries in teamwork (2)


Collaboration: when it's working, it doesn't hurt

As a result of the "Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies" I took this Spring through Berklee Online, I've been thinking a lot about collaboration. The class format and the students in that class combined to create a highly interactive environment. We were spread all over the world, spanning an entire day's worth of time zones and yet everybody interacted and learned from those interactions. Strangely, though, when the topic of collaborative songwriting came up, many of the students were uncomfortable. Their concerns are similar to those I've seen across most of my life experiences, in music, in software, in school.

Collaboration scares people. It's seen as giving up ones own goals, degrading ones own vision. It's seen as the path to impurity and struggle. Sadly, there are so many examples in the real world to support this. Just listen to anything from The Troggs Tapes (careful there's lots of swearing) to the U.S. legislature and it's clear that working together is hard. Watch any reality TV show or This Is Spinal Tap and you will get a a vivid reminder that collections of people have a hard time agreeing on anything, especially when a shared creative goal is involved.

Despite that, however, there is nothing better than a successful collaboration. When it's working, it really doesn't hurt at all. The ideas flow more quickly and you look back at the end result with awe. The song or other creative work is something that no one person could have generated. Sure, sometimes you end up with the offspring of 100 maniacs but the beauty of creative endeavors is that you can always set one aside and move on to the next. In fact, many of us believe that's how creativity works anyway. Not every creative work is successful, but the practice you get on the unsuccessful ones combines with the raw output of repeatedly trying to assure that you do generate successful works.

Absolutely, though, it takes a different approach to be successful when collaboration is involved. Too often everyone thinks they have an agenda and when that agenda does not get satisfied in the end result, it's a failed effort. That's why it's important to alter the goal. The reason for collaboration is to generate an end product that could only exist through the efforts of many. It is not the product of one person's vision implemented by many. So, you really cannot know how it will turn out based on the first conversation or the initial vision. It will evolve through interaction, conversation and critique. And once complete, every one of the collaborators will see themselves and every other collaborator reflected in the final product.

Does that sound too hard? Do you have to give up too much of yourself to make collaboration work? No, absolutely not. In fact, with the right collaborators, you will find that you express more of yourself, especially your strengths, than if you try to do it all yourself. I'm a guitarist and part-time vocalist. Although the bass has similarity to guitar, I am not a bass player. I understand the mathematics of rhythm and the mechanics of playing a drum kit, but I'm no drummer. I can spend hours sequencing keyboards, bass and drums but experienced musicians can accomplish the same thing (no, really, way better things) in much less time. If I surround myself with the right people, ideas become songs much faster. They don't lose their freshness and excitement somewhere along the arranging and recording process.

So, the next time you find yourself shying away from an opportunity, fearful that interacting with others will erode the vision, think again. Go out on a limb and try writing a song with someone else. Try developing a software product plan with collaborators. Or, just plan a pot-luck dinner for next Saturday night. Then, let yourself revel in the unexpected outcomes. Enjoy the process, the ebb and flow as all contributors' personalities and efforts factor in, flavoring the final product. Then, experience the end product and think back over how each of you contributed and how each of you achieved things that were personally rewarding. With practice, you will be amazed at how much you enjoy the process of reaching the goal, and that the results of your efforts are unique and well beyond anything you could have accomplished on your own.


Collaboration: Better Than The Sum

In my article, So far, the promise of digital music falls short, I discussed the mixed blessings of the digital revolution in music. The revolution began with great promise, leading many of us to believe it would be a silver bullet empowering unknown artists and bands, freeing them from the tyranny of the record industry. Though I place part of the blame on a shift in power from the record companies to major technology companies like Apple and Google, I also much acknowledge my own contribution along with those of my fellow musicians.

The technological progress that has empowered home recording and a project studio in your garage has intoxicated many of us. We have become so engrossed in what the technology does for us that we've forgotten the power of the music itself. All of us are familiar with the sight of ourselves and those around us, shuffling downtown sidewalks, hunched over our mobile phones, tablets and game devices. We no longer talk to each other because we're too busy keeping up with our 100s or 1000s of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

So what's that have to do with music? Well, as musicians we've caught the same disease. We hunch down in our bedrooms, closets and garages. We write, arrange and records songs by ourselves, leveraging technology to fill the void left by the musicians that would have been essential a few decades ago. In the process we've deprived ourselves and our listeners of the real magic that is music.

Until very recently, music was a binding force in the community. It served to communicate a cultural history, shared experiences and catalyzed community gatherings. Musicians joined together to perform, sometimes spontaneously. Without those musicians there would have been no music, given that recording technology and music distribution are very young technologies relative to human history.

This realization hit me hard over the last few years. My struggles adjusting to my new home in Bozeman led me to realize that my own actions have been a big part of my own isolation. I built a recording studio in Redwood City, and proceeded to spend hours and hours alone in it, with the Christmas Rhapsody and Danger, Ltd. sessions standing out as the only real exceptions. That realization has been a major contributor to my vision for the Music Tech Center, but even that vision could veer off track and lead to isolation.

In truth, my most satisfying creative projects have always been working side-by-side with other energetic, highly creative people. Whether in software or music, it's the collaborative energy that has fueled the most interesting and satisfying results. Unfortunately, the displacement of many commercial recording studios by home recording technology has eaten away at the collaborative opportunities in music. I am saddened to see musicians forget the power of collaboration. Much like the commuter with a mobile phone, we tune out our surroundings and write, arrange and record our music alone, place aural and creative blinders around us to shut out the distraction. We forget that the distraction from, and interaction with other musicians is the secret ingredient to most musical creations.

By working with others, we end up with a creation that could not have existed based on the work of one. And, at least in my own experience, not only are the results more interesting but the process is more enjoyable. Being stretched beyond our own comfort zones, trying new things based on suggestions from our collaborators, that's where the real magic begins.

Personally, I need to revisit the role that technology plays in my music. It's a tool, meant to facilitate the process of creating and recording music. It's not an excuse to avoid other musicians, or hide from the audience. Music is notes, chords, rhythms, timbres; it's an aural phenomenon. No matter how it's sonic qualities are generated, in the end, it just matters how it sounds and how it makes each of us feel. The more we remember the joy of experiencing music together, the more we'll experience the power of music.

I encourage you to think about how technology has influenced the way you listen to and create music. Are the tools getting in the way? Have you forgotten how to collaborate with other musicians? What steps can we all take to wrest the musical process from the grip of technology and return it to the people that experience it?