What makes a successful collaboration

Successful collaborations are amazing. You can create something that neither of you could have created alone. You can learn a great deal about music, each other and yourself. You can build a close friendship that’s unlike any other.

But successful collaborations don’t just happen. You have to do them. You have to create them deliberately.

Successful collaborations almost always share the following characteristics:

Communication

This is the big one. If you’re going to work with someone, you must communicate. Probably more than you think you should. You both need to be open and honest about expectations, creative goals and working processes (workflow). You need to be open about personal preferences for everything from your favourite tea to your favourite reverb.

This also means being unafraid to offend or upset. If you’re holding back an opinion because you think it won’t be accepted, you’ll develop a dissatisfaction which can easily grow into resentment and disengagement. If you think your opinion won’t be accepted, you MUST talk about it. Being unafraid to offend, however, isn’t an excuse to be disrespectful. It’s possible to voice an unpopular opinion while being respectful and constructive. Sometimes it’s not easy, but it’s an essential skill for building strong relationships.

If your collaborator has a habit of overruling you or dismissing your contributions you need to address it and turn that attitude around. It might sound weird or feel uncomfortable, but opening such a conversation should start with something like “I feel uncomfortable when you ___. If this is going to work, we need to ___”. It’ll feel awkward (it always does) and it’s hard to strike the right balance between being assertive and being respectful. But you have to do it. If you don’t, Bad Things will happen. Trust me.

Shared creative direction

You both have to be rowing in the same direction. You have to agree on where you’re going and how you’ll get there. You’ll run into all sorts of problems if you have disagreements about what end result you’re both working toward. You’re in for a nasty surprise if – for example – you think you’re recording an album and your collaborator thinks you’re recording an EP. Or if you want to make dance songs and your collaborator wants to go more experimental. You’ll get caught up in numerous minor disagreements before you realise that there’s a fundamental difference in what each of you are trying to achieve.

Having a shared creative direction, however, means you’ll both need to compromise. To achieve something together, you both need to believe in the outcome. And that means giving each other enough creative space. As a simple rule of thumb: you’ll need to compromise just as much as you’d expect your collaborator to compromise for you.

Complimentary skills

For a collaboration to be effective, each person should have complimentary skills – or at least make complimentary contributions. For example:

  • You might be a great producer and mixer, and your collaborator might be a great singer and songwriter
  • You might be a great songwriter, and your collaborator might be a great singer or instrumentalist
  • You might be great at coming up with new ideas and sounds, and your collaborator might be great at refining and organising them
  • You both might be great at post-production, so you agree for one person to mix and the other to master.
There are many different ways to cut and dice the responsibilities. The best way of negotiating and agreeing on this is to start with an understanding of workflow. Once you’ve worked out each step that you’ll (collectively) take to complete each song, you can then assign each task to each person. You should do this together with your collaborator – keeping in mind what skills and capabilities (and available time) each person has.

Having done this, it should be quite clear who is responsible for what. There should be very little ambiguity about when each person needs to make a contribution (and what that contribution is). Just as importantly, there should be very little ambiguity about when each person needs to cede. For example, you might be a great songwriter in your own right but working on a collaboration where the other person is writing the songs. You need to accept that you can (respectfully!) make suggestions, but the final songwriting decisions are ultimately made by your collaborator. Don’t get precious about it – let the other person flex their musical muscles and express themselves.

Appropriate equipment

This should be pretty self-explanatory. Between the two (or more!) of you, you need the equipment to actually do what you want to do. It’ll be hard for a laptop composer to collaborate with a pianist if there’s nowhere to record a good piano sound. You’ll run into trouble trying to put together a great rock mix if you don’t have a good monitoring environment. Good luck recording an intimate vocal performance if you live next to a freeway or airport.

If you’re reading this blog, it should be pretty obvious to you. Most ideas are achievable – especially with modern technology. Be aware, however, that acquiring capabilities that you don’t already have can take time and money. Look out for unrealistic expectations in your collaborators. They might have great ideas – and if they’re passionate and charismatic, they can drag you along with them. If you’re not careful, though, you could end up halfway through a project before you realise you’ve committed to much more than you initially thought. The extra time and expense to acquire capabilities that you don’t already have can be painful. It can put you in a difficult position if you’ve both already invested your time and money into the project.

By conscientiously addressing each of those four factors at the start of a potential collaboration, you should be able to create some interesting music with a minimum of bruised egos or black eyes. Of course, there will always be disagreements and misunderstandings (we’re human after all!), but they can be managed and worked though if you put in the groundwork ahead of time.

-Kim.

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  1. November 26th, 2011
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