Posts Tagged ‘ Project Management ’

How to start a collaboration

I’ve written before about some of the benefits of collaborating with other musicians. In order to start a collaboration, however, you need someone to collaborate with.

Your first choice should be your friends. You already know each other and, more importantly, you already trust and understand each other. Trust and understanding is essential to any successful collaboration. If you have good friends, you’re already halfway there. Even if you don’t share the same taste in music, there are ways to make it work. You might need to be creative!

If you don’t already know any musicians (or they’re not available to work with you), you’ll need to look elsewhere. Go to where the musicians are in your community. Small-scale gigs are often ripe with musicians looking for opportunities. It could be open mic on a sunday afternoon at a local cafe. It could be an indie album launch. Put yourself out there. Soak up the music, make a genuine effort to understand and connect with the music. Think about how a musician’s skills might compliment your own. If you think there might be an opportunity with some musicians, approach them after the show!

Don’t be afraid of rejection. Don’t be surprised if you get knocked back. Not everyone has the time. Not everyone has the inclination to start something new. Not everyone likes your style. It’s not personal. Humans come in many different varieties and flavours. It’ll take a few approaches before you find someone who might be interested. It’ll take a few collaboration before you find someone who really clicks with you. Not every seed grows, but we plant so many because we don’t know ahead of time which seeds will grow. Don’t let it get you down – just keep planting seeds.

When you start working someone, it’s pretty easy to get ahead of yourself. You’re both excited, you’re both keen to create something amazing. Great! Keep that feeling! But don’t be ambitious – start small. Just commit to working on a single song together. Maybe even a small contribution to an existing song. You need to establish a workflow. You need to settle on a common language. You need time to explore each other’s personal taste. So take it slow. Take it easy. Don’t put too much pressure on yourselves to write and record an EP or an album just yet – just have fun and get to know each other.

So fast-forward a few months. You’re still going strong, you’ve got a few songs behind you, and you’re both itching to take on something bigger. Before you embark on a larger project together, you’ll need to sit down together and agree on a few things. It doesn’t have to be a legal contract, or even a formal written agreement. It does, however, have to start with a conversation and a shared understanding of what you’re about to do. At the very least, you should consider these questions:

  • What will be the creative direction for the project? What will it sound like?
  • What will be the creative contribution of each person? What will be the non-creative contribution (equipment, studio space, time, other skills, etc)?
  • How much music are you going to make? Will it be an EP? An album? A drip feed of singles?
  • What timeframe are you working towards? How long will it take? When do you expect to complete it?
  • What’s going to happen when it’s finished? Will you perform it live? Will you sell it online?
  • If there are any costs, who’s going to pay for them? If there’s any income, what will happen to it?
It’s usually a good idea to write down what you’ve agreed. It doesn’t have to be anything formal – even just a plain text file is fine. Even better if you email it to each other so you’ve both got a copy to refer to. The agreement is not set in stone – you can always change it later on if you want (so long as everyone agrees to the changes!). Having it written and distributed, however, will avoid misunderstandings and faulty memories.

Now, get to work!




What’s the difference between workflow and project management?

As concepts, project management and workflow are similar and related concepts, but they’re not interchangeable. They’re not the same thing.

When I discuss workflow, I’m discussing the order or tasks required to reach a goal such as recording a song. Usually a workflow is short and general enough that it can be applied over and over again. For example, a workflow for a recording song might be used ten or twelve times for an album. It’s often a repeatable series of steps that has worked in the past and is likely to work in the future.

Workflow is extremely useful because it provides a degree of measurability and predictability to the production process. It allows you to determine how long it’ll take to complete a piece of work. It will help you schedule the work so that you have a high degree of confidence that it’ll be complete within the expected timeframe.

Project management, on the other hand, is about taking care of the bigger picture. I see it as two sets of activities:

  1. Planning and coordinating. This includes balancing cost and time requirements for different components of the project, recruiting and coordinating people, negotiating arrangements with partner businesses and tracking progress against the plan. Planning and coordinating needs to be done in full knowledge of the time and resource constraints of the project. This is the easy part.
  2. Responding to changes. All projects have hiccups. Humans are beautiful and messy and often unpredictable. Responding to changes can include activities that are primarily ‘mechanical’ – such as rebalancing resources, readjusting schedules and even changing the scope and outcomes of the project. It’s important to understand, however, that responding to changes often requires a human component too. Your artists and collaborators and partners are human beings and have feelings and desires and fears and you need to be mindful of this at all times. When plans change, people can feel hurt or disappointed. They might feel responsible (whether real or imagined). They probably have a different impression of you than you do of yourself – and the less you communicate the greater that difference will be.



Balancing time and money when planning projects

With a project plan, you have an overview before you begin. You know how long it’s going to take, how much it’ll cost, who’s involved and what the outcome is going to be. Delving one level deeper, you know which parts will take the least time, which parts will take the least money, which parts will take the most time and which parts will take the most money.

With that overview, you can quite easily see if you have the right balance. And if you need to adjust the balance, you’ll know how to do it. But sometimes it won’t be clear. Sometimes you’ll have several competing priorities that aren’t even a simple either/or scenario. If you need more clarity, consider the following questions:

  • Can I hire people? Hiring extra help can allow you to translate money into time. It’ll cost more, but it can save you time – either by allowing some work to be done in parallel, or by using an expert who can get the job done faster than you.
  • Must I hire people? Sometimes you want to achieve something that you simply can’t do on your own. Maybe you need a drummer who can play better than you can program samples. Maybe you need a mix that’s a whole level above what you’re personally capable. Maybe you need a mentor or guide (a.k.a. producer) to hold your hand through a bigger project than you’ve previously attempted.
  • Can I do it myself? This is the opposite of the first point. With today’s technology, tools are readily available for almost every stage of production. And with a bit of hard work, you can quickly become competent at almost any stage of production. If you have a project where money is tight but you have plenty of time (and/or friends willing to help), think about opportunities to avoid outsourcing by developing the capabilities yourself.
  • Will hiring a better studio help? This can be an important question to ask yourself if you’re recording an ensemble of musicians. If you try to record them one at a time in your home studio you might have to fight suboptimal room acoustics and inexperience at recording complex instruments (such as strings or drums). Hiring a properly-equipped studio can make a big difference. You’ll also get the extra vibe from having everyone playing together at once.
  • Will purchasing new equipment for this project help? Sure, new gear is fun and you don’t need me to give you an excuse to buy more. However, the right project can be an opportunity to make a purchase that you’d find useful but keep putting off. I’m talking about unsexy purchases like extra SM57s, acoustic treatment, headphones, multicore snake, etc. I’m talking about things that will increase your capabilities in future projects as well but aren’t usually at the top of the ‘things to buy’ list.
  • Can I reduce my time commitment by collaborating? If time is tight, you can gain a lot by teaming up with someone else. If you plan out the workflow and divvy up with work you can achieve a lot more in the same time. This is also a great way to create or enhance relationships and open up other opportunities further down the track. Remember – collaborators can have a variety of motivations. Some people are happy to take part just to be part of something exciting. Some people are happy to donate their time in return for some help on their own project. Some people will ask for payment but reward you with high professionalism.

Most importantly, you need to always consider the creative outcomes of the project. Don’t lose sight of the goal and don’t introduce efficiencies for their own sake. For example, if might not make sense to hire extra help if you’re recording your solo album and you want to do it all yourself. Similarly, it might not make sense to record a band in your living room if they want a slick professional sound. On the other hand, you might have an artist with not much cash but a lot of creativity and willingness to experiment – and quite happy to get a bunch of friends together in your living room for a few weeks.

Ultimately, as the producer, you’re in charge. It’s your call. But don’t be afraid to make the wrong decisions. Get in there, roll your sleeves up and make some mistakes. And have fun doing it!



What is workflow?

Workflow is a term I use a lot, and I use it with a quite specific meaning.

When I use the term ‘workflow’, I’m usually referring to project workflow – a series of processes or stages that a piece of work goes through from initiation to completion.

For example, a typical workflow for a song might be something like this:

  1. Preproduction + Initial vocal demo recording
  2. Instrumentation (bass and drums)
  3. Instrumentation (guitars and keyboards)
  4. Final vocal recording
  5. Edit + mix

Each stage is clearly-defined, having a purpose and outcome. Some stages require particular equipment or people.

With experience, you can establish the needs of a project and determine what workflow is best. Not all projects will require all the above stages. Some projects will require other stages. Some projects are particularly complex and require long workflows for each song. Other projects might be simpler and require fewer stages.

Once a workflow has ben established for each song on a production project, the next steps are to determine how much time each stage requires and to schedule each session. If your plans are realistic, you should be able to spell out exactly what tasks are being done, when they’re being done, and when the whole lot will be finished.

If you do this well, you’ll bring a high level of predictability to your work (your project outcomes – not your music!). In turn, predictability gives you much better control over your projects. With a well-established project plan, you can suddenly provide reasonable answers to these kinds of questions:

  • How much later will I finish if I want to record more instrumentalists?
  • If I get sick for a week, how long will it take for me to catch up and get back on schedule?
  • If I want some extra help with post-production (editing, mixing, mastering, etc), when can I start asking for that help?
  • If I’m likely to find some extra time in a couple of months, how can I schedule my work to be able to take advantage of any extra sessions?
  • What compromises do I need to make if I want to add another song to the album without pushing out the release date?



Endless revisionism

What’s the difference between making one change and making twenty changes after a song is finished?

Here’s a hint: It’s a smaller difference than the difference between making no changes and making one change.

Endless revisionism is a killer for productivity. Most commonly, it’s a killer for completion. Every now and then I’ll see a project (thankfully not my own!) get dragged out way beyond the planned completion date because someone in charge doesn’t know when to stop. It’s a lack of discipline – there’s a discipline is making yourself do the work, and there’s also a discipline in making yourself stop. Without that discipline, it’s all too easy to make one more change. Tweak one more thing. Make one more adjustment.

Here’s the trap: There’s no such thing as ‘just one more adjustment’. Never ever. As a musician or producer or engineer, you’re always developing your skills. You’re always getting better. You’ll always be able to improve on past work.

If you allow yourself to break your workflow to make one more adjustment, you open the floodgates of endless revisionism. You’ll allow yourself to make the second change for the same reason you allowed yourself the first change.

Endless revisionism can have disastrous effects on projects:

  • Projects seemingly go on forever. They turn into the project management equivalent of an amorphous blob – with no clear size or shape. If you don’t know when this project will end, you can’t schedule any following work such as marketing or further production projects.
  • Projects lose creative direction and focus. The longer you direct a project, the more likely it is that your tastes in music will shift and evolve. You can quite easily find yourself working to a direction and creating music that you’re no longer excited about. This is insidious because the shift is usually gradual, so you’ll think you can shoehorn the project into a *slightly* different creative direction. This creates more work, which lengthens the project, which widens the creative direction gap, which triggers the cycle again…
  • Career goals shift. You might start a project as a solo album, but by the end of it you might really want to work on collaborations with other people. Or you might join a band, but later realise you want to go solo. If projects take too long, you can easily find yourself being held back by commitments you made twelve months ago (or longer!).

Maybe it’s not such a problem if you’re a hobbyist who just wants to have fun playing around with plugins, but it’s a different matter if you’re trying to get things done and build a career.

In order to avoid the trap of endless revisionism, you need to accept that any recording is a snapshot in time. It will never be the state of the art – it’s a record. It’s a record of a point in time. You also need to have a clear workflow so you know how much time to give yourself on each task.


PS. Also, be aware that some cases of endless revisionism are actually the result of deeper psychological issues – particularly low self-esteem and a compulsion to impress others. I can’t offer any generic psychological advice on this blog.

Get the plan right at the start

Know what you’re doing, before you do it.

Actually, it’s a bit like seeing into the future. Except you get to choose what happens in the future.

Ok, seriously, it’s called project planning, and any undertaking of more than a few hours can benefit from having a plan. A project plan can range from a single to-do list in a text document to a sophisticated methodology with complex dependencies and dimensions.

“But I’m an artist! I work organically! I take a new approach for everything I do!” Well, first you have to separate (in your mind) the creative work from the workflow. It’s quite possible to be creative and innovative while working within a clearly-defined project structure. Having a project plan doesn’t have to stifle your creativity. In fact, it can allow you to be more creative because you’re not worrying as much about other things. For example:

  • A project plan allows you to use your time more effectively. It can help you make sure you get your work done on time and avoid wasting hours (or days or weeks) on tasks that won’t make a significant impact on the final song that your listeners hear.
  • A project plan also helps you make – and keep – reasonable promises. This is particularly important when you’re working with other people. Knowing what progress you’ll have made at any point in the future will enable you to easily coordinate your work with a collaborator’s work or availability.
Without a project plan, you run the risk of the following death traps:
  • Losing track of your goal. This is common for long projects – especially projects that are longer than anything you’ve previously worked on. Without clear direction and tracking, it’s very easy to find yourself halfway through making something different to what you set out to do.
  • Endless revisionism. This is a real sink-hole for time and creativity. Even the slightest perfectionism is amplified by digital technology – the ability to tweak and adjust and update, and the always-available instant recall of computer DAWs. When you get lost in endless revisionism, who’s going to tell you when enough is enough?
  • Constant crisis. Without taking the time to clearly establish the scope of a project at the beginning, it’s easy to keep adding more and more tasks without thinking about how it will impact the timeline or resources. This results in crunch time when you realise you’ve committed to more than you can comfortably achieve.
  • Lower quality work. This can easily happen if you set yourself a deadline but don’t plan out the in-between work with enough detail. In these situations, it’s common to get about 60-%70% through before realising that there’s too much work to do in the remaining time. In this case you can either extend the timeline, work harder, or reduce the scope of the work.
I’ll go into more detail about project plans and workflow in later posts.