Music Recording Collaboration: What Makes a Successful Collaboration
There’s a lot of value to be gained in working with others. Even if you’re a solo artist, you don’t have to limit your musical expression to just what’s in your head.
Collaborating with other people can bring a number of benefits over working strictly on your own.
1. Covering each other’s weaknesses
I’ve written about this before. There are many tasks and activities involved in music production. Surely there are some you enjoy more (and are more skilled at) than others.
What if you could spend more time doing the tasks you enjoy and less of the tasks you don’t? You’d probably enjoy the overall production process more.
What if you could spend more time doing the tasks that you’re best at, and someone else did the tasks you’re not so good at? The end result would probably be of a higher quality overall.
2. New fresh influences
I’m not just talking about styles and instrumentation – there’s a lot you can do to expand your musical horizons by exposing yourself to a wide variety of music.
Actually working with someone, however, takes it to another level. Not only do you explore each other’s taste in music from the perspective of the end result, but you are also exposed to each other’s work style and processes.
With a good partnership, not only will you expand the way you think about music, but you’ll expand the way you think about making music.
3. Create something you wouldn’t have created on your own
This is related to the previous point. Not only will you learn new things about making music, but you’ll also create a new kind of end result.
This will be new music that neither of you would have created on your own.
Sometimes this can take the form of a combination of two clear styles. For example, if your main style is hard house and you collaborate with someone who’s main style is funky house, you’ll likely end up with something between both, containing elements of each.
Sometimes, however, the end result can be something that neither of you could have predicted. This is especially true when one or both of you have a wide range of musical skills and stylistic appreciation.
4. Reach a new audience
A collaborative release will be of interest to fans of all the collaborators. If there’s not much crossover already, there’s a great potential to reach new listeners who’d appreciate your music.
Of course, this depends on how different your style is to your collaborator’s style. You can expect a greater fan influx from a hard house / funky house collaboration than an acoustic folk / abstract electronica collaboration.
It also depends on how open-minded the fans are. Most people aren’t just interested in one style of music. It’s a bit fuzzy, but you can get a sense of how open-minded an artist’s fans are by the degree of genre-pigeonholing that happens to the artist.
The less defined-by-genre or defining-of-genre an artist is, the more receptive their fans will be to new musical experiences.
How to Start a Collabo
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?
What Makes for Successful Music Recording 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:
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 favorite tea to your favorite 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 realize that there’s a fundamental difference in what each of you is 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.
For collaboration to be effective, each person should have complementary skills – or at least make complementary 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 organizing them
- You both might be great at post-production, so you agree for one person to mix and the other to master.
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.
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. Beware, 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 realize 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 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 through if you put in the groundwork ahead of time.