The Beauty of Collaboration


Imagine this: you're writing a song and suddenly you're stuck. Writer's block. Too many distractions in your life. Not enough distractions in your life. Call it what you will, but there's something that's not quite working in your song. There's a lyric that's not quite saying what needs to be said or there's a chord progression or sound that just isn't working, and the worst part about it is that despite your obvious talents and years of experience you just can't think your way out of it.

You could try to let some time go by and come back at it with a fresh perspective, but an even better idea is to get some help with the song. We industry professionals call working with someone "collaboration", and there are a million ways to get help.

You're probably thinking that working with someone will mean that "master use and synch fees," royalties, and publishing will have to be split. I have two answers for you: Pony up buddy boy, 'cause 100% of nuthin is a big goose egg... and for a slightly more sophisticated approach, there are a lot of ways to get help that won't mean having to split all those phat royalty checks.

As an engineer and studio owner, I've noticed that some of the best sessions are the ones where the Songwriting brings in a room full of musicians, gives them a rough idea of what the song is like, and then let's them do what they do best. Musicians are as different as salt and pepper, and these people will think of things to put in your song that you never would have dreamed of or could ever hope to have the chops to play. Yes, it costs money to have these guys come in to play, but in the long run you'll never miss the short-term expense. Best of all, you don't have to pay them writer royalties or split master use fees for their work.

Obviously, you don't have to hire a whole band. Try bringing in just a single outside element like a bass player or someone to sing background vocals on your project, and ask them for advice. Even if they're not a seasoned player, chances are they'll be more than happy to give some suggestions- a bass player might have an idea for a different kick pattern in the chorus, or a singer might have some ideas about what to do on the bridge section that's been so elusive. Almost every big name singer has a core group of people they work closely with. Where would Madonna be without her long list of top-notch producers? Lennon and McCartney--there's collaboration. U2, Elton John, and Hole (just to name a few) work with producer Joe Chiccarelli to help them get their sound.

Another benefit to collaboration is learning how other people approach the craft of songwriting, or the art of recording, or whatever subtle nuance of any musical discipline someone else brings to the table. 17 years of working on protools, and it took a guy who had an MBox for one week to tell me that you could stop recording AND not write a file by pressing command period. After all, it's written right there on the screen during the bounce. That might be techno-babble for some, but it just means that there's a lot to be learned by working with and watching other people no mater what their level of experience might be. While you may never learn how to tap into the source of their inspiration for a particular contribution for a song, at least you'll learn a new approach to a specific situation. Even someone who doesn't have an extensive musical background can contribute greatly to a song--it's all about getting a fresh perspective and seeing things from a different angle. I love it when I do a session with a pro--I learn a ton. The better they are the more I get out of it.

One of the biggest problems for songwriters is not knowing when to call in the professionals. Most of us have some sort of home recording setup, and we record almost all of our music at home in one-way or another. These days we have the luxury of recording on affordable halfway decent gear and if we record things up close, we can get things to sound OK. Few of us have the financial ability to mix on really good gear, and even fewer of us have the ability to mix in a good sounding room on really good gear. After spending so much time on the craft of songwriting, who has time to learn the craft of recording? It really takes all three elements- a good room, good gear, and good ears to make a great mix. Why not leave the mix part for someone else to do? Said another way, collaborate on the mix. Even if you don't live near a big studio, there are a lot of places on-line that can mix your song(s) for you. The price you'll pay for a professional mix is tiny compared to the expense and frustration of constructing and equipping a professional mixing studio. The company I work for, The MixPack, uses a form of collaboration called "Moderated Collaboration," which means there is a set amount of back and forth or exchange of ideas. Both the artist and the engineer have time to bring a bunch of ideas to the table, and these ideas are discussed and then set into motion. The opposite of this might be when each member of an entire band is requesting that their part be turned up- all at the same time.

Don't be afraid to look for outside help on a few tracks. No one is an island, in fact, I've never even met a peninsula. You don't have to get help with every track you create, but in the long run you'll benefit greatly by working with other people every once in a while.

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