How To Collaborate Musically Across The Miles

For me, music is the richest form of self-expression. I find one of the most fulfilling things about being a musician is working with other musicians. I love making things with other people: I love working on school projects, working in teams in the world of business – actually I really love serving on juries. Yes, I love jury duty. I enjoy the process of creative collaboration. Making art with others is thrilling, and emotionally and technically challenging. It requires focus, passion, discipline, vulnerability – and clear communication of goals, expectations, roles and boundaries. Sometimes the excitement of creative collaborative can overshadow attention to the business details like defining process, expectations and roles. That is the stuff of hard feelings that can last a lifetime between musicians.

I’ve discovered that my collaborators need not be limited to musicians who are physically local. Stevie and I embarked recently on two separate collaborative music projects with other artist/producers who are located in LA and England. We just finished a hip hop piece with my stepson, Danny James, a successful musician and producer in LA. Danny took our original song, wrote and recorded three totally new verses sung by another (hip hop) vocalist he has worked with in LA, and then sent us back the project electronically (more on the logistics below). Stevie made a few musical and production changes, and a new song was born (you can watch the lyrics video here, the audio is available for free download on Soundcloud). To have been able to collaborate on a song with a family member who I both love and respect has meant so much to me, I was willing to wait the 6 months it took to complete!

This past weekend Stevie and I embarked on another collaboration with a different artist/producer, Kevin Jones, from East River Studios in London. Kevin came across my Soundcloud account, and left some lovely comments on several of our songs. I checked his music out and was likewise impressed with his most recent solo CD, Cold. Miraculously, within 24 hours, an email from Kevin appeared in my inbox via Soundcloud messaging, asking if I might be interested in putting some backing vocals on a new song he was working on. We exchanged emails, and we were off and running.

We’re now deep into the middle of this project. I just put some vocal tracks down last night. I thought it would be appropriate to write about some of the things I’ve learned so far, both technical and non-technical, in the process:

  1. Social media is a great discovery tool. You can check out another artist’s music via their the Facebook page, ReverbNation, CDBaby, website or Soundcloud account listed in their social media profile. You can easily use social media to make initial contact and put out feelers about collaboration.
  2. Once interest is confirmed, email is the best tool I’ve found for communicating your goals at the beginning of a project. Make sure you are clear about song authorship, who is going to register the song with BMI, ASCAP or SESAC, and what your role is. Are you simply performing (or asking for) backup vocals or a guitar solo – or are you co-writing lyrics and/or music? Who is the primary driver/producer of the project? It helps to be clear about expectations up front. Creating music is an emotional process, not just an intellectual process. Egos are involved. People feel proprietary about their creations – as they should. Be straightforward with your goals for your collaborative project, and try and communicate them as early as possible, before anyone has invested time or emotion. It might seem crass, but it helps to be clear whether any compensation is being offered or asked.
  3. In addition to the .wav project files, send at least a roughly mixed MP3 of the song at the outset, so the other person or team can hear the fully constructed vision for the song using just iTunes or Windows Media Player (or as much as you have so far). This is helpful to me for practicing vocal parts in the car or via my iPhone using my headphones while I am mobile. That way I can listen to the song and work on my parts and am not tied to the studio.
  4. It’s helpful to work with the same music production system – for us that is ProTools, so you can upload and share .wav project files using a file sharing service. Stems are the project files which you load into ProTools, and the basic medium of collaboration. There is generally one .wav file for each track (guitar, vocals, drums, etc.) Wav format stem files are the highest sound quality, and necessary if you are working in ProTools. They are large. You can’t just email them back and forth. I suggest using a filesharing service like YouSendIt or Dropbox. If you are a musician relying on someone else on your end for production, make sure your engineer or producer understands the other artist’s technical setup. We use Dropbox to send the .wav stem files back and forth. Soundcloud is also now integrated with Dropbox, and that is a big help. It can take a bit of time to get the hang of sharing folders and files in Dropbox, and a reliable and fast internet connection is important. It can be frustrating to wait for the files to upload, and sometimes the Dropbox interface can be confusing. Don’t be discouraged up front, once you get this part working, it’s easy to share the project files back and forth. A backup system might be mailing a thumb drive or CD with the .wav files on it, if you cannot get a file sharing system to work.
  5. Email lyrics and a lead sheet (if you are collaborating on instrumental parts). For a vocalist, a lyric sheet (generally just a Word file) is a must-have.
  6. You can also use Skype, Google Hangouts or the phone to have a chat with the other person, although I have yet to use this tool for song collaboration. There is something almost magical about just hearing what the other person has given you in the music. Perhaps I am superstitious about shattering the magic through an overly analytical phone conversation. I have not found it practical to collaborate and write a song live online, but that’s just not my style. I prefer the asynchronous back and forth of file sharing, even when writing with a local collaborator. Whatever your style, the online tools are available to facilitate your own communication style. It might work great for you to write a song live online if that’s what you are used to doing in person.
  7. Document what you are doing and send pictures or video to your collaborator. It creates an additional level of connection. I’m also blogging about the experience so I can share it.

These are all the technical pointers, but there are also some important psychological and emotional issues as well. Making music is deeply personal, and, as anyone who has co-written a song or performed in a band knows, musical collaboration is fraught with emotional landmines. Here are my observations and advice for navigating some of the inevitable “softer” issues that can arise:

  1. Be gentle. Writing music is a very personal creative act. Remember that (good) music and lyrics express people’s innermost feelings, and keep this in mind when critiquing another person’s work. Try to leave their contributions intact as much as possible and simply build on them – don’t edit another person’s work extensively if you can help it, at a least not in the beginning before you get to know someone.
  2. Read and understand the lyrics so you can feel the emotion of the piece. You must be able to relate emotionally to the other person’s work. If you don’t feel it, don’t work on it with them. You won’t be adding anything of value if you don’t relate and can’t express emotion in your contribution. Just say: “I’m not feeling it.” Even if you have already agreed to work on a song, or are in the middle of it, don’t be afraid to tell the other person if you are having difficulty with it. You cannot know for sure how you will feel about a song until you are into it. Depending on whether there is a deadline, you may be able to set it aside and come back to it, but don’t force it if it’s not speaking to you. If it works, it will flow quickly, and you will be motivated to work on it, day and night. Of course, this is all true if there is no money being exchanged. If there is money involved, it’s a different situation, and it’s really a job, not a collaboration.
  3. Be aware that letting others into your collaborative circle will affect existing creative partnerships. If you are truly giving of yourself technically, emotionally and with your time, your existing musical projects and relationships will need to make space to accommodate your new project. Making music with someone should not be a trivial experience. It should move you, stretch you, make you feel emotions and push you around a little – otherwise why do it? For example, you might end up taking time away from your regular musical partners (your band practices or studio time) to work on a new collaboration. This can cause friction. The key is to stay in communication with both existing and new partners. Making music with someone requires a relationship – even if it’s long distance. Make sure your existing relationship is strong enough not to be threatened, and that you don’t exclude it from your other collaborations. Don’t silo. Bring things you learn from one project into the other. Make it a positive experience for everyone, not just yourself. Share what makes you excited and what you have learned with others.

Collaboration is the new black. Popular musicians are finding it a highly successful route, in genres as diverse as hip hop to pop or classical. I hope this post has been helpful to you whether you are already collaborating with other musicians or just thinking about it, I’d love to hear what your own experiences are!

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11 comments

  1. I just thought I’d add a little bit of my perspective to Solveig’s extremely interesting blog. Solveig pointed out very eloquently many of the wonderful advantages to be gained by musicians in internet collaboration and added some sound advice to those considering giving it a go and I entirely endorse all her excellent points.
    Firstly I must state that I am huge fan of musical collaboration in all forms but a firm believer that if it isn’t approached in the right way with the correct attitude, then it has the potential to end up being an absolute minefield for all concerned.

    For most of us who enter into an online collaboration we’re generally coming at it from the position of being unsigned and struggling to sell enough of our music just to cover the cost of the CD manufacture and promotion i.e. No financial backing. Basically I see no difference in collaborating online and working with my musician friends ‘face to face’ – if I invite or ask a friend to contribute to one of my songs then they can, in return, expect the same from me. Call it a trade off if you like. This could take the form of instrumentation, providing vocals, engineering, producing or even just the un-artistic offer of studio time. I see it as a kind of musician/artistes co-operative or community with a ‘you help me and I’ll help you’ principle at its heart and where (unless otherwise agreed) no financial remuneration is asked for or expected.
    Of course, this ‘we are all one big artistic fraternity’ is all well and good, but there will be occasions when the inevitable hard feelings and even legal wrangling can come into play if the ‘collaborated’ song gains some success. If that happens then the goodwill and community feeling can so easily fly out the window. This is always a concern when you collaborate on a musical project but at the risk of being accused of being naive, I think that in this situation the only thing we collaborators can do is trust one another to do the ‘right thing’ and hope that the successful artiste will contact all those involved on the track and negotiate a ‘relative’ fair payment. Otherwise, we’re looking at the less palatable option of all parties signing up to a sort of artistic pre-nup before we start any form of collaboration. Can you imagine what that would be like? I’m convinced that would alienate so many in so many ways and would, in my opinion, be completely self defeating.
    Another collaboration ‘danger spot’ and possibly one of music’s most controversial issues is songwriting and at what stage is it agreed by all when a song is composed and complete. What I mean by this is when does an idea for a song actually become a complete song? There are so many varying opinions on this it’s hard to find a conclusive answer. For what it’s worth here’s my take on it. I consider a song is made up of the melody (chords) singing melody (top line) and lyrics. If you can play and sing a song from start to finish with complete lyrics on just a guitar, piano or any other chosen instrument then in my humble opinion it’s a complete composed song. As far as I’m concerned anything else is just instrumentation or arrangement. There are of course always exceptions to this but generally this is my rule of thumb.
    For me a good example to look at is Paul McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (actually credited to Lennon & McCartney but that’s another story). In my view, McCartney wrote the song on piano (or guitar) and then took it to George Martin who arranged it for a string section. McCartney may have sang the vocal melody over the top, but neither he nor any of the other Beatles played a note on the track or arranged the string parts and yet McCartney is still credited (with Lennon) as the songwriter. George Martin is credited as the producer and arranger, but has no credit on the songwriting even though he was ‘artistically’ hugely influential. Certainly, it could be strongly argued that without Martin’s artistic input the song would never have been as successful as it was.
    The point I am endeavouring to make is that McCartney created a ‘whole’ song from start to finish that could be sung and played on any instrument with or without that wonderful string arrangement. So in my opinion It was a complete song before George Martin had even heard it. George Martin and the session musicians were employed and paid to do a job, and they did that job extremely well. To my knowledge they were never asked or invited, when McCartney first had the germ of an idea that was to become Eleanor Rigby, to co-write the song with him – that, of course, if it had happened would have been a completely different story.
    Traditionally, songwriting tends to be where the big bucks are made and that can often lead to feelings of envy and misunderstanding from collaborators. Music biz history is peppered with bands that have split because of this. There are also many stories out there of musicians bemoaning the fact that songs they’ve been paid a pre agreed fee to play on, which have since gone on to be hugely successful, were only successful because of their riff, intro cowbell part, solo etc., and how it’s so unfair that they only got paid x amount while the songwriter is now earning mega bucks on the back of his or her talent.
    There are many who would have some sympathy with the musician but I personally don’t subscribe to that way of thinking, I have a theory and here’s a little analogy I use to explain it. Let’s say you design and build a house and having made it completely habitable, you decide to add a few improvements to finish it off. You employ a number of talented, experienced tradesmen who do an excellent job and offer advice and recommendations where needed. When the job is finished you pay their agreed fee. Everyone is happy. A year later you decide to sell the house, which is now worth a lot more because of the added improvements. Do you think the tradesmen have a right to ask for a cut of that extra profit because without their skill and input your house would never have been half as good, so wouldn’t have been worth as much?
    Put in that context I don’t think there are many who would consider the tradesmen entitled to a share of the extra profit from the house sale unless, of course, that formed part of their original agreement with the house owner……..minefields!!
    With this wonderful and incredible technology now at our finger tips we musicians can all enjoy some fantastic, inspiring and even lucrative collaboration’s with various musicians from all over the World. A privilege that was once only available to the rich jet setting rock star – Yes on occasion it can be a minefield but please don’t let that deter or put you off just follow Solveigs advice and I’m sure you won’t go far wrong.

    1. Thanks for adding your very insightful perspective, Kevin. I’d say our collaboration is going swimmingly so far! You bring up some really excellent points about attribution, which I agree can be probably the biggest source of friction when collaborating musically. As a lyricist and composer myself, it’s a completely different thing to collaborate with another lyricist and composer than if one is used to just being a session musician. I have worked with both types of musicians, and definitely it helps to be clear about attribution up front. Many musicians don’t want to touch this issues with a ten foot pole, as it can create that “pre-nup”, magic-killing feeling in the relationship. I have found that many session musicians, on the other hand, are completely happy to just be paid up front and sign away any creative rights. I think it’s a delicate balance, like in any relationships. TMI up front can be off-putting, but on the other hand, expectations matter, and they can lead to so much acrimony later when they don’t match (“Wait, I thought you were going to add me as an author…”). Many ery successful musicians and producers treated attribution so differently, it’s important not to assume someone else is on the same page. Like any business relationships, or creative relationship (or any relationship really), different paths can be successful, what’s important is communication. So… how’s that beautiful song of yours coming? LOL.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience very insightful for me, and for being crass – no real harm in that. I am just starting down this path a little late in life, but, maybe not, I was not really all that ready when I was younger. Working through this first year finding my muse. Building my home studio and Web-presence. Looking forward to a time hopefully soon when I can spend the time to embark on the Collaborative works. It can be a bit hard to imagine a musical conversation with yourself and a bit unhealthy as well. Keep posting these great ideas. You have a very friendly and appealing web-site great work. Take care.

    Brent Zen.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brent! It’s never too late in life to make music, or to collaborate. Best of luck with your venture, and congratulations for being adventurous. And thanks for the kind words. :-)

  3. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d most certainly donate to this superb blog!
    I suppose for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS
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  4. Great piece and some useful and insightful information given out there. just wanted to add that i started my own blog to communicate some of my own Online Music Collaboration tips and also use it as a place to post news about new OMC tools and solutions. take a look

    http://onlinemusicengine.org/

    Thanks

    Engin Hassan
    Onlinemusicengine

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