Lennon and McCartney, Kanye and Jay-Z, Simon and Garfunkel, Adele and Paul Epworth, Bono and The Edge, these are all examples of great collaborators. What does it take to be a great collaborator? Beyond creativity and raw talent, there are several crucial ingredients to collaborating well. Below are 10 essential tips to becoming a great collaborator.
Know what you bring to the table
Are you great with melody, lyrics, chord progressions, soundscapes? What are your strengths? Try to surround yourself with people who have complimenting strengths to yours. If you are in a room with two other strong melody writers but no one is great at lyrics, you’re not going to get very far. Similarly, if you’re a producer who makes beats but doesn’t topline, don’t spend the majority of your time working with other beatmakers, you’ll most likely end up spinning your wheels.
For writing sessions, have a place you can see shared lyrics
Most often I use google docs, but a shared note on your iPhone or another device can be very useful as well. Make it easy for everyone involved to see and edit the shared work.
Make agreements BEFORE you start the session
“If you are clear about what you want, the world responds with clarity”. - Loretta Staples
If you’re going into a co-writing session, what are the writing splits, producer points and publishing splits going to be? Do your best to have this conversation before or during the first collaborative session with someone. As time goes on, it only gets more difficult to decide who is owed what percentage of a song or work. If you or someone you’re working with doesn’t want to commit to something until the song is done, then have that conversation and agree to decide the splits later.
Be as clear as possible with your goals
Set everyone up for success by sharing your vision for the session at the beginning. If you’re writing for your own artist project, for pitch, commercial pitch or something else, be clear about what you want to accomplish in your session. I know this sounds obvious but collaborators skip over this often. You may end up using the music you created that day for something else entirely but start out with clear communication and a clear vision and you will get better results.
Voice memo everything
Even if a song is already “done” keep your ideas flowing ALL THE TIME. You never know when inspiration will strike and you want to be ready to capture whatever ideas come to mind. Just when you think you’re done with a song, you get an idea at the last minute and you very well may not be in the studio or near a microphone when that idea strikes. There’s nothing worse than trying to remember an idea that you had to show your co-writer or producer and you just can’t remember it!
If you don’t like something, say something!
Once again, clear communication is key. Only work with a collaborator (producer, co-writer, mixer, etc.) that you can communicate well with. If you find it difficult to understand them or think that they don’t understand you, this will only become magnified once you start creating together. Things rarely “take care of themselves” or “work out in the end”. If you’ve been making music for any length of time, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
If you’re a vocalist, do vocal warmups on your way to your session
If you’re a singer, being prepared to write a song usually means being prepared to sing too! Never underestimate the possibility of recording a vocal track in a writing session. Again, you never know when inspiration will strike and you often won’t know when your next session with a particular collaborator will be. Take advantage of any time you have in a studio or with an engineer and aim to get useable vocal tracks whenever you can. Sometimes the moment of inspiration is where the magic is and you never want to have to try to recreate that magic another day when you’ve given yourself time to do your vocal warmups.
Be prepared with song references
Your music will almost never sound exactly like your references or influences so don’t spend time worrying about that. It's always a great idea to have a strong starting point in any collaborative session. Unless you have no idea what you want your music to sound like, send your producer or co-writer some very specific artists and songs prior to your session so that they can get on the same page with you. If everyone in the room has an idea of the sound, genre, feel or story that they are trying to communicate, you will get a better result faster.
Process vs Product
This is a big one- every producer, songwriter, mixer, mastering engineer, programmer, remixer or DJ works differently. Some producers program everything in the box, some work only with live musicians, some do a combination of both. If you haven’t worked with many writers or producers, ask people you trust about their experiences and decide what kind of process is important to you. As with all things, trust your gut. You may have a connection to a great producer but you don’t connect with their process of working. Decide what’s more important to you- process or end product. This will inform many of your choices going forward. There are a lot of ways to get to the finish line, if the route isn’t important to you, pick the collaborator whose songs or work you like best and see if you connect with them.
Take your time
Be picky about who you work with and don’t rush anything. Do your homework before you get into a session with someone. As the great Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” As I talked about in my last tip, pick someone whose previous work you LOVE. If you’re hiring someone to help you with your songs and you’re on a tight budget, be willing to take a risk on someone but take your time choosing that person. Once you have done your due diligence and found someone, trust them. The best collaborators trust each other and take risks together. It is hard to take risks creatively if you don’t trust someone.
As with all things creative, keep an open mind, stay curious and always bring your best to the table! Happy collaborating!