Picture shows multiple people in a recording studio, collaborating on music and having fun (Art created by Dall-E 2).
Nearly every song in the Billboard top 100 has 4+ writers credited. Sure, some credits go to so-called “token-writers”, who don’t contribute musically or lyrically (these are normally the artist themselves, whose name alone will give the song exposure). But mostly it's genuine music collaboration; topliners, producers, musicians, and lyricists. Each with different specialities, coming together and creating something greater than the sum of their parts.
As well as helping you write hits, working with other musicians can bring fresh perspectives, new ideas, and a sense of community to your work. You learn how others approach the songwriting process and learn new tricks. And as you get better at co-writing, and find teams you flow with, you'll get more songs completed. You don’t have to be the lone candle in a dark mine, you’ll have a better chance of finding the proverbial gold if you’re down there with some jackhammers and drills.
But here’s the reality; for most creatives, being with people is energy draining. It’s hard to maintain creativity, energy, and productivity when working with others.
So, here we go; these tried and true approaches will help you stay creative, energised, and productive when collaborating on music:
Before diving into the creative process, it's helpful to have a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish. Set specific goals for the song/project and make sure everyone is on the same page (Pro Tip: Reference tracks are a great place to start). This will give you a path to follow and help overcome choice paralysis. Once you’ve worked with someone a few times you might like to try loosening up on the goals and just “flow”, but generally you’ll want to have things pretty locked down. Your time and energy is precious - especially the energy you have to make songs. Use it wisely and with intent. Here are a few questions you can ask each other:
This is actually harder than it sounds. You definitely don't want to be afraid to share your ideas and feedback, even if you think they might be controversial. However, the biggest killer of creativity is negativity. When you’re in the middle of writing and someone says “I don’t like it” or “no”, that’s it, that’s usually the end of the session.
A better approach is to borrow a way of thinking from the improv drama game Yes, And!. So, if someone comes up with an idea that you’re not feeling, try saying something like “That’s cool, but let’s try a few other ideas” or “Nice one, let’s try and beat that idea”.
You might be thinking “that doesn’t sound very honest” or “nah man, can’t do that, I just speak facts!”. And it’s true, it is a tightrope. You 100% do not want to be letting an average idea into a song just because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. However, if you can spin a critical comment positively, you and your co-writers will be more energised.
The other side of the coin of being negative is being over-sensitive. This is the second biggest killer. If you get stroppy cause someone heard your idea but still wants to try more options, then that’s it, just close Zoom and pretend your internet failed. Join again when you remember that everyone is working towards the same goal.
Everyone has their own unique way of approaching creativity. Some people feed off the beat. Some people prefer to start with a lyric. Whatever it is, while you’re sharing the same time and space (digital space included), be open to trying all the ideas the group has when collaborating on your music together. There is no “right” way to write a song.
You’re on a call and everything is flowing but then “ummmm”. Blank brains.
When you inevitably hit this point, try giving everyone 10-15 minutes of solo time to come up with ideas to break through that block.
Mute your mic and dance like no one’s watching. If no ideas are coming, don’t worry, get tea, stretch, get some fresh air. Or watch a stand up clip and laugh.. And, if you can think of one, come back to the group with a story. Story is the driving force behind why we create. Telling a story, even if it’s not related at all to the song, can restart the engines. And if someone is telling you a story, challenge them to go deeper on it. Why did that happen? How did that make you feel? Why did you feel that way…
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we came up with lyrics like “Maybe there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya” while on a call with your co-writers? Or if we found a guitar tone and riff like in Give Life Back To Music (Daft Punk) while all your co-writers are looking at you to inspire them?
Spoiler alert; it happens as infrequently as a solar eclipse. To be productive when there are no eclipses, you’ll need to bring some ideas with you. A lyricist might come with a few themes or a bunch of song title ideas. A musician might come with a few riffs or chord progressions etc. The idea here is to come with small seedlings of ideas, nothing too fully formed.
My preference is to think of us all as song creators. That way we don’t limit ourselves.
However, most co-writing sessions do work better if everyone knows they have a specific job to deliver. Below are the standard “hats” you can be wearing during a co-write and the song elements they’re responsible for.
Taking role ownership of the delivery does not mean you have to do all the work in that role. We should allow for inspired moments to feed across disciplines. If the lyricist has a great sound-design idea, of course she should share it.
Taking a role will give you focus. Have pride in that role. Is every part under your responsibility as good as it can be?
“What? Isn’t the production of the vocal stems the producer’s job?”. I hear some of you singers say.
And it’s true, many producers will take on that role. But here’s the thing: None of them will care as much as you. What’s more, you’ll slow down your own growth if you put those responsibilities on someone else. Learning to do this stuff will make your ears and your singing better.
Plus, think about it this way:
Two singers are competing to be on a project. Both are great singers. But if one of them can also offer stellar, ready to drag and drop, vocal recordings it’s obvious who’s going to be chosen. Be the one who delivers.
Collaborating in music is about working together, so ask for help from your co-writers early on. If you’ve finished a session and now you’re left to finish some lyrics or tweak the sound design, don’t sit there for days wondering which one of your ideas is best. Send your group a message and ask them for a quick poll.
Also, don’t be precious about keeping everything within the group. Ask a mentor or a fellow musician for their input, seeking external help can be a great way to quickly break through block and generate new ideas.
The music industry can be a big black hole of nothingness. Most times you send your finished song out into the universe and it gets eaten by a black hole. So instead of worrying about how many people hear your songs, try and associate your self-worth with the completion of songs. Schedule a 15-minute call with co-writers after the song is done. Have a drink together, play Cards Against Humanity, whatever, do something fun to recognise your accomplishment.
And hey, good luck out there. Hopefully following these tips, you can stay creative, energised, and productive throughout the process.