THOUGHTS ON THE (not only musical) COLLABORATIVE PROCESS
In 2017, after a particularly good party on my backyard deck, a good friend suggested that the two of us and another acquaintance start a band with the ultimate goal of eventually performing. All of us being middle aged men and in the middle of careers and mortgage payments we found some time to jam together but ultimately struggled to find enough time together to move beyond after work fun. I was not willing to let go and less than a year ago I decided to start publishing the results of my efforts on the internet. Little did I know that the live collaboration that never happened would be available online and that less than six months later I would be exchanging tracks with talented artists in Canada, Norway, Germany, Sweden and the USA.
To some it may come as surprise that there are many parallels between the musical collaborative process and team efforts in the world of high-tech business development. The nature of working in the tech world is to be surrounded by Type-A personalities many whom aim to become the next Steve Jobs or even better to create the next Uber. In their relentless pursuit of company and personal success the successful individuals are self-driven, creative and very importantly, encourage the team to bring ideas that are critically evaluated and incorporated with ample praise given to the contributors. A good leader has a goal in mind that he successfully communicates to the team and ultimate success depends on team contributions.
Adhoc musical collaboration over the internet is different in that there is very little formal structure. My experience is that, if leading, it is still essential to communicate an idea, be it in the form of chords, a soundscape or an emotion, while at the same time leaving ample space for partners to develop their own relationship with the musical project. It is important to not be prescriptive, and as in my case I have been collaborating with people I have never met, to be thoughtful when communicating, as well as when interpreting received communications.
Having an overarching idea is not the same thing as being rigid and not open to change. In the course of one of my first collaborations the contributing saxophonist completely changed the melody in certain parts of the tune and recognizing the over-production in other parts eliminated the saxophone in certain bars. The result was a much better tune still true to the original idea but also very different from the original track.
As in the world of business it is important to understand that everybody communicates in different ways. Some people are comfortable giving direct feedback that at first can be hard to accept, until you realize that they have spent time listening to your material and are trying to be constructive. Others only provide oblique comments and are sensitive to saying anything offensive. In the latter case it is important to read between the lines – there is very good feedback in there that if correctly interpreted can really make a difference.
Being open to change also means not being afraid to provide feedback to your collaborators. In my case the process has most often started with me sending a track to potential partners and asking them to contribute with an instrument, vocals or lyrics. Eventually I am returned a track with an initial suggested contribution which in my case has nearly always exceeded my expectations. That being said, I have never been satisfied with the first attempt. My way of providing feedback is to take the contributor’s track and produce it such that it fits my thinking at the time and then to send the new track back with verbal encouragement. I have been amazed by the 2nd rounds of contributions and I have never asked for a 3rd round. This does not mean that I have incorporated everything that was contributed in the 2nd round - it means that the often multiple tracks contributed have contained enough great material to allow me to finish the production.
Finally, it is important to note that as in the business world where you’ll never get the business you don’t ask for, in the world of music you’ll never get the collaboration you don’t ask for. Sometimes you may be turned down. There is no reason to be offended as people are busy or may just not like your idea – most likely others will and those are the people you have to find.
Jan Schonander April 2019
Jan's music can be found here, on SoundCloud