To kick off the New Year, I spent the last two weeks with my good friend and songwriting partner, MJ. We spent most of our time together working on several new tracks and collaborating in the studio. MJ and I have been making music together since I was a Sophomore in High School and MJ was a Junior. MJ has performed and sang vocals on multiple tracks I’ve placed over the years.
We had a really fun, productive visit and it got me thinking about the pros and cons of collaborating with other musicians. I don’t really co-write that often these days, but when I do, especially with the right person, it’s a really enjoyable process that brings a new creative dimension to the songwriting process, with results that are often above and beyond what I’m able to do in isolation.
Of course, collaborating with the wrong musician can also be a painful process where you’re constantly butting heads. Collaborating with the wrong person can slow down the songwriting process and hinder creativity. It’s important to choose your co-writers wisely.
Today, let’s look at the pros and cons of co-writing and collaborating, starting with the PROS:
Synergy – There’s a synergy that happens when you get two or more people together that simply can’t be duplicated when you’re alone. There’s something about being together in the same space and bouncing ideas off each other in real time that you just can’t get when you’re working on music in solitude. Which isn’t to say you can’t write or create great music alone, you of course can, but the process is very different when you add other people to the mix. We all have our own unique way of looking at things and it can be extremely valuable to have someone else give input and direction during the songwriting process, especially during moments where you’re feeling stuck or not sure where to go.
For example, one of the tracks I collaborated on with my friend MJ during our most recent visit (which I’ll link to below), was about 75% complete already when we met up, but I was stuck on the bridge in particular, and wasn’t quite sure where to go. I had a bridge that just didn’t seem to take the song anywhere new, it was sort of boring and really similar to the verses and chorus. MJ pointed out this out and suggested we try something a little different and start on a minor chord instead of the major chord I had for the beginning of that section. We bounced ideas back and forth for about fifteen minutes and we ended up coming up with a bridge we both really love, that was completely different than the rest of the song, but still fit perfectly. I most likely would have never approached the section the way we did had I been left to my own devices.
Immediate Feedback – Another great aspect of collaborating is the ability to get immediate, real time feedback about your songs and musical ideas. Music is of course subjective, but it’s helpfule to know how other people respond to your tracks. Especially if it’s someone whose musical sensibilities you respect. When MJ and I got together for our most recent co-writing and collaborating sessions, I played him several tracks I had been working on to see which ones he was most excited about. I ended up playing one song I started two years ago that had been just sort of sitting, collecting dust and MJ immediately responded to it positively. I hadn’t really even thought much about the track until I played it for MJ and he perked up instantly. I had been sort of on the fence about the track, as it’s much more poppy than what I normally write, and I was worried it might be a little on the “cheesy” end, but MJ immediately convinced me otherwise. Having a fresh set of ears to provide this sort of instant feedback can be very valuable and gives you a broader perspective of your music.
Social Outlet – The life of a songwriter/composer can be a bit lonely at times. Many of us spend countless hours in our home studios alone, plugging away at our craft. These moments in solitude can of course yield inspired results, many of my best musical ideas have been born in solitude. But, doing this day after day, year after year, can also become lonely and isolating. One of the great benefits of collaborating and co-writing are the relationships and the socializing that happen as a result. Many of my best friends throughout my life have happened as a result of musical collaboration. It’s just more fun to make music with other people, and I got into this business to enjoy myself, not to become a music making recluse.
Although, co-writing can be a great experience, it can also be a frustrating experience if you don’t mesh well with your co-writer. I suppose it’s like any relationship, you need to have a certain amount of chemistry and connection for the co-writing relationship to work smoothly. It goes without saying if you’re going to be co-writing you should seek out co-writers that you click with, but even in the best-case scenario there are things about the co-writing process that could be looked at as negatives.
Let’s take a look at a few things to watch out for when co-writing:
When you’re writing music alone, you get to call the shots. If you’re a bit of a control freak like me, this is extremely liberating. One of the potentially frustrating things about co-writing, if you’re at all like me, is that there are going to be times where you and your co-writer look at things differently. It’s inevitable. This is of course the whole point of co-writing, to have two sets of creative eyes and ears come together, where the sum ends up being greater than the individual parts. The Beatles became the legendary group they became because of this sort of creative synergy. Of course, The Beatles also fought and had creative differences and would break up after just ten years as a band due in part to their creative and personal differences. That and Yoko.
Many bands throughout rock and roll history have succumbed to these sorts of creative and artistic differences. Watch any documentary about pretty much any rock and roll band and a part of their story usually involves intense creative differences between bands members. Pink Floyd, Oasis, Guns N Roses, Van Halen, Chicago, Kiss, Simon And Garfunkel, The Yardbirds, Aerosmith, The Smashing Pumpkins, Journey, The Kinks, The Beach Boys and many more, have famously dealt with creative and personal differences as part of their history. It almost seems like a certain amount of creative tension is a pre-requisite for success in commercial music. Or, perhaps, where there’s a yin there’s always a yang.
My take, after many years of writing music both with other people and alone, is that you simply have to take the good with the bad. Any relationship involving more than one person involves a certain amount of compromise and give and take. The co-writing relationship is no exception. For the co-writing relationship to work, you have to be open to other ideas and input.
A part of this is simply maturity and openness to other ideas. When I was younger, my knee jerk reaction to people wanting to change my ideas was resistance and shutting them down. Now, I’m much more open to hearing people out and giving their ideas a chance. I might not ultimately agree with everything that’s suggested, but I’m open to trying anything musically to see if it works. When both co-writers have this sort of open and flexible approach you can get to really interesting places creatively that you can’t get to on your own.
Another pitfall to watch out for when working with co-writers and collaborators is differences when it comes to the business side of music. These issues have been the downfall for many creative partnerships over the years. When I write music alone, in addition to making any creative decision I want, I’m also free to make any business decision I deem appropriate. I can take chances business-wise and make decisions that I might not be able to if I have another person’s opinion to contend with. I don’t have to run new contracts by other people that might have veto power. Being a free agent comes with a certain amount of freedom you don’t have when working with other people who might not have the same vision.
Like dealing with creative differences, differences when it comes to business issues need to be dealt with maturely with an openness and ability understanding where the other person is coming from. I strive to be as fair as possible when it comes to these matters so there are no hard feelings and so ultimately everyone feels good about the situation. For example, I tend to do a 50/50 split with co-writers on all monies earned, even if in my mind, I wrote 75% of the song. My theory is that any small change in the song could make the difference in the song working or not working, and it’s impossible in retrospect to know what elements of the song make the song work. For example, the perfect bridge could be the difference between a song becoming successful or not, even if all the other elements, that I wrote, were “perfect”.
I’d rather err on the side of caution and be overly generous than squabble about trying to figure out who contributed what, exact percentage of each song. I find that in long term partnerships these things tend to balance themselves out anyway. Maybe I contribute more to one track in terms of songwriting, but my co-writer does more in terms of the production. Or maybe I contribute more on one track, and the next track my partner contributes more to and so on.
In my mind, the pros of co-writing tend to outweigh the negatives. I end up with new material that is much different than what I’m able to do on my own and when things go well, I also end up with strengthened friendships and partnerships. Done right, co-writing, is a win-win.
Here’s one of the tracks MJ and I collaborated on during our recent two week visit called "Light Ahead". This track actually came to me, in large part, in a dream a couple years ago. I woke up at about 4 am, stumbled to my guitar and managed to remember the verse and chorus I had dreamed, sans lyrics.
MJ, in addition to helping write the bridge, also sings lead vocals, harmony vocals and played piano, engineered and co-produced the track. I played guitar and bass and sang a harmony part on the chorus. We hope you like it.
Without further adieu, Light Ahead:
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.