I have recently started getting involved in a few musical collaborations so I thought I’d write a post about my experiences so far. Collaborating with others obviously has great potential for reward, but also has great potential for difficulty too. So far, I must say, I’ve been lucky, but I can definitely see how your luck could run out and there are a few things I wouldn’t leave to chance in the future. Collaborating with people is a minefield, collaborating with people you don’t know doubly so. Although I have collaborated with friends in the past, the particular collaborations I’m focusing on in this post are those with people that you have never met, and as is often the case, people where the offer to work together is the first time you’ve ever heard from them.
That moment of the first offer is an easy opportunity to say no. Saying yes, or even maybe, and then deciding that it probably isn’t going to work out will only make life harder for you. People get their hopes up, they start sending you tracks and eagerly awaiting your contribution to the project. So when do you say yes and when do you say no? Well, here are some of things I would now take into account:
1. Do you have time to get into a collaboration? If you have a backlog of half written songs of your own that you are trying to find the time to record then I would say no. More often than not offers of collaboration revolve around you adding something to a song that someone else has started, not that person helping you finish whatever you might have in your backlog. Just have a good think about what is actually being offered and how it fits in with your other priorities.
2. Okay, so you’ve got the time, and/or you’ve exhausted your own ideas and are looking to collaborate with others to work on brand new material, great. But how much do you know about each other? Rather than jumping straight in, these days I’d be more inclined to have a few email exchanges first, even a Skype chat. Talk about what you expect from a collaboration, exactly how much time you are able to give (are you a full time worker with kids or a student on an eight week summer break?), and what each of you are going to bring to the table.
3. Ideally you should each bring a different but complimentary set of skills to the table. Most of the collaborations I have been in have involved others creating instrumental tracks that I have then layers vocals over the top of. This works pretty well as the instrumentals can be quite complete before the first word is even written, but there are a few less obvious things to think about up front. For example, who controls the final mix? Is the instrumental being given to me to add vocals or am I giving the vocal to my collaborator to add to his or her instrumental? A subtle but important distinction that can make or break the project if not discussed first.
4. Talking about licensing up front is very important too. What license is the finished product going to be released under? Is the instrumental a rework of someone else’s work? (Something that is much more common these days than I realised.) If so, what license was it originally released under. If we end up having different views on what the final product should sound like can we each release our own versions or is the other person just going to revoke your right to use their part at all? My preferred situation would probably be that the instrumental is released under a CC licence before we start. This means that I can take the track and do something over the top that I am personally proud of and then release the track with appropriate attribution to the author of the instrumental. I would of course release that under a comparable CC license allowing further remixes to be made.
5. Musical taste and ability are probably the next things I would look at. One of the main benefits of a collaboration is that it can take you outside of yourself, so meeting someone with a different style to you is generally a good thing. Obviously there are limits, but if you’ve got this far you probably see something in each other’s music. Ability and experience is probably more important. If you are try to communicate a subtle clash in harmony or leaving a space in the frequency spectrum for each other to work with and the other person is still coming to terms with what a chord is, it just isn’t going to work.
6. So far I’ve not worked with anyone that uses the same audio software that I use, and I must admit, there are times that I feel like making this a hard and fast rule when it comes to working together. People spend a lot of time learning the software they prefer so I can understand people not wanting to change, but there must be a lot of people out there who do use the same software as me (Ableton Live in my case,) so why not just team up with those people? It is true that you can bounce mixed down WAV files back and forth but at the end of the day I found that quite limiting.