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Nancy Rost: Blog

To collab or not to collab?

Posted on November 5, 2013 with 5 comments

Some songwriters are collaborators or solo writers by temperament, and never have to ask this question. Others, like me, ask it every day.

I'm a huge proponent of songwriting collaboration. Writing with others has expanded my horizons, been some of the greatest fun I've had -- and resulted in hundreds of songs that wouldn't have been written without the synergy of two or more minds. The results often feel like magic. And there's plenty of history to support this model of song creation favored from Tin Pan Alley to Motown to Nashville to countless rock songwriting duos and beyond.

But not every collaboration clicks, and not every song is best written collaboratively. 

If you've been writing solo for awhile, you may find that early collaborative sessions resemble awkward first dates. It may take some practice to get the hang of it and to find compatible partners. 

Here are some good things to look for in a prospective co-writing pair or group. (See this Carnegie-Mellon study if you're research-inclined.)

  • Good communication.  Everything else follows from this. The song will grow out of your give-and-take. You'll need some shared songwriting vocabulary and/or ability and patience to explain.
  • Shared understanding of what the song is for. Is this for one or both of you to perform? Is it commercial? Experimental? Make sure you're on the same page. 
  • Complementary skills. This can be as clear-cut as a lyricist/composer division of labor, or it can work in any style of collaboration.  One of you may be good at starting and one at finishing. Partners who write on different instruments, in different genres or with different techniques can complement each other. 
  • Equal sharing. Obviously you want collaborators who won't let you do all the work while they take half the credit. Just as importantly, look for a co-writer who won't dominate the process to the exclusion of your ideas.

Even with partners who meet all these criteria, it may take some trial and error to find a co-writing style -- something I'll explore in an upcoming blog.

Some song ideas will naturally lend themselves to solo writing, and some to collaboration, but sometimes whether to collaborate or not is less obvious.

Sometimes the song is personal to you, and although you may approach a potential collaborator seeking feedback, you ultimately want to do the writing yourself. You may want a sounding board or critique group rather than a collaborator.

Sometimes you didn't realize you had your own vision for the song. I've been on both ends of this situation. Early in my songwriting career, I gave lyrics to a friend to set to music, and when I heard his major-key waltz setting, it dawned on me that it was meant to be a minor-key ballad. Another time, I added a syncopated vocal melody to a guitar part that a bandmate had composed. He loved what I'd written, but he found he couldn't play and sing it at the same time, which is what he discovered he'd wanted to do with those riffs all along. 

Bottom line: The collaborations that have been most successful for me started intentionally as collaborations, with both/all parties deciding at the outset how the song would be co-written. 



November 7, 2013

Good read, Miss Nancy. You're a natural. There are times when I had a great start to a song and then at a certain point started to become unhappy with where it was going, but seemed unable to pull back and "fix" it, or find a more appropriate path. Instead of just plowing on and finishing the song like I generally do, I wonder if finding a trusted collaboration partner wouldn't be an awful good idea. Food for thought.


November 7, 2013

I used to be a non-collaber, mostly because I didn't know enough songwriters. As I met more songwriters, the possibilities really opened up, but it's not lightning in a bottle every time. You really hit the nail on the head when you said communication is a key factor. Good communication is really a cornerstone for any relationship and a songwriting team is no different. Also complementary skills makes it so much easier. Some of my best collabs have come from lyricist who let me create music around their words without micromanaging the sound. Or from me sending a track to a writer and letting them create words and melody from the music. If you trust your partner to bring their style and talent to the collab and be an equal contributor, it tends to be much more fulfilling and generally more successful. Still, for me, a lot of it is personality. I think having cohesive personalities lends to building trust, and trust lends itself to a good working relationship. Still, not every co-write is going to be successful. It's a bit like dating, sometimes there's a spark, sometimes not.

Das Binky

November 7, 2013

"Why should I collab?" was a big question for me when I started writing. Writing alone feels a lot easier, you get an uncompromised vision that represents your perspective, your're on your own timetable, etc.

And then I start collaborating and it made sense. It's like a pianist discovering another set of hands, or a lyricist finding a whole new section of the dictionary to work with. An opportunity to supplement your strengths with someone else's strengths. Or at the very least, with ideas you wouldn't have thought of on your own.

Not every collab is that way. My first few were actually not all that satisfying, in part because I didn't understand the guidelines Nancy lays out above. But some of my favorite songs have been co-writes with a solid idea of how we wanted to do it and an even split.

Not every song needs to be a collab. But without exploring that talents that other musicians have to offer, you're missing out on a whole world of opportunity.

Also, Nancy, spot on with the list of recommendations. Thoroughly agreed.

Nancy Rost

November 6, 2013

Excellent point. If you’re happy with what you’re writing alone, why co-write at all? I’d say the first reason would be to pursue it as a learning opportunity. Exchanging ideas and negotiating decisions to shape a song will get you inside another person’s creative process in a way that nothing else can. Working with songwriters you admire can help you acquire new skills you can apply to your own writing -- so any time you want to try something new is a good time. You don’t even have to have a song idea to approach it this way; you can see what happens with the other writer initiating, or the two of you working it out in real time. Another time that’s good to switch to co-writing is when you have an idea that’s outside of your wheelhouse, e.g., you’re a jazz pianist who has some lyrics that would be perfect for a heavy metal song. Thirdly, if you want to write more frequently, you can use co-writing appointments to help make that happen.


November 6, 2013

"Not to collab" is my default. I'd like to hear something more from the perspective of when I *should* look for co-writers.