To collab or not to collab?

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.