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How To Be a Better Collaborator (Songwriter Edition)

By Justin Gray (Songwriter, Producer, Founder

Writing songs by yourself is cool. Sure…But creating music with others is cooler!

Successful collaborations are never guaranteed. Certain personalities gel better with others. Some are legendary…

Lennon/McCartney we’re so competitive that they pushed each other to be better. Watch the doc.

Mick and Keith fought and fought, and out of that was born The Rolling Stones sound.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin so deeply respected what each other brought to the table, that their collaborations had an unprecedented run of decades of hits!

Some don’t work, but when they do, it’s magic.

The key to exceptional collaboration is to be able to quickly and intuitively understand the energy in the room, who your collaborators are, and who brings what to the metaphorical creative table.

Great collaborations tend to happen when everyone involved plays to their strengths, and understands their own weaknesses.

Understanding your strengths and weaknesses is one of the fundamental keys to making YOU a great collaborator. And to add more layers to this creative Mille-Feuille, your role will change every day. Get in where you fit in…and be the best you you can be that day.

Here are songwriter styles that can make your collab fab, your write tight, and your track smack!!

The Listener - Be an empathetic listener. You have great ideas, your collaborators have great ideas, and hopefully, they are free-flowing and abundant. A great collaboration is like watching an incredible tennis match. Each time a lyric, melody, or chord change is passed back and forth, it should be improved until ultimately the best wins. A great collaborator knows when to accept the best idea, and went to acknowledge necessary improvement. If you’re collaborating with an artist, let them take charge creatively. They are the ones that have to get up on stage and perform whatever it is that you are writing together. Respect others' opinions but also stand firm when you need to. But always accept the fact that someone else can be right. As Run DMC said, “It’s tricky.”

The Supporter - You don’t always have to be the alpha in the room. It is incredibly important to sometimes take the role of supporting your fellow collaborators during the creative process. Even if you contribute one word to a song, that one word can change the direction and inspire the magic it needs. Trust me, you have made a significant contribution. Try not to let ego get in the way of the greater purpose. That purpose being… The song.

The Skeptic - Steve Jobs did not invent the mouse. He just made it better. He also did not invent the computer. He just made it better. We used to scoff at the “but” and “and” songwriters. These were the people that didn’t really bring a creative viewpoint to the songs. It felt like they were just occupying space. Personally speaking, it took me too long to realize that those people can actually help perfect the song despite not contributing lyrics, melodies, or music. Sometimes their job is to sit there and help mix the ingredients together in a way that makes the song better. I work often with people who challenge melodies or lyrics without suggesting a better option. They’ll just say things like “we can beat that.” Or “It can be better.” More often than not, they’re right…and that songwriting skepticism actually does improve the outcome.

The Taskmaster - Don’t be a jerk, but don’t settle for below average either. There are a lot of ways to get your point across without being ironfisted. I’ve learned that sometimes losing a creative battle, can lead to winning the creative war. What does that mean? It’s knowing when to let an idea sit for a second to let it marinate. Come back to it later. You’ll find one of two things. Everyone will generally agree the line is great OR the line could be better. Either way, it will be what it’s meant to be. Look at it this way… If you were in a room with a collaborator, and they are suggesting that a melody or a line could be better, shouldn’t you generally agree? Isn’t everyone there for the same purpose? An incredible song! I am always game to improve something if someone thinks it can be better.

The Bringer of The Vibes - We have touched on this before. Your energy in the room can dictate the outcome of a song. Having a shitty day? your song will reflect that. Having a great day? Your song will reflect that. Be mindful of the energy you carry into your session. Good v bad, don’t let either manipulate you. As a collaborator, stay neutral. Let the artist color the tone of the energy. Feed off their energy, and use it to develop the narrative of the song. I can think of several buoyantly bubbly collaborators I’ve worked with. They’re annoying. Despite their talent, I can’t envision spending 4 hours in a room with them EVER again. Same with depressing downers…not interested. Come in prepared, focused, and ready to kick ass!

The Coda: You can’t stick a left fielder on the pitchers' mound and expect them to strike out batters. Sure, they can throw the ball… But that doesn’t mean that that is the position they should be playing. Songwriting sessions are exactly like team sports. For your team to be successful, everybody needs to know their strengths and play their position. It does not matter if you are the backup catcher, or the star pitcher. When your team wins the World Series, everybody gets the ring. Only in music, it’s a Grammy.

See you next week, and keep writing them hits


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