Professional Music Brief 2: The Crests & Canyons of Creative Collaboration
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
PMB2 has been a module with more downs than ups. The experience of creating our class compilation album reminded me that creatives can be some of the most difficult people to work with in numbers, and that a balance of idealism and pragmatism - which this class did not have - needs to be found (Naybour, 2013). An array of different skill sets also needs to be established when approaching a project of this size and variety (Huber, Sloof, and Praag, 2014), and this, too, was unbalanced. What experience we did have (in some problem areas such as mixing/mastering and marketing) was spread too thin amongst a limited number of people.
When we did finally manage to establish a moderately functional system, disaster struck. We were insufficiently prepared for a launch in regular circumstances, never mind mid-pandemic. Thankfully, individual partnerships were still effective, and co-writing was once again beneficial - although it is interesting to note this was not required for this class.
The Crests: Successful Partnerships and Clear Task Division
Despite having never worked in a creative capacity with Olivia before, collaborating proved to be an easy and rewarding process. This was due in part to us already being close friends, which allowed us “significantly more transactive communication” (Miell and MacDonald, 2001) when co-writing. This was important, as it allowed for both more effective conversation, but also meant that we were more inclined to understand each other’s non-verbal cues – something highly useful for the non-verbal elements of music.
We were also writing together days before the allotted class time. This provided us with a deadline (challenging and engaging us in the work (Ohly and Fritz, 2009)) - without rushing us (therefore allowing us time to explore multiple options and establish the best solutions (Amabile, Hadley and Kramer, 2002)): a perfect balance (Gardener and Cummings, 1988).
Writing with Callum was also an easy process, again due to an existing friendship dynamic and starting writing before the designated class time, despite less-than-ideal circumstances as he was continuously called away to help others mid-collaboration. We circumnavigated this by clearly defining our roles from the outset - Callum would focus on the instrumental elements and structure, whilst I would focus on lyric and melody. This allowed us to work almost entirely separately, and played to our existing strengths – something required in a time-constrained setting. Whilst a more connected writing experience could have been beneficial to the song, the situation did not allow it on that day. Thankfully we had a little time before recording to play with it and provide it with the exploration it had not been given, which lead to us changing the style into something much more upbeat and fun, and indeed polished it into something we were both much fonder of.
Barnes (2016) suggests that labour division is key to creative work, and stresses that projects should aim to keep individual tasks to as limited a number of people as possible – as the more people become involved, the more convoluted the solution. However, she also applies this to projects which already have a creative direction, as that is something that should be more universally worked on. As we did not have a clear end point, Callum and my process was a little stunted to start with.
This method did, however, work very well in regard to creating the podcast. After deciding on an overall concept; Martina, Marianne and I split the research and scripting workload between us by song – this allowed us to work much more efficiently, as well as creating a variety of approaches to the different songs. Whilst we all worked in every area of the podcast, we also each took charge of a different area: Marianne managed marketing; Martina, music; myself, editing and structure. This allowed every aspect to have a clear direction, as it was led by one of us individually. This proved beneficial, as we had to improvise a quick solution when the university closed due to COVID-19. Whilst the sound quality of the podcast has unfortunately suffered (as we recorded it with one microphone between us on my living room floor), the quality of the content did not greatly suffer in the rush as we had the systems in place well in advance.
The Canyons: Lack of Direction in a Time Crunch
Equality within a group is often something people strive for, especially within music where creative-autonomy is regarded as a necessity, and – as Liu, Chen & Yao (2010) argue – leadership is seen to undermine this. However, much research shows that “when groups cannot identify a leader, creativity and innovation suffer” (Mumford, Higgs, Todd and Martin, 2019). This also applies to any type of hierarchal working system, as it can help streamline productivity and integration of ideas. Alternately, “when there are too many leaders or too few followers, group performance suffers” (Ronay, Greenaway, Anicich & Galinsky, 2012), often due to a lack of role differentiation – leading to convoluted solutions (Barnes, 2016).
Unfortunately for the album, no leader was ever identified. Brendan would have been the obvious choice as the industries student, but avoided too strong an involvement in the wish to let us creatively direct ourselves – a sentiment greatly appreciated, but unfortunately impractical. It would appear he too deemed it impractical in hindsight, as he began to steer some of the class work towards the end of the project. This in itself disrupted the processes we had in place and caused some conflict, but did lead to better results in some key areas. The most obvious of this can be demonstrated through my song with Olivia, as we re-recorded it at his studio after being unhappy with the initial recording – it had been the first to record, a week prior to everyone else in order to make enough time for all the recordings, and was noticeably under-rehearsed. The version we recorded with Brendan was a happier outcome for both Olivia and I. However, this was badly communicated to the sound team, and I think had it been anyone but Olivia and I, it would have been an issue difficult to overcome.
This miscommunication occurred as we had no set plan to follow – everything decided was vague and transitory – as well as no clear leaders. Due to this, people were unsure what was happening; when it was happening; and indeed who to ask. Having no clear leaders could have potentially been manageable, had we agreed on a more established plan. In fact, many researchers consider this a must within an obvious process – define a goal; research the task; refine ideas, and plan implementation – which “can be expected to be a demanding and time consuming activity” (Mumford, Scott, Gaddis & Strange, 2002), something this project did not always seem to allow for. This, too, could have potentially been managed – had we had the systems in place to communicate effectively, e.g. episode breakdowns and role division.
However, the issue which completes the circle and guides us back to why we had no leaders in the first place, was that we had too many big ‘blue sky’ thinkers. The detriment in this, as Levitt (2002) explains, is that “big thinkers can inspire organizational cultures dedicated to abstract chatter rather than purposeful action […] innovation never happens—because people are always talking about it but never doing it”. We spent so much of our time together talking about what we would do, disagreeing and speculating in turn on minute detail, that the time we spent doing paled in comparison. This is not to say we have not completed the work – we have, and the album is set to release next week – but I am convinced we could have completed it to a much higher standard had we had a strong plan and leadership from the start of the project. The sound team truly have to be praised in this, as they arguably managed to not only get the most work done out of any of us, but did this with constantly shifting deadlines and goals.
Ultimately, I chose to reflect more on the collaborative element of this module than on the songwriting or technical aspects, as it is the only element I feel I learned from. Whilst both co-writes are likely partnerships I will revisit, there were no new writing techniques employed there, and very little time to revisit the songs to learn anything from rewrites within the tight timeframe. Marketing and Artwork attempts were almost always damage control, due to waiting on a potential budget that never materialised and the COVID-19 outbreak, so I often resorted to already established tactics as there was no room to experiment.
In lieu of this, I have experienced multiple forms of creative collaboration, both first-hand and via observation as a third-party. This has allowed me to establish the framework which best suits me as a collaborator, as well as which are generally most effective. Ideally, I will steer-clear of projects with no obvious management structure and labour division., as well as projects with too many ‘big thinkers’. Ultimately, I wish to work in teams that will help me be innovative, and it is through clear plans and infrastructure, as well as a good division of work, that I believe I will be able to best achieve this. In the future I hope to continue working in more directional and task-based collaborations, and save the ‘blue sky’ for my own personal exploration.
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