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Collaborate or Die

Originally Written for Live2Play Magazine While in London a couple weeks ago, an interesting story happened that set my best friend and I into commiseration mode on one particular aspect of being a musician: collaboration.

I won't tell it here, but let's just say that it involved someone's way to enormous ego and their destruction of the team working on a very worthwhile project. My best friend handled it far better than I would have. But it was lame. Totally and entirely lame.

As friends for almost 20 years now, we have collaborated on a lot of different projects together. And have realized along the way that it was that work together that has helped to build both of us as better musicians and singers.

But lately, a lot of people have lost the feel for collaboration. They have either never tried it, do it badly, or don’t do it at all. And that’s not a good thing.

There are few arts in the world that are truly solitary. Painting. Writing. Maybe photography, if you decide not to work with human subjects. But music is not one of them. The world of music and its creation rests squarely on your ability to work well with others. It’s not just about playing in bands. Which is, on its own, a real challenge that requires a lot of hard work and a very big sense of humor. Mostly a sense of humor.

Two years ago, when I first got to Vegas, I hooked up in a roundabout way with a guy in Florida who wrote lyrics, but no music. He had a big idea about an album project and a lot of lyric ideas he wanted set to music. So he sent me one of them, and we agreed that I would set them to music and produce a song demo for him to include on his initial release of the project. It wasn’t a ton of money for the work. More importantly, since I didn’t know him personally, and he was talking about building it in the future, I asked him to sign a songwriter’s agreement with me, essentially splitting creation of the work and the copyright for any future the piece had. We’re talking about someone who has no background as a professional musician and no means to really do this himself.

And even though he loved the piece, and freely admitted that I had created all of the music and the melody… he refused.

For a whole bunch of reasons. Many of them naïve. Some of them even ridiculous. Nothing I could say could sway him to do what most professional musicians do on a daily basis when they are serious about their careers and their projects: iron out the details about working together so you can get down to brass tacks producing great projects. Nothing.

Because he had paid me, I released the song and the master to him without an agreement. But it ended our collaboration together.

Out there in the world right now, I meet far more people who have truly lost the real vision of teamwork. Desperate to prove that their way is the only-best-about-to-make- them-a-millionaire-and-a-star-at-the-same-time version of working, they burn down the building blocks of good working relationships and obliterate their chances of finding real success.

In music, the road to work is paved mostly with great relationships – people who have found that working well with others not only brings you wealth, friendship and opportunity, but better skills, more resources, and the chance to rescue your projects from your own inadequacies. It’s a stroke of genius.

But you’d never know it right about now based on people’s egos. Everyone’s a visionary. Everyone’s a star. Everyone doesn’t need anybody and truly believes that this approach will garner them respect and work and money.

But…just a little insight from the working musician’s life…it doesn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with having confidence about what you do. But no matter who you are, there are things you don’t do well. Knowing your weaknesses as well as your strengths is the real secret to making your career and collaboration work. If you find yourself constantly saying to yourself, “I could totally do that.” even though you never have, haven’t developed the skills to do it, and then eventually end up never doing it, you are a prime candidate for having an overactive ego. Your ego is not a good teacher, and will never provide you with the necessary skills to actually do the things you want to. For this, you need humility. And the desire to learn from others.

To accomplish anything in music, you need to collaborate. A lot. From collaboration, you will find good partners. Good mentors. Good friends, fans, and new project enthusiasts.

In life, no man is an island. In music, no man is even his own city, state, or country.

In fact and in practice, every musician needs to be a universe.


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