This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

Your Not So Perfect Match

“If you agree with everyone else you're collaborating with, the rest of the people are redundant.” ― Rick Rubin

One ineffective solution to the “too many cooks” dilemma is bandleaders who think they should stack their band with “yes men” or clones of themselves. The problem is … this doesn’t work. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, extensively studied the teams that made the best musicals. Since musicals require so many different creators (lyricist, composer, director, etc.), this study was perfect to see a wide combination of collaborators. He discovered that the musicals that worked best had a group of collaborators that worked together a bit, but not too much.

When groups were mostly strangers or old pals, it seemed to lead to inevitable failure. This comparison wasn't a close race; it was very decided that a mix of familiar along with unfamiliar collaborators worked best. The conclusion was that old collaborators have a jovial way of critiquing each other, which creates an environment where new collaborators felt welcome to criticize with a fresh eye. An environment where there's questioning from a mild level of familiarity allows questioning that develops ideas into a greater work. The new connections also had new ideas that had an inspiring effect on the old collaborators.

Time and time again when observing great collaborations the members are individuals, not carbon copies of one another. They all have unique influences that contribute to the greater whole. Striving to find a perfect collaborator with the same taste as you is a futile pursuit that's detrimental to creativity. But that's the extreme case; a bad fit is a bad fit, so hiring someone who only listens to classical music for your hardcore band may not lead you directly to greatness. The questioning that comes from individuals’ tastes should be seen as part of the vetting process that leads to better ideas.

Dissent is helpful since every study on the subject shows that dissent can help come up with better answers. So hating that your bassist doesn't always love your ideas can be the reason you make good songs. But that's not to be mistaken with saying “no” makes better creations. Figuring out how to augment the good by identifying its merits is just as important as saying no.

All too often musicians look for a collaborator who's a carbon copy of their influences, but what you see in most great bands is complimentary influences that brings depth to the table. In fact, study after study shows that creative outcomes are better when there are dissenting views in the room. Disagreements can’t be constant or cripple the process, but dissent will usually help get to a better result by vetting ideas. While that can be taken to an extreme when ideas differ so much that you can't agree upon anything, a happy medium can be an ideal collaboration.

So what should you look for in a collaborator? I made an argument in my last book that when a musician is looking for a collaborator like a producer they should be looking for someone who fills in their blanks. If you're proficient in guitar solos and vocal melodies but are clueless about drum composition, you'll need a drummer that's highly proficient. A songwriter who enjoys parts that go on too long needs to be reigned in by someone with more concise tastes. Good collaborations come when expertise span the variety of disciplines needed to make music.

Obviously, if you're both not interested in making the same type of music, making it impossible to agree on a general direction, the collaboration won’t last long. But when it comes to filling in blanks, this dynamic is what I see in most groups that work well together. If you're bad at harmonies, recording yourself or writing drum parts ― finding someone with those skills can be much more important than the ridiculous details musicians put on help wanted ads.

Working With “Experts”

 In collaboration, there's an odd dynamic when a more experienced collaborator comes to the project. This "expert" claims their opinion is more valid since they're an "expert," and they should have a dictatorship over a project. In most cases, this is used to silence others, which ruins songs. No one can be an expert on the emotion you feel inside you. As a record producer, I usually have to cede some control and efficiency to find the sound of a musician’s vision since it's impossible for me to feel that emotion inside them until I hear it. I've seen countless instances of producers imposing their vision on an artist when they know exactly what they want and the producer vetoes that vision for the sake of their "expertise." Since a producer often makes more music than an artist, this dilutes the artist's intent to a more generic sound.

 Conversely, the musician can often be wrong or so inexperienced that they need a large amount of guidance or an objective perspective on how they could more clearly communicate an emotion. When a producer tells you it's easier to get a result by employing a method of tracking they've done before, they have seen more than an artist. If an A&R guy tells you it's best to send the single to the label head after it's done since they'll be more likely to enjoy it, it's best to listen to them. If the engineer tells you your Stratocaster can't make the sound of a Les Paul, their expertise will supersede your knowledge of what you think may have been done on a record. Experts are often great at procedure or wisdom, but if they try to dictate direction on how the heart wants to express itself, they can burn down projects instantly.


 Whenever you hear about the downfall of creators who were able to sustain great work for years on end, you'll hear the term ”groupthink” thrown around. This phenomenon occurs when a group of collaborators becomes so insular that no one tells them what's going on outside their own world so they can no longer make good decisions. Everyone starts to think the same since they're only influenced by thoughts within the group. Thoughts from outside the group that are not shared by the larger majority are discarded. They become self-referential, thinking little can be learned from the outside, since what's happening within their group is superior to others outside of it. No one is ever questioning what they do since everyone thinks the same.

In psychology, they commonly discuss anxiety and paranoia stemming from a lack of "feedback," defined as criticism and the ability to bounce your ideas off of someone else. When a patient has been in solitude, their neuroses are compounded by having lost perspective from this feedback. When groupthink is present, this is exactly what happens. Ideas aren't vetted, so the lack of feedback causes a loss of objectivity to the outside world. This outside perspective makes them unable to make good judgments, ultimately leading them to their downfall.


Competition can either be lauded or derided depending on the type of personality experiencing it. Those who have seen competition motivate athletes and entrepreneurs to great heights can point to countless examples of it being a great motivator. Whereas introverted artists who fear competition by keeping their ideas to themselves are nearly infinite. Encouraging competitive types not to be that way is a worthless effort since, without some productive time on a therapist's couch or some deep soul searching, this need to compete is beyond curing. This can be very annoying for many of us who have to deal with them, but it's the only way to get them to focus on creating.

For new creators, competition is going to be detrimental. Before they have confidence in their field, it can discourage them. In fact, many personalities can shift as they become confident, whereas in their early days they feared all competition in fear of judgment. Teresa Amabile did a study that examined how reward affects creativity. In both her initial study along with countless follow-up studies, they found that being evaluated squelched creativity even if it had a reward in it.

She called this the intrinsic theory of motivation, which means that people will be most creative when they're challenged by the work itself. But there was an exception; this theory wasn't the only part of the equation with those who are experienced creators. These people are usually motivated by rewards as well as attention and financial gain. As creators gain success, they begin to believe in themselves and they feel they should be rewarded. Otherwise, they'll apply their skills elsewhere since they're functional enough to do many things with their skills.

 The key to competition in creativity is to figure out what each person needs to nurture to bring out the best in them. If someone doesn't like being compared to others, be sure to avoid it at all costs as it'll often drive them to quit.

Humor Makes Collaboration Work Better

            While we just discussed a whole lot of serious topics as well as scientific research into making your collaborations effective, you should be having fun. Creating takes a lot of thought, but if you take it so seriously that you have no fun, what's the point? Making music should be enjoyable, if you get around many of the creative roadblocks, it should make it easier to avoid the bad times so you can enjoy the process.

The good news is having fun also helps you to be more creative. At one point the insanely prolific author Isaac Asimov was asked to write a paper on creativity for DARPA in which he said, "for best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence — not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose, I think a meeting in someone's home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room."

Studies have found that creativity tends to diminish when a project is done only for gain. Without an enjoyable part of the process, it's hard to pay attention; this is the reason many modern startups have ping pong tables along with other playful activities throughout their offices. John Cleese of the great comedy troupe Monty Python also agrees, stating: "Humor is an essential part of the creative process because if you're not having fun with it, the environment will get stressful and competitive."

 In my tenure as a record producer, I've prioritized this skill as one of the highest in my record production skills. If the room is laughing, the person who stays negative sticks out like a sore thumb. All but the most sociopathic personalities are neutralized by everyone having fun while making progress on a project. Leaving time to have fun can be hard for some of the control freaks who are paying the bill for you to laugh at a “Bad & Boujee” remix, but if it makes the room laugh, you’re earning a better collaboration.

This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.