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.
Getting Beyond The Power Struggle
In any relationship, whether it’s a collaboration, friendship or sexual relationship, after the initial getting to know you period or the exciting honeymoon period, there's a usually a period called "the power struggle." In this struggle, collaborators will try to exert who will be the leader in various fields like business, planning, creative decisions, etc. As the politeness of initial meeting wears off, this struggle gets more and more apparent, often causing a breakup, years of strife or ― in the best case scenario ― it all falls into place, allowing for a symbiotic relationship to occur.
While some power dynamics easily settle into structure, others result in years of strife. For many collaborations, this becomes a passive-aggressive struggle that's never discussed or even realized by those involved. When experiencing strife, it's best to call it out and find a solution that gets this struggle over with to create a dynamic that works. Discussing the unsaid struggle to figure out a dynamic that works for both parties is the only way a collaboration can last.
Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen
Inevitably, right after I discuss having an open environment, someone chimes in that too many opinions are bad since “too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the meal.” While I believe there are scenarios where there are too many cooks in the kitchen, most often this is used to silence collaborators by repeating an irrefutable cliché. When someone purposes too many opinions is the problem with the collaboration, the intended consequence is that someone has to stop saying their opinion. More often than not, this alienates a collaborator, causing them to withhold worthwhile contributions in the future. To understand how to navigate this dilemma, consider how a kitchen actually works.
In restaurants, there are valuable feedback mechanisms throughout their team. The wait staff tells the chef if there's a bad reaction to the food, like if the milk has turned, a recipe isn't right tonight or a cook on the line is botching an element. The management tells the chef if they're spending too much money or being too slow getting out meals to be profitable. The sous chef and cooks tell the chef if there are inconsistencies in the ingredients so they can contact another vendor. The chef is the person making the large creative decisions about these issues for as long as everyone else has confidence in their ability to do so.
Music often has a similar dynamic. The main songwriter is essentially the chef who comes up with the broad strokes of a song. Then there are collaborators to help execute what the songwriter cannot do on their own. With that said, it doesn't always mean that every collaborator's opinion should have the same weight on every issue. What makes the kitchen dynamic work is not being democratic, it’s having each person serve a purpose. Music is trying to express an emotion, and the songwriter is usually the only person with the vision of that emotion. Effective collaborations often have roles that look over certain aspects of the process with one person having the majority of creative control.
The Need To Follow One Vision
Producer Dave Sardy, who has made many amazing records with bands like LCD Soundsystem, Slayer and Death From Above 1979, says this about the need to follow a single vision:
“Anytime you have more than 3 or 4 people trying to get an idea across, I always think bands work best when one specific person in charge, the songwriter and if there’s a band with more than one songwriter, whoever wrote that song needs to follow that vision through and everyone needs to get on board with what that vision is. I think films work the same way, when there’s a strong vision, everything works well and when there’s a lot of competing visions you get the movies we’ve all watched sometimes and think ‘How the fuck did that get made?”
Many times choosing how you handle fulfilling a vision before starting a project can alleviate many of the disputes along the way. It’s effective to figure out the best assets of the group, giving them greater control over an aspect of the project. Democracy’s purpose is to make decisions that make the majority of a country happy, but music’s purpose is to make an emotion resonant, which is usually diluted by making the majority happy.
Democracy Isn’t Always The Best Option
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
― Winston Churchill
While there's no clear course of action for every situation, if we want to make good decisions, I don’t think democracy always gets us to the most resonant song. Now before you accuse me of being America-hating-liberal-hipster-scum, please hear me out. Too often when a decision comes up for a vote, the democratic process is corrupted by ulterior motives like focusing on an individual instrument or one member agreeing with other members due to power struggles within their dynamic. These democratic votes don't always lead to the best creative outcome. They can reflect the deficiencies in a team's dynamic with one another rather than a song that's resonant. Pleasing everyone is usually a way to compromise creativity that doesn't make a song as emotionally resonant as possible.
Instead, I've found that when a project has "too many cooks" it's best to discuss a course of action that'll get the best outcome. The team can take a vote to inform a benevolent dictator who has the overall decision power. Usually the main songwriter gets veto power over the emotional content of a song; the drummer will be in charge of groove and the producer is charged with veto power on sonic decisions. Whoever has the most understanding of the nuance of an aspect of the record will be charged with upholding its standard.
Instead of democracy, I think it's more helpful to think of your music the way a presidential cabinet works. The president makes the overall decisions on each choice as they were elected to oversee the intent of the country, but they use advisers who are experts in each field to help inform their ideas. If the president hears from the administer of beats, there's something wrong, they should probably take it seriously. However, if all the cabinet members think the beat administer is thinking selfishly, they'll ignore them.
The dictator may not be someone who has absolute control over all aspects of the project. Having a charter that dictates how disagreements will be handled that focuses on how to get the best creative outcome can not only help make better music, but it can save hours of strife in your life, as well as your studio bill. Especially when doing a second project with team members that had problems in the past, figuring out this charter can make your next go round far less painful. Having someone oversee different facets of the record that suit their strengths can eliminate distraction. These facets can be silly titles like "Minister of Groove," "Head of Tones" and "Captain Emotion."
While this title may not allow an absolute veto power, I may suggest their vote win unless all other members of the project disagree. For example, if we're arguing about a guitar tone and we know the singer usually has the best instincts about the guitar tone, we may give them two votes in a five-vote structure of four people. This way a tie can always be broken by the person who has the highest standards or best instincts.
Conversely, if it's known that the guitarist obsesses over details that don't make songs better, it may be better to decide a more rational person has the final say so the guitarist’s neuroses aren't overly indulged. Producer Aaron Marsh of the band Copeland says it's his job to "find the innovator and let them innovate." Finding the member who can oversee a subject such as a feel, emotion or audio fidelity can lead to standards being upheld that may otherwise be decided by those who have no ear for it.
With that said, democracy might tell you that you need to give more consideration to your decision. If the majority is telling you that a bad decision is being made, it may be time to take pause to see if you've lost your objectivity, thinking with your ego or are blind to what they're hearing. I don't mean to say that democracy never leads to good results, especially when the vote is 4-1, but I do think it has its flaws in creative environments.
Eliminating Useless Opinions - In creative environments, team members without a strong opinion can be forced to vote on a subject that's rarely made about the problem at hand. They can't even hear the problem in question or feel no emotional resonance one way or another. Eventually, pressure forces them to come down on a side that favors a strategic decision to play politics, one member vs. the other. This rarely benefits the song, so don’t force these members to choose a side in a democratic vote. They’ll usually vote for the member they feel closest with or some other idea that doesn't put the song's resonance first.
Always Judge With Heart, Not The Ego - The next way to make a good decision is to eliminate pontificating essays on why parts work and solely judge with the heart. If any decision is being made to satisfy someone's ego, most of the time it's a bad choice. Someone's opinion shouldn't be shut down since it benefits a part they played or their idea. Self-benefit is not the same as being egotistical; ego is focused on not wanting to be wrong or keeping your own contributions in a song in order to play a larger role. Make sure the song's emotional resonance is always considered first and other concerns last.
Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park has said that the group acts as a meritocracy where they put aside ego to allow the best ideas to win out. If someone in the group is uncomfortable, they'll experiment until that person feels the idea has been fully vetted enough to concede.
Debate Which Decision Furthers Your Intent The Most - The greatest hack to get to the heart of most decisions that come up for a vote in the studio is deciding which decision furthers the intent of the music. Commonly, the conflicts of creative interest get judged by ridiculous ideas instead of framing it on whether the intent is enforced or detracted by a part. If a part is conflicting the intent to make a sardonic, brooding song, judging whether it accentuates or detracts from that feeling should be the framing for its judgment.