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Nothing can ever replace the magic of meeting face-to-face with fellow musicians in the studio to write or record, but the power of the Internet and modern music technology has made online collaboration easier than ever. During my three-year tenure as the host of The VU Backstage, a music talk program at Vanderbilt University’s radio station, many of the student-musicians I interviewed on the show spoke about writing songs on a regular basis with musicians from their faraway hometowns or creative hubs like New York and Los Angeles. While each discussed the importance of competence in various DAWs and Google Drive to making music over the Internet, the most constant theme was the notion that effective online collaboration is, first and foremost, a matter of building a relationship that matches the strength of an in-person partnership. This truism holds whether you’re working with someone you’ve known for a long time or a partner you contacted via an online music platform or classifieds database.
Eli Sones, who appeared as my guest on show three times, made extensive use of online collaboration over his collegiate career as one half of the rising EDM duo Two Friends. The other half, his friend Matt Halper, attended Stanford. Using mostly Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Pro Tools, Sones and Halper overcame the long distance to create music that has attracted an online following of 118,000 likes on Facebook and 47,000 followers on SoundCloud. Commenting on the twosome’s successful online dynamic, Sones cited the balance of support and honesty that stemmed from the close friendship he and Halper had developed over the course of their childhood.
“In any collaboration, it’s important to be totally honest with each other and not be afraid to voice any concerns, criticisms, or any ‘out-there’ creative ideas,” Sones told me. “It’s a lot easier to do this with someone you are familiar with than someone you just met, because you don’t want to come off as too aggressive or too negative right away.”
The key, then, to developing a great working relationship over the Internet – particularly with someone you haven’t yet met in person – is to treat the process much the same as you would treat a regular, face-to-face co-write. Come into the conversation with ideas in hand (preferably via an MP3 or .wav demo that can be easily sent by email) and spend the first few back-and-forths discussing what you and your collaborator want to get out of the project. Even over email, it should be relatively easy to read a collaborator’s level of enthusiasm and the personality they will bring to the co-writing sessions. It’s also a good idea, as long as you go about it in a quick and professional manner, to establish how any finished product will be credited and to whom any copyright will belong.
More effective than email, and an important step up in the collaboration, is Internet video calling via Google Hangout, FaceTime, or Skype. Video calling isn’t a first step, particularly with a new creative partner, but the move away from email should happen as quickly as possible to facilitate a stronger bond. A 2013 study undertaken by three psychology professors from UCLA and Cal State-Los Angeles found a “significantly lower level of bonding,” both on a subjective level and in observations of non-verbal behavior associated with bonding, in text-based messaging as compared to video communication.
As effective as online communication can be, it’s important to know the limits of what it can accomplish and adjust accordingly. Michael Pollack, currently signed to Warner/Chappell Music and Pure Tone Music uses online collaboration extensively during the school year, and likes to keep his Internet co-writing sessions short because he finds it harder to stay focused. “The expectations should be low for an online session,” he told me. “I also don’t like to start from scratch when I write with someone online…video chat co-writes are more effective when you already have a concept.” While in-person collaboration may not be an option at first, it’s the next logical step, and determining the level of success or involvement at which your project requires face-to-face meetings is key to raising its potential ceiling.
Until that point, the most important thing you can do is to maintain an open line of communication with your creative partner. Whether you’re spontaneously sending a voice memo when you get an idea or following a rigorous co-writing schedule, Pollack said he would reserve four hours each Sunday night for Skypes with a partner in New York. The more time you spend on your collaborator’s mind, the more invested they will be in your creative relationship and the projects you share.
At the end of the day, all collaboration boils down to relationships, and online relationships are built through the same steps in communication as physical ones. The digital age may have made collaboration far easier, but technology can’t account for your determination to stay in constant contact and develop an effective chemistry with your creative partner.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zach Blumenfeld is a recent alumnus of WRVU Nashville, Vanderbilt University’s student radio station. Over the past three years, he has interviewed over forty songwriters and bands on his weekly program The VU Backstage, as well as contributing music commentary and reviews to the WRVU blog. He has also worked at Nashville radio station Lightning 100.