Songmine: Collaboration Part IV: Can This Marriage Work? by John Braheny

A John Braheny Songmine column from the archives…

COLLABORATION PART IV:  Can this marriage work? 

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COLLABORATION PART IV: Can this marriage work?

“My ego is my biggest problem when I collaborate,” says a successful L.A. songwriter. “I have to keep reminding myself that I’m collaborating with this lyricist because I really respect his work and when he offers a suggestion or asks me to change part of my melody to accomodate a lyric, I should give it a shot.” This problem, at least in part, was caused by the fact that he’d written the words and music himself for years and found it difficult to readjust his habits. It typifies a problem faced by all collaborators and unless it can be controlled, it becomes one of the most frequent causes of breakups. A negative and quarrelsome attitude can destroy any type of partnership, especially with people who are sensitive and involved with emotional issues. It’s not always easy to deal with someone who tells you your baby is ugly. Remember that you’re both trying to make it pretty. We all want to believe that, because the baby comes from us, it’s already perfect. Even when you’re writing alone, the ability to step back from your song and look at it objectively is what makes you a professional rather than an amateur songwriter. When you’re working with someone else, that professional attitude becomes doubly important because criticism is a necessary part of the process–a good partner won’t let you get away with ignoring a flaw. It is, in fact, one of the primary benefits of collaborating. The one thing to keep foremost in your mind is that you’re both trying to create the best song possible. All criticism and response to it should be directed toward that goal rather than to protecting your ego by defending something just because you wrote it.

You’ll need to learn not only to accept criticism graciously but to give it. Giving criticism is an art in itself. When you’re beginning a relationship it’s crucial that it be done as gently and positively as possible. As your routine develops and you get more comfortable and trusting with each other you’ll probably work out some shorthand that will speed up the process of criticism. You’ll also get to know which buttons not to push. For instance, there’s a lot of difference between saying That line sucks!” and “Let’s make that line stronger.” The former is an unqualified putdown. The latter acknowledges it could be better, offers a challenge, and implies faith that you and your partner can do it. It’s important that you continuously acknowledge your partner’s talent and compli-ment his/her good ideas. In an atmosphere where your partner knows he/she is respected, criticism becomes much easier. If you find few causes for compliments, you should be writing with someone else.

Approaches to collaboration are as varied as the combinations of individuals involved. It’s very important that you find out right away how your prospective partner likes to work. Here are some of the variables: 1. Writing lyric and music alone and getting together later. Some people get very uptight when their partner is in the same room. It disturbs their creative flow. They may be open to criticism and change later but they need to get something to work from first. Some lyricists would rather write to a finished melody and vice versa. This method makes it easier to write by correspondence. Some who write this way will take their melody or lyric to several writers in succession and say “Take this lyric (or tune) for a week. I’ll hear what you’ve come up with then and if I like it, great, and if not I’ll take it to someone else.” For those writers, it saves the hassle of waiting endlessly for a collaborator to finish a song. A very common problem. 2. Writing together in the same room. Writers who work this way love the give and take and instant feedback. They’re into the excitement and high energy level that can happen when they really start to “cook.” It’s particularly good for those who write both lyrics and music so ideas can be stimulated and shared in both areas. With this type of collaboration your compatability becomes more important. What time of day is your best creative time? Can you work every day or once a week? Do you like each other and not feel intimidated? Regardless of the approach, you’ll also need stylistic compatability and you’ll need to decide whether you or your partner also want to collaborate with others. As in all other partnership efforts (including marriage) give and take and understanding are the keys.


See all previous entries in the Songmine Series

About Songmine and Music Connection Magazine:

John Braheny met Eric Bettelli and Michael Dolan right before they were going to publish Music Connection magazine. Eric and Michael wanted to get their publication out to as many songwriters as they could. They had already heard of the LA Songwriters Showcase, and of John and his partner, Len Chandler. John’s goal was to advertise the schedule of guest speakers and performers at the weekly Showcase… so they made a deal. 

They published John’s Songmine column (he had never before written a magazine article!) in their very first edition, in November 1977. Trading out the column for advertising, this arrangement continued for many years. Plus, Eric and Michael came to the Showcase each week and distributed free copies to the songwriters!

Those articles became so popular that (book agent and editor) Ronny Schiff offered John’s articles to F&W Media, where they became the backbone of John’s textbook, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. As a follow-up, Dan Kimpel (author, songwriter, teacher), who had also worked at LASS, took on the Songwriting column at Music Connection magazine which continues to this day! You can subscribe to get either hard copies or online.

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