Online Collaboration

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Back in July 2009, an Echoes post offered an overview of a number of online interactive music collaboration sites. At that time, online music collaboration in the form on co-writing, long-distance overdubbing, remix contests, and simply expanding one’s own network of possible music-making partners was just starting to gain momentum.

Now that more than a year has gone by, we interviewed a few musicians who are actively using online collaboration to expand their range of musical options. We spoke with composer/arranger David Minnick, saxophonist Greg Osby, and singer-songwriter Patrick Lajeunesse. Each has been able to develop a unique and productive online music collaborative process for their own projects and those of other musicians. One common link is that they all rely on one of the largest and most productive community of musicians found on the web: Indaba.

Greg Osby is a New York City-based sax player and Indaba Artist in Residence who uses online collaboration to keep his name in the spotlight, and he also acts as a mentor to up-and-coming artists and occasionally adds his signature sound to an online collaboration.

Tell us a little about the music you create and how you use online collaboration tools.
For me, online collaboration is a contemporary form of self-promotion and a way of making yourself available and accessible.

A strong online presence is not a luxury anymore; it’s a necessity. Due to the demands of the industry, no longer are record labels clamoring to sign bands. So, you have to be web-savvy and be an “army of one” in every aspect of the music business. You can’t wait for someone to point you in the right direction anymore; you have to do it yourself. Indaba is innovative in that it allows people to collaborate sight unseen. People who haven’t met, but can offer public music for sharing. I think it’s an amazing idea.

Any downsides you’ve experienced?
No, not for me personally. But you could definitely have issues of ownership, as well as copyright and legal issues. Suppose someone collaborates on a song and it’s played on the radio, and then someone says, “Yeah, I did that.” You are going to have problems.

That’s why for me, everything has to be on the level. You must be crystal clear in terms of legalities, percentages, and ownerships. There is potential for things to go awry, especially when greed may lurk around every corner. There are people wanting to take credit for things they shouldn’t. Still, nothing bad has happened to me as a result of online collaboration, because I’m not really looking for credit. Instead, the online collaboration keeps my name and availability in circulation, that’s why I’ll do an occasional give-aways – a musical contribution at no cost. I believe that when you are always motivated by money and credit, it can remove the art and passion from your music.

Do you feel that anything is “lost” when the face-to-face interaction is removed? Anything gained?
Sure, a whole lot is lost. That’s why the record industry is in the condition it’s in right now. Because of this stampede of “super producers,” mostly in pop where they have completely eliminated the need for musicians to get together and make eye contact and vibe together and find something that you do not get when you’re in a room by yourself with headphones on in front of a computer. That’s why the industry shot itself in the foot, because music consumers are tired of paying top dollar for an album with one or two listenable tracks, because there was no inspiration by human interaction or working with someone who fed you something moving or inspirational.

Music is conversation. You have to find a way to commune with other people. That’s why everything on the radio sounds the same. It’s like a dog chasing his tail. People might come up with a technique that everyone jumps on, like Auto-Tune, and then it wears itself out. Instead, what we really need is the vibes created when musicians are working together in the studio — completely focused on the music, with no faxes, no emails, or text messages. That is where you can come up with something grand.

What opportunities have opened up as a result of virtual collaboration sites?
The world is your stage. You have the option to reach out to people share a musical language, but also their culture, traditions, and experiences you know nothing about. You can collaborate with someone who has a computer on the other side of the world, someone in New Zealand, Bali, The Netherlands, or somewhere in the mountains of South America. You can commune over the common language of music. What they offer is informed by their experiences in life, traditions, and customs. You can put up basic tracks and get a contribution from some cat in Brazil whose music is informed by his natural customs, and you end up with something you never would have come up with on your own.

Can you tell me a little about the Artist-in-Residence program and what you do?
Indaba has given me a forum, more or less a blog, with no holds barred, no strings attached. I can talk about whatever I want to talk about. I don’t contribute to it as often as they would like. I try to write about things that are relevant, that can be helpful or enlightening to people. I like to generate stimulating discussions and maybe even ruffle a few feathers. My blog is also my own public billboard and gives me a chance to comment on the state of the music world.

Patrick Lajeunesse is a Quebec-based singer-songwriter who founded Peace Partners on Indaba, a virtual super group of more than 240 musicians from all around the world, dedicated to helping him with his non-profit music collective.

Tell me a little about the music you create and how you use online collaboration tools.
I’m an amateur musician who just makes music for fun, and while I was on a long trip I started missing my friends whom I collaborated with, so I looked to Indaba. I created a profile, showcased some songs, and started using the blog tool. Then I started utilizing the chat feature to tell people about an idea I had to create a community within the Indaba community.

I created a group page called Peace Partners with the idea to make as many songs as possible on the subject of peace and freedom. If it reached a point where profits were being made, I decided they would all be given to Amnesty International and War Child Canada. It soon became a nonprofit organization, and the whole platform for creation was Indaba. Today we have 240 contributors and Peace Partners is a reality. Together we have created 44 songs on the theme of peace and freedom. Earlier this year we released our first two albums, and the third will be released shortly. We’ll have full distribution through CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon. So, something that started for fun to get to know musicians has ended up truly helping a great cause.

Have there ever been any unintended results from online collaboration, for better or for worse?
I was very surprised with the response from people. I thought that in 2010 talk of peace and freedom might sound old-fashioned, but I found that people are still excited to talk and sing about this subject. On Indaba you put out your message, and the people that are interested get in touch, and the others do not. So, you only get positive responses.

If you do get a response from someone who wants to submit music, you only use it if you need it or like it. I never had anyone get angry because his or her track was rejected. I noticed from the beginning that there is a lot of respect on the site, mostly due to the artist/musician-centered society that has grown on Indaba.

Do you typically approach the site with a firm idea of you want to accomplish, or “browse around” until inspiration strikes?
I tell people what I need, and about the project I’m working on. My project takes all of my time on Indaba, so I don’t have time for other one-on-one collaboration, though I wish I did. I more ask than offer, but it can be seen both ways because having that community within Indaba, I give people exposure. It’s like saying, “Come and make music for a good cause, and I’ll do my best to give you exposure.” Indaba has been proactive in helping Peace Partners get attention and even assisted us in creating a press kit.

Do you feel that anything is “lost” when the face-to-face interaction is removed? Anything gained?
Yes, of course some things are lost. It’s not practical to build closer relations with the other musicians. You feel like having a beer together, but you can’t because you would have to make a seven-hour flight to do so! That’s a little frustrating.

However, through my experience of working with live musicians, I’ve learned that if you don’t go out for that beer, it keeps the right distance that allows you to maintain objectivity about what you’re doing. If I met, in-person, all 240 people that are working on Peace Partners, maybe it would make it harder to focus on doing what’s right for the albums. I’m usually a recreational musician, someone who is all about friends around a campfire, enjoying a good evening, and making good music, or sometimes recording. In a situation like that, it’s more about being together than creating music, whereas on Indaba, the focus is more on making music than being together. The removal of face-to-face interaction makes you focus more on what you’re actually creating.

What opportunities have opened up as a result of online collaboration sites?
At the end of the month, I’m going to an event with other musicians to kick-off our first album release. It will be played live on the radio, and we have received good coverage in media. The results are good for the project itself, good for peace and freedom, and good for all the organizations involved. It has created opportunities for getting the message out beyond Indaba and into the community. And then back again, because many of the artists that will be at the event are asking about Indaba for our next project.

Do you find the feedback you get on your music from members of the site is helpful?
Some of the best feedback I’ve received was from members that weren’t even in Peace Partners when Indaba posted a nice blog about our project and explained that I was looking for new producers. It was understood from the beginning that our original producer would give only a year, so I was looking for new producers.

I got a big response from producers outside of Peace Partners that were interested in the music. Just people going by and reading about our project and deciding they wanted to get involved. Now we have three new producers. One is a 15-year-old on the British National swim team. He is a laptop producer, not a traditional musician, but he is very talented, so we said to him, “Welcome aboard!”

David Minnick is a Michigan-based composer and arranger who has had success in a variety of remix projects and contests while also contributing to a number of projects.

Tell us a little about the music you create and how you use online collaboration tools.
I like to create different music. A lot of it is very complicated and difficult to play, but it always has a slightly absurd sense of humor. Typically I work by myself and take a long time to create each piece. I play many instruments (although none that require a mouthpiece or a bow), so I can usually record rhythm tracks and vocals with no outside help. If I need other instruments on a track, I am fortunate enough to have friends who play in community orchestras and jazz bands who are willing to come over, record, and hang out. Most classically-trained musicians these days are looking for something new and interesting to play, so they’re genuinely excited to come over and record arrangements I’ve written specifically for them.

I tried the online collaboration tools on Indaba just out of curiosity, just to see what would happen. I put up an 8-measure tonal percussion loop and some drums. I didn’t invite anybody, but I soon had quite a few people requesting to be part of the session. I accepted everyone who requested. Soon people started uploading tracks. Some of them worked and some of them didn’t. I eventually did a mix that included at least pieces of everyone’s tracks (I broke some of them down to individual notes, but I wanted everybody who uploaded a track to be able to hear themselves). In the end, the song turned out to be quite good, and not something I would have come up with by myself.

Can you identify an obstacle that online collaboration helped you overcome?
Physical distance. I’ve gotten to collaborate with a few incredible musicians who live hundreds or more miles away from me. I never would have met these people if it weren’t for online collaboration.

How did you find music or musicians to work with in the past, and how have sites like Indaba changed that?
I initially joined Indaba to get in on the remix contests. When I remix a song, I usually keep the vocals and completely redo the music. I was still having my friends come over to record (brass, woodwinds and strings) for those. There are only two people (so far) that I’ve met through Indaba that I would call before I’d call someone I know to come over and record in person.

Have there ever been any unintended results from online collaboration, for better or for worse?
Of course. When you jump into an online collaboration – especially if it’s with people you’ve never met – you are truly jumping into the unknown. I’ve found that before starting an online collaboration, it’s helpful to not have a precise idea of what you what the song to sound like when it’s finished. At different points in collaboration, I’ve been confused, ecstatic, disappointed, inspired, etc. You just hope to have enough useful material to put it together by the end.

Do you typically approach the site with a firm idea of what you want to accomplish, or do you “browse around” until inspiration strikes?
I always have a specific idea of what I want to do for the remix contests. However, I do those by myself with help from my orchestra friends when needed.

With the online collaborations, however, I just join if I’m invited and it seems like I’ll have the time to help or when someone is offering to pay me. I know a few people whose online sessions I am happy to join because they do quality music that is easy to play along with. My primary considerations before joining a session are: steady tempo/recorded to a click, instruments in tune, and a coherent song form. Those three things save hours and hours of frustration for musicians, but you’d be surprised how many online sessions don’t have any of these three qualities.

When I start a session these days, there are a few musicians that I know well enough to invite specifically. I usually just put up something simple to get things started — as the “seed.” I can always add more tracks later, and it gives the other musicians more space and freedom at the beginning of the process. I’ve found that people are more apt to come up with creative ideas if they don’t feel constricted.

What opportunities have opened up as a result of virtual collaboration sites?
While I’ve gotten a few arranging/composing gigs through people I’ve met on Indaba, I’ve picked up far more leads/contacts/promises of future work, but it’s still been very helpful.

Has online collaboration made you more selective about the musicians you work with?
I’m far more selective now about which online musicians I invite to a session than I was at first. If somebody comes into a session without a feel for the basic principles of music theory (rhythm/pitch/form) it usually takes a lot of extra time and energy to try and incorporate them into the session. People tend to take criticism better when it’s face to face, and I don’t like to un-invite people once they’ve already been a part of the session.

Do you find the feedback you get on your music from members of online music sites is helpful?
Yes. The open communication on Indaba is very helpful. You can comment on finished mixes, on individual tracks, on contest submissions and profile tracks. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on Indaba. Actually, this was precisely what I needed when I joined because I was quite uncertain about the direction my music was heading. The support through Indaba helped me to sail more confidently into uncharted waters.

For the most part, the criticisms have also been quite helpful. Indaba is a gigantic community of musicians: somebody is bound to hear the click or pop that you missed in the mix, or that the vocals are too quiet in verse 2, or the wrong guitar chord during the fadeout. The people I’ve met on Indaba are great at the art of constructive criticism.

Greg Osby Links
Greg’s Indaba blog

A profile, concert performance and interview with Greg from National Public Radio

Greg’s MySpace page

Patrick Lajeunesse Links
Patrick’s Indaba Peace Partners page

A Radio Canada video news report featuring Patrick and Peace Partners

Peace Partners new web site

David Minnick Links
David Minnick’s Indaba profile

David’s MySpace page

An article discussing his influences and his band The Sursiks’ 2009 album Christmas in March

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Echoes and directs the Music Management program at University of the Pacific. Casey Newlin is a member of the team that produces two indie rock festivals based in San Francisco, Noise Pop and the Treasure Island Music Festival.

4 thoughts on “Online Collaboration

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