I’ve been reflecting on the idea of collaborations with my work, and I wanted to share some musical geekery that may help you not only get to know me better but also help you to choose better people and organizations to collaborate with.
So, here goes…
Besides being a content strategist/writer/editor, I’m a bit of an erstwhile musician (I’m a classically trained pianist). And I really enjoy listening to music of all sorts, which is, honestly, not really a remarkable hobby.
I mean, really — have you ever met someone who hates music? I doubt they exist.
I’m also a bit of a music snob, and I cut my snobby teeth in the indie rock music scene of Chicago (I even sang at Schuba’s once).
And last year, a lot of musical artists released their quarantine albums.
And Taylor Swift was one of them. (God help me if the Swifties come for me, though! 😅 And if you are one, please bear with me and my musical review here.)
AND, I admit, this woman is fiercely loved and protected by her fans. And she has felt like she’s lived very much under a microscopic gaze of scrutiny.
Last year, Swift released two albums — folklore and evermore. She worked in a previous collaborator/producer, Jack Antonoff (he’s worked with my faves Carly Rae Jepsen and The Chicks on their latest albums). Previously, Swift worked with Swedish producers who are known to make some solid pop hits.
This time, in an interesting departure, she decided to work with Aaron Dessner from indie rock darlings, The National.
And this is why I mentioned why I am a music snob. I really liked Swift’s1989 album, where she went full-on pop with those Swedish producers.
It sounded like her, with her classic done-me-wrong/me-against-the-world angst.
But I didn’t (initially?) like these woodland creations, although they sound nice and well-produced. And I didn’t like these albums because although it sounded like her, it sounded more like she was a guest vocalist on The National album.
Most people are impressed by and prefer this sound — with the tinkly, maudlin strings that are a signature sound for The National. On evermore, The National even officially appeared on what I’d call a throwaway song.
But I am not impressed. I’m bored. It’s inoffensive background music.
For someone who is a pop queen and a fabled songwriter (I’m personally not a fan of her songwriting), I felt that this push to be seen as serious ended up drowning out who she was as an artist.
In comparison to Dessner, I don’t believe Antonoff caused a tsunami of himself over folklore (he produced 7 of the 17 songs and only one on evermore).
You can listen to folklore, Dedicated and Dedicated Side B, and Gaslighter and see how nimble and diverse Antonoff is with his sounds. And, all the artists sound like their best selves on his songs.
It was mainly disappointing to hear the collaborations with Dessner, The National, HAIM (love them), and Bon Iver. Lyrically, I felt they were all trying to slog through her butthurt feelings about how misunderstood she is. It’s hard for me to empathize with her frustration when she’s not 17 but 31, a very rich white woman on the struggle bus.
So why did I make you read all that? It’s a new year and you’re probably thinking about how you’re going to do business, and life, differently. Maybe people are coming into your private messages or inboxes looking for potential collaborations.
It seems like a good idea. They have more clout, a larger amount of followers and visibility. But they also seem to get what you’re doing in your business.
But is it a good fit? Let’s look back and learn from what Antonoff and Dessner did for Swift.
The new collaboration has to be better than what the two of you could do alone. The sum is greater than its parts.
Antonoff has his own band, Bleachers, and I’ve heard them on collaborate with Bruce Springsteen, and with Carly Rae Jepsen (and that is on the same album he produced, too). I prefer his collaborations and his production work.
I don’t really know Dessner’s solo work, but what he does with The National is phenomenal. But their collaboration with Swift was a snoozefest.
I have no idea what Swift is like producing her own stuff on her own. But I do know what producers have done for her sound — they create a musical backdrop for her to perform. That’s what great producers do, and they do it without being overwhelming, even if they have a signature sound.
One last example that sticks out in my mind is when Nigel Godrich — famed producer whose best work is with UK band, Radiohead — produced an album for another UK band, The Divine Comedy. Released in 2001, Regenerated sounds so much like…Radiohead. My favorite song on this album, “Love What You Do” reminds me of Paranoid Android in terms of its sonic quality (you hear that tinkling rhythmic noise? It’s the claves, and it’s on both songs).
Both songs are from around the same time period (late 90s/early aughts), and it’s just enough to go, “oh yeah, this is Godrich’s work.” But, after that, the leader of the band, Neil Hannon, produced their albums. And I like all those albums much better than Regenerated. The album was a departure from him more orchestral pop sound — and it’s OK to experiment.
That brings me to my next point.
If you’re going to collaborate with someone, you’re bringing them in for a reason (or two or three). To increase visibility is one reason, but there could be others. You should know why you’re reaching out and what the win-win is that you’re shooting for.
For Swift, she called Dessner as a fan of The National, asking him to remotely collaborate on some songs. So that’s a basic problem to have — need a collaborator to flesh out some songs. In this case, Swift used Dessner’s work as her foundation for her songs. Also, it helps that The National was also a fan of her1989 album (it’s her best, really) and had a collaborator who was already a ‘Swiftie’.
Through these two albums, Swift and Dessner were also able to cross-pollinate their fanbases because Dessner is no popster and Swift is not really an indie scenester.
It does make me wonder what The National fans besides me thought of this collaboration, but what I’ve seen online from Swifties is nothing but adoration.
For Dessner himself, though — these collaborations have raised his profile. Swift has a larger reach and Dessner has more of the gravitas with his songwriting and producing.
So Swift gets the expertise and indie clout, Dessner gets exposed to a wider audience, which may more more collaborations with other big pop artists. Seems like a win-win to me.
So maybe these albums aren’t my cup of tea, but since I started this post a couple of months ago, folklore is growing on me. I’ll be keeping my eye out on Dessner and Swift, to see what they end up doing after these albums. And looking on the outside of this collaboration, I didn’t really like the output. But Swift and Dessner seem happy.
Dessner said in Rolling Stone last year: “I’ve rarely had this kind of chemistry with anyone in my life — to be able to write together, to make so many beautiful songs together in such a short period of time.”
Still, whether I think this was successful, these albums were atop Billboard’s rankings. They sold. Fans loved them.
So one final thought: it’s important to determine what your metrics will be for your collaborations. I gave three here, but there are bound to be other ways to know whether a collaboration works or not. You should keep track of them and adjust where necessary.
And please remember, especially if you’re a biz owner or entrepreneur: life isn’t meant to be lived or experienced alone. So I wish you all the best in finding those collaborators that bring your work to new heights that you couldn’t have ever dreamed of reaching by yourself. 💫
Looking to collaborate with me on improving your content? I can give your biz a content assessment for $97 to see if we can work further together. Looking forward to working with you soon!
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