Into the closet
“What about you, Trace? Can you sing?” The scene is a teenage bedroom in England in 1979. A band called The Stern Bops is rehearsing, or they would be if their singer had bothered to show up. For lack of any better options, someone asks Tracey, the rhythm guitarist, if she can fill in, and she says yes - though she has no idea if this is true or not. Can she sing? It depends what you mean. She does sing: or at least, she yells along to her records in her room. But not like this, with other people watching and listening.
She says yes, but on the condition that she does her vocals from inside the closet. The band agrees to her terms, and the session proceeds, with the group jamming in a loose circle, while Tracey Thorn’s vocals float out of a wardrobe in the corner. She doesn’t get the gig, but this is kind of a relief. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it in front of an audience,” says Thorn, recalling her singing debut in her 2013 memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, “We could hardly take the wardrobe around with us.” Thorn would, in a few years, become one half of Everything But the Girl, and later lend her vocals to Massive Attack’s classic ‘Protection’. She’d get used to singing in front of people - musicians, producers and engineers, in all kinds of situations. But at this moment, in 1979, the idea of trying something out with others watching was more than she could bear.
Here in the twenty-first century, when music makers talk about collaboration, the idea of being co-present or “face to face” is sometimes held up as a standard, if not an ideal. This, they say, is how it should be - humans in a room, looking each other in the eye, all hands on deck, making a thing together. But Thorn’s story about the singer in the wardrobe reminds us that not everybody likes to work this way. Making music in groups is a social process, which can be good or terrible news depending on how you feel about social occasions. What if you want to make music, but you’re shy, or you just don’t enjoy people’s company that much?
Today, the answer seems obvious: get yourself a DAW and some sound packs, and do it yourself. But at the time of the Wardrobe Incident, this simply wasn’t possible. Making almost any kind of popular music meant working with people in physical space, more or less in real-time, and this situation - so often treated as an aspiration today - was for many a literal nightmare.
"I started doing the guitar band thing in high school”, said producer and TV composer Bev Stanton in 2010. “We went through so many dysfunctional people that after a while, it just made sense to use machines more. You know, there's less drama." For Stanton, fed up with the weird interpersonal relationships and hang-ups that seemed to go along with band culture, electronic music offered the possibility of not collaborating for the first time - an opportunity she immediately seized.
In a 2017 interview with Straylandings, Israeli film composer Yair Elazar Glotman echoed Stanton’s story. "I used to be frustrated by being a bass player, and relying on other musicians to express myself,” he explained. “Electronic music is very freeing in that sense.” Stanton and Glotman could conceive of ditching the band in a way that Thorn could not. Being younger, they came up at a time when studio gear was becoming cheaper and more accessible, and when making music on a personal computer became possible, and eventually, normal.
In these artists’ lifetimes, ‘solo’ music production went from being something only a handful of well-resourced oddballs like Todd Rundgren or Prince could do, to the default situation for any beginner music maker with a laptop. As a result, face-to-face collaboration became an optional extra. If you’d always found the experience of making music with people frustrating, like Stanton, or just too limiting, like Glotman, why keep doing it?
What seems striking now about the recent vogue for ‘collaboration’ is that it corresponds to a decline in its necessity. Now that we don’t have to do it, it seems kind of cool; in much the same way that mountains only started being described as ‘majestic’ and ‘sublime’ after people figured out how to build roads and railway tunnels through them - they became more beautiful as they became less of a nuisance.
The chicken or the egg?
How did we end up here? Did people start making music on their own because computers and DAWs made it possible for them to do so? Or was it the other way around? It’s quite normal for us to say that a musical genre came into being because some piece of gear was invented, or that music culture evolved because technology did. Normal, but not strictly true.
In spite of what techno-determinists would have us believe, technology is not a blind force that drives music makers to do this or that against their individual wills. As musician and artist Nicolas Makelberge argued in his 2012 essay ‘Rethinking Collaboration in Networked Music’, the development of our tools corresponds to our wishes - people invent things because they want them to exist, or because they figure someone else might - and their inventions succeed to the extent that people find them useful or desirable. Looked at from this point of view, the evolution of music technology - from the invention of the lute to the MPC and beyond - speaks of a species-wide desire to make more sound with less people. In other words, we have wished for autonomy, and our wish has come true.
This doesn’t mean that technology hasn’t influenced creation; or that people aren’t doing things differently because they have new tools. It’s just that we need to see the tools themselves as products of human agency, and not extra-historical forces determining what artists do in advance. “I invented a long-felt need”, said mens’ fashion pioneer Bill Green to Nik Cohn in 1971. He was talking about pants, but the statement would be just as true if it were uttered by the designer of an arpeggiator or a phone app for making beats.
So, music-makers wanted autonomy, and, slowly but surely, instrument designers and software developers gave it to them. But even if we accept that this was the result of a collective wish, we might still regret the result. Did we purchase our independence at the expense of our connection to other humans?
In dance music, for example, the mid-70s state of the art suggested you needed, at minimum, a 4-piece band, a session percussionist, a horn section, backing singers, a producer, an engineer, and someone from the company that built the synth to turn the damn thing on, in order to make something cool. Whatever else you might say about this, it was a highly social affair. Now the same effect (more or less) can be achieved by a single person running Live on a laptop connected to the internet. Even if you have personally benefited from this state of affairs - as most of us have - it still seems a little disturbing. Where did everybody go? Is it a problem that we don’t… hang out anymore? To put it bluntly - has musical autonomy made us lonely?
The Three C’s
According to Nicolas Makelberge, reports of the death of the music producer’s social life have been greatly exaggerated. Just because we just don’t need to get a band together, or organize an ensemble, or hire a studio and an engineer to realize our musical goals, doesn’t mean that people aren’t making music with others – quite the opposite. Together-making, he argues, is alive and well in the 21st century – but we might need a more precise language for the forms this takes if we want to understand it.
Makelberge breaks our catch-all word ‘collaboration’ into three separate terms, which he arranges along an axis from ‘most’ to ‘least’ reciprocal - that is, the degree to which people need to interact to achieve something. There’s no hierarchy implied at all - he doesn’t say one is better than the other, just that they’re different, and need to be treated differently.
According to Makelberge, the most reciprocal way of making music with others is collaboration: this this is how people work in bands and production partnerships, where two or more people are involved all the way through the creation of a piece of music, and, at least in theory, have an equal say in how it’s developed and how it turns out. Makelberge describes it as “a co-ordinated and synchronous activity, that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem”. This is how, for example, Sunn 0))) founder and serial collaborator Stephen O’Malley prefers to get things done. "I think collaborating is the only way to explore music”, he told The Creative Independent in 2017. “It’s fascinating to try and communicate with different people and collaborate and try to create something together. It’s exciting to do that. I probably wouldn’t be able to do any music if it wasn’t for collaborating.”
As O’Malley could attest, when this ‘co-ordinated and synchronous’ activity takes place live, in front of an audience, the stakes are even higher, and the results can be even more exciting. "There's some unnameable synergy that happens once in a while when you're playing with somebody”, said cellist and composer Clarice Jensen of her live-on-stage improvisation with Korean beatmaker Sowall at Loop 2018. “And if it's somebody you don't know at all, and we don't even communicate with the same language, then it's quite an abstract thing, but you can feel it."
“Cooperation”, says Makelberge, is “an activity in which partners split the work, solve sub-tasks individually, and then assemble the partial results into the final output.” This is the way pop songs are typically made, where there might be one ‘artist’, whose job is to create a hit, but lots of other people who are involved in making this happen, writing parts, playing instruments, contributing guest verses, engineering, and mixing. “It’s shocking” says producer Stefan Johnson, “how much time was put into one song from so many different people”. Johnson is talking about ‘The Middle’ by Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey in NYT’s Diary of a Song. His partner Jordan Johnson says it was just a matter of “everyone getting the song to sound as good as everyone knew it could be.”
But the cooperative approach works for smaller musical projects too. There’s often times when, as producers, we want to hear something on a track that we know we couldn’t create ourselves, and we cast about thinking of friends or acquaintances who could supply the missing element. It might be an instrumental part or a sound treatment, a guest vocal, or just some raw material to work on. This might be less reciprocal, but that doesn’t make it less rewarding. In 2021, Objekt was invited to contribute to a forthcoming album by Slikback. “I sent him stems for a WIP I’d been trying to finish for almost a year and had by this point totally overcooked”, wrote Objekt in an instagram story. “MF sends it back to me finished in TEN HOURS… obviously way more raw and energized and fun than I’d ever have been able to make it.” Objekt and Slikback may not have sat hunched over a monitor screen or mixing desk together, or jammed in the conventional sense - but they still pooled their ideas and abilities to make something neither could have done on their own.
Apex by Slikback x Objekt – the end product of a cooperative approach to production
Cooperation also lends itself better to remote ways of working, which can take the pressure off, and allow us to develop our ideas alone before putting the pieces together. When Tracey Thorn retells the story of her working with Massive Attack in the early 90s, she admits that when they first sent her the cassette demo of ‘Protection’, she didn’t know quite what to make of it. “I carry the tape around with me for a while”, she writes, “At first, I can’t get anywhere with it. Then it starts to seep into my brain… a few days later, I put on the Massive tape again, get out some paper and a pencil, and write the whole song almost in one go”.
At the least reciprocal end of the spectrum, there’s ‘Collective Creation’, which at first glance looks nothing like collaboration as we usually imagine it. Here, says Makelberge, “there is no conscious intent or explicitly stated agreement on either part to collaborate or co-operate.” The people involved don’t meet or talk to each other, online or off, nor are they “working together”, either in a studio, or in some remote online mode, like people collaborating on a google doc. Nevertheless, says Makelberge, this approach “still produces artworks that involve the skill, effort and productions of many artists.”
An example of this mode is the way hip hop producers work with samples which, once embedded in their productions, become part of a conversation with the artists who recorded them - without the ‘sampler’ and the ‘samplee’ ever meeting each other for real. Many hip hop producers work alone, and prefer it that way. “It’s the shit”, said producer Mr Supreme in 1998, “to be at home at 4:00 in the morning, in your boxers, in front of your sampler, making some shit, you know?” Supreme is one of dozens of rap producers interviewed by music researcher and hip hop nut Joseph G. Schloss for his book ‘Making Beats’, in which Schloss and his subjects debunk lazy myths about the essentially ‘social’ nature of black music, while also clearly demonstrating that every person making music at home in their underwear is simultaneously plugged-in to a conversation with every other producer who ever made or released a beat, and every musician sampled by those producers. This is perhaps what clipping.’s Daveed Diggs meant when he told Song Exploder that his group writes from “the shattered perspective of every rap song that's ever existed”, and insists that clipping. is “a hive-mind of things that exist in the world of rap music.”
clipping. on the Song Exploder podcast discussing their approach to sampling as collective creation
This kind of collective musical activity has been around as long as music itself. Folk music, for example, could be described as a repository of materials made by many people over many centuries, which can be taken up and used by whoever next comes on the scene. In the 1970s and 80s, Reggae, Dub and Dancehall super-charged this mode of production by souping it up with post-World War 2 technology and what reggae historian Lloyd Bradley describes as a particularly Jamaican ingenuity. When a reggae tune became a hit, it would quickly be followed by dozens of ‘versions’ of the same song. These weren’t covers in the usual sense; rather, a producer would take the rhythm or melody of the first song and create something new on top of it, usually without any direct involvement from the original artists. “It’s not like we stealing from anybody”, explained the Mighty Diamonds in 1977. “We take a riddim and update it and re-record it. And then we apply our own new ideas to it. We call it ‘anointing’ the riddim with our own magic.”
But while collective music-making has long been with us, the internet does seem to have accelerated its growth. “Vocals recorded in slapdash studios get released online and aired on sound systems the same night”, wrote author and DJ Jace Clayton in 2016, by way of describing what he calls ‘World Music 2.0’. “By the next day, the track has been sampled again by a crew on the other side of the world and mashed up with whatever concoctions they've got going on.” This, says Clayton, is “the folk music of the twenty-first century.”
“I like the donuts, gimme le donuts, le donuts…” The scene is a home kitchen somewhere in America. A blond-haired woman is preparing an elaborate dessert made from donuts baked in condensed milk and dusted with sugar, while a big man named Mike provides a commentary - or tries to. But he’s so excited about the treat being prepared in front of him that he can’t help bursting into song - and it turns out, he’s pretty good at it. “Diabetes!” he hollers in a churchy tenor. “High blooood-pressure!”
Amazingly, as he does so, a small group of three musicians from three different countries materializes in the now quite crowded kitchen, and, despite never having met before, and without any kind of perceptible cue or count in, immediately throws down a white-hot power-trio accompaniment to Mike’s singing. Then, just as suddenly as they started, they stop, only to start wailing again the instant Mike does.
This is all, of course, impossible - or at least it would be ‘in real life’. But this isn’t reality, it’s TikTok, which in many ways represents the epitome of Makelberge’s ‘Collective Creation’. TikTok's 'Duet' function has brought forth collabs that would never take place in ‘face to face’ encounters; not only because the participants live in very different geographical and social worlds, and possibly don’t speak each other’s languages, but also because the prospect of having to do something this preposterous in a room in front of other people might have put many of them off from the start. Because the mode here is remote and asynchronous, participants can rehearse and perfect their musical moves in privacy, and make their contribution passively. Here, we can retain our autonomy while making music socially - staying cozy in the wardrobe, while still being part of the jam.
Exploring the Continuum
There are all kinds of reasons to prefer one of these ‘3 c’s to another - it depends very much on who you are, where you are, and what you’re trying to do. In her book, ‘I’ll Never Write My Memoirs’, Grace Jones explains in detail why the cooperative approach to recording her early disco albums eventually ran out of steam - because she was treated as a guest vocalist on her own records, given a small sub-task to do (singing) after the arrangements had already been written and produced. When she decided it was time for a change in 1980, label head Chris Blackwell assembled a band around Jones, and booked them into a studio together, so that they would write by improvising, and so that Jones' personality would be part of the mix from the very beginning. Working in this mode helped Jones find her voice as an artist, and produced some of the best and most commercially successful music of her career.
But not everyone has these resources, or wants this kind of result. Ghanaian producer Gafacci started making music in 2009, adopting what he describes as a ‘nomadic’ musical lifestyle, bouncing from studio to studio, and working face-to-face with his collaborators in Accra. When he started thinking bigger and looking outside of his home city, Gafacci took advantage of the fact that sound files travel much more easily over borders than people, and shifted his practice to a more cooperative mode. Now, when he feels a track is 70% done, he looks to a network of contributors spread from Lisbon to LA to pick up the other 30, sending them briefs and feedback via whatsapp. “The internet”, he says, “has been good to me”.
Like Bev Stanton or Yair Glottmann, Belarussian producer and songwriter Mustelide came up in a band-oriented scene, and assumed that you needed to put a group together to get music made. But if she had any romantic illusions about face-to-face collaboration at the time, she doesn’t anymore. “I saw myself only creating music as a part of a band, and where producers are authoritative guys sitting in their expensive studios,” she explained in an interview with Pop Kultur last year. “But as the time of DIY producers came and I got access to all production tools, like machines replacing musicians and Ableton replacing professional studios, it finally felt right for me to dive deep into the magical world of production and sound design.” Mustelide opted out of the patriarchal culture that made her feel ill-at-ease in professional studios - but she never stopped making music with people. Her third album was a record made with samples of broken instruments collected by a US-based organization called Found Sound Nation. They never met, but why should they?
“Telo Ogon” was made by Mustelide from samples of broken instruments
Mustelide’s uncanny pop constructions would likely not have been improved by her having those instruments destroyed and sampled in real time in the studio, and Gafacci’s extraordinary career as an international producer might have been killed before it began if he’d had to fly everyone to Accra to make records. Grace Jones got results from face-to-face jams with her band that she couldn’t get by having her vocals flown-in to a prefab disco track, but Big Mike’s donut rhapsody owes its success to the fact that the band, Mike, and the lady with the donuts didn’t meet or know anything about one another.
Thinking about the nature of musical relationships as a continuum, rather than a hierarchy, helps us judge them by their individual merits, their relationship to the tools we’re using, and their suitability for our own personalities and musical goals. Today, Yair Glotman, having enjoyed for many years the autonomy afforded him by collective creation, has turned again to collaboration - not in order to return to some ideal or ‘normal’ state, but because he wants to be surprised. “You can get completely lost in the do-it-yourself mentality”, he says with a laugh. “You start to get lost in your own ideas. So I’m starting to gain trust again in other people."
Once upon a time in the studio, collaboration and cooperation were the rule. Producing any kind of electronic music meant you had to work with an engineer at least, but usually a lot more people besides. Today a single person with a networked laptop can easily produce sounds that, three decades ago, would have required teams of specialists to realize.
But if collaboration and cooperation are no longer strictly necessary for the production of complex, multi-layered music, that doesn’t mean they’re not fun or rewarding. Making music with others can shed new light on old problems, open us up to new ways of thinking and working, and expand our cultural horizons.
Meanwhile, recording technology and more recently the internet, have facilitated new forms of social music-making: online sample libraries, remix culture, bootlegs and TikTok. This ‘collective musicking’, involving the work of millions of people, might not look much like the old models of jamming or working together in the studio, but it’s inherently social, rich in musical possibilities, and has already transformed music culture many times over.
In fact, it’s the social support for our now taken-for-granted autonomy. What allows the networked music producer to do things on her own is the result of the collective effort of millions of people whose sounds and tools are at her disposal. “In this manner”, Makelberge writes, “our peers in cyberspace provide us with a global resonating body of sound: as fundamental a feature of the networked computer music instrument, as, let’s say, the body is of a cello.”
Text by Craig Schuftan, Loop Curation Lead
Loop Create 2022: Get Together
At this year’s edition of Loop Create, we’ll take a closer look at the ways people are making music together today; pooling their talents and ideas in collaborations, cooperating with each other to do things they couldn’t do on their own, and adding their voices to collective forms of creation for fun, profit and surprise. Loop Create is an online day of inspiration for music makers, running for 6.5 hours, featuring interviews, workshops, an interactive production challenge and more. Join us on October 29th, as we explore the continuum of forms of collaboration.
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