Monday, July 10, 2017

Co-Writing Configurations: Case Studies in Collaborative Music Production

I. Introduction

Over the centuries, as the contributions of the great classical composers have solidified into monolithic masterworks, so too has the persona of the composer or songwriter coalesced into a Romantic ideal: the solitary genius, alone with his/her ink and paper, carving out manifestations of the divine against the indifference of a remote outside world. However, in recent decades scholarly debate about the nature of creativity has revealed a pervasive connection between the creative process and the social collective. (Burnard 2012, McIntyre 2007) Whether between an artist and the field of experts from which he/she seeks validation, between a producer and the artist whose sample he/she manipulates, or between co-writers puzzling over lyrics, chords, or tracks together, collaboration is the underlying geology of our musical landscape. 

This paper will focus specifically on co-writing and its myriad forms. Via the methodology of reflective analysis of existing literature as well as a consideration of case studies and personal experience, the aim of this project is to examine the processes that drive musical collaboration, delineate various models of co-writing, and illuminate the challenges and solutions that undermine or enhance creativity within the collaborative setting.

II. Principles of General Creativity

Any discussion of collaboration must begin with a consideration of the creative process. “Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising and valuable.” (Boden 2004, p. 1) For many decades the discussion of what processes yield this innovation has centered around the idea of discrete creative stages as originally put forth by Graeme Wallas––preparation, incubation, inspiration and verification––with other researchers truncating, substituting, or expanding on this modular approach. (McIntyre 2007, p. 4) Betty S. Flowers has her own names for these creative energies: “Madman, architect, carpenter, and judge.” But the central idea is the same: freely flowing stimuli are subsequently organized and finally evaluated and edited. Flowers contends that writer’s block (the disruption of this process) is the result of “two competing energies…locked horn to horn, pushing against each other… And the trick to not getting [writer’s block] involves separating [those] energies.” (2014)

Csikszentmihalyi, however, argues for a less modular approach to the creative process. Each creative stage, he submits, “is constantly interrupted by periods of incubation and is punctuated by epiphanies. Many fresh insights emerge as one is presumably just putting finishing touches on the initial insight...Thus the creative process is less linear than recursive.” (McIntyre 2007, p. 5) Assuming there is some truth to both Flowers and Csikszentmihalyi’s viewpoints, harnessing one’s creativity then becomes an act of inhabiting multiple creative energies simultaneously (i.e. allowing new ideas to form while concurrently editing them) without allowing one’s inner judge to nullify the whole operation.

III. Team Roles in Music Production

“All artistic work, like all human activity, involves the joint activity of a number, often a large number of people.” (Becker quoted in Burnard 2012, p. 14) In Csikszentmihalyi’s Systems Model of creativity, an individual creator is a de facto collaborator with “a culture that contains symbolic rules…and a field of experts who recognise and validate the innovation.” (McIntyre 2007, p. 2) In other words, in the Systems Model, an individual draws on their own unique knowledge and experience in a particular domain, then seeks verification from those who have proven themselves experts or gatekeepers of that domain. Co-writing, then––a team-based approach to creativity––theoretically augments the chances of appealing to those experts by compounding the perspectives and knowledge of each contributor to the project. (Bennett 2011) According to Burnard, “Sharing authorship is increasingly the norm nowadays.” She attributes this to co-writers’ common awareness of “the particular manifestations of creativity inherent in certain cultural traditions; generic conventions…and the specific social, historical and political circumstances of the production context.” (Burnard 2012, p. 73)

The question becomes, then, how co-writers harness the creative process together harmoniously, lest one writer’s inner judge suppress another writer’s inner madman ad infinitum. R. M. Belbin, in analyzing team roles in the workplace, advocates for specialization, arguing that what sets a “team” apart from a “group” of loosely connected individuals or a “squad” working in disciplined uniformity is that, like in sports or games, “the skills of the players are important but the strength of the team depends more especially on how well the players combine.” (1998, p. 87, 91)

Belbin enumerates a set of specific behavioral roles including “Chairman, Shaper, Monitor-Evaluator, Resource Investigator,” and so forth. (Prichard and Stanton 1999, p. 653) Phil Harding, recording engineer at PWL Studios during the heyday of Stock Aitken Waterman, has his own set of ideal team roles as it applies to a music production team: administrator, synth programmer, drum programmer, and topliner. (2016) However, as we will see in our subsequent case studies, successful collaborations arise out of a wide variety of team configurations. A particular division of roles that works for one group may not work for another.

Bennett (2011) identifies six processes at work in a collaborative endeavor, regardless of individual roles: “stimulus, approval, adaptation, negotiation, veto and consensus… One writer will provide stimulus material and the other writer will approve, adapt or veto the idea… If an idea is vetoed in its entirety the provider of the stimulus will either accept this, or enter negotiation to defend or further adapt it.” (ibid.) The act of co-writing, in other words, is a complex dance of accepting, rejecting, substituting, and modifying collective ideas in a common effort to create something that conforms to the communal view of the cultural domain.

IV. Models of Co-Writing 

Bennet (2011) defines 7 models of co-writing: Nashville, Factory, Svengali, Demarcation, Jamming, Top-Line Writing, and Asynchronicity. His models share a bit of overlap: Top-line writing is a form of demarcation and commonly occurs in the Factory model. (Seabrook 2015, p. 200) Likewise the Svengali model (the collaboration of an artist with more experienced songwriters) could apply to any of Bennett’s other models. In light of these issues, a more succinct list is needed. I propose the following four:

1. Brill Building/Nashville

This is the pen and paper approach, a hallmark of the Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley era as well as today’s country music. In this model, “one writer sits at the piano, trying chords and singing possible melodies, while the other sketches the story and the rhymes.” (Seabrook 2015, p. 200) Bennett defines this model in part by its dependence on acoustic instruments and “minimal technology.” (2011)

2. Track and Hook

This model divides creative roles between “a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats, the chord progression, and the instrumentation…[and] a hook writer/topliner, who writes the melodies.” (Seabrook 2015, p. 200) “The backing track acts as harmonic/tempo template but more crucially as inspiration for genre-apposite creative decisions, such as singability of a line.” (Bennett 2011)
3. Improvisation/Jamming

Bands like U2 are known to make frequent use of this approach. (ibid.) The freely flowing ideas that spawn and coalesce in a jam session neatly fit Huizinga’s description of improvisation as “an activity that proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, [and] according to rules freely accepted.” (Burnard 2012, p. 11)

4. Asynchronicity

This model refers to any collaboration in which the co-writers work at different times and/or in different places. Demarcation––“a lyricist [providing] a finished lyric for word-setting by a composer” or vice-versa––is “usually implemented asynchronously.” (Bennett 2011) Indie band The Postal Service was so named because producer Jimmy Tamborello would send guitarist and vocalist Ben Gibbard recordings via physical post for him to embellish. (Ingraham 2013) The practice of sampling can also be considered a form of asynchronous co-authorship. In this scenario, one of the contributors may not even be aware of their own involvement. This, however, does not invalidate it as a form of collaboration as “intertextuality is increasingly recognised as a fundamental technique of creative production in as much as all things come into being from a set of antecedent conditions.” (Morey and McIntyre 2014)

As we will see in the following case studies, there is still a bit of overlap inherent in these four models. For example, when Stargate collaborate with Ester Dean they blend improvisation with the track-and-hook approach. (Seabrook 2015, p. 217-19) Therefore, these models ought to be considered fluid rather than concrete. 

V. Case Studies

1. Max Martin, Dr Luke, Benny Blanco, Bonnie McKee, and Katy Perry

Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is a quintessential example of the track-and-hook model. In 2005, aspiring producer Benny Blanco was invited by veteran producer Dr Luke to write with him in his Los Angeles studio. In their late-night session they produced two instrumental tracks together. Years later, Max Martin and Dr Luke were in the process of crafting Perry’s sophomore pop album when Dr Luke pulled up one of his Benny Blanco tracks and added a new melody on top of it. At this point, the song passed to Perry and Bonnie McKee for lyrics and, after five or six unsatisfactory drafts, the final version of the song as known to the public was rendered. (Seabrook, 2015, p.238, 261-62)

2. Stargate and Ester Dean

Norwegian production duo Stargate are regular collaborators with topliner Ester Dean. “In advance of Dean’s coming to [the studio], Stargate [prepare] several dozen tracks. They create most of them by jamming together on keyboards until they come up with an idea––generally a central chord progression or a riff––around which they quickly build up a track, using the vast array of preprogrammed sounds and beats at their disposal.” When Dean arrives, she improvises melodies and hooks over the track, after which Stargate re-shape them into repetitive songform using their DAW. (Seabrook, 2015, p. 217-19) This particular method of co-writing combines the spontaneity of jam sessions with the track-and-hook model.

3. Adele and Paul Epworth

According to Seabrook, “track-and-hook has become the pillar and post of popular song [and] has largely replaced the melody-and-lyrics…method [of] the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley eras.” (2015, p. 200) The collaborative style of Adele and producer Paul Epworth is a clear counterexample to that assertion. When speaking of writing “Rolling in the Deep,” Epworth reports, “I had all these chords I thought would be perfect for [Adele]… I tried all these out on her for about two hours. She literally sat there with a pen in her hand staring blankly, and she just went, ‘I’m not feeling anything.’ And then she went, ‘I’ve got this riff, this idea, that’s going round and round my head,’ and [she sang] ‘There’s a fire.’ I said wow, and I just grabbed a guitar and quickly tried to figure out what the key was… We wrote the core of the song — her verses and the chords — in under 15 minutes.” (McKinley 2012)

It is possible there was some use of technology in this session that Epworth doesn’t mention. However, based solely on this account, it appears that this particular song was born of chords on a guitar, lyrics put to paper, and Adele’s voice––the old Brill Building way.

4. Skrillex, Diplo, Justin Bieber, Jason Boyd, and Karl Rubin Brutus

“Where Are Ü Now” (a collaboration between producers Skrillex and Diplo and artist Justin Bieber) was produced through a series of dinstinct, separate writing sessions and provides a good example of asynchronous collaboration. First, songwriter Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd came up with chords and a melody together with instrumentalist Karl Rubin Brutus. Later, in a co-writing session with Justin Bieber, Boyd and Bieber used those chords and melody to craft a piano/vocal ballad called “The Most” (Golden, 2015).

When Bieber’s management team negotiated a collaboration between the singer and producer Diplo, “The Most” was sent to Diplo via email. He involved Skrillex and the two of them began cutting up and sampling Bieber’s vocal and adding drums, bass, and synths. (Pareles, 2015). The resulting record includes the distinct fingerprint of each collaborator in spite of several of them presumably never meeting face to face during the production of the song.

V. Conclusion and Aims

Literature on the nature of creativity, team roles, and co-writing contains a spectrum of viewpoints: Linear creative stages vs recursive fluidity, various configurations of team roles in a musical production team, etc. Further research is necessary to improve our collective understanding of these issues. With that line of inquiry in mind, I will be undertaking a collaborative project this summer to attempt to add my own case study to the discussion. I will attempt to utilize a wide variety of co-writers and co-writing models in the creation of a portfolio of songs (produced and mixed to broadcast quality) by 15 September 2017. I intend to work on multiple tracks simultaneously and, ideally, will have have several completed tracks by the end of the summer. However, since co-writing necessitates a dependence on persons outside of my control, it is more realistic to expect one finished track with others in progress. My intermediate goal is to produce a finished draft of one song by 31 August 2017, giving me time to seek and respond to feedback from allies and mentors before handing in an improved portfolio by 15 September 2017.

I will be keeping a journal of my research and will chronicle the results of each collaborative session. Special attention will paid to the following questions:

  • How does disparate understanding of the cultural domain affect collaboration between individuals with unique perspectives?
  • How are team roles determined in a new configuration of co-writers? Are they more effective if they arise naturally or if they are verbally determined?
  • Who on the team has veto power over ideas? How does having/not having veto power affect each team member’s experience?
  • Do individual team members inhabit the different stages of the creative process synchronously or asynchronously? How does a team member in an “editing” mode interact with a team member in an “inspiration” mode?

In addition to presenting my journal in an abridged format along with my portfolio, I will present my research alternatively in a series of video interviews with my collaborators. My hope and expectation is that this project will provide me with new insights into the processes that drive musical collaboration and empower me to form better and more effective production teams in the future.


Belbin, R. M. (1998) Team Roles at Work. Butterworth-Heinemann, Woburn, MA.

Bennett, J. (2011) Collaborative Songwriting – The Ontology Of Negotiated Creativity In Popular Music Studio Practice. Journal on the Art of Record Production, [Online] July. Available from: <http://> [Accessed 20 June 2017].

Boden, M. (2004) The Creative Mind: Myths and mechanisms. Routledge, London.

Burnard, P. (2012) Musical Creativities in Practice. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Flowers, B. (2014) Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process [Online]. Available from: <> [Accessed 27 June 2017]

Golden, Z. (2015) How Justin Bieber Grew Into Himself, According To Poo Bear. The Fader [Online], November 11. Available from: <> [Accessed 18 November 2016].

Harding, P. (2016) Mixing lecture notes. GEH430006 Studio Production Skills, Leeds Beckett University, delivered 26 October 2016.

Ingraham, N. (2013) The Postal Service talks about resurrecting a band from the dead after 10 long years. The Verge [Online], July. Available from: <> [Accessed 29 June 2017].

McKinley, J. (2012) Hot Tracks, the Collaborative Method. The New York Times [Online], February, C1. Available from: <> [Accessed 20 October 2016].

Morey, J. and McIntrye, P. (2014) The Creative Studio Practice of Contemporary Dance Music Sampling Composers. Dancecult : Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 1 (6) p. 41 - 60.

McIntyre, P. (2007) Rethinking Creativity: Record Production and the Systems Model. Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology. 

The New York Times (2015) Bieber, Diplo and Skrillex Make a Hit. Youtube [Online video], 26 August. Available from: <> [Accessed 18 November 2016].

Pareles, J. (2015) The Inside History of ‘Where Are Ü Now’. The New York Times [Online], August. Available from: <> [Accessed 18 November 2016].

Prichard, J. and Stanton, N. (1999) Testing Belbin's team role theory of effective groups. The Journal of ManagementDevelopment, 18 (8) p. 652-665.

Seabrook, J. (2015) The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. Jonathan Cape Publishing, London, Great Britain.

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