Can you outsource/crowdsource creativity? Collaboration vs. The Lone Artist

732 34

Musical collaboration vs the sole songwriter

At last week’s Grammy Awards, Kanye West (once again) stepped onstage in mock-protest over the fact that Beyoncé didn’t win Album of the Year. Beck did — for his somber, atmospheric folk album Morning Phase.

In an interview after the ceremony, Kanye said: “Beck needs to respect artistry, and he should have given his award to Beyoncé.”

My Facebook feed blew up, with many of my friends expressing a viewpoint along these lines: “Beck is the TRUE artist. He plays a dozen instruments and writes all his own songs! Beyoncé just sings, and all her songs are written by a team.”

I don’t know if this is an accurate summary of either artists’ creative process, but I kept wondering: why is one method “truer” than another? Both artists are incredibly talented, and (if we can momentarily get over the fact that all this fuss is over a little trophy given for an album subjectively assessed as “the best”) both artists might be equally deserving of that award.

Why do we hold up the idea of the lone genius and disparage “art by committee?” (And I’m guilty of this prejudice myself). The distinction, to me, seems like it should only be relevant when trying to understand the process by which a work was created. It has nothing to do with the quality of the final product, right?

But even Monty Del Monte (a songwriter who used Fiverr to collaborate with musicians around the world on the arrangement, production, and mixing of one of his songs) mythologizes the vision of the Solitary Artist.

Brett Goldstein (Monty Del Monte’s real name) wrote a fascinating article called “How to Become a Rock Star for $290” about bringing one of his songs to life through Fiverr. With constraints on his time, budget, and instrumental skills, Goldstein talks about this collaborative system — where he had to give up control and let other artists shape the song their way — as perhaps the only means he had to bring one of his songs into the world.
And yet he says this of the finished recording:

But of course, there’s one thing missing: authenticity.

Art is about self-expression. It would be hard for me to call “Throw Me Out To Sea” an authentic act of self-expression because… well… it was outsourced to other people! It’s inherently not completely self-expressed It’s Mirko-expressed; it’s Matt-expressed.

Let’s take this notion one step further and imagine that I actually had no musical abilities at all. What if I hired a songwriter and a vocalist on Fiverr before I went through the whole process, merely acting as a facilitator along the way? Would you think of me as an artist then when the song is completely outsourced, when there was no self-expression at all?

As it turns out, many great musicians as well as artists, writers, and entrepreneurs usually start out doing everything themselves, micromanaging every last detail to achieve their vision. But as their brands develop, they need to delegate and outsource to scale.

Andy Warhol employed an army of artists to produce his famous prints at The Factory, Tom Clancy died years ago but ghost writers continue to publish new books under his name, Larry Page doesn’t write code for Google Search anymore (though I heard Mark Zuckerburg still codes occasionally at Facebook), and DJ superstar Tiesto is thought to be one of many DJs utilizing ghost producers in the industry.

No, not even The Bey writes her own music.

Over time, artists become more like marketing vehicles and project managers of bodies of work created by others—kind of like I was in creating “Throw Me Out To Sea.” In fact, the process I went through is actually not much different than how a lot of professional music is created today.

Considering this, it seems as though the fundamental difference between good artists and great artists is the ability to resist the dilution of authenticity and express oneself through collaborators throughout this process.

What do you think makes a piece of music authentic? I’m no linguist, but I bet that word is linked with author and authority — which maybe explains why we think of the sole creator as a purer, more powerful artist. And “collaborator?” You’re either a great team player or betraying your own people by helping an occupying power.

But almost all musicians collaborate to some extent — in performance, mixing, production, writing, and more. So what’s wrong with working well with others?

Where do YOu draw the line between creative teamwork and mob rule? Let me know in the comments below.

 Free Updates: 
Get Music Promotion Tips and Exclusive Offers Delivered to Your Inbox

[Picture of tug-o-war from Shutterstock.]

In this article

Join the Conversation

  • Yee Aaron

    Creative teamwork is when everyone is equally working hard and together in their field. Each person contributed to the pool of ideas. Mob rule would imply that one group of people or a single person is reaping most of the benefits from the group or a single person’s labor.

  • Yee Aaron

    Creative teamwork is when everyone is equally working hard and together in their field. Each person contributed to the pool of ideas. Mob rule would imply that one group of people or a single person is reaping most of the benefits from the group or a single person’s labor.

  • Christopher Hunter

    I think people’s thoughts on Kanye, Beck, and Beyonce have more to do with whether or not you like their kinds of music than whether or not you think they have help creating their music.

  • Christopher Hunter

    I think people’s thoughts on Kanye, Beck, and Beyonce have more to do with whether or not you like their kinds of music than whether or not you think they have help creating their music.

    • Yeah, probably so. Ah, bias.

      @ChrisRobley

    • People were pissed because they saw something they valued being attacked. So you’re right. I myself think they both are high level artists.

  • ricardososa

    Definitely an interesting and genuine question. In academia we expect PhD students to show beyond any doubt their capacity to independently conduct research, yet Professors often put their names in dozens of papers every year where they contributed marginally if at all. Same for “starchitects” and product designers, even surgeons when they reach leadership positions they often stop practising. It can be called the “Edison effect”: show that you can do great things, then society exempts you from doing it and you keep increasing the recognition and the profits. Celebrity is a lot like Capital.

  • Staying true to your music is key when it comes to making an authentic master piece. In today’s mainstream music world being true to self is missing.

  • Thank you for the BECK portion…people like Kanye give artistry a bad name…what an embarrassment!

  • There’s another model worth mentioning. My husband (also a musician) and I crowdfunded an art book on Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1954507197/alice-in-wonderland-book-illustrated-by-david-dela. Our amazing backers provide encouragement, funds, (business) advice, and volunteer help. They encourage us to hold to our artistic vision (not a single one of our 800+ backers has urged any aesthetic changes) but the quality and integrity of the project is very much the result of the group. (We could never have produced something with so little compromise without them.) What’s interesting about this model is that the more people we have involved, the more authentic and personal our vision can be. (A single patron or investor with deep pockets might be tempted to influence our direction. The group never does.)

    • Carlos Navia

      That’s a wonderful model, and obviously it works because you are sincere about your artistic integrity, and likewise your backers fully support it.

  • Getzmore

    I wouldn’t care who wrote Beyonce’s album if it didn’t sound like garbage. Yuck. Un-listenable noise. I’m no beck fan, but at least his new album has a few hummable melodies on it.

  • Carlos Navia

    I think the controversy wasn’t so much on whether Beck or Beyonce deserved the award (which is something highly subjective and more than anything used to boost sales). The controversy is more about Kanye completely being an ass and disrespecting a fellow artist and his merits.

    As for the article, I agree in that perhaps music with the greatest input from its auteur makes it more valid, as their vision is perceived as less diluted and more theirs – thus, more sincere. That being said, great team efforts can still sound very good, if not better at times – if that wasn’t the case, we’d only listen to singer-songwriters. So again, it is very subjective.
    I would like to draw a line though, between teamwork as in a band, and teamwork as in ghostwriters and ghostlyricists and ghost everything – because while the band is in all the pictures, the ghost people aren’t, and the act takes all the credit. Perhaps that is why the manufactured acts seem to have less cred, because it is perceived as if the talent wasn’t wholly theirs. In the end it is subjective too, because some might only judge the finished product regardless of the process, and most people have different tastes anyway.

  • Phil King

    The Grammy’s are supposed to be about honoring many aspects of recorded MUSIC. The fact that I am not a fan of Beyonce, aside, how can one even compare the result of a creative music project (Beck’s album), with someone whose appeal is more about, diplomatically speaking, suggestive choreograpy?

  • d.

    It’s simple. My left and right brain get together and write…
    sometimes there are major artistic differences… 🙂

  • Brendan B-Dub White

    It’s a tricky one, but here’s my take. If the award for ‘artist of the year’ is about the artist, I believe it should be about the actual artist. Milli Vanilli had to give back their award, because they really didn’t have anything to do with the actual art. Beyonce deserves awards for her singing / dancing ability, no doubts whatsoever, but that to me is doesn’t have the same meaning as the song itself. If I’m listening to a song, not watching it on MTV or whatever, then looks / video / dancing means nothing in that context. I am a Beck fan, but anyone who wrote and performed a whole album by him / herself deserves a bit more adulation, in my opinion. That’s the art of the songwriter and performer, rolled into one. Some do one of those things well, not so many do both. That’s what makes it special. Otherwise, let One Direction or Britney Spears have everything. Why not? They’re popular due to marketing spend, so therefore they MUST be awesome, right? I dunno. I should stay off the interweb. No winning arguments here. 🙂

    • Carlos Navia

      The award was for album of the year, which I would think measure how good the recording was. I haven’t listened to either, so I can’t judge. It’s subjective anyway.

  • knifemare69

    If you can’t figure out the difference between being a composer and a hired gun, then all the arguments about ‘collaborative authenticity’ won’t really matter. It really depends on the situation. Freddie Mercury wrote all of Bohemian Rhapsody but he collaborated with his BANDMATES to make his vision become a reality. Not just studio dregs, not just hired hands but actual PARTNERS. You can’t really say that in a ‘guns for hire’ situation. If Beyonce had a consistent, regular crew that she works with to make her songs a reality then maybe the authenticity would be less of an issue. I did my entire first album by myself – wrote, recorded, mixed, mastered, artwork, released independently. That was a LOT of work, and so for the next album I worked with longtime musician friends and recording engineers to make it happen. No hate for collaboration here!

    As is, you can’t really know WHAT Beyonce actually brings to the table other than her voice and her dance moves. Which makes her an entertainer as opposed to a musician. Does she do like Michael Jackson did and hum the respective parts to be played by the studio musicians? If so then she is at least composing the music and that gives it more street cred. But come on, if you don’t write or play your own music, at least write your own lyrics, right? How far can the outsourcing go to maintain relevance? You can outsource all of the mechanical aspects of creating a piece of music, but if the soul of it doesn’t at least originate from the performer then it’s really no different than a karaoke/cover band situation. Which can have its merits, but prepare for major eye-rolling if you call THAT high art.

    • Carlos Navia

      I suppose that is my main point, it’s one thing to have bandmates who are equal to you and contribute a lot and get visibility and credit, versus a group of guns for hire that might do great contributions but are left in the dark, while the brand artist takes the credit mostly.

  • I actually hunger for cooperative effort and collaboration in my music. I have found myself so discouraged by a lack of it in a band that I have stopped performing live for the most part. I had issues with West but nothing to do with that argument. It’s lame and lacks understanding, or appreciation for different methods and styles of creativity. The single most creatively rewarding experience I have had was my last album ‘Blue Beetle’ which was a cancer fundraiser, involving a lot of different area musicians, as well as those I had worked with in other parts of the world. I loved what each person brought to the thing but putting humility aside for the sake of truth, it would have NEVER happened with out me. Without my creative vision and willingness to heard all of the cats needed to pull it off. I have worked in the studio with bands and without. I love the internet and how it can be used to tap all of these creative minds, bringing them together. Heck, on my new single, I got help from a friend in Guam, on the mixing, and it took the mix to a whole new level. I can’t wait to do more collaboration. Ego-shmeego, send my more brain power. I need all the help I can get.

    • Carlos Navia

      Collaboration is all good and jolly, but Kanye was mostly just mad about Beyonce not getting the award and not really making a case for collaborative artistry.
      Still, the end result is judged subjectively.

  • Tom Hendricks

    Some of us think that both Beck and Beyonce are stuck in the same electric guitar, bass, and drums formula done better 60 years ago. Some of us think the real creativity is to break free of bands and go a different way from the 60 year old path that everyone else is on.
    We call it postism music. It’s back to basics music, with emphasis on quality songs and melody more than the personality performing them.

  • Excellent post, Chris! “Purists” can debate the points all day long, but I think your author/authority/authentic parallels make a strong case for the quality that comes from collaboration. Considering that all of the thoughts, ideas, and inspirations in a single artist’s head form a collaborative process, the lone artist is simply practicing the discipline and power of project management in the composition process, whether they appreciate that fact or not. Apply that to multiple artists working on the same project, and it is an impressive creative task. A Beyoncé/Beck argument about creativity is simply a side show and needless drama. Yet from that, you have taken the higher ground and put forth a great philosophical question. Kudos to you! Oh, and creative teamwork vs mob rule? Meh. Beauty (in the eye of the beholder) can come from both.

    • Glad you enjoyed the ponderings, James. Thanks for commenting. And I agree that beauty can come out of all different kinds of processes, and appear in all kinds of forms.

      @ChrisRobley

    • Glad you enjoyed the ponderings, James. Thanks for commenting. And I agree that beauty can come out of all different kinds of processes, and appear in all kinds of forms.

      @ChrisRobley

  • Julius JUICE Davis

    ABSOLUTELY EXCELLENT article….first, let me say that I am an African-American classically trained pianist, composer, songwriter and lyricist. I love all genres of music and I RESPECT artists and musicians whose creativity are different than my own.

    I reference this because I believe that this should the foundation by which any artist should approach these “awards” shows. In addition, we should be able to professionally control our emotions like mature adults (this is for you, KANYE WEST–by the way, this is the SECOND time you have jumped onstage to upstage an artist who won an award—you need to quit acting like an immature child).

    This discussion is something only we can answer individually…personally, I believe the real problem is the fact that modern technology has raped and bastardized the entire creative process because many artists/musicians, for various reasons, cannot play a musical instrument, have no knowledge of songwriting structure, have no knowledge of true lyric writing, no knowledge of musical history, etc. Yes, I know musical styles change….but I believe the quality of many artist’s songs are just …bad!

    This is an individual decision that each artist has to make, based upon her/his skills, values, experience, oh yeah, and TALENT….or the (perceived) lack thereof.

    Kanye, please, PLEASE stop embarrassing yourself and next time you disagree with a decision made by an unseen committee, take up your beef with them, not the artist who wins the award. And finally, YES, I agree that Beck should give his Grammy to Beyonce…..when Kanye gives up all his Grammies to me…..with all respect.

  • There are a lot of artist and a lot of musicians. There are a lot fewer artist who are musicians. The industry has thrown artistry to the wind and now creates for the sake of business and marketability. Some of what comes from this process is good. But most of it sounds like a clone of the last hit. None of it is stellar and be sure, people can tell the difference. I hear more and more people complaining about how crappy new music is. When the industry is ready to start taking chances again and starts backing the many indie artist out there that are not regurgitating the same old crap they hear on the radio now; only then will amazing new sounding music return.

  • I think that’s a very interesting discussion, as it takes us back to the perception of what it is to be an artist these days. I guess the criticism towards most pop music is that you’re never really sure that the final product is really that particular singer’s true vision, whether or not he/she played the instruments or wrote the songs.

    On the other hand, we have a high regard towards, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, partly because many times we are unaware of the fact that he also worked with different collaborators. But even if we do take this into consideration, we never dare to question if he was the one responsible for the “grand vision” behind the whole process.

    There’s an article on The Atlantic that takes this discussion even further. It’s definitely worth checking it out: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/01/the-death-of-the-artist-and-the-birth-of-the-creative-entrepreneur/383497/

  • Interesting (and kinda frightening) parallels!

    @ChrisRobley

  • Great point. And an interesting inverse relation.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Haha. Thanks for the comments, and a GREAT dare at the end there. Will he take you up on it? Fingers crossed.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Thanks for that link. Interesting article.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Thanks for that link. Interesting article.

    @ChrisRobley

  • First off, this is a great article. Why? Because it invokes a lot of emotion in the reader. Thank you for that.

    There are different professions here that should not be confused: Composer, Performer, Project Leader, etc. They should not be used interchangeably and all lumped into the category of “Artist”.

    The “Artist” possesses the talent of expression. The Project Leader does not [necessarily] possess such talent. Composers and Performers therefore ARE Artists. A committee of Composers also ARE Artists. A Project Leader who leads the collaboration and sets the goals and schedules for a committee of Composers is NOT [necessarily] an Artist. However, a Composer and/or Performer may be a Project Leader.